The Iguazú Falls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Rio Iguazú and here the river forms the border between Brasil and Argentina. The waterfalls (cataratas in Spanish) themselves are a major tourist attraction and it’s not difficult to see why. They boast anywhere from 275 to 300 waterfalls depending on water levels and falling from a height of 80m they are a sight (and sound) to behold. Argentina has 80% of the falls on their side of the border but as they form a horseshoe shape, both sides have a unique perspective on the Iguazú falls as a whole. Most tourists visit both sides and after doing so ourselves, we can honestly say that it is definitely worthwhile… but we did have a favourite.
We visited the Argentinian side first and took the electric train all the way to the end of the park to the largest waterfall, the “Garganta del Diablo” (Devil’s Throat). It kept itself hidden as we walked along the boardwalk, over the river until we eventually reached the end. The first sight of the Garganta was just the very top of the falls sending water plummeting from the tranquil river above to the hidden depths below. It looked like a sinkhole from here or a small set of rapids in a river, but the amount of spray in the air gave it away as being something much bigger.
Until you are stood face to face with the Garganta it is really hard to appreciate just how massive it is and the scale of the Iguazú falls as a whole. It was better than we had ever imagined and well worth the extra 3537km of riding to get there.
The first time we spent ten minutes at the viewpoint, taking photos and trying to take it all in but we went back at the end of the day to just remind ourselves how impressive it was. Then we just watched in awe. Where does all the water come from? How does it keep on coming and never stop? Steph was lost for words thinking about all of this!
Both times we left soaked through, as if we had been swimming, but also seemed to be wetter looking than a lot of other people. We still had the Upper and Lower trails to explore but after the Garganta we wondered how it could get any better…
The Upper trail follows the top of the waterfalls in the semicircular area downriver from the Garganta and whilst most of the falls are smaller than the Diablo, they were equally as beautiful. Seeing the vast number of waterfalls all in one place was probably the most incredible sight and by this point we couldn’t get the Jurassic Park theme tune out of our heads!
The Lower trail as the name suggests takes you to viewpoints lower down the cliff face with views across the same area of falls as the Upper trail but this time you were looking up at them. It gave a good view of just how much water there was moving through the waterfall system and there were even some rainbows which added to the atmosphere.
Whilst both trails weren’t terribly long they were well made and took you through the dense jungle-like forest. This meant that we saw a lot of wildlife that we hadn’t expected to see and it felt as though we were more in the wild than we were. Coatis, lizards and butterflies were everywhere, we even saw a small turtle and some fish in the river.
The coatis were actually a bit of a menace. Similar to raccoons, they have a really good nose so they are constantly harassing tourists for any food they can get their claws on and terrorising small children. We were actually pretty close to not having lunch when one tried to make off with our falafel. Ben had to use his lightning fast ninja skills to grab the bag then spray some water from his bottle to distract the coatie and he let go of the food. That taught us (and the coati!)
Three days later we went to the Brasilian side of the falls and we were glad that we took some time between visits because it surprised us again with how awesome they were. We started the 1.3km ‘Path of the Falls’ overlooking where the Upper and Lower trails on the Argentinian side are and the view was spectacular from this side. It was nice to have the full panoramic view that you can only get from this side of the falls because in Argentina you are right on top of them.
The trail continues with a number of viewpoints jutting out over the river and it was amazing how many more waterfalls that you can’t see from the other side. For instance, the San Martin Island obscures some of the views from the Brasilian side but this island has some of its own waterfalls and even a small lagoon on top, which was really pretty.
The high point on the Brasil side, in our opinion, was the viewpoint across to the Garganta del Diablo. Whilst we weren’t as close as we were on the Argentinian side the view was no less amazing, or wet! There was a walkway on the water above one set of falls which looked down the gorge towards Diablo and it was nice to see it from a different angle.
There was also a large waterfall closer which was equally as impressive and we spent quite a while here admiring them. It was hard to take our eyes off of the view, especially as we knew that we had reached the end and these would be some of our last glimpses of Iguazú.
So which side was our favourite?
It is a hard question because like we said before, each side gives a different view of the Iguazú falls and just the sheer sight of them is impressive from both Brasil and Argentina. The number of waterfalls blew our minds and the fact that they have water constantly thundering down them did baffle Steph somewhat.
However if we had to recommend only one side for someone to visit, it would have to be the Argentinian Iguazú falls. It could have been the fact that they were the first side we visited but we felt the overall visitor experience was better on the Argentinian side. There are more trails to choose from (3 trails around 1.5km in length each around the main falls network with two further, longer trails to visit smaller waterfalls in the jungle) unlike the one 1.3km trail on the Brasil side. The trails in Argentina are nearly all a loop so can easily link them up and walk them again but in Brasil it is one linear trail from end to end. This means that you are following a queue of people from the hotel at the start to the restaurant at the other and if you wanted to walk it again, you’d need to walk back along the main road or get the bus back to the start.
