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Nature’s Splendor at Iguazú Falls

Brazilian Falls

Local legend says the mighty Iguazú falls is a story of a tragic love affair. The tale from the caingangues indigenous tribe goes like this: A cacique named Ignobi had a daughter named Naipi, whom he planned to offer to the god M’Boy. But a young warrior, Tarobá, had fallen in love with the beautiful Naipi. On the day her father planned to offer her to M’Boy, the warrior fled with the young woman in a canoe, following a strong downriver current. M’Boy, infuriated, writhed his body inside the earth and created the giant cleave that now forms the 270-foot-high falls where white water powerfully roars down and forms tall clouds of mist below. Naipi was left in a rock below the water and Tarobá on the riverside, never to touch one another again.

You could also consider Iguazú a story of love and pining for Brazilians who have become estranged from the most essential quality of their country: its vastness. Latin America’s largest nation is bigger than the contiguous United States. Its territory encompasses humid rainforests and wetlands, stark savannah and wide cool plains. But for all that space and diversity, Brazil is a country where people increasingly pile on top of one another in white-scrubbed condos and mishmash brick favela homes in dense city neighborhoods. Social ascension here has meant migration and concentration. Some 80 percent of the Brazilian population lives in cities, a high number anywhere in the world, and all the more so in a place where odes to lushness and natural diversity has been the stuff of romantic Brazilian ballads for as long as this musical nation has been singing. “I live in a tropical country, blessed by God and beautiful by nature,” goes the retro pop-rock song from Jorge Ben Jor.

But Iguazú came back into Brazilians’ imaginations. In recent decades, it’s become one of the most-visited sites they go to in their own country, after the beaches and carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Foz do Iguaçú was a sleepy outpost of fewer than 20,000 inhabitants until the 1970s, when the region’s other main attraction was built: the Itaipu dam. The frontier post deep in Brazil’s southwest tri-border area with Argentina and Paraguay boomed. Itaipu was the largest hyrdroelectric dam in the world until the construction of China’s Three Gorges, and it still provides about 15 percent of the country’s electricity and 75 percent of neighboring Paraguay’s. The 4.9-mile-long colossal structure was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

We’re not saying either Foz do Iguaçu or its smaller counterpart on the Argentine side, Puerto Iguazú, has woken up. The most bustling action you’ll find in this region is in neither Brazil nor Argentina but in plucky little Paraguay, where a duty-free zone in Ciudad del Este hosts hawkers of underpriced electronics, knockoff brand-name apparel and seedier things you may want to avoid if you'd like to keep your police record clean.

Your options to get in and around the park are numerous: bicycle, foot, raft and—on the Argentinian side—helicopter. We recommend the Curitiba-based outfit Gondwana—a rarity among Brazilian eco-tourism operators for being women-owned and operated—for the bicycle option. Its 15-mile trek on the Argentine side of Iguazú includes a stop for a bath in a small waterfall. On the ride, keep your eyes open to catch some of the falls’ most charming residents: colorful-beaked toucans, yellow butterflies, scheming capuchin monkeys and even alligators.

Travelers have long debated which part of the falls is their preferred one: The Brazilian side offers a glorious panorama from a misty raised platform, while the Argentine side is for immersion and diversion along its numerous windy trails. The Garganta del Diablo (Portuguese, Garganta do Diabo) is the mighty iconic falls M’Boy created in his moment of ire, and you’ll get views from both sides. While novelty-seeking tourists may be inclined to write the destination off as “been done before,” consider this Brazil’s Taj Mahal of natural treasures—and reconsider a visit that won’t leave you feeling short-changed.

Where to Eat
Going local here means eating freshwater fish—look for the hefty surubi. The Spanish Zaragoza restaurant on the Brazilian side pairs its catches with Iberian cuisine, with dishes such as trout, salmon, catfish and tilapia in a gravy of capers. On the Argentinian side, the rustic La Rueda 1975 grill and wine bar is as elegant as it is popular amongst travelers.

Where to Stay

In Brazil, the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas is pricey but offers extraordinary proximity to the falls—it’s inside the protected national park—as well as stunning views of the surrounding gardens from its windows. The Hotel Bella Italia is an economical and comfortable option in the city of Foz do Iguaçu, about 17 miles from the falls. In Argentina, the Loi Suites offer an upscale and serene stay along a bend in the Iguazu River.

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