The Waterfall That Wasn't

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Saturday, July 29, 2006

Expectations were high! Our well-thumbed copy of the Argentina Lonely Planet described Iguaz˙ Falls under the Highlights Section as...."probably South America's most breathtaking sight....the cascades flow with incredible beauty, stretched in tiered curtains of amazing will be in awe." Yes, we were awestruck - but mostly by the fact that the world-renowned falls had been reduced to a mere trickle, a fraction of their normal volume and their thunderous roar had dwindled to a whisper. As we had travelled towards the remote north-westen corner of Misiones Province, we had heard rumours of low water levels in the falls, but we hadn't expected to find that someone had just about turned the tap off!

As we found out more about the situation, we discovered that the water volume was about 30% of normal, and was the lowest level since 1978. The catchment area for the Iguaz˙ River in the Paranß Plateau of south-eastern Brazil has apparently had a severe drought since the middle of last year, and conditions have deteriorated even further with the abnormally high temperatures in recent months. Whether this is within the range of the normal variation in climatic cycles or an ominous omen of the drastic consequences of global warming, remains to be seen. However, what was strikingly obvious on the day of our visit was the surprise and disappointment on everyone's face - the four of us, as well as the other thousands of visitors streaming along the walkways. At least we didn't face the danger of getting swept away by the precipitously high water levels of 1992, when whole sections of concrete catwalks disappeared in the floods!

Iguaz˙ Falls main claim to fame is the sheer extent of the cascades, composed of a whole series of waterfalls plunging over the edge of a basaltic lava plateau more than two km across. The river usually divides into many channels and tributaries, and the result is more than a dozen individual falls joined by a long curtain of water known as the "bride's veil". This season the veil has been drawn back and only two waterfalls have any significant volume of water. Most of the water from the river now seems to be finding its way down the "Garganta del Diablo" - the "Devil's Throat". This is still a very impressive sight, and conjures up visions of ancient mariners sailing off the edge of the earth. The crashing roar of the water as it takes the 250 ft plunge is accompanied by a frenzied spray that gradually dissipates into a mist that soaks everything and everyone in its path. No wonder the GuaranÝ legend tells of the falls being formed by an enraged forest god to thwart the escape of a young maiden with whom he had become infatuated. The huge, raging cauldron would certainly be a significant impediment to any mortal canoe.

To get anywhere near the Falls these days you must pay your 30 pesos (Cdn $12) and then brave the "Disney" atmosphere of the surrounding infrastructure. There are well laid out paths and trails to view the falls from various vantage points, and an "ecotrain" provides transport between access points. The Falls are actually at the centre of the Parque Nacional Iguaz˙ - over 55,000 ha of subtropical rain forest with a wealth of flora and fauna. If you're lucky you'll get some good sightings of toucans high in the trees, or maybe a caiman lurking in the murky water. No matter what, you'll enjoy loads of colourful butterflies and no doubt bump into the ubiquitous coatis - rather comical racoon-like creatures with long noses who are now proving to be somewhat of a nuisance as they aggressively prowl the picnic tables in search of hand-outs. The interpretation centre provides a wealth of information about all the 'critters' as well as a detailed history of the area. As you might expect there are also several fast food outlets, as well as gift shops for picking up the obligatory t-shirts and wooden carvings. And if you really want to distance yourself from the 'madding crowd', you could always book in to the on-site Sheraton Hotel for US$300 a room....$440 if you want a suite with a good view of the falls!
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