Imagine the Grand Canyon with millions of gallons of water pouring relentlessly over the sides. Now imagine standing at the edge of it, looking down into it. Or standing at the bottom, getting wind-tossed in the mist of the pounding water. That’s what Cataratas do Iguaçu is like. In short, it is the most amazing and humbling place I’ve ever been.
Sounds like Niagara Falls, you say? Not quite. Iguaçu currently has the greatest average annual flow of any waterfall in the world. The water falling over Iguaçu in peak is more than twice that of Niagara. Taller than Niagara Falls and twice as wide, Cataratas do Iguaçu are the result of a volcanic eruption which left a large crack in the earth. And unlike Niagara Falls, which is concentrated in one area, Cataratas do Iguaçu boasts 275 falls along 2.7 kilometers (1.67 miles) of the Iguaçu River. Not too shabby.
The highest falls are 82 meters (269 ft) in height, with most being around 64 metres (210 ft). The Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo in Spanish or Garganta do Diabo in Portuguese), a U-shaped, 82-meter-high (269 ft), 150-meter-wide and 700-meter-long (490 by 2,300 feet) cataract, is the most impressive of all, marking the border between Argentina and Brazil.
Cataratas do Iguaçu is located at the juncture of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. In fact, it is possible to eat breakfast in one country, lunch in another, and dinner in a third.
The falls have two accessible sides – one in Argentina and the other in Brazil. Each side is accessed by a national park, and each side offers a different perspective on the falls. Two thirds of the falls are within Argentine territory. Most visitors to Cataratas do Iguaçu will want to sample the views from both sides of the border. This article describes the Brazilian side of the falls, located in the southern state of Paraná. You can read about the Argentine side here.
When I visited Iguaçu it was part of a trip to Brazil, and in some ways this simplified my visit because I already had a visa. Unfortunately, if you’re a U.S. citizen coming from Argentina to the Brazilian park even for a day you will need to go through the effort and cost of getting a visa. If you’re in the San Francisco area I highly recommend Aardvark Visa Service. Small, local and outstanding, even with my crazy time restrictions. Don’t try going it alone because it can take months just to get an interview at the consulate.
Because the rest of the stops on my trip were cities, I hadn’t given any thought to local transportation until I arrived at the Foz do Iguaçu airport (IGU). I was staying on the Argentine side at the Sheraton Iguazú Resort & Spa so I called the hotel to ask about a shuttle. That would take almost two hours, I was told, because the shuttle was on the way back from the airport and would need to turn around and come back. Taking a taxi would cost about US$100 and would leave me stranded at the hotel, I thought (not really the case, because if you’re staying at the Sheraton you’re already inside the park. You just can’t go to town or to the Brazilian side). Long story short, the Hertz counter shined at me like a beacon, and $120 later I had my own wheels for my 2-1/2 day stay. The Hertz guys were great, making sure I knew I could go back and forth between Argentina and Brazil with no problem, but I couldn’t take the care into Paraguay (which became even less when I saw the massive line of cars at the Paraguay border).
Having a car was definitely the way to go, and driving through the city of Foz do Iguaçu was no big deal for a city girl like me. You really don’t need to go through the city at all to get from the airport to the park, but if you want to go to the dam you do. I landed around 9:00 AM and headed straight for the Brazilian park. At the visitor center you buy a ticket into the park (about US$12) for the day and get on a double decker bus which drives you into the park (you can’t take your own car in – it’s how they manage the ecological impact of tourism on the area).
The ride into the park takes about 15 minutes and there’s nothing to see but trees, so don’t stress about which side of the bus to sit on. The bus stops at a few excursion stops along the way and finally gets you to the end of the line where the falls are, right at the Cataratas Hotel, the only hotel within Brazilian park limits. It’s true that two thirds of the falls are on the Argentina side, but that means the Brazil side offers a panoramic view you can’t get in Argentina. And let me tell you, it is breathtaking, all that water pouring endlessly over the cliffs – especially to a California girl who is used to drought conditions. There is a paved path with a slight incline that offers amazing views of the falls from different perspectives. What’s so unique about Iguaçu is just how many falls there are. When I think about how many times I’ve done a tough hike to get to a single waterfall I have to laugh in comparison, because Iguaçu seems endless (and effortless).
Eventually the path leads to the base of Garganta do Diabo (Devil’s Throat), which on the Argentine side is accessed from the top of the falls. A walkway leads you out into the river where if the wind is right you can get happily drenched in the spray. Continue back up the path and you’ll see an elevator that goes to the top of the falls and the exit.
- The Brazilian park can be done in 3-4 hours and is definitely worthwhile. You can extend this by adding excursions like helicopter tours or white water rafting.
- If you start in Brazil, spend the day in Brazil to minimize border crossings – I’ve read there can be long delays, although I personally sailed right through.
- You can also visit the Itaipu Dam, a bi-national undertaking by Brazil and Paraguay, just on the other side of Foz do Iguaçu city.
- Before you go to the Argentine park you will need to pay a “reciprocity fee.” Read more about that here.
- Rental cars can cross back and forth between Brazil and Argentina, but not into Paraguay.
- The only downside to having a rental car was trying to figure out where to leave it at 4:30 AM when no one was at the Hertz counter or at the offsite facility. I ended up leaving it in short-term parking (which is small enough for them to find it) and putting a note with its location on the desk at the counter (and then holding my breath and crossing my fingers they’d find it). No problem, but they did charge my credit card for the short-term parking. WTH, Hertz?