July is mid winter for Argentina and as a European it is possibly the best time to visit. On this trip I visited Buenos Aires where the temperature is pleasantly warm but not cold and certainly not stiflingly hot either, although first I headed up country to the north to see a wonder of the natural world.
After my flight from Europe I head straight to the next plane, 90 minutes took me to Cataratas del Iguazú Airport. All flights in and out of Argentina go through Buenos Aires. It is possible to drive but much quicker to fly into the sub tropical winter where the air is cool but muggy on arrival.
Igauzú National Park was founded in 1934 and covers 550 square km. The reason for my visit and most people’s it to see the incredible waterfalls that straddle the border with Brazil and Argentina. The falls are formed from the Iguazú River that rises in Curitiba and for most of its course runs through Brazil, culminating in the incredible waterfalls. The park is also home to toucans, jaguar, ocelot, tapir and many other animals as well as an abundance of flora.
Hotel Saint George is my home for a few days and after a quick bite to eat at the bar on arrival all I can do is have a much-needed rest. The rooms are large and airy and there is a soothing smell of smoked oak in the building. I noticed that they have small burners providing this in the lobby, a natural alternative to synthetic air fresheners.
Being sub tropical the humidity level is high even when it’s cooler. The city of Iguazú is small and surrounded by jungle and the National Park. I felt cocooned by the light drizzle and insect noises. Dinner was at the hotel and as I knew from experience I could expect great beef. Argentina has a rich seam of really fantastic foods on offer but it always the beef that will capture my heart. Washed down with an ice-cold Quilmes, a local beer it was a perfect meal after a long journey.
The next day I feel rested and ready for adventure. In the daylight I can see from my room the Brazilian state of Paraná. The largest share of the falls is in Argentina with only 20% in Brazil. The locals feel the cold and dress up in coats and hats, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and feel hot! I’ve packed a light raincoat for some protection nearer the falls but couldn’t think of wearing it for the humidity!
The cloud is low as I pass through the rain forest it is easy to understand how it deserved its name, everything is soaking wet. The biodiversity of the region boasts 2000 plant species, 500 types of butterfly and some 300 different bird varieties. Everything is left to its own devices here. For example the ominously named Strangler Fig is a parasite plant that can quickly kill a tree. Its propagation enhanced by monkeys dropping the seeds through the jungle.
Of the 84 mammals it is the jaguar that is the king of this particular jungle. There are only five in the park with three of them carrying geo-tagging. They are solitary animals and command a vast domain and when examined closely you would see that their faces are all unique not unlike a human’s fingerprints.
The pumas are smaller cats that eat smaller prey so the park can sustain more of them, about 25 – 30 at the last count. Raccoons are everywhere. A constant mischief-maker they are keen on humans because they supply them with food. You are advised not to bring any foodstuffs with you, as their keen sense of smell will ensure you have new ‘friend’ with you. That might sound delightful but beware they can bite – hard!
You can hear the falls a long time before you see them. Normally the ‘fall’ of water is 1700 cubic metres a second. On my visit, which coincided with heavy rainfall in Brazil the ‘fall’ was 5000 cubic metres s second. The park is well organised with open trucks travelling though the jungle with guides offering information, the driver stops if they see anything interesting giving you a chance to take photographs and learn a bit more.
The 5.5km ride to the falls passed quickly but we stopped to see some toucans and the odd monkey and some elaborate giant butterflies. After that it was on foot using sturdy paths. You need good shoes for this as they can be slippery and undulate considerably.
The path takes us to the river Iguazú. I collected a robust oilskin pouch to put my camera in (and anything else that might be damaged by water). Donning a life jacket I embarked onto a large inflatable boat. I would strongly advise you bring a change of clothes with you or just wear swim gear.
This was to be my initial ‘experiences’ of the falls. The first took me by fast boat to the bottom of the falls. It felt like being in Jurassic Park except the attraction was not an alpha male dinosaur but the leviathan that is the river. It is vast and powerful the noise of the falls was immense although I still couldn’t see them. We turned a bend and there it was, the base of the falls shrouded in mist that can rise up to 150m. The thunder and roar was incredible. Although you can’t see the full 4km from this vantage point of the falls they are still impressive. When Eleanor Roosevelt visited she exclaimed “Poor Niagara”. As Niagara is a third shorter she had a point.
Needless to say the driver took us all to the ‘edge’ or at least as close as is safe to go and we were drenched with the red water that flows into the river. The colour comes from the rich soil. Trudging back up to drop of my life jacket and very effective oilskin I realised how unprepared I had come. There were people with towels, changes of clothes, mirrors and I’m sure I heard a hair dryer. I cannot stress enough how wet you get! But it was a fantastic experience and really just a warm up for the big event of seeing it from above.