Both of these factors meant that the Argentinian side felt less busy as there is a bigger trail network to spread people out and it is a easily a full day out but in our opinion you would only need a few hours to visit Brasilian Iguaçu. This is reflected in the admission charges too with the Argentinian side costing $600 ARS (£18 as of May 2018) and the Brasilian side slightly cheaper at R$63 (£12.60 – though we did get free admission courtesy of the ACCI) but for how incredible an experience it was, the price was more than justified.
After spending the most money we’ve spent on tourist attractions for a long time, staying at the ACCI (Association Ciclista Cataratas Iguaçu) Casa de Ciclista in Foz do Iguaçu, Brasil was a welcome treat. In true Casa de Ciclista spirit it is free for the touring cyclist and it was a haven for rest and relaxation. It has a fully functional kitchen and bathroom, big covered outside space with tables and most importantly, comfortable beds. We spent a week here making the most of a free place to stay, taking some time to do the things that we usually don’t prioritise when we are staying somewhere that we are paying for, such as giving the bikes a full service and producing more content for the website all while not feeling too guilty about the cost of having some downtime. We even got a book from the last hostel we stayed at that we’ve both wanted to read so it has been great to actually have the time to just sit and read. (We don’t have any books, only ebooks and after riding we’re usually too tired to even read those, so a real paperback is a bit of a luxury!)
It was cool as well because we had the company of a few other cyclists, Stefan from Austria, Augustin from Uruguay and Hélène and Normand from Canada (pictured above) who rode a tandem from their home in Quebec to Ushuaia.
Another advantage of staying at the Casa de Ciclista was that we were invited to partake in the Cicloturismo fundraising event they were running and we rode 45km around the Itaipu lake, somewhere you are not normally allowed to go by bike. It was an early start because they had a huge buffet breakfast, something we didn’t want to miss and the event itself started at 8.30am. The ride took us on bumpy cobbled roads, muddy 4×4 tracks, across part of the dam and even in to the woods. Naturally, following the lake was quite flat but it was a fun ride and we were even happier to be back at the finish for lunchtime – an asado, obviously! Hélène and Normand weren’t so lucky on their tandem as they had a slick front tyre which couldn’t hold traction in the mud and had to cut the loop short, but we met them at the end and they seemed to have had fun too.
Another major attraction in Foz do Iguaçu is the Itaipu Binacional Dam and hydroelectric power plant. It’s the second largest in the world by size, but the largest by power generation. It’s possible to do a tour inside and see some of the workings, obviously Ben was really keen for this so he went on his lonesome while Steph got everything ready at the Casa de Ciclista, as we planned on leaving later that day.
Itaipu Binacional is an interesting organisation. Not state-run, because it’s a joint venture between Paraguay and Brasil, but not a private company either. It’s a not for profit entity that is operated and owned equally by the two countries. When you visit the dam you essentially cross a border meaning you are not in Brasil or Paraguay, it is just Itaipu. The substantial building costs (USD$100bn+) were also shared, but $27bn was also borrowed, from where I’m not sure!
After a short introductory video about the dam the tour heads straight into the industrial area inside the dam. The structure itself is hollow, mostly to save resources during construction, and the space inside is cavernous. The main dam is 2.5km long and 190m high, so when you are inside it looks like the walkways go on forever.
Also on the tour is a visit to one of the control rooms where the overall operation is monitored, ensuring all the turbines are working correctly and the output is stable. They also constantly monitor the river levels and flow rate of the Parana river that feeds the huge reservoir to make sure they are not depleting it too fast. At maximum output a single turbine uses 700,000 litres of water per second, and there are 20 turbines. When they are all running flat out the volume of water passing through the dam is 10 times that which flows over the top of Iguazu falls!
The last stop inside the dam took us to one of the shafts that connect the turbines to the generators above. It was an operational unit so you could see it rotating, feel the massive amount of water flowing through the turbine not far below your feet, and hear the buzz of the generator as it pumps out 700 MWh above your head. For perspective, that’s enough energy to power ~1.5 million homes, from just one unit. At maximum capacity the energy produced at Itaipu is enough to satisfy ~80% of Paraguay and ~18% of Brasil’s needs.
The inside part of the tour was now over and a trip on a bus around the outside of the complex followed. Seeing the dam itself, the ridiculously big spillway and the views across the reservoir made for a good afternoon’s touristing. Ben loved it and learned a lot.
So… Now that we’ve reached our destination goal for the last two months and more, we’ve seen both sides of the falls and had some time to rest off of the bikes… what’s next?
From Foz do Iguaçu we are crossing into Paraguay and we’ll cycle south to Posadas in Argentina where we are going to get a bus back west towards the Andes mountains. We wanted to ride back but as it’s already the dry season in the high mountains, we can’t really afford to take another month to cross the Argentinian Pampa again so that means we need to go quicker and a bus is the easiest option.
We’ll speak more when we’re back west side!
Steph and Ben