Mightier than Niagara

More than 2,000 tons of water cascade over the Iguacu Falls every second. Hugh O'Shaughnessy gets as close as he can to the thundering action
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The Independent Travel

The toucans with their great yellow bills flew among the hundreds of different species of butterfly in the canopy above us. The monkeys screamed down at our trailer. Drawn by an environmentally-friendly electric tractor, our vehicle paused to let another trailer coming up from the river, this one empty of people, pass us on its route along the jungle track.

The toucans with their great yellow bills flew among the hundreds of different species of butterfly in the canopy above us. The monkeys screamed down at our trailer. Drawn by an environmentally-friendly electric tractor, our vehicle paused to let another trailer coming up from the river, this one empty of people, pass us on its route along the jungle track.

"Well," said our guide, Claudia, nonchalantly, "no survivors from that particular trip." The man from Adelaide and his Filipino companion looked worried for a moment - we were, after all, about to take a ride aboard a raft that would get closer than anything else to the world's greatest display of raw strength - until they realised it was all a joke.

A few minutes later we were barefoot in a yellow inflatable, tearing over rapids between forested cliffs on our way to the Iguacu Falls. Hanging on for dear life in our plastic capes and lifejackets, we skimmed over rocks and whirlpools. Three miles wide, a whole series of cataracts up to 100 yards high reared up in front of us. With names such as Adam and Eve, The Devil's Throat, The Two Sisters, Santa Maria, The Three Musketeers and Belgrano, they send 2,000 tons of water per second, the product of 30 rivers, crashing down in an apotheosis of spray and rainbows. Earth has nothing more impressive than this product of a volcanic cataclysm 100 million years ago. The comment of Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the US president, during her visit was short but eloquent. "Poor Niagara," she said.

Our boatman carefully sought calmer waters where it was possible to pause and photograph the torrents which thundered above and around us, and the rainbow whose end seemed to lie in the foaming water only metres away. Then he twirled the tiller and pushed our vessel almost into the flood. I recalled Claudia's words and wondered what a watery death in Brazil would be like. Would my life-jacket keep me alive or would I drift lifeless down towards the mighty river Parana?

In the event, the boatload of us had a very jolly time. Nevertheless, we were thankful to retrieve our shoes on the landing-stage and go back to the dry land of a forest that contains deer, pumas, tapirs and lianas, which if you cut a few yards off them, will yield a glass of pure drinking water. This all happens within the vast and wonderful Iguacu National Park where, with great taste and sensitivity, Brazil is making the falls accessible to thousands of tourists at a time while keeping ecological damage to a minimum. Even smoking is discouraged, and this in a country where cigarettes are regarded as a birthright. "Ten years ago litter would have been a problem but today there's a lot more care for the environment. The sort of people who come here don't need telling not to litter the place," said Marcio, one of the wardens.

The frontier between Brazil and Argentina passes through the the middle of the Iguacu river, with the cataracts split between the two countries. Facilities for visitors are better and more modern on the Brazilian side. Unless you are a guest at the comfortable Hotel Tropical (run by the Brazilian airline Varig), which overlooks the falls, you have to leave your car outside the park. Frequent buses take visitors up and down the only paved road, the one which leads to the falls.

Not far from the entrance is the Parque das Aves, or Bird Park. Anna, an enthusiastic German woman with great experience of Africa, created a haven for the birds, and some of the butterflies and reptiles of the region, with help from her late husband. "You can never imagine how stressed a boa can get," she murmurs as she looks fondly at a snake curled up in the sun.

She breeds rare species, and tends the birds which the forest rangers have found in distress or the police have confiscated from illegal traders. Go there and you can feed grapes to the toucans, which turn out to be the most friendly of creatures, or watch peacocks and hummingbirds, cassowaries, flamingos and scarlet ibises and every sort of brilliant-plumaged parrot. The atmosphere is so friendly and unthreatening and the food so attractive that more birds clamour to get in than try to get out, says Anna; those which do leave tend to return.

As if the Iguacu Falls were not enough for the traveller, the town of Foz do Iguacu, built on the confluence of the Iguacu river and the river Parana, is a town of 250,000 inhabitants which serves as a convenient base for a variety of different experiences.

Ten minutes' drive from the centre of town is the world's largest hydroelectric dam, a man-made wonder which, for me, rivals even the falls. The dam was built on the Parana river as a joint scheme between Brazil and Paraguay, who control the left and the right banks of the river respectively. It holds back an inland sea of more than 500 square miles and required 15 times more concrete than was used to build the Channel Tunnel. Its 18 huge turbines provide electricity for a good chunk of southern Brazil. Lights would dim in Rio and Sao Paulo if - as happened in 2000 when some transmission lines were put out of action - the flow of electricity was interrupted. For visitors, the bi-national management team lays on a free film, a tour and even a son-et-lumière show against the backdrop of the five-mile-long structure.

Those who seek a pinch of politics with their sightseeing will remember that the scheme, begun in 1975 by one military dictatorship in Brazil and the tyrant Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, cost billions of pounds more than it should have done. A whole generation of politicians and businessmen, particularly in Paraguay, owe their massive prosperity to the trainloads of cash which were creamed off the construction costs.

Paraguayan life and its picturesque politics are themselves within easy reach from Foz do Iguacu. A short taxi ride across the Friendship Bridge takes you from the prosperous orderliness of Brazil into the Wild West of Paraguay. Founded by the old tyrant, and first known as Puerto Presidente Stroessner, the town was renamed Ciudad del Este, East City, after he was chased from power.

The place exists on a jumble of duty-free trading, a large, unattractive casino and the sale of cars stolen from Brazilian streets and garages. The car thieves rejoiced when it was revealed recently that the Paraguayan president was parading round his country in a big Mercedes that had passed through their hands. Those who want a taste of Graham Greene's South America would do worse than take a trip to Ciudad del Este.

Having had a pre-dinner drink in Paraguay and dinner in Brazil, the traveller can finish the evening on the Argentine side of the Iguacu Falls in the local Sheraton or among the red plush of the casino in Puerto Iguacu. All one needs to do is show a passport at the Argentine frontier post. It is easy to find: just past a big hoarding that insists "Las Malvinas son Argentinas".

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways and Varig fly from Heathrow to Sao Paulo, where passengers can pick up frequent connections to Iguacu. But the lowest fares are likely to be on other airlines. The specialist agent South American Experience (020-7976 5511, www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) offers flights on Aerolineas Argentinas via Madrid and Buenos Aires from £620 return.

STAYING THERE

South American Experience can also offer good deals on accommodation; it currently has a price of £162 per person for a two-night stay in the luxurious Cataratas hotel near the falls.

MORE INFORMATION

The Brazilian Tourist Office is at

32 Green Street, London

W1Y 4AT (020-7399 9000).

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