Inside the Wonder of Iguaçu Falls

On the border of Brazil and Argentina is one of the world’s largest and most breathtaking series of waterfalls. But beyond the majestic — and heavily touristed — falls, there’s much more wilderness to explore.

Photographs by Sebastián Liste
Illustrations by Celia Jacobs

The view of the horseshoe-shaped falls from the Brazilian side.

Butterflies in a Carnaval of colors, some as big as your palm, swirl like autumn leaves in the breeze. Clouds of mist snake upward in the distance, crowned by a rainbow when the sun hits. And then there’s the deep rumble that gets louder and louder as you approach — the sound of 396,000 gallons of water crashing every second down the massive Iguaçu Falls. “There are no words to describe it,” says Eduardo Fleury Rocha, who has been guiding visitors around this spectacular sight for 18 years and now runs a similar Airbnb Experience. “You can feel the energy of the falls.”

Iguaçu Falls is taller and almost three times as wide as Niagara Falls.

Nearly two miles wide and with some 275 cascades emerging from a wall of trees, Iguaçu Falls marks the start of a canyon, funneling the Iguaçu River downstream until it joins the Paraná River, which is 15 miles away, on the borders of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. On Eduardo’s experience, you’ll trek near the falls to appreciate the outlook from the national parks on both the Brazilian and Argentinian banks of the river (called Iguaçu in Portuguese, and Iguazú in Spanish). “The two sides offer different perspectives,” Eduardo says. “From Brazil, you get the panoramic view, and from Argentina, you can see the falls close up.”

The two national parks together span around 1,000 square miles of the Atlantic Forest, a ­semideciduous subtropical rainforest that’s a ­UNESCO World Heritage site and home to hundreds of endangered animals, including jaguars and giant anteaters. In birds alone, the Atlantic Forest has the largest concentration of endemic species in the world — 213 birds that exist only here.

The Iguaçu River divides Brazil and Argentina.

“Brazil all but destroyed its Atlantic Forest in the last century,” explains botanist Ricardo Cardim, author of Remnants of the ­Atlantic Forest. These days, it’s a network of fragments that make up just 11 percent of the original forest. The rest was decimated by agriculture and logging. There is hope, though, says Cardim. “Iguaçu National Park survived, and it’s big enough to be self-sustaining. Rare trees can still be found inside the park, and the genetic variety there is fundamental for the forest’s future.”

A toucan in Brazil’s Parque das Aves bird sanctuary.

To protect this important resource, just 0.5 percent of Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park is open to visitors, and that 0.5 percent is carefully monitored by ICMBio, an arm of the Ministry for Environment. The more people who visit national parks, responsibly of course, the better chance we have of truly preserving them, says Cardim. The falls and the forest can also be seen from above, on a daring helicopter ride with the company Helisul. The private operator ­Macuco Ecoaventura offers park tours via water (on canoe, raft, kayak, and motorboat) and trail (on foot and by bike). The well-kept dirt paths are easily accessible but may not be the jungle immersion that seasoned hikers yearn for.

“Tourism has to serve to create awareness. We should travel to better understand the world we live in.” — Alba Daniela Geneyro, Airbnb Experience host

For that, head beyond the park’s boundaries, where the Atlantic Forest continues, albeit in patches, across public conservation areas as well as private land (thanks to the Forest Code, a law that requires Brazilian landowners to maintain a portion of their property as legally preserved forest). Ecotourism operators like Aguaray guide travelers deeper into these dense woods and along riverbanks, dipping in and out of rivers, streams, and waterfalls.

“There’s so much more to Iguaçu than the falls themselves,” says ­Airbnb host Arthur Neumann, who runs a rappelling experience with girlfriend Jusley Fernandes. “There are 40 small waterfalls around Foz do Iguaçu that most locals don’t even know about.” After a short trek through the Atlantic Forest, the group descends down an almost 100-foot-high volcanic rock with a vista of the Tamanduá River, winding its way to meet the Iguaçu River. “Rappelling isn’t just for those who like adrenaline sports,” Arthur adds. “On the descent, people go ­slowly, looking out over the view — it’s very contemplative.”

An altogether slower way to appreciate the marvels of the forest far from the crowds is with the area’s original inhabitants. ­Airbnb Experience host Alba Daniela Geneyro, raised in Puerto Iguazú, the jumping-­off point for the falls in Argentina, has been working with native Guarani-­M’byá communities since 2010, getting to know their culture. While they remain an almost invisible part of modern Brazilian and Argentinian societies, their language is present in many words, including Iguazú — derived from the Guarani phrase for “big water.”

Boats navigating the Iguaçu River; kayaking the river.

Alba Daniela’s Airbnb Experience takes visitors some 10 miles outside Puerto Iguazú to Yrapú, a village that’s home to around 600 people. Alba Daniela and one of her Guarani-­M’byá guides, Kuaray, bring the forest to life. He points out a nest of pea-size stingless jataí bees, the lianas that are used to make handicrafts, and the trees that have medicinal properties. He also shows visitors wooden traps and a mud-and-bamboo hut. It’s a fascinating insight into ancient traditions, but the reality, Kuaray explains, is that the villagers no longer have access to enough land to live off hunting or to source materials to build such huts. “The government sells most of the land to the hotels,” Alba Daniela says, “but here, the Guaranis are protecting the forest. We have a lot to learn from them — about listening to nature and to our bodies, and traveling without leaving a footprint.” This kind of tourism, done in a responsible, respectful way, provides a source of income for the community and raises awareness about indigenous locals — and that visibility can help protect them by building support for their cause.

Guarani girls in Yrapú.

Conserving the Atlantic Forest’s flora and fauna is the mission at the Refúgio Biológico Bela Vista, a ­sanctuary established after the Itaipu Dam was completed in 1984. The hydroelectric plant, once the largest in the world (until 2012), has the capacity to power almost 20 percent of Brazil’s electricity consumption and nearly all of Paraguay’s. A visit to the plant is as breathtaking as Iguaçu Falls. The dam is about five miles wide, and ten times the volume of water passes through each second. The renewable energy gains were bittersweet, though — the dam submerged seven waterfalls and 520 square miles of land in the process. The Refúgio Biológico has gone some way in making reparations: It’s part of a project that has replanted nearly 400 square miles of the Atlantic Forest around the reservoir. This, and the region’s conservation efforts, which responsible tourism plays a fundamental role in supporting, are key to the survival of the most densely biodiverse biome in the world.

About the author: Catherine Balston is a freelance writer and editor who lives in São Paulo.