Cataratas de Iguazú

Voyager on golden air,
Type of all that’s fleet and fair,
Incarnate gem,
Live diadem
Bird-beam of the summer day, —
Whither on your sunny way?

-John Vance Cheney

The first thing I noticed when Vince and I stepped out of the small airport in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina was the humidity. It had been months since I’d breathed moisture-thick air, and it had an immediate relaxing effect on me. I drew in a deep breath, appreciating the fresh, damp scent of the surrounding rainforest as bird song echoed down at us from nearby tree tops. I immediately felt as though we had embarked on a vacation from our vacation. The Antarctic was nearly half a world away now and our winter coats and other gear were packed away in our luggage, waiting for us with the rest of our group back in Buenos Aires. They wouldn’t be needed here in the middle of this tropical oasis that just now felt like it was welcoming us back from the frigid polar sea with a warm embrace.

Vince and I found a taxi to drive us to our hostel, and I spent the half-hour ride gazing out of the window at the jungle as it whooshed by and chatting with our driver about places to visit in the area. I couldn’t wait to start exploring by the time we arrived at the front gate of Tupá Apart, the hostel we’d be staying in for the next two nights. We checked in and dropped our backpacks off in our apartment before leaving on foot to go in search of a way to spend the rest of the day.

Options were limited because we’d arrived on a Sunday afternoon. Many businesses were closed and restaraunts wouldn’t open for dinner for a few more hours. Luckily, there was one attraction that we knew we could visit: Las Tres Fronteras.

So we walked for a few miles, through the town of Puerto Iguazú, and down a steep hill to the bank of the Iguazú River, its water separating us from the Brazilian rainforest on the other side. We walked alongside the river, making a quick stop to book a sunset boat ride before continuing on until the sidewalk dead-ended in a viewpoint at the confluence of the Iguazú and Paraná Rivers. We were in Argentina, overlooking a view of Brazil across the Iguazú, and Paraguay across the Paraná from where we stood.

In all honesty, it wasn’t much to look at if you set aside the prior knowledge that the view included three different countries. The novelty of that definitely made this seem cooler than it would have been otherwise.

After checking out Las Tres Fronteras, we retraced our path along the river until we arrived at a dock where we lined up to wait for the spontaneous boat tour we’d signed up for. The short tour ended up being quite fun. Our captain drove us to see a small waterfall on the Brazilian side of the Iguazú River, then let us passengers take turns steering our little boat toward Paraguay. Along the way a couple of kids discovered that Vince and I are terrible at speaking Spanish (which isn’t for lack of trying), and reacted with shock and incredulity as their dad explained to them that we were English speakers. Of course, we do have a reasonable amount of Spanish comprehension, so we understood most of the exchange, and found it equal parts amusing and embarrassing. We floated across the Paraguayan border at sunset and had the chance to take a few pictures. Now someday we’ll be able look back on our lives and claim that we’ve “been to Paraguay” on an extreme technicality.

Once we arrived back in Argentina from our far-flung travels to distant lands, we started the trek back uphill toward Tupá. Along the way we checked out a local artisan market that had opened up while we’d been on our tour, grabbed dinner at a taco restaurant, and stopped into a supermarket to buy bottled water and some snacks to bring on the hikes we had planned for the next two days. We crashed into bed as soon as we arrived back at the hostel, and I fell asleep almost immediately.

In the morning we got up before the sun. We wanted to get to nearby Iguazú National Park early in hopes of avoiding crowds and the oppressive heat that would surely come in the afternoon. We’d pre-arranged for a taxi to drive us to the park, which is known for its subtropical rainforest, diverse wildlife, and most importantly, its access to Iguazú Falls, the largest broken waterfall chain in the world.

Our driver arrived right on time and before long we were at the entrance gates of the park, buying our tickets. We’d arranged for an early-afternoon pick up with our driver, and there were two main trails that I wanted to make sure we hiked within that time frame. We started with the two mile long Lower Circuit, descending down a metal boardwalk into the forest with a first view of the cloud of mist rising from the falls visible through the leafy canopy.

I loved how immersed the trail was in the forest because it meant we got to encounter a lot of awesome wildlife. Butterflies were a constant fixture, fluttering lackadaisically through the forest. We also saw coatis snuffling around through fallen leaves looking for food, and tegu lizards were a common sight alongside the trail.

When we reached the first viewing platform for the falls, I was stunned by the sheer magnitude of the water that tumbled from tall cliff-tops. Tiers of water rose from the forest in a way that made the landscape seem as though it were leaking. Trees seemed to be growing in any area they could possibly take root, obscuring the boundaries between forest and falls. To add a finishing touch, vultures soared over the tumbling water, a majestic punctuation to an already impressive scene.

There were two of these main viewing platforms on the Lower Circuit, and while they were undoubtedly the most impressive views of the hike, the entire two mile trail was incredibly beautiful. Further back in the forest, we passed alongside a few smaller waterfalls, which had vibrant rainbows glowing in their mist.

Besides all of the waterfalls, there were beautiful tropical plants and flowers everywhere, and the park did a great job of giving the illusion that we were further away from civilization than the twenty-minute drive we’d taken that morning would suggest. There weren’t many other visitors on the trail yet, so it really felt like we were deep in the jungle even though we were realistically just a ten minute walk from the nearest park-run snack stand.

