I was meant to be writing about all the things there are to see in Iguazu, Brazil, beyond the famous waterfalls. However, when I arrived I immediately realised that this plan was doomed to fail.
Beside the all-encompassing spectacle of 275 thundering falls, taller than Niagara and wider than Victoria, everything plays second fiddle. Sure, there’s a fairly good bird sanctuary, where you can get within nipping distance of toucans, macaws and flamingos as well as seeing anacondas, tarantulas and caimans from a safer distance. The butterflies are also something else: languid electric blue butterflies the size of a man’s hand, a thick cloud of buttercup yellow ones filling the road when we arrive, another of marbled black and white that landed on my shoulder while I sipped a Caiprinha.
But really everyone’s here for the same, single reason, and talk all revolves around how best to see them: what time of day, via which mode of transport (by air, boat or on foot), from which side (Argentina or Brazil)?
The falls are protected within the borders of national parks, within which lie just two hotels: a Sheraton on the Argentinean side, and Hotel das Cataratas on the Brazilian side. And I was lucky enough to be staying at the latter. A member of the Orient Express group, it’s certainly no budget option, but its guests quite literally have the Falls in their back garden – you see them from your bedroom window when you wake up in the morning and get after-hours access long after the coach parties have gone home. So, rather than jostling with 50 Japanese tourists, I was able to wander down at 7pm to watch the sun set over the waters and passed just one other couple on my way. Another day, I sauntered down before breakfast and had the ethereal spectacle of a series of rainbows arching above the waters all to myself.
Built by Uruguayan farmers in the 1850s, the Hotel das Cataratas’ fondant pink facade is deceptively humble but in fact acres of its own Eden-like gardens, where we saw an iguana shimmying across the lawn and a toucan being dive-bombed by smaller birds after stealing an egg from their nest, his breakfast delicately balanced in a preposterously oversized, Crayola-coloured beak. It also houses tennis courts, nearly 200 guest rooms, an ambient colonial-style cocktail bar, two restaurants and a large pool with a pleasingly endless stream of complimentary refreshments such as shots of acai juice and balls of melon.
Most of the Falls are technically in Argentina; however this means the Brazil side has the better views. It’s from here, right outside the hotel, in fact, that one descends a 15-minute forest trail down to the Devil’s Throat, the biggest of the Falls, where a vertiginous walkway that juts right into the centre of the 150 metre-wide canyon. If you don’t mind getting wet, this allows you to stand directly above the cascading water, praying all the time that the structure has been reliably built. Up here the water is so dense it looks solid, like marble, lightening to a mere blizzard at its edges. The hissing and drumming of it fills your head and you can feel the force of it vibrating in your ribcage.
By comparison, seeing them by boat is a tad underwhelming. The Macuco Safari begins with a sedate jeep tour though the forests before a speedboat trip shoots up the river and dunks its passengers under some of the smaller Lower Falls (known as The Three Musketeers). The scenery is still beautiful, but since it’s too dangerous for the vessel to go closer to the Upper Falls action your best photos will still be on the walking trail. There’s also the option of getting an aerial perspective on a helicopter ride or abseiling session, but I didn’t have the time (or guts) to try these.
So, following much study, after three days I settled on the perfect way to experience this natural wonder: stood on the hotel’s lawn at sunset, swaddled in a towelling robe fresh from the spa, with a Pisco Sour in hand, watching the end of the day bleed orange and pink into the rocks and vapour.