Our Brazilian driver handed over our passports and rolled down the backseat window. The border agent looked at Chrissy and me and then back at her computer. We smiled and waited patiently, hoping we had filled out the immigration paperwork correctly the night before. Without expression she handed our documents back to the driver. She turned to us, smiled and said, “Welcome to Argentina”. We thanked her, returning her smile and continued on our way.
I think I first became aware of Iguazu Falls when I was living in Thailand. I had seen pictures from fellow lesbian travellers, the Globetrotter Girls, and I quite quickly added this natural wonder to my ever-growing travel bucket list. But, living on the other side of the world at the time meant that visiting the border of Argentina and Brazil was a relatively distant dream.
Moving back to North America brought me that much closer to my recently added destination south of the equator. After five wonderful days in iconic Rio de Janeiro, I was very excited about flying into the small city of Foz do Iguaçu in the Pananá state of Brazil. As the name suggests, it is the closest town to the Brazil side of the famous falls (about 30 minutes Uber ride or about 45 minutes via the 120 bus.)
Arranging Transport to Argentina
My girlfriend Chrissy and I checked into our hotel on a Friday and we were to fly to Manaus on Sunday night. The plan was to explore the Argentinian side of the falls on Saturday and the Brazilian side on Sunday. Not wanting to join a tour or take a lengthy bus ride, we hired a driver with the concierge (Loumar Tourismo) at our hotel to take us to Parque Nacional Iguazú in the Misiones Province of Argentina.
Our driver picked us up at Hotel Rafain at 7:15am and we were off after a quick check to see that we had our necessary documents to cross the border and back: passports, images of the immigration form we had filled out online the night before and our Covid vaccination cards.
Within 20 minutes we found ourselves at Brazil’s exit immigration, where we had to park, get out of the car and see an agent inside the building. With no line, this went quickly. On the other side of the subsequent bridge (the middle of which marks the international border between Brazil and Argentina), we got in the line designated for tour agencies. There were only three or four cars in front of us so, again, the process went quickly and we arrived at Parque Nacional Iguazú shortly after it opened at 8am.
As a person who likes to count the countries I travel to, I was a little disappointed that Argentina had stopped stamping passports a few months prior to our visit. But, our driver told us we could get a souvenir stamp at the ranger’s station just before the entrance to the park. This reminded me of getting a souvenir stamp in Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and I was happy to add Iguazu.
Taking the Train
As soon as I passed through the turnstile, my excitement grew. I was going to be able to cross a major bucket list item off my list. Plus, I hadn’t seen a waterfall of any significant size since visiting Niagara Falls at least a decade earlier.
We followed the signs to the train, first stopping at the information desk on the right to pick up the free, but necessary, tickets to ride. We were given a ticket for the first car of the very first train at 8:30am. There are three stops on the train: Central, Cataratas and Garganta. (There are bathrooms at each station. I was told there was wifi at each station as well, but wifi only worked for me at Central Station.) I enjoyed the flora from the slow-moving train and was delightfully surprised at all the types of colorful butterflies that I had never seen before.
Garganta del Diablo
Following the recommendation of the man at the information desk, we got off the train at the third station to walk to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). It was easy to find the entrance of the 1.8 km (1.1 mile) hike over the Iguazú River.
Wanting to arrive before the large tour groups, we walked quickly, politely passing slower groups of people. The cool morning breeze cut the humidity a bit and felt nice against my skin and the air smelled of excitement! I took in the scenic environment as my legs propelled me along as quickly as they could.
The path led us over a series of metal walkways over large stretches of rather swiftly flowing water. The trail bended to the right and to the left through patches of green foliage. My heart leaped as I started to hear the roar of rushing water and I picked up the already quick pace.
The sound had become more pronounced when I saw a billow of mist appear only a short distance away. And before I knew it, I was standing face to face with one of the largest waterfalls in the world. I was so overwhelmed with emotion as I took it all in. The sheer massive size, incredible power, and the breathtaking beauty all contributed to my eyes tearing with joy. “Such a gorgeous part of the earth”, I thought and, “I’m so fortunate to be able to experience it!” I was filled with gratitude.
