Travelogue: Iguazú Falls and Buenos Aires

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Argentina & Antarctica

Two years ago, I booked a trip which has now begun, and I’m so excited.

In my last newsletter, I dropped a big hint on where I’d be going:

If I have adequate internet access in February, while traveling, I’ll share some of this first adventure with you on the blog. Hint: Macaroni, Magellanic, Rockhopper, Gentoo.

Sharp-eyed animal lovers will peg those names as several species of penguin. Yes, I’m in Argentina and en route to Antarctica!

Let me start by saying that while I do have internet access, which is better than I anticipated, I don’t have great internet access, in that uploading — especially larger files like pretty photos — is a pain. I’m going to do my best but updates may be delayed or even have to wait until I’m home.

Buenos Aires

So, this was anti-climatic. And that’s no one’s fault but mine.

I’m traveling with family, and my parents were in business class on the flight and so deplaned first. When we met them in Customs, my dad had helpfully pulled our two suitcases off the conveyor belt for us, and my brain — busy with finding a currency exchange, since we’d been unable to order pesos before departing at the bank due to inflation issues and unable to exchange at the departure airport due to the agent taking an extended unscheduled break — simply checked off that we had our bags without realizing that oops, I’d also checked my backpack full of gear. I didn’t realize it was missing until we’d taken a cab to our rented apartment 45 minutes away. /facepalm/

Jon and I found a ride back to the airport to retrieve my forgotten bag, only to find that since there were no more American Airlines flights until the evening, no American agents were in the building at the time, and no one else would touch the American-checked bag. Which makes sense, since American has to be responsible for it, but it meant I spent my first afternoon in Buenos Aires napping and eating at the airport, waiting for American agents to come on duty.

When they finally arrived, they were very friendly and helpful and I had my bag within a few minutes. It was just a frustrating waste of time for something so silly and preventable.

Our apartment (found via AirBNB) was great. We were on the third/fourth floor, depending on what continent you learned to count floors on, with high ceilings and lots of barred windows to compensate for the lack of air conditioning. But it wasn’t enough. We flew out of Indiana on the end of the polar vortex, where our highs were below zero Fahrenheit, and arrived in Buenos Aires in the upper 80s. The 80s isn’t a bad temperature in itself, but bodies just aren’t prepared for that kind of swing, and it was hot.

vintage elevator with barred doors inside stone steps
vintage elevator

The apartment building, a delightfully vintage building from over a century ago, included a delightfully vintage elevator of a style I’ve seen in elderly European buildings but which would never be allowed in the US because Americans are often litigious idjits who might sue if they closed their hand in the door.

We had plenty of rooms since I’d originally booked for more people who later canceled the trip. We had to be cautious of quiet hours during siesta, but overall I thought it a nice place to stay, and more immersive than a franchise hotel.

But we didn’t have time to sleep after our overnight flights, because we had to set our alarms for 3:30 am and book it to another airport to catch our flight to Iguazú.

Iguazú Falls

Oh my gosh, you guys.

I’d done the reading, I’d looked at the pictures, but I was not prepared for the reality.

Iguazú Falls is the largest waterfall system in the world. That sounds really impressive, but you’re probably thinking of something a little bigger than Niagara, taller or wider or something.

Niagara Falls is a very impressive set of cataracts, tall and mighty and consisting of three individual falls that plunge about 160 feet or roughly 50 meters.

Iguazú has about 270 individual cataracts, each falling 200 to 270 feet or 60-80 meters, and any single one of them would be noteworthy as a destination hike.

Legend has it that Eleanor Roosevelt, upon first glimpsing Iguazú, sighed, “Poor Niagara.” I can’t say if that’s true, but I can tell you this conversation actually happened:

Me: “It’s just so big. So. Big. It’s like… This is like a bunch of Niagaras put together.”
Jon: “I haven’t been to Niagara.”
Me: “Really? Well, don’t go now, you’ll just be disappointed.”

