I first learned of Iguazu Falls while sitting in the office of a travel agency in Valdivia, Chile. Behind the travel agent’s desk was a poster of a startlingly beautiful waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation. I thought for sure the agent would tell me that the poster was of a place on another continent or on some island nation, like New Zealand. Nope. The agent told me that the falls were in South America, and could be reached from either Argentina or Brazil. My plan was to travel to Argentina after Chile. Seeing that poster had me hooked on going to Iguazu.
While I hadn’t heard of Iguazu Falls before heading to South America, this grand spectacle of cascading water is considered one of the world’s most astounding natural wonders. Iguazu is actually a series of waterfalls straddling the border between Argentina and Brazil. Depending on the flow of the Iguazu River, there can be as many as 275 distinct waterfalls which cascade off a cliff of almost three kilometers in length. The forest surrounding the falls is a subtropical jungle with a variety of wildlife, such as coatis, birds, butterflies, lizards, and armadillos.
Since I didn’t have a visa for Brazil, I visited the falls from the Argentine side. Argentina’s Iguazu National Park provided access to the falls. I stayed in the town of Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, and reached the park from town by public bus. I visited the park on three consecutive days, which was the right amount of time for me.
Argentina’s Iguazu National Park was well run and well laid out. A miniature passenger train was available to take visitors to the trails that led to different sections of the falls. But you could also make your way entirely on foot. Various trails took you through the jungle and amazingly close to the falls. Many of the trails were elevated metal walkways, making walking secure and easy.
Upon my first view of one of the major sections of the falls, my jaw literally dropped, and a string of complimentary expletives issued from my gringo pie hole. I was in an almost constant state of giddy awe as I viewed veil after veil of cascading water roaring gloriously over sheer cliffs. Clumps of bright green moss and grasses clung tenaciously to the cliff face, soaking in the atomized water which floated up from the falls. In many places, the water flowed right from the verdant jungle before plunging off the precipice. The enormous quantity of plunging, frothing, gushing water created an ever present cloud of mist above the area. The moisture-laden air swirling around the jungle plants was charged with energy. I felt like each breath was filling my lungs with healing, supercharged, life-invigorating ions.
The park also offered a river raft ride which took intrepid passengers into the fringe of one of the falls. This was something I didn’t pass up. The large raft was powered by two outboard engines and carried a few dozen passengers. We were given life preservers and dry bags in which to put our belongings. The boat operators told us we would get a good soaking. The raft motored up a cul-de-sac in the river and charged straight for a massive veil of falling water. The boat entered the outer fringe of the veil, and we screamed as buckets of cool river water splashed down on us. We were soaked completely. The boat backed off, then repeated its charge. There was so much water pouring down on us that it was hard to breathe. It was thrilling.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Iguazu was Garganta del Diablo – the Devil’s Throat. This section of the falls was shaped like a horseshoe and located at the widest part of the river. A veritable sea of river water was funneled into the devil’s throat, where it cascaded down 90 meters with tremendous force, creating gusts of misty wind. A metal walkway led visitors right alongside the devil’s throat. To feel and hear and even taste the tremendous force of tens of thousands of liters of water in free fall was sheer exhilaration.
The timing of my visit to the falls proved to be extremely fortuitous. On certain days each month, the park offered night walks to view the devil’s throat under the moonlight. My last night in Iguazu coincided with one of these night time walks. The moonlit walk through the jungle to the devil’s throat would mark an end to my travels in South America. The following day I would fly back to Santiago de Chile and then on to the U.S.
There were over a hundred people on the night walk. We took the little passenger train through the warm and humid night air, passing through the jungle, its trees and shrubs a portrait shown in silvery moonlight and shadows. A chorus of frog calls drifted around us. The sky was clear and the moon bright and brilliant. The conditions were perfect. We disembarked from the train and walked on a path of raised metal grating to the Devil’s Throat. Illuminated by the moonlight, the cascading water was a palette of fluorescent white and green. The other travelers broke off into couples and little groups, chattering enthusiastically and snapping pictures, the flashes from their cameras momentarily showing the smiles on their faces.
Standing alone in this scene with the spray from the falls wetting my face, the entirety of my journey to South America welled up inside me like an emotional tsunami. The struggles, the triumphs, the good times, the bad times, the people I’d met, the Spanish I’d learned, the preciousness of the moment, all flowed through me under the moonlight. It was as if a film reel from the past year was playing in my mind. I felt proud for having achieved what I did. I felt sad that it was coming to an end. Most of all, I desired the comfort of communion with another, to share the moonlight with someone close. I may have been the only traveler that night that stood before such beauty and wept.