- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

PUERTO IGUAZU, Argentina — Darting past jagged rocks, our speedboat plays chicken with the vast Iguazu Falls. I hold my breath as the driver veers straight toward the enormous cascade tumbling from the cliff overhead.

As we rapidly approach the waterfall, I shout to my stepfather that we’re getting too close. Too late. The motorboat and its load of tourists are hurtling straight toward the towering curtain of mist.

I’m certain we’re going to crash right through the falls and smash into the rocks behind. Then, at the last second, the driver throttles back the engine and the boat spins away.

We’re suddenly drenched by blinding sprays of water.

Struggling to open my eyes as white water pelts my head and soaks my life jacket, I catch my stepfather laughing hysterically. Fear has turned to exhilaration, and a group of soggy Italian tourists behind us are madly shouting for one more run at the falls — “Otro, otro.”

We are touring Argentina’s Iguazu Falls National Park. Set in a subtropical rain forest where Brazil meets Argentina, it is a lush and enchanting place, enticing visitors from around the world, who come here to see the thunderous forces of nature at work.

An Eden-like setting, the falls were formed 200,000 years ago when a crack in the Earth’s surface created a small stair. The rivulet that became the Iguazu River flowed over the crack, and the rocky terrain was splintered and gouged, slowly giving shape to 275 waterfalls.

These falls aren’t nearly as high as the 3,212-foot Angel Falls in Venezuela or as commercially hyped as the 167-foot Niagara Falls, but they are wide. The World Waterfall Database (www.world-waterfalls.com) lists Iguazu’s average width at 8,800 feet, with several listed as wider.

Taken together, the falls span more than 11/2 miles in width — which leaves a lot of walking to do.

Home to more than 2,000 species of ferns, orchids, palms and other plants, the Iguazu Falls basin offers the next best thing to touring the Amazon.

Here, rainbow-billed toucans flit from branch to branch, endangered jaguars and ocelots find refuge, and monkeys call from high treetops.

A maze of catwalks winds past more than a dozen panoramic stations along the falls on the Argentine side — and several more viewing perches are visible on the Brazilian bank.

After slathering on sunscreen, we start our trek through the park along the green trail. Walking along, I stop to read one of the many signs warning of dangerous animals.

Wondering what we would do if we actually saw something, we enter the dense jungle. I jump as the biggest lizard I have ever seen scrambles across the path, seeking shade under a rock.

A few more steps, and a rustle in the woods tells us something is watching us. Skittish that it could be a jaguar, we peer through the trees.

Feeling silly, we watch as two fuzzy creatures (which we later learn are called coatis) scamper out of the bush. The South American equivalent of raccoons, they head straight toward a trash can and begin rummaging.

At the end of the green trail, we reach Cataratas Station, where the Ecological Jungle Train picks up passengers for a 30-minute ride followed by an hourlong walk to the largest waterfall, known as La Garganta del Diablo — Spanish for the Devil’s Throat. It is supposed to account for 70 percent of the water that tumbles over the falls, so we opt to save the best for last. Instead, we take the walking tour of the “upper circuit,” a winding series of metal catwalks leading to spectacular views of side falls, each better than the last.

At the final stop, we stare down the drop-off of the Salto Mbigua, a group of falls about 230 feet high that pour off the cliff with all the fury gravity can muster.

Making our way back to Cataratas Station, we look forward to the “grande finale.” In the distance, a dull roar becomes audible as we approach. Walking across the catwalks, we pass over pools filled with turtles and speckled fish as multicolored butterflies swirl around us.

We feel the spray coming off the falls before we can see them, and once we reach the viewing platform, we’re stunned to be staring down into a giant open mouth that seems to be sucking up the entire river.

The water spills over the U-shaped cliff with such force that the water below is concealed in a cloud of mist floating upward. Birds dart in and out of the milky white spray, which refracts the light on a sunny day to form a giant rainbow. We linger, trying to capture the scene on film.

Afterward, we head for the bug’s-eye view of the towering cataracts on the “lower circuit.” Thinking nothing could live up to the Garganta view, we come to Salto Bossetti, a gorgeous vista that brings us just 10 feet from the center of one of the falls as it crashes downward.

A cool spray and strong breeze come off the water, and I close my eyes — relieved from the suffocating heat — as I give my other senses the chance to soak up this worldly wonder.

Exhausted, we leave the falls that afternoon after checking out the visitors center and getting copies of the park map as souvenirs. I don’t want the vividness of Iguazu to fade from my memory.

Flying home, we crane our necks to see the falls out the plane’s window. Several passengers are doing the same, hoping to catch one last look at this great natural wonder.

Receding in the distance below us, the falls send a cloud of mist skyward, inviting us to come back and welcoming their next visitors.

• • •

The nearest airport to Iguazu Falls is Aeropuerto Internacional Cataratas del Iguazu in Argentina (54/37-5742-2013). From Buenos Aires, it’s 840 miles.

Hotel Cataratas (www.hotelcataratas.com), a modest hotel with a spectacular pool, is 25 minutes from the park. The hotel calls itself five-star but is about the equivalent of a U.S. three-star hotel; rates begin at about $100 a night. Rooms at the Sheraton inside the national park begin at about $156 a night; you’ll pay more for a room with a view of the falls.

March through June, when temperatures are moderate, is considered the nicest time of year to visit the falls. A visa is required for Americans to cross from Argentina into Brazil; it is not required for Americans entering Argentina. The cost is about $100, but it’s widely whispered that many taxis and private drivers will take day-trippers across without one — with the border patrol ignoring the transgression in favor of tourism. Get visa information at www.conbrasil.org.ar.

For information on visiting Argentina, go to www.turismo.gov.ar/eng/menu.htm. For information on the falls, go to www.iguazuargentina.com. For information on the wild boat ride under the falls, visit www.iguazujunglexplorer.com. (Various types of rides are offered, with tickets ranging from $5 to $25.) For information on Argentina’s other national parks, go to www.parquesnacionales.gov.ar.

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