Getting Misty at Iguazu Falls

Words fail. Photos fail. Videos fail. Nothing captures Iguazu Falls. Thought itself fails to comprehend the magnitude, the immense power of this natural phenomenon. You could shoot it from a thousand angles and happily take your pictures home to show your friends -- you could get some marvelous images, but nothing can convey the experience of being there.

This gets down to the problem of tourism professionals whose task it is to get the word out about an attraction or a destination to people who know nothing about it and have zero motivation to find out. It is extremely difficult for anything new and unfamiliar to break through and capture the attention of people who already suffer from sensory overload and are almost constantly bombarded by information and hype.

I was one of those people myself, almost too busy to get around to seeing Iguazu Falls. Certainly I did want to see it. That desire was cemented when I saw Victoria Falls in Africa a few years ago. But even so, when I was tearing myself reluctantly from Rio to spend two days exploring Iguazu Falls, I wondered why the Globus Monograms itinerary devoted two days to seeing one attraction. Why one day for the Brazilian side and one day for the Argentinean side of the border? I was soon to find out. The two-day itinerary was very well planned.

My guide, Nelton Linden of Globusí ground operator South American Tours, explained the rationale. From the Brazilian side you see the macro view of a vast system of waterfalls. Eighty percent of Iguazu Falls is on the Argentina side. But from the Brazilian side you can see about 90 percent of the total, and get a sense of how huge it is. After having seen the overview, you can then go to the Argentina side and get up very close to the falls, even stand in the mist and the spray and get gloriously soaked if you want. The SAT folks designed the itinerary so it builds to the climax: Garganta del Diablo or The Devilís Throat, the central vortex of Iquazu Falls.

The only way it is possible to visually take in Iguazu Falls in its entirety is from the air. (Helicopter rides are available.) There is nowhere on the ground where you can see its immense span from end to end. Imagine being the Teentsy Weentsy Spider standing at the mouth of a waterspout as wide as Lower Manhattan. The name is from an Indian word meaning ďBig Water.Ē and itís easy to see why the name stuck. Some numbers may be useful in describing the falls, but Iguazu refuses even to submit to mathematics. The volume of water changes constantly. So while it is said to be comprised of 275 different falls, thatís a rough estimate of a number that changes every day. The higher the water level of the river, the fewer gaps and the more the water turns into solid sheets.

Nelton, who goes to the falls practically every day, tells me there was a three month drought in 2006 when there were no falls at all except at the Devilís Throat. On the other hand, in October of 2005, the river was so high the water covered practically all of San Martin Island, which is a peninsula in the lower part of the river that serves as a launching place for boat rides that take passengers on thrill rides up as close to Devilís Throat as they dare. Even from my perch on a ridge so high above the river the passengers looked like ants, I could hear their cheering even over the roar of the falls itself as they goaded the pilot to take ever more daring passes toward the falls.

At 1.67 miles wide the falls is acknowledged to be the widest in the world. The nearest competitor is Victoria Falls at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Victoria is higher, about 350 feet high, but at 0.8 mile about half as wide as Iguazu. Iguazu reaches as high as 269 feet in height, nearly as tall as New Yorkís Flatiron Building, but most of it is closer to 210 feet high. At the Iguazu Riverís annual peak, 1.72 million gallons gush over the falls every second. At Victoriaís peak, it throws 2.4 million gallons a second over the precipice. But during extreme flood times Victoria and Iguazu both reach about 3 million gallons a second.

Nelton and his driver met me at the airport after a two-hour flight from Rio and we made our first trip to Iguazu Falls even before we went to the hotel. That dayís activities on the Brazil side would only be a walk of 1.2 meters, or three quarters of a mile, he told me. On the Argentina side the next day, we would be walking 7 kilometers, or about 4.35 miles.

On the Brazil side you can see a wide panoramic view of the falls, or what is actually a giant cleft in the earth nearly two miles wide where the calmly flowing waters of the wide Upper Iguazu River suddenly drop over the edge into roaring chaos and turbulence to become the Lower Iguazu River below. Seen from across the wide river canyon, the falls is distant, with a long, meandering edge. It looks like a wide curtain across a densely forested landscape, but not a solid curtain, a patchy one, with broad expanses of falling water interspersed with patches of thick vegetation. The higher the water level of the river, the more solid the curtain becomes. The water level fluctuates day by day, even changing fairly dramatically the two days I was there.

We walked on a well-constructed walkway that runs along the riverbed toward the part of the falls that is on the Brazil side of the river. At the end the walkway runs into the part of the falls and you find yourself looking up at a huge sheet of water several stories tall pouring over the edge. Platforms and walkways have been built out onto the river where you can walk out and look up at the falls and feel the mist as it envelopes you. There was also an elevator that lifts observers to the top of a cliff to where they can see the falls from the top. It was gorgeous, magnificent. But I was to learn that this is the relatively peaceful part of the falls. The trip on the Brazil side only took a couple of hours and then we went on to the Bourbon Hotel where I was booked to stay for two nights. I happily took it easy that night and enjoyed the hotel.

The next morning, Nelton picked me up at the hotel for the trip to the Argentina side. He led me on a walk past several of the most notable falls, with names like San Martin, Bosselli and a set of twin falls called Two Sisters. Then we rode a small open train to the start of the three-quarter mile walkway over the broad waters to the climax of the trip.

The Devilís Throat is a horseshoe-shaped indentation in the basalt cliff over which the water falls. Sixty to sixty-five percent of all the water from the upper river flows down the three-sided channel created by the U-shaped opening into a roar of white mist and foam, some of it bouncing back up from the water below in splashes as tall as high-rise buildings. It was first designated as the Devilís Throat by the pre-Colombian Indians, and again itís easy to see why the name stuck. Itís like a maelstrom, a force of colossal proportions that turns the placid waters above into a hell of instant calamity and destruction on the rocks below for anyone asleep at the wheel of a peacefully drifting canoe. The Devilís Throat is the heart of the Iguazu phenomenon. It is the epicenter of the falls.

The display of force made me wonder why we go through such contortions over oil when there is so much natural power like this that can be harnessed. In fact Brazil and Paraguay share a hydroelectric plant just down river beyond where the Iguazu empties into the Parana River, the border of Brazil and Paraguay. The Itaipu Dam is said to produce as much electricity as 10 nuclear plants. It supplies 25 percent of the electricity needs of Brazilís 190 million people, and 95 percent of the needs of Paraguayís smaller population, Nelton says. Until the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the Dam shared by Brazil and Paraguay was the largest hydro-electric facility in the world.

When I finally reached the end I stood at the final platform with a hundred other wet and exhilarated spectators who were engulfed in the tumultuous roar and the opaque white mist, shouting excitedly or just gazing in wonder at a force comparable to a hurricane or tornado. As I stood in a crowd of visitors who had converged from all over the world to witness the same phenomenon, it seemed a healthy and nurturing experience for human beings to witness that scale of natural phenomenon. Itís an experience that canít fail to enhance oneís perspective on oneís place in the universe. As powerful a force (for good or evil) as humanity may be, to see Iguazu Falls is to witness natural power on a cosmic scale that dwarfs human power. For millions of years it has been gushing forth with incalculable quantities of water, enough surely to power all the needs of all mankind if it could be harnessed. And it will go on no doubt for millions of years after we are gone and forgotten. Iguazu is one of those things that you just have to experience for yourself.

-- David Cogswell

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