Yes, you'll get wet. We recently returned from a quick getaway to Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. A “quick getaway” isn’t exactly in line with our preference for slow travel, but since the area is relatively remote and we had limited time for a visit, we chose to fly from Uruguay over a very long road trip. Most people include a visit to Iguazu Falls as part of a larger travel itinerary in South America, often as part of a group tour.
I had resisted planning a trip to Iguazu for fear of it being too touristy. The area receives well over one million visitors per year and I had an image of overdevelopment, with parking lots next to the falls. While there is clearly a delicate balance between commercial tourism and protection of the natural environment, I am happy to say that both sides of the falls encompass national parks which do their best to manage the daily flood of tourists. I quickly realized that one cannot simply drive up to the falls in a private vehicle. This applies on the both sides of the falls, in Argentina and Brazil respectively. It's worth noting, however, that the Brazil side is much more accessible for those with mobility concerns.
While there is much to do in the area, the national parks are the main attraction. As noted above, the crowds can be overwhelming, so try to arrive early. Both parks offer advance online ticket sales albeit in Portuguese or Spanish only - see my separate blog. If you arrive without a ticket, the lines can be long. On the Brazilian side, an automated kiosk line (international credit cards accepted) moves a bit faster – but it’s not well marked, so ask a park employee to point it out. The Argentine side did not have automated kiosks at the time of our visit, but you can pay with credit cards at the ticket windows. The relevant websites are: Brazil, Cataratas do Iguacu (in Portuguese) or the UNESCO site; Argentina Parque Nacional Iguazu (in English). It pays to spend some time researching the details before you arrive. Another option is to go with a guide or guided tour which includes your entrance fee.
The natural setting is spectacular – Thick subtropical vegetation, birds and butterflies everywhere, as well as an occasional monkey, crocodile, or other creature. As you approach, the falls slowly come into view through the vegetation. In Argentina, you literally walk right up to (above or below) the falls, while on the Brazil side you emerge INTO the falls. I won’t even debate as to which side is better – You should go to both if you can, and if you only visit one side you will still be overwhelmed by the power and beauty.
The national parks offer numerous activities, including jungle biking excursions and boat tours, while outfitters near the parks offer helicopter tours, horseback riding, kayaking, etc. There is something for everyone. In Brazil, the nearby bird park (Parque das Aves) is extremely popular.
There are accommodation options for every taste and budget. We stayed in Argentina at a new hotel located about half-way between the national park entrance and the town of Puerto Iguazu. The Selvaje Lodge is surrounded by the amazing sights and sounds of the jungle. The “no kids” policy (guests 15+ years of age only) makes for a relaxing experience and the staff is very competent and friendly. The hotel restaurant provides an ample breakfast buffet and lunch/dinner menus that highlight local ingredients. We arranged a car and driver in advance through the hotel – and were well cared for from airport pickup to dropoff, as well as an excursion into Brazil.
It’s worth going into the town of Puerto Iguazu briefly, but don’t expect anything spectacular in terms of sights or dining options. There is a strip of fairly good restaurants on Avenida Cordoba between Missiones and Aguirre. Another attraction in town is the view from Tres Fronteras (three borders), high above the confluence of the Iguazu and Parana rivers, where you can see Brazil and Paraguay from Argentina. There is a similar site in Brazil.
Tips and key things to know (for those planning their own trips):
Given the remote location, consider making Iguazu a stop on an itinerary like Buenos Aires, Iguazu, Salta, or Rio, Iguazu, Buenos Aires.
There are two airports: Puerto Iguazu (IGR) in Argentina; and Foz do Iguacu (IGU) in Brazil. Both are accessible by major airlines from the regional hubs (Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro) as well as other cities in the region.
It’s possible to rent a car, but you need to consider how much you will be using it. If you plan to take the standard tours to the national parks, it doesn’t really pay to have a rental – as you cannot enter the parks with a private vehicle. However, if you plan to go further afield, it may make sense to rent, even for just a day or two. Lastly, if you plan to cross the border with a rental car, make sure that you have the appropriate documentation.
You can also get to Puerto Iguazu and Foz do Iguacu via long-distance bus service. Plan for at least a twelve hour trip from Buenos Aires.
Rainbow rating: You will generally feel welcome and safe in the area around the falls, in both Argentina and Brazil. However, be aware that despite large numbers of visitors from all over the world, you are travelling in an area that may not be as liberal as an urban destination. 4 out of 5 rainbows. 🌈🌈🌈🌈