Iguazu Falls Argentina: Rumble in the jungle

Kerry van der Jagt heads to Argentina's Iguazu Falls and finds more than she expected.

It's like a scene from the film Dante's Peak. Sitting in the semi-darkness, I watch as great plumes of smoke unfurl into a crimson sky, while in the distance the jungle vibrates with a thunderous roar.

I sip my gin and tonic, relishing the feel of the cool glass in my hot hands, and the sweet tinkle of ice. Gradually the sky turns to ink, with just the constant rumbling a hint at what is out there in the night.

Though Iguazu Falls were formed by a volcano, and from my balcony at the Sheraton Iguazu Resort and Spa they sound and look like one, the falls are in fact comprised of 275 separate waterfalls fanned across 2.7 kilometres. "Poor Niagara," said Eleanor Roosevelt when she first saw these falls, which are higher and wider than their northern counterpart.

In a bid to see not just the falls, but what lies beyond, I've signed up for a three-day tour of the Argentina side with Adventure World. The heat of the day is up when local guide Cecilia meets me at Puerto Iguazu airport.

"Last year we had 1.5 million visitors, yet most only stayed for one day," she says. "They don't know what they are missing."

Iguazu Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also one of the new 7 Wonders of Nature.

It is part of a protected rainforest ecosystem and split into two national parks: Iguazu National Park (Argentina) and Iguacu National Park (Brazil).

Cecilia explains that together these parks protect one of the last remnants of Atlantic forest, second only to the Amazon in terms of diversity.

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"We have more than 2000 species of plants," she says. "Not to mention 400 species of bird, tapirs, giant anteaters, howler monkeys, cayman and jaguars." Now, hang on a minute - giant anteaters, jaguars, rare rainforest - suddenly, three days doesn't seem enough.

"The Atlantic forest once covered more than a million square kilometres," Cecilia says.

"But today it is one of the most vulnerable forests in the world, with less than 7 per cent of the original forest still intact."

While other tour groups head straight to the falls, Cecilia drives us 25 kilometres downriver to Hito Tres Fronteras (Three Borders landmark), a hilltop that overlooks the confluence of the Parana and Iguazu rivers. From this vantage point the two mighty rivers collide into one, slicing the broccoli-green land into three distinct pieces of pie - one each for Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

According to the indigenous Guarani people, a deity planned to marry a beautiful (though reluctant) woman named Naipa.

When Naipa fled up the river in a canoe with her mortal lover Taroba, the deity flew into a jealous rage, cleaving the river in two, creating the waterfalls and condemning the lovers to an eternal fall.

From the Three Borders we drive through the forest to the Sheraton Iguazu Resort and Spa, the only accommodation within the national park on the Argentine side. While day-trippers head back to the gritty frontier town of Puerto Iguazu or race to the airport for flights, I sit in the darkness with my drink, enjoying the sound and light show and witnessing a side to the falls many never see.

The next morning Cecilia takes us to all three of the main trails - Upper Circuit, Lower Circuit and Devil's Throat Circuit. By starting early and having backdoor access to the trailheads, we can fit them all in, while many visitors only have time for one or two.

Winding our way through the Lower Circuit, Cecilia opens our eyes to the nuances of the jungle, with its layer upon layer of living things. From the raccoon-like coati, whose behaviour we are warned about by signs that read, "Coati can and will bite", to the mild-mannered agouti and any one of the 400 species of butterflies or "flying flowers" that seem to settle on every available surface.

At the Lower Circuit, Cecilia produces another surprise, a free ferry to San Martin Island. This small island in the heart of the falls is bathed in mist and rainbows, the endless spray producing its own ecosystem. A steep, 200-step climb gives good views of the Brazilian falls and brings us closer to the resident vultures, which wheel overhead like black cinders.

From here we head to the Upper Falls and then the Devil's Throat (Garganta del Diablo). A short train ride followed by a series of metal paths leads us across three islands, where we pause often to spot turtles, cayman and coati.

I enjoy the breaks, a chance to catch my breath in the sauna-like conditions and to wipe my stinging eyes from sweat, sunscreen and insect repellant.

If the Lower Circuit is Iguazu "lite", then the 82-metre-high and 700-metre-long Devil's Throat is the main course. With a flow-rate of 1.3 million litres a second, furious plumes of mist shoot hundreds of metres into the air, producing my "volcano" from the previous night. I watch crowds of bikini-clad teenagers, tilting back their heads and gulping great mouthfuls of water.

Some stand spellbound, water raining down on them like a galaxy of shooting stars. Others throw their arms to the sky, surrendering to the reckless moment.

Joining them under the deluge I feel like I've reached the epicentre of the Earth, from where all the world's water and weather comes, and where symphonies are born.

In the afternoon we have free time, and while some sign up for a jetboat ride or a 4x4 jeep safari, Cecilia suggests I might prefer the little-known, seven-kilometre return, Macuco Nature Trail.

I'm tired of the crowds and desperate for some quiet time, to put all I have seen into perspective and to feel more like a guest than an intruder. Within a dozen steps I'm swallowed by the forest. I'm alone on the trail, but it's far from silent. Wind rattles the bamboo.

A red-rumped cacique calls from the palmetto palms. Capuchin monkeys chatter from the treetops. Other wild things casually add colour and texture - brown tree frogs, fluorescent-green dragonflies, white-bearded manakins. Eventually the track ends at a small waterfall with a cold and clear swimming hole.

I've forgotten my swimmers, but with the luxury of another night, I can always come back in the morning.

The writer was a guest of LAN airlines and Adventure World.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires (via Santiago) with connections to Puerto Iguazu. Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney or Auckland to connect. Phone 1800 558 129, see lan.com.

TOURING THERE

Adventure World has a three-day/two-night tour of Iguazu Falls, from $446. Price includes accommodation, breakfast, transfers and sightseeing. Extended touring in Argentina or other South American countries can be added. Phone 1 300 295 049, seeĀ adventureworld.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION

adventureworld.com.au.

FIVE MORE IGUAZU ADVENTURES

VISIT BRAZIL'S SIDE OF THE FALLS

It is said the Brazil side has more panoramic views. Australian passport holders need a visa to cross into Brazil.

DO THE MOONWALK

Ranger-led walks to the Devil's Throat are offered on five nights each month (weather dependent) during the full moon. See iguazuargentina.com.

OFF WITH THE BIRDS

Near Puerto Iguazu, Guira-Oga is a wildlife hospital and rehabilitation centre. See guiraoga.com.ar.

TAKE A PADDLE

Iguazu Jungle offers a 30-minute inflatable raft paddle along the upper Iguazu River. See iguazujungle.com.

VISIT THE VISITORS' CENTRE

The interpretive centre provides information on flora and fauna, Guarani people; English language brochures. See iguazuargentina.com).

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