A Jesuit priest is tied to a wooden cross and set afloat. He plunges headfirst down a monstrous waterfall and is swallowed up in the churning cauldron. That’s the opening scene from the 1986 movie The Mission, filmed primarily in Iguazú Falls—the mighty cascades between Argentina and Brazil. It wasn’t just that scene that left a big impression on me, it was the extraordinary scenery. I wanted to see the dense jungle shrouded in mist, hear the thunder of hundreds of waterfalls, and stand at the top of one of those falls, peering into the abyss. In April, I finally got to do all that (and more).
Iguazú Falls (Iguaçu in Portuguese), a UNESCO World Heritage Site on both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides is a busy place. I realized beforehand that I’d have to temper my expectations. While it’s impossible to completely avoid the crowded viewing balconies and throngs of selfie stick-wielding tourists, a little planning on “how to visit the falls” can go a long way in enhancing the experience and even finding some of The Mission drama and mysticism.
Brazilian or Argentinian side of Iguazú Falls?
That’s easy—both. The two sides give a very different perspective and experience. On our first day, we visited the Brazilian side. I’m happy we did this first as the Brazilian side offers an amazing overview of the entire waterfall network. We really got a sense of falls’ enormous size. On our second day, the Argentinian side was about getting up-close and personal with the falls. We explored miles of enchanting jungle paths with views at the top, bottom, and sides of the falls.
Iguaçu National Park Brazil provides the big picture
Our first glimpse of the falls at the start of the 1200 m Path of the Falls trail is overwhelming. Looking toward Argentina, a giant crescent of waterfalls is carved into the jungle greenery. There are 275 cataracts (depending on the season) that span a width of nearly 3 km. They plunge down the basalt staircase into the murky green water of the Iguazú River in a show that’s equal parts raw energy and elegance. The Iguazú waterfall network is twice as high as Niagara Falls and three times as wide.
Water flow peaks during the rainy season (December-February). I’m sure it’s impressive but I rather like the look in April. The exposed rock and vegetation visible between the plummeting sheets of water provide great contrast for photo taking.
Our midmorning timing is perfect. Its not overly busy and the sun is positioned just right for photos.
The views just keep getting better as we walk along the stunning trail, resplendent with lush vegetation, flowering shrubs and colourful butterflies.
The pièce de résistance comes at the end of the trail where a walkway snakes out over the river in front of a broad curtain of water called Floriano Falls. The end of the walkway hangs precipitously over another set of falls that plunge to the valley floor. From here we also see the famous 90 m high Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), the highest and mightiest cascades at Iguazú Falls. It’s an exciting teaser for the closeup views we’ll get in Argentina the next day.
Iguazú means “big water” in native Guarani Indian language. It’s a fitting name. There are plastic ponchos for rent but I want to feel the falls. I close my eyes, listen to the roar and get wet. For a moment I can imagine what it must have been like pre-boardwalks, helicopter tours and gift shops.
The power of the falls is spellbinding but I’m equally enchanted by the crazy tufts of grass that grow out of the rocks at the foot of the falls.
It’s hard to believe we’ve been here for 3 hours and the path is less than a mile long. We’ve gazed at the falls from every overlook and balcony. It’s almost too much to take in and we’re grateful for a coffee break on the pretty riverside deck of the Porto Canoas Restaurant.
Iguazú National Park Argentina for the intimate (and thrilling) waterfall experience
We are at the park gate by opening. The first thing most visitors do is hop on the Rainforest Train to see the Garganta del Diablo/Devil’s Throat. We resist this urge and head to the Circuito Inferior (the Lower Trail), one of several wonderful trails in the Argentinian Park.
Early in the morning, there are only a handful of visitors on the 1700 m trail. It’s incredibly peaceful. We are alone on a dramatic balcony watching Bosetti Falls crash to its first platform before its final plunge to the lower Iguazú River. Further along the trail we get to Dos Hermanas Falls. It’s not as big or powerful compared to others in the park but its graceful structure and jungle setting is idyllic beyond words.
We continue on to the Circuito Superior (Upper Trail). As the name implies, it runs along the top of several falls. Looking down over the edge of the falls is exhilarating but the place is starting to fill up and we prefer the intimacy of the lower trail.
We attempt to find a place to eat our packed lunch where we won’t be “attacked” by coatis (similar to racoons). They are awfully cute but have lost their fear of humans and will grab anything that is not vigilantly guarded.
The plan had been to take a boat across to Isla San Martín, a small island that sits smack in front of the falls, but the launch is temporarily closed for repair. It’s disappointing but we are quickly distracted by the masses of brightly coloured butterflies that gather in sunny spots.
The time has gone by quickly, and as planned we save the big attraction for last. The crowds have started to dwindle as we ride one of the last scheduled Rainforest Trains to the Garganta del Diablo trailhead. The 1 km path, along beautifully constructed boardwalks over wetlands and tributaries of the upper Iguazu River is lovely. We see giant catfish, exotic birds and many more butterflies.
It’s all very serene until reaching the grand finale where a balcony juts over the edge of the Iguazú River. A colossal wall of water funnels down a furious vortex—the Devil’s Throat.
I peer into the milky abyss; I feel the mist on my skin; I hear the thunderous roar; and I’m captivated by the primordial allure of this watery jungle. I’m experiencing the raw drama of The Mission (thank God minus the plunge down the falls).
If you go:
Plan on spending at least half a day in Iguaçu National Park Brazil. If possible, go there first. A better part of a full day (or more if you’re really into waterfalls) is needed to experience the amazing trails and viewpoints at Iguazú National Park Argentina.
We stayed in the border city of Puerto Iguazú, Argentina and it is easy to get transport to both parks via public bus, taxi or private transport arranged through hotels. Don’t forget your passport and check beforehand whether you require a visa entry. For Canadians, it’s easy to get a visa for Brazil online.
If your budget allows, it would be magical to stay at a hotel right by the falls. The Belmond Hotel in Iguaçu NP Brazil looks particularly dreamy and you’d have the falls all to yourself after the day trippers leave.