The Iguacu Falls are just one part of a substantial national park that extends across the border to incorporate land in both Argentina and Brazil. It is protecting Atlantic rain forest, which harbours a prodigious diversity of life. Visiting the Falls is not just about one of the world´s most spectacular arrays of cascades, it is an excursion into luxurious forest with plants, insects and vertebrate animals to delight any nature lover.
In fact, I´m going to start off with what I think is my all time best bird photograph, rather than a view of the falling water. This is a plush-crested jay. Even with the maximum magnification that my little camera can manage I had to get pretty close to capture this shot. The blue feathers are, if anything, even more vivid when you meet the real bird than they are in this photograph.
There is a Sheraton Hotel right in the park, but the plebs are accommodated well away from the protected area in Puerto Iguacu. Hostel Iguacu Falls is handy to the bus station and the day I arrived it put on a barbecue. There was more meat than we could eat and somehow my bottle of red wine was empty by the time I turned in rather late. Unsurprisingly, I was not up terribly early the next morning.
Buses leave for the park every half hour. I just missed one, so it was after 10 o´clock when I finally handed over my 40 pesos (Argentina uses the $ symbol to denote pesos. I find this most confusing) and started my tour.
Butterflies were everywhere. The only place I have seen more lepidoptera is by the creek in the jungle near Puerto Maldonado. And these were nearly all large, colourful butterflies. They bounced and fluttered through the air, alighted for a moment on a flower and then danced away.
Because of this reluctance to stay still they were virtually impossible to photograph. This half-in-shadow portrait is the best I could get.
There were plenty of birds, too, from the sombrely dressed thrushes to the blue suited swallow tanager (tick).
A visit to the Falls is not for the unfit. Although there is a little train to help you, the important parts of the park are accessible only to pedestrians. Not all the paths will accommodate wheelchairs. Following the recommended route, I walked along the Green Trail. At one point there is a sign warning of dangerous animals. It is just possible that you might meet a jaguar in the early morning, but I suspect the sign is intended more to scare the public into staying on the footpaths.
I was going to scorn the little train, especially when I saw the length of the queue, but I was amazed when the train took all the waiting sightseers in one go, so I finished my very late breakfast and caught the next one.
At the end of the tracks the groups surged off along the walkways behind their guides. They take the visitor over long, thin bridges built from island to island across the river above the falls. On some of the islands there are benches and a family pausing for a snack had attracted the attention of a group of plush-crested jays (tick). There were at least a dozen birds clustering in the branches and on the handrails looking for crumbs, scraps or a handout.
Eventually I dragged myself away from the jays and finished the walk to the Garganta del Diablo or Devil´s Throat. Here the spectator is at the lip of the biggest single waterfall. Professional photographers with stepladders were busy shepherding groups into position and shooing away independent sightseers who might spoil the picture. Eventually they completed their work and the rest of us were able to get near the mass of water pouring over the lip.
Strangers enthusiastically swapped cameras and took photos of the camera owner with the waterfall in the background. As you can see, I should have adjusted the exposure setting before handing over my camera. That´s me in front of the cascade, honest.
Although impressive, this cataract is not as big as the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara. Those who know Niagara will now that there are essentially two falls, each with a single drop. At Iguacu there are dozens of separate falls which, for the most part, reach the bottom in two stages.
Looking along the top of the Falls from the Devil´s Throat lookout.
As you can see, the river reaches the lip along a series of channels
A slightly better photo. I took this one myself using my left hand and cunningly managed to omit the tell-tale left arm and include the waterfalls in the background.
The Falls are famous amongst birders for the swifts that hunt for flying insects in the spray and then dart behind the cascades to roost and even build their nests. I could see them clearly from the lip of the Devil´s Throat, hawking through the mist below me.
Eventually I remembered that there was much more to explore and set off back along the walkway. I saw fish in the river, sheltering in an eddy to avoid taking a one-way trip downstream over the falls. The jays were not the only birds. I watched cormorants and a large heron fishing confidently.
The river above the cataracts is peppered with islands that separate the stream into many channels.