I took some pictures trying to capture the moment, but I eventually realized there is no substitute for being there. So, I put my camera down and simple let my senses enjoy the surroundings! I watched the birds circling down below wondering how difficult it might be to fly with wet wings. The sun would poke out every once in awhile and highlight the water. I closed my eyes and listened to the billions of droplets of water rushing only a few feet from my position. I could smell the freshness of the nature that surrounded me and every so often the wind would be just right to blow some of the mist onto my skin.
Others started to join the platform and I began watching their reactions. Faces lit up with joy, breathing halted and some people even let out a cheer. I realized I was sharing this moment with people from all over the world. It was nice to feel connected by such a wonderful natural display. People offered to take pictures of each other and said, “thank you” in a variety of languages.
Walking the Circuits
There weren’t many people on the train heading back to Station 2 (Cataratas), where you can access Circuito Superior (Upper Circuit) and Circuito Inferior (Lower Circuit). We decided to do the Upper Circuit first only because a large tour group heading for the lower one.
The Upper Circuit, whose entrance is on the right 200 meters from the train station, took us on metal walkways across the top of the falls. It was amazing to see, hear and feel the large amounts of water rushing underneath me just before it plunges to the depths below. The trail was made up of one stunning scenic viewpoint after another – it was difficult to get a picture that encompassed it all, yet it was hard to take a bad photo.
I absolutely loved walking the Upper Trail and looked forward to each opening in the trees where I could get yet another amazing view. I was reminded of that old commercial for Kodak, calling scenes like these “Kodak moments”.
I enjoyed the mist coming up from the falls, the loudness and grandness of it all. If there were ever a place that inspired painting a scene, this would be it. And yet, there would be difficulty in deciding which angle to paint as there was natural beauty in ever direction.
It felt like each scenic view was even better than the last. When I stopped at Salto San Martín for a while to just listened to the falls, I noticed loads of black vultures resting in the trees. “What a place to call home”, I thought. I wondered if these were the same birds I saw flying around from Garganta del Diablo.
After a relaxing picnic lunch, we headed back out to walk the Lower Circuit. Despite my offering, Chrissy insisted on carrying our day pack the entire time we were there – so sweet. It made my adventure there so much easier!
The Lower Trail did not disappoint! This circuit also involved walking on metal platforms and openings in the sea of green provided beautiful views of the falls.
One of the aspects I enjoyed about the Lower Circuit is that you could see levels of falls as water cascaded off the multi-layered cliffs, surrounded by scenic forest.
The absolute highlight of the Lower Trail was being able to get up close and personal to the waterfalls. There is nothing quite like being in such close proximity to something so powerful!
Just after checking into Hotel Rafain, we swiftly set out to Cheiro Verde. Although this all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet was only a 15 minute walk from the hotel, it felt like much more of an effort due to how hilly Foz do Iguacu is. Hungry and knowing this eatery would close soon, we pressed on. And it was worth it! Most of the dishes were vegan and the staff were happy to point out which ones were not. I filled up my plate twice with a variety of Asian-inspired noodle dishes, rice dishes, sushi, fruit and salad. We also managed to walk back to the hotel another way as to avoid many of the ups and downs.
We awoke early the next day to get breakfast in our hotel before meeting our driver. There were a lot of non-vegan items, but we managed to find some fresh bananas, papaya and pineapple, some bread and margarine. A sign that read “Tapioca Show” above a cooking station intrigued me and I’m glad I went over for a closer look. The chef was happy to make me a breakfast tapioca without butter. Wanting a savory start to the day, I requested tomatoes and onions. It was amazing to watch her make this dish beginning with nothing more than a bowl of tiny balls of tapioca flour. She simply poured some in the pan, flattened them out to form a circle and let them cook together. When the time was right, she added the desired ingredients, waited a moment, folding the tapioca like an omlette and slipped onto my plate. My first tapioca experience was fantastic!
Thanks to The Nomadic Vegan’s ultimate guide to Iguazu Falls, I knew to bring a picnic lunch and to not even bother with the poor and overpriced vegan options at Parque Nacional Argentina. After walking the Upper Circuit, we paused for lunch at the Cataratas train station, to make use of their seating area. There were plenty of tables and chairs (some covered and some not) to relax, enjoy our store-bought goodies and people watch. I also enjoyed the bees and butterflies who seemed quite interested in our fresh fruit in particular.
