Running to Brazil

“Are you excited?” I asked my husband as the plane banked right, preparing to land in Foz do Iguacu. A carpet of rain forest sprawled across the land down below and I could see a wide ribbon of water snaking through the trees. “Eh,” replied my husband with an unenthusiastic shrug of his shoulders. We were reaching the tail end of one of our best vacations ever, and I guess he found it hard to imagine that a mere waterfall could compete with the glamour of Rio de Janeiro or the tropical beaches of northeastern Brazil where we had just spent the past week and a half.

Looking upriver to the Devil's Throat from the Brazilian side of the falls

Straddling the border between Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazu Falls are what Niagara ought to be. There are actually 275 individual falls packed together in a horseshoe along a less than two-mile stretch of land, the largest of which, Devil’s Throat, is 269 feet tall, 490 feet wide and 2300 feet long. Hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the river are designated as national forest, making the area not only impossibly gorgeous, but also critical habitat for monkeys, sloths, jaguars, butterflies and thousands of species of tropical plants. “That’s where we’re going!!?” exclaimed Gary suddenly, as we drove past a giant photo of the falls splashed across a billboard on the road from the airport into town.

The next day, we boarded a van at our pousada and joined three other couples heading to the Argentinean side of the falls for the day. After a relatively painless border-crossing, our driver dropped us off at the entrance to the park with the words, “Aqui, em seis horas.” Be here at six o’clock. With a nod, the two Brazilian couples headed off in one direction, while we and the Australian couple headed off in another.

Baby coati

The park dazzled us even before we heard the first roar of waterfall in the distance. A trio of monkeys scrambled in the treetops at the trailhead, and hundreds of butterflies of different shapes, sizes and colors fluttered about like leaves on a fall day. En route from the park entrance to the first falls, we also encountered a family of coatis (the South American version of raccoons), three giant black and white tegu lizards, several smaller lizards and countless numbers of seriously huge and scary-looking spiders. Nevertheless, the wildlife paled in comparison when we first saw the Devil’s Throat raging in all its fury.

Making our way along a catwalk above the river accompanied by what seemed to be the entire population of Argentina plus a few Brazilians, we couldn’t help but notice the remains of the former river walkway, which was destroyed in a flood in 1992. Deforestation continues at an alarming rate throughout Brazil and the rivers as well as the wildlife suffer greatly as a result. Surprisingly, although rainforests support amazing biodiversity above ground, their soils are thin and have very little nutrients. When cleared for farming, the soil quickly becomes worthless, causing farmers and ranchers to push even further into the forest for new land. Furthermore, without a canopy of trees and plants to protect the soil from rain, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt can be washed away in a single rainstorm. On the two days we visited this January, the falls at Iguazu cascaded downward in breathtaking hues of turquoise and blue, but photos taken by other travelers only one month earlier showed the river swollen with water like chocolate milk.

One of the lesser falls on the Argentinean side, viewed Jan. 24, 2011
The same falls on Dec. 10, 2010 -

For the grand finale that day, we climbed aboard a motor-powered raft to ride upriver under some of the “lesser falls.” The experience was a sensory overload. The roar of water came from all directions as we passed falls along the way, while mist and spray from the river enveloped us. White egrets and grey and blue herons stood sentinel on boulders strewn along the river’s edge, while vultures and hawks soared overhead, cormorants landed to stretch their wings and hundreds of tiny swallows darted in and out of the falls. After charging directly underneath two of the waterfalls to ensure that every single person on the boat would be soaked from head to toe, we returned at last to shore, assuming incorrectly that our adventure for the day was over.

As we gathered our belongings and wrung out our clothes, I looked at my watch. It was 6:00pm!!! “Surely the driver won’t leave with all four of us still here,” said the Aussie as we scrambled up a slippery stairway. Glancing nervously at my watch, I read 6:10pm. “Take my bag,” I yelled to Gary, as I stepped into my shorts and sprinted up the hill toward the park entrance. The park’s sites passed quickly in reverse as I charged ahead thinking only about catching the van before being left behind in Argentina. What had seemed such a short distance now became interminable, as I leapt over three coatis crossing the trail, dodged around a family photographing a giant red spider and picked up speed along the tracks to the park train that I didn’t have time to wait for. Breathlessly, I arrived at the park entrance at 6:25pm, just in the nick of time. Having waited 20 minutes, the driver had gone to get the van and the other passengers were waiting to board. With an absurd mix of Spanish, Portugese, English and charades, I managed to convince the driver to wait another ten minutes until Gary and the Australians made it back to the van as well. Fire billowed from the mouth of one of the Brazilian women stuck waiting in the van, but having just stood gaping into the Devil’s Throat, I was not afraid.

“The falls were amazing,” whispered Gary, as we crossed the border into Brazil. “Yes,” I agreed, smiling, “and I’m sure glad I can run.”