At the end of the walkway was an optional extra - a trip in a rubber boat through the islands above the Falls. There would be, I was promised, lots of wildlife to enjoy.
Our skipper at the oars. If he dropped them there was no emergency propulsion that I could see. But of course they were secure in the rowlocks.
There was a delay while money changed hands and further passengers were recruited, and them we were off. The current was much more modest than I expected after watching the waters rushing over the lip of the Falls, and the oars were applied to get us moving downstream.
A cormorant on a dead branch drew oohs from the other passengers. Had they been walking around with their eyes closed? It cunningly allowed us to get close enough that even I got my camera out and then dived mockingly into the water.
We were taken to within about 100m of the drop. Ahead of us, perched evenly on a line of rocks with almost mathematical exactness, a platoon of cormorants waited for lunch barely 30m from the falls.
Our course was diverted down a side channel. It was very picturesque, but the promised wildlife stayed away. The skipper was moved to apologise for the inconsiderate absence of anything interesting to watch.
A kingfisher did flash its colours at us as it raced to some urgent appointment elsewhere and then, when we were amost tying up at the little wharf that marked journey´s end, the skipper said, "Look, toucans!" OK, he said it in Spanish, but everyone understood. For several agonising seconds I was certain that I was the only one on board who could not see the toucans, but then one of them flapped to the next branch and two birds came into focus.
I particularly wanted to see toco toucans on this trip because they are spectacular birds and because I remember the Guinness advertisements of my childhood that featured toucans. I can report that in reality the beak is even more colourful than the Guinness artists rendered it. HUGE TICK.
The moustachioed skipper backwatered until both birds had flown away and then our waterborne adventure was over.
The next portion of the park I headed for was the "Lower Trail", but not before a bite of lunch. A large bite for preference, since I had missed breakfast. I had just got my molars around the end of a french bread sandwich when I saw some friends. Jane Tait and Sally Nutbeem are stalwarts of the Wessex Witches, one of the Golden Oldies hockey teams. Calling out was not a practical option with my mouth full of sandwich so I rushed out of the cafe and mutely hugged them both in greeting.
It was not terribly startling to find other Golden Oldies at the Falls. Most of the players would have taken the chance to see a bit of Argentina and Iguacu Falls 3 days before the festival began probably appeared on several itineraries.
Once Jane and Sally had got over the shock we sat down and caught up on each other´s news while other Witches came into the cafe for an ice cream.
The lower trail, as its name suggests, gives a different perspective on the falls. And it allows the visitor to see cascades that are not visible from the Devil´s Throat platforms.
A particularly sheer fall named after an Italian, whose name began with B. It´s on the tip of my tongue.
It also gives access to the boat across to Isla San Martin, which is included in the admission fee, and the boats that take thrill-seekers to the base of the falls, which is quite a lot extra.
The lower trail is very shaded, and thus ideal conditions for impatiens sp., more commonly known as "busy lizzie". This bush must have covered at least a square metre of ground.
I followed the trail, stopping often to take yet more photographs, until I arrived at the boarding point for the Isla San Martin boat. Naturally, it was on the island side of the channel.
Patience was rewarded by the boat returning and refusing to let me board. I had just missed the last sailing. Curses and naughty words!
I associate lizards with sunny, warm habitats, but there was a large population of these jokers dodging in and out of the rocks.
However, there was more of the Lower Trail and all of the Upper Trail yet to explore.
There are so many cascades that it is difficult to maintain the enthusiasm. I confess that I was getting to the stage where the waterfalls were almost ho-hum. Luckily there was more wildlife to distract me.
A toucan was perched high on a bare branch. They are such colourful birds that it was still a joy to observe this one sitting there and occasionally opening its beak. I passed my binoculars around for the benefit of those not so thoughtfully prepared for toucan-watching.
Excitement amongst a group of schoolchildren proved to be due to the appearance of a group of capuchin monkeys.
Signs around the park warn against feeding the animals, and they must work becasue no-one was offering tidbits and, even more surprisingly, the monkeys were not begging for handouts.