My father, my friend Mark, my husband Jon, and I took a boat up the rapids to get base-level photos of the falls and then go into the spray (not beneath the falls themselves, that would sink anything) and get absolutely drenched. Then we rejoined my mother and sister to take the eco-train (natural gas) to the walk out to the gloriously-named Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat, a truly impressive section of falls.

Let me help you with the scale here. The Garganta is near the Brazilian side of the falls, on the far side from the Argentinian park. (Brazil has a national park as well on their own border, and the very best panoramas of the falls are visible from the Brazilian side. However, we’d opted to spend the day in Argentina, to avoid the complications and expenses of obtaining a Brazilian visa and border crossings.) The viewing platform of the Garganta is nearer to the Brazilian side, but absolutely nobody is worried about anyone jumping from the platform to cross 280 feet/85 meters of pure torrential plunge.

To get to the Garganta, one must cross 3600 feet/1100 meters of boardwalk over the river. Yes, folks, that’s right, you walk nearly three-quarters of a mile across the river and you haven’t crossed it yet — and all of it is falling down those cataracts.

Poor Niagara.

I’ve been on the Mississippi several times, so wide rivers aren’t a complete shock. But the Mississippi is a leisurely river and doesn’t end in a whitewater rush.

a partial panarama of Garganta del Diablo or Devil's Throat

a partial panorama of Garganta del Diablo

After visiting the very impressive Garganta del Diablo, I took the sendero superior (upper trail) and then the sendero inferior (lower, not lesser) to get more views of other falls. I did spot some coati (or coatimundi), pests due to ill-behaved tourists feeding them, but did not spot any Capuchin monkeys. (My sister did, and got a few photos.) We saw quite a few herons (couldn’t determine species), one caiman, and numerous fish. I spotted one toucan, positively identified but not photographed. The day ended with thunderstorms, barely audible over the constant roar of the falls.

I did get some nice pictures of a common potoo, pointed out by staff or I never would have noticed this well-camouflaged bird.

Common potoo and chick, sitting still on a dead limb
Telephoto and cropping go a long way to making these two birds visible.

The potoo sits very, very still, blending nearly perfectly with its wooden stump of choice. We were told it sits with its mouth open and flies, attracted by a nasty smell, just go right on in. My brief reading, however, suggests that it actually flies after its food, at night.

Whatever is eating the flies and mosquitoes in Iguazú, the birds or the giant spiders that would fill the palm of your hand, is doing great work. There were remarkably few bothersome insects for jungle territory. Still don’t regret that yellow fever vaccine, though.

As impressive as the falls are, it’s important to remember that we’re in a jungle and the vegetation is intended to absorb most of the rainfall in the region. Logging has created dangerous run-off problems by removing the forest and allowing fast runoff. Heavy rainfall now swells the falls to dangerous levels. Normal water volume is an impressive 61,660 cubic feet per second or 1750 cubic meters per second but reached a ridiculous high in 1992 at 39,000 cu m/s, washing away entire islands. In 2014, flow peaked at an insane 45,700 cu m/s or 1,614,000 cu ft/s. In addition, the river is regularly cloudy red instead of clear now, making it difficult for fish to spawn and fish-eating predators to hunt. Preserving watershed is important for them and us, folks.

The name Iguazú comes from the native Guaraní for “big water,” which I suppose is a pretty accurate description. While it was likely occupied at least 10,000 years ago, the first European to discover (in 1541) and report it was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.

I did not know until after visiting that Iguazú Falls provided the background for the combat/coronation scenes in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) and the first glimpse of Wakanda in Civil War (2016). No official word on whether there’s a secret country behind the curtain of Iguazú.

While it was great fun using my neglected Spanish at the national park and in Buenos Aires, I am now on a ship and heading south, dropping about 20 degrees Fahrenheit or roughly 7 degrees Celsius per day. I’ve photographed albatrosses flying alongside us, and allegedly some whales were sighted but I missed them. Tomorrow we dock at Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, and I plan to hike up to an alpine lake and photograph a glacier. More updates as I am able!

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