Per The Nomadic Vegan’s suggestion, we decided to dine at La Strega, where they reportedly had a full vegan menu. This sit-down eatery is located in a very unassuming quiet residential neighborhood and I felt like we were walking into someone’s house. We were quickly ushered upstairs where the staff member began turning on lights before showing up to our table.
Figuring out the menu was not easy for us because neither of us speaks Portuguese and my limited Spanish was not as helpful as I would have thought. For example, I ordered “calabresa acebolada” thinking it had pumpkin in it, since “calabaza” is pumpkin in Spanish. It turns out that “calabresa” mean pepperoni. So, it was a bit of an adventure and a lesson in language. And since it was vegan pepperoni (and tasted good), this wasn’t an issue.
For the main course, I ordered the fettuccine de espinafre (spinach fettuccine) with confit de vegetais (vegetable confit) that included mushrooms, seasoned vegetables, carrots, broccoli, olives, peas, garlic and parsley. Chrissy tried the spinach fettuccine too but with the portobello mushroom sauce with olive oil and parsley. I must say that everything we tried tasted great. And, the fact that they were having some trouble with their electricity the night we dined there meant that we enjoyed our date night, in part, by candlelight – how romantic.
I opened the curtains on Sunday morning to find a foggy condition. This was the day we were to explore the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls. This was the day we would have worn our rainproof jackets for the opportunity to get up close and personal with the immense amount of water pouring over Garganta do Diabo. (Later that night at the airport, we met an English couple who were still soaking wet from this experience. They had to board the flight to Manaus with wet shoes and socks. Still, they didn’t regret their decision saying it was powerful and amazing.) As people who enjoy the beauty of the waterfalls more than the power they generate, we opted to forego the Brazilian side, satiated from our waterfall experience the day before. And, we didn’t want to simply stand next to the falls getting soaking wet, but unable to see them. So, we decided to spend the day relaxing and readying ourselves for our next Brazilian adventure: the Amazon!
There are lots of opportunities to see animals at Parque Nacional Argentina. Not only did butterflies flit around the park, but there was a variety of birds to watch as well. When walking towards the Circuito Inferior, we came across at least 20 coati sweeping through as a group, investigating the ground with their long noses. They could care less that humans were watching and taking pictures of them. I’m sure if we had food easily accessible, this might be a different story.
Warning signs were posted, complete with images of attack bites and scratches, about the dangers of howler monkeys. Apparently, they can be quite aggressive if they see something they want. Despite this warning, we were still hoping to see them, but did not.
We also saw signs about other animals that call the Iguazu area home, including mice and opossums and a variety of bat species. At one point on the Lower Circuit, we were invited to “stop and sniff” to see if we could detect guano bats (tadarida brasiliensis) living just over the edge of the cliff next to us. And we could indeed detect a sweet smell in the air.
Guarani Legend of Iguazu Falls
The Guarani people who have lived in the area for a long time tell a few versions of a story of how Iguazu Falls were formed. Here is the gist as I understand it:
A god named Mboi, a giant serpent, lived in the Iguazu River and demanded human sacrifices. To that end, a young woman named Naipí was next in line to be sacrificed. Her boyfriend, a young warrior named Tarobá, was in love with her and did not want to lose her. So, before the sacrifice was to take place, he kidnapped her and the two of them tried to escape down the river on a canoe.
Mboi became very angry and violently moved his body in the river, causing a large crack to appear. His rage caused Iguazu Falls. The two lovebirds fell over the falls and drowned. Mboi turned Tarobá into a palm tree on the now Brazilian side of the falls and Naipí into a big rock on the now Argentinian side. As such, they are destined to live apart for all eternity.
It is said that Mboi still lurks in the waters of Devil’s Throat ensuring that the two never reunite. But, when the weather is just right, the couple can demonstrate their love for each other by forming a rainbow connecting the palm tree to the rock.
Additional Interesting Facts About Iguazu Falls
Iguazu Falls consists of over 275 individual cascades, is much taller than and twice as wide as Niagara Falls. More water flows through this part of the Iguazu River than anywhere else in the world. The word Iguazu is a Guarani word meaning “big water”, but if you want to see them, you must purchase a ticket online, as onsite tickets are no longer available (due to Covid). If Iguazu Falls is not already on your bucket list, I hope this post inspires you to add this breaktaking part of the world.