No trip to Brazil is complete without a visit to the Iguassu Falls. It might seem an odd choice to skip the Amazon or leave Rio early just for some waterfalls – do it anyway. Take as many connecting flights as you must to make it to the tiny town of Foz do Iguaçu, which will be your springboard to the network of 270 waterfalls, a wonder of the natural world.
You’ll need at least two full days to see the Iguassu Falls – one for Brazil, and one for Argentina. Don’t even think about trying to see both in one day. For the Argentinian side, it’s not worth trying to use public transport. While there is a bus across the border to Puerto Iguazu, connections from there to the Iguazu National Park are unreliable, and you’ll have to wrangle with Argentinian passport control. It is much simpler to let a tour company arrange transport – not only will they drop you off and collect you right at the gates to the park, but they will handle immigration too. Jaha Iguassu is a reliable and great value option, with knowledgeable operators who will give you much-needed advice about how to make the most of your time and avoid long queues. Prices include park fees, which will save you having to exchange reals for pesos to pay at the entrance (tickets can only be bought with cash).
Once you’ve made it to the park – a UNESCO World Heritage site which spans 1850 square km – take a deep breath, and try not to be overwhelmed by the maze of paths. Essentially there are three main trails. The Circuito Inferior takes you on a rocky path alongside the base of the falls, dousing you in spray. The higher Circuito Superior is a lofty walkway running along the top. Most captivating of all is the Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat), the headline event, towering above the rest of the park, which can be reached via free train.
Most tourists head straight to the train as soon as they arrive. Don’t follow them – this is a spectacle you need to build up to. It’s worth getting to know these waterfalls up close and on the ground before you view them from above. A good place to start is the optional boat trip run by Iguazu Jungle Explorer (90 reals, booked in advance back in Foz do Iguaçu). After a jeep ride through the rainforest, you’ll be offloaded onto a boat which speeds through the rapids then takes you right up underneath the torrents. This is not so much about seeing the Iguassu Falls as feeling them – the force of the water is so powerful you’ll be blinded by white spray, deafened by the roar, and soaked to the skin in seconds. It’s an exhilarating – if terrifying – experience, and one which will enable you to appreciate what a force of nature these waterfalls are.
The boat will drop you off on the Circuito Inferior, allowing you to climb up alongside the falls which have just drenched you. There’s a breath-taking photo opportunity around every corner. The Circuito Superior is more peaceful, but no less dramatic. From here, it is possible to see across to Brazil, and get a sense of the vastness – around 1.5 million litres of water gushes over the falls each second. Thousands of butterflies spiral above the observation decks, and you’ll inevitably run into coatis – furry racoon-like creatures which look adorable but will steal your food without a moment’s hesitation.
Save the Garganta del Diablo for last, when the hordes have eased. A metal catwalk takes you across the river to the tumbling 270 degree cascade over 90m high. Words cannot do it justice – it is not hard to see why early visitors might have imagined it a gateway to hell.
Back in Foz do Iguaçu, there a wide range of hotels and hostels to choose from. A good budget option is Hotel Del Rey, conveniently located for buses and tours and with fantastically helpful staff. Breakfast is included, and there’s even a pool, though it’s unlikely you’ll have time to use it.
But the best place from which to see the Brazilian side of the Iguassu Falls is, without a doubt, the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas. This is the only hotel within the Brazilian park, and this alone makes it well worth the price tag, even aside from the tasteful luxury it offers. Founded in 1958 and now managed by the Belmond chain, this is the very essence of understated elegance. The pink-walled Portuguese colonial residence houses a swimming pool, a sauna, tennis courts, as well as its own spar, a bar with live music each night, and two distinctive restaurants. A particular delight is the sumptuous buffet and gaucho barbeque served at the Ipê Grill for dinner, with classic Brazilian sides and desserts which change nightly.
This hotel is an oasis of calm after weeks spent on the go exploring this incredible country. But the highlight of staying here isn’t sunbathing by the pool or enjoying the five-star service – it’s the chance to experience the Iguassu Falls away from the camera-wielding crowds. Hotel guests have exclusive access to the paths after the park closes at 5pm. Unlike the Argentinian side, there is just one long trail which offers a panoramic view of the entire waterfall network. Thousands of people visit every day, so congestion is almost unavoidable, unless you have the luxury of being there after hours. Sunset is particularly spectacular, as the sky turns the waters pink, silhouetting the cliffs against orange-tinted clouds.
Every morning, the hotel’s in-house tour operator leads a private excursion before the park opens. This is your chance to get photographs without needing to elbow your way through. You can spot the paths you walked in Argentina and appreciate how they fit into the larger ecosystem. There are also clear views of the Itaipu hydro-electric dam, a phenomenal feat of engineering which provides enough power to supply 75 percent of the electricity consumed in Paraguay and 15 percent consumed in Brazil.
You can opt for a helicopter trip or another boat ride, but even on foot you’re in for an adventure. At the end of the trail, a catwalk extends three-quarters across the width of the Iguassu River, taking you directly underneath the Garganta del Diablo. This is an assault on all your senses, and it is mesmerising. If you can stomach the fear of being whisked away by the churning waters, lean over the edge, and let yourself be engulfed by the thunder and the spray.
It is impossible to do Brazil comprehensively, even with months to spare. Any trip is going to involve compromises and missed opportunities. But do not leave this extraordinary country without a trip to the Iguassu Falls. There is quite simply no place like it on earth.