A true natural wonder

  • TEXT SOLVEIG FLÖRKE

Wider than the Victoria Falls, higher than the famous Niagara Falls – and more beautiful than both: the waterfalls of Iguaçu are simply breathtaking. A visit to the Iguaçu National Park

The thunderous noise of water masses crashing down can be heard from afar. The sound echoes as far as the access road which leads out of Foz do Iguaçu and is open only to authorized buses. The closer you get, the more intense the muffled murmur becomes until it finally turns into a pounding roar.

Travelers from all around the world get out at the fourth bus stop. There is no missing the natural wonder: a tarmac path snakes through the forest, guiding visitors to the sight they have come to see. “It is fascinating, simply every time,” says Celine Bohn. The Brazilian music teacher comes from Blumenau, a German town in southern Brazil where her great-grandparents, who were originally from Darmstadt, settled when they emigrated from Germany. Bohn visited the famous waterfalls on the border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay for the first time in 1992 with her three sons. “But once in a lifetime isn’t enough”, she says. This time she’s here with her husband.

Next day they plan to pop over the border for a spot of shopping in neighboring Paraguay, which has lower tax rates. Not far from Foz do Iguaçu there is the largest shopping mall in Latin America, with more than 10,000 stores.

Once in a lifetime is not enough

Celine Bohn, music teacher

 Cross the Ponte da Amizade, the bridge of friendship, between the two countries and you come to the dilapidated little border town of Ciudad del Este, which attracts groups of tourists, and Brazilians in particular, with tax-free imports.

But before the hunt for bargains commences, everyone’s attention turns to the water masses which can be viewed for the comparatively inexpensive sum of around €20. The Cataratas, as the waterfalls are called in Brazil, are wider than the Victoria Falls and higher than the world-famous Niagara Falls. Recently selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, there’s no doubt that the Cataratas more than deserve this accolade.

In this panoramic cluster of waterfalls with a combined edge length of over 2,700 meters the water plunges down, often from a height of 80 meters, into vast pools. The waterfalls lie at the heart of 185,000 hectares of rainforest on the Brazilian side, with a further 55,000 on the Argentinian side. Over 2,000 protected animal and plant species are native to the Parque National de Iguaçu, which the UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 1986.

It takes about two hours to stroll around the waterfalls. Everyone sets out with dry feet, but the further you progress along the trail, the wetter your feet get. The fine, all-pervasive spray not only creates shimmering rainbows, it also gradually soaks clothes and footwear. All those foresighted enough to bring along a rain cape attract envious glances, despite the sweltering heat. A group of Japanese tourists even open up their umbrellas.

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 Not even umbrellas could protect the intrepid visitors who opt for a boat trip under the waterfalls. What we initially take to be a macabre joke turns out to a completely serious offer by the woman in the office of the small safari tour operator Macuco. For around €70, the company will take visitors to the national park in the state of Paraná as close as it gets to the waterfalls of Iguaçu in a speedboat.

“There is also a ten-minute helicopter round flight”, she adds. For the Brazilian equivalent of €250. Most tourists choose to view the waterfalls without a guide from the network of paths and walkways. But for those who want a guide and extras, there is a wide choice available in the park, which is exceptionally well-organized by South American standards. The best option is to walk along the rainforest trail to the shore of the Iguaçu River and then take a tour in a speedboat raft. The sole preparation for this slightly hair-raising trip is to put on a life vest. The skipper gives a few self-explanatory instructions, including “Make sure your camera does not get wet”, in Portuguese and English, as most of the guests on board are international. Then off we shoot, at breakneck speed. Past bizarre rock formations and mounds of boulders, the rubber dinghy steers straight towards a waterfall.

The water tumbles down from above and hits the sides of the raft with an almighty crash. It is only thanks to the extra powerful custom engine that the speedboat makes it through the seething whitewater. The vast masses of water cascade down here along a length of two kilometers, and the captain is free to choose where to soak his passengers with a cold shower – one of the 300 waterfalls is always close by. Celine Bohn is one of the passengers being drenched. The Brazilian clings to the American sitting next to her, a complete stranger, as the water trickles down her soaking wet hair and onto her face. “That was an amazing finale!“ she cries. After half an hour the dripping passengers are deposited back on dry land.

Every year, over ten million visitors come to see this natural spectacle. Formed during a volcanic eruption and the tectonic shift of the South American continental plate millions of years ago, the so-called Devil’s Throat is the main attraction of the Cataratas. It unites fourteen waterfalls and a mind-boggling 13,000 cubic meters of water per second plunge down this chasm. There have been a lot of changes in the park over the past decades. Twenty years ago, Celine Bohm and her family were not able to see down into the gigantic throat of this section of the falls; now, thanks to improved access roads, they can. One literally walks above the water. “A true wonder of the world,” she says, as she leaves the waterfalls.