They were assiduously working through a group of trees for fruits and any yummy leaves. I had a good view of one that had a taste for the growing point of a palm tree. He or she demonstrated a well-practiced technique for pushing apart the central leaves so that the delectable centre could be bitten off.
OK, one last picture of falling water before leaving the park.
Time was indeed running out so I joined the crowd making its way to the exit.
Around the open space, where the souvenir craft stalls offer carvings of toucans in a variety of bright but imaginary colours, the grass is mown short. This highly modified habitat is favoured by the wild guinea pigs. Unlike the popular pets, these are all the same, dark brown colour. They are also noticeably smaller than the domesticated animals.
There were still things to see. I thought these flowers deserved to be recorded.
Visitors to the park are informed that they should get their tickets stamped and thus qualify for half-price admission the following day. I had missed one wildlife trail and the island so it made sense to get the stamp. If I chose not to return nothing would be lost, but if I came back I would be 20 pesos better off.
The buses follow a rigid half-hourly schedule. No extra buses are put on for the closing time rush. And the bus came later than the scheduled time, so I had to wait more than 20 minutes despite timing my appearance at the bus stop well.
Optimistically I showed the driver my ticket from the morning. But no, it was not a return ticket. By charging 4 pesos each way the monopolist bus company must be making a killing. That´s expensive bus travel, even in Argentina.
Dinner that evening was with Jane and Sally. The other Wessex Witches timidly stayed in their hotel´s restaurant, whereas we marched boldly down the road and selected a restaurant 50m away. This meal also featured quantities of Argentinian wine and once again I slept well and late.
Day 2 started off with thunderstorms and heavy rain. Luckily the rain eased a bit as I sipped my breakfast coffee, so I donned my red waterproof and steeled myself to pay another 4 pesos each way on the bus.
By the time I arrived at the park the weather had moderated to showers. I gratefully claimed my discounted admission and went in. The guinea pigs were out on the short grass again, as was this very large iguana.
To complete my visit I wanted to walk the Sendero Macuco, a nature trail, and visit Isla Grande San Martin.
Unfortunately, I chose the same moment to arrive at the trail head as a school party of 40 teenagers. I don´t know about you, but I would not rate 40 teenagers as my companions of choice when out to enjoy the wildlife. So I pretended to study my field guide as they filed onto the trail with one of the teachers explaining sternly that absolute silence was required. Optimist.
Since I turned my binoculars on anything that rustled in the leaves the school party was soon well ahead and could be forgotten. As is so often the case, the heard-but-not-seen bird was much the most common.
Despite my slow progress I actually caught up with a group. This appeared to be a guided birdwatching party. They all had good binoculars and the leader had what looked like a huge, fur-covered microphone. My theory is that it was a device sensitive to the direction of sound and thus able to point precisely at a hidden, singing bird.
However, they did not need technology to see the group of toucans uttering their harsh calls in a dead tree. There were three of them. I suspect two swains were croaking their desire to the same maid.
Shortly after I left the toucans I caught up with the birders again. The leader was saying, "That´s another olivaceous woodcreeper." I followed the line of his binoculars and a dark bird flew away. It was the right size for a woodcreeper, but it could have been almost anything from the glimpse I got. Can I tick olivaceous woodcreeper? I decided that, in all conscience, I could not.
The rain became heavier and more frequent. Seeing details of the birds got harder in the gloom but I squelched on. There´s a waterfall along the trail. As though I needed to see another waterfall. In fact I almost fell over it. The path took me to the top of the fall, where a stream quietly made its way to the edge of a rock and then dropped away.
At the base of the waterfall was a nice pool and around it were 40 teenagers in wet swimsuits. On a sunny day it would have been a lovely spot for a swim and a picnic.
The path continued down and the rain got harder. Near the bottom I met the school party, now in anoraks, on its way back. Despite the rain they were chattering cheerfully. The rain got harder still and I was grateful for a big overhang where 4 other damp trampers were already sheltering. This, I thought, is as far as I go.