At lunch my advice would be to head for the parrilla counter, it’s where you’ll find the grilled meat. A parrilla is a large metal grill with coals underneath. It works like a BBQ but has hot and cooler spots. The skill of the chef is apparent as they can give you rare, well-done etc. The beef I had was stupendous. Ask for ‘lomo punto’ if you want medium rare (the best way to enjoy this type of cooked meat). The buffet lunch has plenty for all including non-meat eaters with great salads, pasta and vegetables being popular.
The sauce to have with beef is chimichurri. Originally from Rio de la Plata in Argentina it’s made from chopped fresh parsley, crushed garlic, olive oil, white wine vinegar and oregano. There are many variations including adding dried chilli flakes but the original is the best, it just works with quality beef so well.
After lunch, a short journey on an open sided train and then a walk along a metal walkway. This is not for the feint hearted. As there had been heavy rains the water was running high and fast. The walkway is made of metal and you can see through the holes in the mesh floor. The muddy soil doesn’t look dirty as it flows beneath your feet but more like hot chocolate pouring from the world’s largest kettle.
As I progressed along the bridge the heavens opened up and all the rain in South America was set free or so it seemed. I was getting as wet as I did in the boat when sitting underneath the falls! The route winds its way over vast tracts of treacherous water and must be half a km in length. Then suddenly the volume rises and I’m at The Devil’s Throat or the Garganta del Diablo. This gushing cascading confluence is a truly awesome sight.
It is 150m X 80m wide and shaped like a stretched semicircle forming a protracted ‘U’. At this point half the river’s flow is concentrated. The effect is spectacular. The mist rises above the height of the falls. To watch from the edge (holding on very tightly) and peer over the edge into the abyss below is a mesmerising feeling. Knowing that nothing could save me if I fell as I looked at the white foam and sheer speed of the water is a leveler to say the least. A truly arresting sight accompanied by a cacophony of thunderous noise that makes conversation impossible.
That night over dinner with a few fellow travellers we watched from our mezzanine table a local duo, playing guitar accompanied by a fabulously good-looking couple dancing. A million miles away from the power and might of the falls where no man could conquer or rein in the sheer force of nature to watching a pair completely in command of their bodies as the elegantly moved across the floor to sound of traditional Tango music.
Before flying to Buenos Aires the next day I wanted to see another confluence peculiar to this part of the world, the point where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina all meet. There is a large stone obelisk spelling out the facts and views of the Igauzú and Paraná rivers converging. This triple border has three cities one in each country; Argentina’s is Pueto Igauzú with a population of 82,000 it is the smallest. Local tribes people set up stalls and sell jewelry and souvenirs along the riverbank. Its dramatic and symbolic presence has not escaped the creative world and it has appeared in many films and TV series.
The evening came and time for another plane back to Buenos Aires for a less humid time in the ‘Paris’ of South America. I’m billeted in one of a growing trend of boutique hotels in Argentina that wishes to show its green credentials. Palo Santa is in the Palermo district and takes environmental responsibility seriously. Featuring a vertical garden that runs the whole height of the hotel through an inner atrium and using sustainable rain water techniques to lessen its carbon footprint it is also a very comfortable place to stay.
My suite had a large terrace giving views of Buenos Aires’ skyline and the small but capable restaurant delivered on flavour and style. It was getting late and after another day of travel I needed a good meal. Fortunately Palermo is full of great restaurants. I wandered into Toulouse an art themed joint with an open kitchen and waiting staff that all wanted to talk to me to help improve their English. The food was fabulous, a steak wrapped in bacon with perfect mash and a little cream sauce. A bottle of Malbec helped that down. This was a sure-fire hit; it had the feeling of something rustic but the taste of sophistication, my kind of place. If you try Toulouse out be brave enough to have their New York Cheesecake, lighter than the norm it is a creamy concoction made in heaven, it comes with a super raspberry ice cream and looks like a spaceship, just try it, it’s unbelievable!
The small restaurant, which is run separately from the hotel, furnishes the 26 rooms perfectly. Over breakfast I chatted to Pablo Perolli the manager and co-owner of the Palo Santo. He was charming company explaining the hotel has been a roaring success in its first 10 months being fully booked most of the time. His charm is clearly part of its success. Later I enjoyed lunch in the restaurant with a French chef bringing his skill to a perfect beef bourguignon.
To be continued …
Here are links to some useful sites mentioned in the article
Transport was provided by
Hunt and Fish travel agency