September 28, 2012

The Great Waters

When Eleanor Roosevelt first saw the Iguazu Falls, she reportedly exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!” Two hundred seventy-five separate falls cascade over the horseshoe-shaped edge of the Paraná Plateau, tumbling between 197 to 269 feet to the river waters below. That’s twice as high as Niagara Falls. Not surprisingly, the native Tupi-Guarani people called the falls “great waters,” and “iguazu” has stuck ever since.

Several legends relate the story of how the falls were created. One has it that a god planned to marry a beautiful woman named Naipí, who fled with her mortal lover Tarobá in a canoe. In a rage, the god sliced the river, creating the waterfalls and condemning the lovers to eternally fall off the edge. Another version features a big snake called Boi who lived in the river. To appease him, the aborigines sacrificed a woman every year. One year, though, a young man saved the woman about to be offered to Boi and escaped with her through the river. Boi burst into anger, bent its body, and split the river to separate the man and the woman.

In reality, the falls are the result of a volcanic eruption. The first European to find the falls was the Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1541. Shortly after that, Portuguese and Spanish colonists began to settle in the area. Today, the falls serve as the border between Argentina and Brazil, with about 80 percent of the falls located in the former and 20 percent in the latter.

Both countries have set up national parks to protect the falls and surrounding tropical rainforest that is home to jaguars, ocelots, giant anteaters, and black howler monkeys. Nearly half of Argentina’s bird species can be found here as can an outstanding collection of reptiles, fish, insects, and butterflies. More than 2,000 species of vascular plants have also been identified here, and the surrounding vegetation is particularly luxuriant due to the fall’s constant spray.

Spring and fall are considered the best time to visit Iguazu Falls since the summers can be incredibly humid and hot and the water level is considerably lower in the winter. You have a choice between two international airports: the Argentine Cataratas del Iguazu International Airport (IGR) and the Brazilian Foz do Iguacu International Airport (IGU). Argentina’s airport is closer to the falls and offers bus and taxi service from the airport directly to the falls.

However, each side has advantages. If you decide to base your exploration from Iguacu National Park in Brazil, you have access to a walkway that extends to the lower base of Devil’s Throat, where 14 falls drop 350 feet with such force that there is always a 100 foot cloud of spray overhead. Brazil also allows helicopter rides over its side of the falls; Argentina does not.

From Iguazu National Park in Argentina, you can take an inflatable boat right under the falls. Catwalks bring you over the rushing waters of Devil’s Gorge, and trails allow you to explore the surrounding tropical rainforest.

Both parks are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the entire area has been named a New Seven Wonder of Nature, by the new Seven Wonders of the World Foundation.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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