The illusion would somewhat disintegrate, however, as we finished up the Lower Circuit and embarked on its counterpart, the Upper Circuit.

A “One-Way” sign was posted at the beginning of the trail, meaning that once we started hiking, there was no turning back. I thought that was a little odd until we rounded a bend in the board walk and were stopped in our tracks by a veritable wall of people. More people were already filtering in behind us, rendering it impossible to turn around and walk the other way. This certainly explained all of the one-way signs. Trying to disrupt the flow of movement on a trail like this would be an inconvenience for everyone. So we resigned ourselves to waiting in line, shuffling a few steps forward at a time whenever the crowd permitted.

We had known we would probably encounter crowds. January and February are typically the busiest time of year at Iguazú Falls, but I still thought it would be worth the extra $70 flight from Buenos Aires to come see them since we would be in Argentina for a few days either way. Upon first encountering the crowd, I felt an initial shock of anxiety (large crowds almost always cause me anxiety), and wondered if it had been a good choice after all. But as I got used to the situation, I was able to get more comfortable with it and still enjoy myself.

Since we would clearly be spending a lot of time waiting, I decided to use that time to look at my surroundings. As a result, I was able to put my anxiety to the side as I noticed how uniquely beautiful the trail was. The majority of the Upper Circuit was comprised of boardwalks that span across the river. The rainforest still grows wherever there is exposed land, creating little islands of green vegetation surrounded by rushing water.  This helped give some perspective about how incredibly wide the river is at the top of the falls, and it offered the opportunity to see large catfish swimming below the boardwalk.

The several viewing platforms along the trail offered their own set of challenges. While there was more space to spread out as opposed to the narrow boardwalks, it was difficult to manage to squeeze into any space along the railings. Our only option was to get as close to the railing as possible and then hope someone nearby would leave and open up a spot. When we finally did manage to sneak up to our first viewpoint, it became obvious why so many people were so eager to be there.

Because the platforms are built right on top of the waterfall, you get to watch the rapids tumbling over the cliff edge right below your feet. Being that close to such a powerful, spectacular waterfall, was definitely worth all of the waiting in line.

By the time we were on the return portion of the loop, my excitement from the waterfall had completely eroded my stress about crowding. But the walk had taken much longer than we’d expected so we were both getting hungry. We trekked back to the center of the park where there was a train station and cafe, and sat down to eat a light lunch. While we ate, we watched in amusement as a cafe worker chased off a couple of coatis that were attempting to approach diners to beg for food. This didn’t stop butterflies from checking us out though. Little blue butterflies kept landing on my knee, presumably to eat my sweat. I guess I would call this a mutualistic symbiotic relationship because the butterflies got a free meal, and I got a wealth of enjoyment from getting to see them up close.

After lunch, we rode the park train out to see devil’s throat, the most famous waterfall on the Argentine side of Iguazú. When we got there a park employee explained that the trail was closed for repairs because flooding had washed out the boardwalk in places. Everyone who had just gotten off of the train, turned around and immediately piled back on board. The train ride out to the far edge of the park would have been a complete waste of time, except we did see some birds (I think plush-crested jays) which somewhat made up for it.

We rode the train back to the original station and then regrouped to come up with a new plan. Our cab driver would be picking us in just a little more than an hour, so we decided to hike a portion of the way down the Macuco Trail, which was near the park entrance. There wasn’t time for us to make it all the way to the waterfall at the end, but we did see some huge ants, a lot of unique butterflies, and an agouti, a rodent that is closely related to guinea pigs.

On the way out to the parking lot to meet up with our driver, one last blue butterfly landed on me and hitched a ride all the way to the taxi. I had to shake it off before we climbed into the car, and watched it flutter away through my window.

A half hour later, we were back at the hostel, where we took a much-appreciated afternoon swim break. By 4:30, we had dried off and were on our way to a little place that some of the birders we’d met back on the Sapphire Princess had told us about.

Jardín de los Picaflores is a little garden right in the town of Puerto Iguazú, where the owners have been feeding wild hummingbirds for the last twenty-five years. For about five dollars each, we were able to go inside the garden and sit on benches surrounded by tropical plants and hummingbird feeders. Dozens of jewel-tones little birds hovered around the garden, sipping nectar from the feeders and filling the air with the sounds of chirps and the constant humming of their wings.

As luck would have it, the birders from the ship were also inside the garden when we arrived, so we said hello to them and thanked them again for telling us about such a fun birding spot.

We spent a couple of hours at Jardín de los Picaflores, and saw several different species, my favorite of which was the swallow-tailed hummingbird. It had all of my favorite colors incorporated into its feather pattern, and a long, graceful tail that made it look even more elegant than the rest of the already beautiful birds.

Vince and I made it another early night after stopping for dinner on our way back to Tupá. Not only were we worn out from the jungle heat, but we needed to be well-rested again the next morning for a final day of adventure. This time we would be heading across the border into Brazil for another full day of looking for wildlife, hiking through the forest, and of course, enjoying the splendor of Iguazú Falls!

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