When the skies dried up a little I broke my vow just to go on 10 metres and look at the waterfall from the bottom. And then I really did start back. The climb to the top of the fall was certainly nuddy, but it was not as slippery and difficult as I expected.
Back along the trail who did I meet but Jane and Sally once again. They weren´t pursuing me (I should be so lucky) but had the same idea that there could be interesting things to see along the path. And once again the other Witches were following on behind.
There were still bird calls sounding, but it seemed that I wasn´t going to see anything without a furry microphone to help me until I heard a call behind me and turned. After a couple of seconds a bird flew over the trail and perched on a branch above the path. It was facing the other way, but the metallic green back was enough to tell me it was a trogon. Non-birders will not understand the excitement of this. Quetzals are possibly the most dazzling birds of all, and trogons are related to, and something like, a small quetzal.
I almost stopped breathing in my determination to be silent and move to where I could see what kind of trogon it was. It was absorbed in delivering a 4-note song, waiting and singing again. I saw the essential colours even before I saw the bird front on, but eventually I got right in front of a black-throated trogon. The male I could see had a glossy green head, upper breast and back, black face and throat, and golden yellow belly. To see pictures, click here. MEGATICK.
I´m not sure what the few other tourists thought of the tall man staring raptly at a bird. I offered them my binoculars anyway, so that they could see the glowing colours properly. I think I floated back to the main part of the park.
I marched straight to the Lower Trail and the boat to Isla Grande San Martin. Despite its name it´s not a very large island. Once you get to the top of the cliff the paths to the lookout points are not long. Climbing the cliff, despite the steps to help, was hard work. The rock is steep and high.
The first lookout gave a great view of the Devil´s Throat from out in front and lower down. It also allowed a panorama of other cascades and the river below the falls on the Argentine side.
On my way to the upriver end of the island I spotted a black vulture in a tree. I had been aware that there were always a few in the sky above the park, but this was a close-up view.
And then there were two more, and then more. At the end of the path you could hardly see the waterfalls for black vultures perched on rocks and in trees in every direction. There must have been well over a hundred in sight. What did they all feed on? Tourists who miss the last boat back?
Well that wasn´t going to be on this particular day. Back across the island I marched and carefully descended the cliff path to the little beach where the boat delivered and collected.
For those who came prepared the beachette was a popular swimming spot. But I had neither towel nor time for a bathe.
I had booked an "ecological tour" for 4 o´clock. I had to wait for the ferry, cross the river and climb back up the Lower Trail to get to the departure point.
These guys were organised. Everyone wore a safari-suit type uniform. One jeep was for Spanish-speakers and one for those who preferred a commentary in English. Interestingly, the commentary for both vehicles was given by the same individual. Roberto gave us his spiel in English as he drove. Then he stopped at a place that nicely illustrated what he had been talking about. The other jeep pulled up behind us and Roberto walked back and delivered the story all over again but in Spanish.
At an information stop.
The material included little I didn´t know already about forest ecology. I think all of it could be found in NZ. However, it was interesting to learn that they have the same problems with introduced animals and plants.
At least we had a dry tour. The showers had finally stopped. But there was still a lot of cloud and the light was not good. The pictures I took along the trail were consequently rather dark.
This photo of new growth isn´t too bad.
I thought to ask the guide what the vultures fed on. He started by giving me a lecture on the general habits of vultures. "No, what do the vultures in this park feed on?" "Some scientists did a census once. There are a thousand in the park." "And what do these 1,000 birds feed on?" "There are a lot of road kills." And that´s the best I could get. I´m not sure that incautious raccoons are a sufficient and reliable diet but I have no other theory to offer.
This picture of a moth discovered under a leaf came out really well. This amazing insect had a wingspan of fully 15cm (6 inches) and obligingly stayed put despite the whole group from both jeeps poking their cameras up close to get a photo. Yes, it was alive because it turned around at one stage. How dare you suggest that it was a set-up.
You can tell it is a moth rather than a butterfly by the shape of the antennae.
On the drive back, our guide proudly showed off his only example of - a tree fern.