Do waterfalls count as gardens? They certainly make life possible for tens of thousands of species of flora and fauna. I thought I had seen waterfalls until I visited Iguazú, Argentina. Nothing could have prepared me for the staggering beauty of these falls that hold the distinction of being one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Iguazú is located an easy 1 ½ hour plane ride from Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’d consider it a great way to go, not only for the brevity of the trip but the fact that your first view of the falls is from the air. As we neared the airport our pilot signaled to us to look out our windows as he tipped the plane one way then the other to give us all a bird’s eye view of this astonishing interface between land and water.
View of the falls from plane window
And what a view it was! As if cut with a jagged knife out of the emerald green plateau, the falls appeared bright white against mahogany-colored rocks arranged in a crescent-like shape, much like a Roman amphitheater. As we gawked out our windows, we could almost sense the water roaring over the reddish-brown cliffs. Here and there, fingers of spray drifted up from the crevice, giving the illusion of wispy clouds escaping up from amidst the dense tropical jungle.
We could barely wait to start our day.
THE WIDEST FALLS IN THE WORLD
So what makes these falls so special that they lay claim to being one of the seven natural wonders of the world? The main reason is their incredible width, which is the largest in the world. Composed of 275 individual drops, the Iguazú Falls span an astonishing distance of 27 meters (or roughly 1.7 miles). Compare this to Victoria Falls’ width of 1708 meters (roughly one mile) and Niagara’s length of brink that measures 1203 meters (roughly 0.7 miles.)
No wonder that upon seeing Iguazú Falls, the United States First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed,
Of course this also makes the falls nearly impossible to capture, but you get the picture.
ONE RIVER, BIG FALLS
Spanning the border between Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazú Falls form a line along a deep chasm carved from layers of ancient sandstone and dark, fine-grained volcanic rock. The falls are shared by both countries and serve as the official international border. There is an ongoing dispute as to whose side is better.
Brazil on the left, Argentina on the right
The source of the falls, the Iguazú River, is located in Brazil. As it crosses the plateau, the river joins up with other tributary streams, traveling across 1,200 km (roughly 746 miles) until it reaches a series of faults formed in the rock. There, it pauses before thundering over the brink and tumbling down into a canyon that drains into the Paraná River.
Falls tumble down into the Paraná River
At its highest point, the Iguazú River drops vertically some 80 meters in a series of cataracts called the Devil’s Throat. About half of the river flows into this long and narrow chasm. This makes for an enormous amount of water, accompanied by a deafening roar and soaking sprays of water. As the roiling river tumbles over the brink, perspective turns upside down as rainbows appear below clouds deep in the canyon.
The enormous quantities of tumbling water and soaking humidity have spawned a highly specialized ecosystem full of life in the surrounding Misiones Jungle. More than 2,000 species of plants and animals call this lush rain forest home including giant anteaters, caoties with their ringed tails, howler monkeys, jaguars and the giant rodent known as the capybara. There 4000 bird species, including rainbow-colored toucans and parrots. And there are also 80 known tree species, making for a diverse tapestry of vegetation.
Ferns and wild impatiens growing on canyon floor
Together with the Iguazú National Park in Brazil, the Argentinian park constitutes one of the most significant remnants of the interior Atlantic Forest, over 85 percent of the original area of which has been deforested since its discovery over 500 years ago.
In Iguazú, life is multi-layered. Plants grow one on top of one another from the canyon floor on up to the giant palms anchored to the waterfalls’ lip. Ferns grow on moss, lichen grows on rocks, and air plants and orchids can be seen sprouting from tree branches. The falls teem with fertility.
Bright green lichen, moss and ferns that cling to the rock even as the roaring waters flow around them.
To view the falls, visitors have the option of taking an upper or lower walkway, which give them different perspectives on the falls. An open-air train loops around the outer edge of the park to the trail leading to Devil’s Throat. The walkways are mostly raised steel walkways that hover over the jungle. Along the way, numerous look-outs provide dizzying views of the cascading water.
Look-outs provide bird’s eye views of the falls
For the truly adventurous, there are zodiac rides that take you under the falls to experience the power of all that water. The 12-minute adventure involves plowing headfirst into the waterfalls while a guide films you drowning in white water. I can attest that this is an unbelievable experience, especially on a 95 degree day in the jungle.
For more on Iguazú Falls click here for the official website. The name Iguazú comes from the area’s indigenous people who named the falls ‘great water’. The first European to “discover” the falls was Spanish Conquistador Cabeza de Vaca in 1541.