Iguaçu Falls

Thousands of tiny dusky swifts dart where no other creature ventures, wheeling through a curtain of water plunging up to 229,000 cubic feet (6,500 cubic m) per second over a 230-foot (70-m) cliff in a great J-shaped cataract that is one of the wonders of the world.

Visitors throng to see this spectacle—at 2,950 yards (3 km), wider than North America’s Niagara—where ground and air reverberate for miles with the force of more than 250 separate plunges and 180-degree rainbows are omnipresent (sometimes on moonlit nights).

But a few miles back from the crowds Iguaçu belongs to the animals. (Brazilians call it Iguaçu, Argentinians Iguazú, Paraguayans Iguassu.)

With abundant sunshine and 90 percent humidity, trees of great variety grow well over 100 feet (30 m), adorned with gardens of epiphytes—bromeliads, mosses, lichens, philodendrons, and stunning orchids. Virtually every tree supports orchids in a variety of forms, sizes, and stages of development. Flowers on more than 2,000 kinds of vascular plants can fill the air with fragrance.

Dense foliage can make fauna next to invisible—but 700-pound (320-kg) tapirs, largest jungle animals in South America, nose through moist vegetation with long proboscises, giving away their presence as they crash loudly through the forest. Behind them they leave big three-toed tracks.

Monkeys swing along on lianas. Capuchins with black skullcaps and long prehensile tails converse in high-pitched chittering mistakable for birds. Smaller groups of howlers communicate in eerie roars audible for miles, terrifying unless one knows the source.

White-lipped peccaries forage in bands, fiercely attacking if they feel threatened, formidable because of long sharp tusks and group size. Collared peccaries roam in smaller, less irritable groups, along with raccoon-like coatimundis. Pumas, jaguars, and smaller ocelot and margay cousins prowl largely unseen.

Fluttering electric-blue morpho butterflies seem to flash like flickering lights in jungle gloom, along with more than 700 other dazzling lepidoptera, often clustering at pools where moisture releases dietary minerals from soil and rocks. Tegu lizards, a yard (l m) long, are called “chicken wolves” by farmers.

Birds in astonishing diversity fill every possible niche.

Toucans and toucanets with technicolor bills as long as they are swoop about fruiting trees with pileated parrots and maroon-bellied parakeets. Emerald trogons perch unseen until they dart after flying insects in an explosion of purple, crimson, and metallic gold feathers.

Helmeted woodpeckers call maniacally. Hummingbirds hover and zip away like bright bullets.

Caciques with scarlet rumps and backs weave dangling nests suspended from palm fronds. Short-tailed nighthawks wheel about dusk skies awakening rusty-barred owls.

Iguaçu is a stronghold of predatory birds such as elsewhere-threatened harpy and crested eagles.

Brazil shares Iguaçu with Argentina, the countries joined by a bridge over which busses run frequently to Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil) and Puerto Iguazú (Argentina). Most visitors like to see both sides of the falls. Brazil’s view is more spectacular, especially at sunset, with spray-swept observation tower and close-up walkway surrounded by roaring foam from Garganta do Diablo. Argentina is better for stunning panorama and better park literature (see p.520). Both have hotels and extensive trails. Ask Brazil’s park office for permission to walk a six-mile (10-km) track to upper Rio Iguaçu section with fine birds and wildlife.

Most comfortable weather is June–August; most spectacular views in high-water February– March.

Brazil’s park gateway city, Foz do Iguaçu, is reachable by air or comfortable bus from all major cities, car rental possible for the steel-nerved.

Threats here as in Argentina include population pressures; agrochemicals from soybean plantations which surround the park; logging; siltation from hydroelectric development; poaching (including destruction of trees for palm-hearts); roaring helicopters which disturb wildlife.

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