A visitor's sense of wonder rises at breathtaking Argentine falls

Email|Print| Text size + By Vanessa Nichols
Associated Press / March 2, 2005

PUERTO IGUAZÚ, Argentina -- Darting past jagged rocks, our speedboat plays chicken with the widest waterfalls in the world. I hold my breath as the driver heads directly toward the enormous cascade tumbling down from the cliff overhead.

As we rapidly approach Iguazú Falls, I shout to my stepdad that we're getting too close. Too late. The motorboat with its load of tourists is hurtling straight for the towering curtain of mist.

I'm certain we're going to go right through the falls and smash into the rocks behind. Then, at the last second, the driver throttles back the engine and the boat spins away. We are drenched by blinding sprays of water.

Struggling to open my eyes as water pelts my head and soaks my life jacket, I catch my stepfather laughing hysterically. Fear has turned to exhilaration, and a group of soggy Italian tourists behind us are madly shouting for one more run at the falls -- ''Otro! Otro!"

We are touring Iguazú National Park. Set in a subtropical rain forest where Argentina meets Brazil, it is a lush and enchanting place, enticing visitors from around the world who come here to see the thunderous forces of nature at work.

An Eden-like setting, the falls were formed some 200,000 years ago when a crack in the planet's surface created a small ''stair." The rivulet that became the Iguazú River flowed over the crack, and the rocky terrain splintered and gouged, slowly giving shape to 275 waterfalls.

These falls aren't nearly as high as 3,212-foot Angel Falls in Venezuela nor as commercially hyped as 167-foot Niagara Falls, but they are wider. Taken together, Iguazú Falls span more than 1½ miles in width -- which leaves a lot of walking to do.

Home to more than 2,000 species of ferns, orchids, palms and other plants, the Iguazú Falls basin is the next best thing to touring the Amazon. Here, rainbow-billed toucans flit from branch to branch, endangered jaguars and ocelots find refuge, and monkeys call from high treetops.

A maze of catwalks winds past more than a dozen panoramic stations along the falls on the Argentine side -- and several more viewing perches are visible on the Brazilian bank.

After lathering on sunscreen, we start our trek through the park along the ''green trail." Walking along, I stop to read one of the many signs posted in the park warning of dangerous animals.

Wondering what we would do if we actually saw something, we enter the dense jungle. I jump as the biggest lizard I have ever seen scrambles across the path, seeking a shady rock.

A few more steps and a rustle in the woods tells us something is watching us. Skittish that it could be a jaguar, we peer into the woods. Feeling silly, we watch as two fuzzy creatures (which we later learn are coatis) scamper out of the bush. The South American equivalent of a raccoon, they head straight toward a trash can and begin rummaging.

At the end of the green trail, we reach Cataratas Station, where the ''Ecological Jungle Train" picks up passengers for the 30-minute ride followed by an hourlong walk to the largest waterfall, known as ''la Garganta del Diablo" -- Spanish for the Devil's Throat. It is supposed to account for 70 percent of the water that tumbles over the falls, so we choose to save the best for last.

Instead, we take the walking tour of the ''upper circuit," a winding series of metal catwalks leading to spectacular views of side falls -- each better than the last.

At the final stop, we stare down the drop-off of the Salto Mbigua, a group of falls about 230 feet high that pour off the cliff with all the fury gravity can muster.

Making our way back to Cataratas Station, we look forward to the ''grande finale." In the distance, a dull roar becomes audible as we approach. Walking across the catwalks, we pass over pools filled with turtles and speckled fish as hundreds of multicolored butterflies swirl around us.

We feel the spray coming off the falls before we can see them, and once we reach the viewing platform we're stunned to be staring down into a giant open mouth that seems to be sucking up the entire river. The water spills over the U-shaped cliff with such force that the water below is concealed in a cloud of mist floating upward. Birds dart in and out of the milky white spray that refracts the light on a sunny day to form a giant rainbow. We linger, trying to capture the scene on film.

Afterward, we head for the bug's-eye view of the towering cataracts on the ''lower circuit." Thinking nothing could live up to the Garganta view, we come to the Salto Bossetti, a gorgeous vista that brings you just 10 feet from the center of one of the falls as it crashes downward.

A cool spray and strong breeze comes off the water, and I close my eyes -- relieved from the suffocating heat as I give my other senses the chance to soak up this worldly wonder.

Exhausted, we leave the falls that afternoon after checking out the visitors center and getting copies of the park map as souvenirs.

Flying home, we crane our necks to see the falls out the plane's window. Several passengers are doing the same, hoping to catch one last look at this great natural wonder.

Receding below us, the falls send a cloud of mist skyward, inviting us to come back and welcoming their next visitors.

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