Argentina's Iguazu National Park: Waterworks and Wildlife

With nearly 300 waterfalls within its borders and rich wildlife, Iguazu National Park is a jewel in Argentina. Its "garganta del diablo’" waterfall, or "throat of the devil," (bottom photo) is the largest of the waterfalls in terms of volume. Rick Smith photos.

A year ago I wrote an article for the Traveler asking readers to name their favorite national parks outside the United States. I listed a few of mine to spark the conversation, including Iguazú National Park in Argentina, a World Heritage Site.

Earlier this month, my wife, Kathy, and I were fortunate to revisit Iguazú. The visit solidified my opinion that it is one of the world’s great parks.

The falls are formed by the Iguazú River on the border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. According to some accounts, there are 275 separate falls, extending over a lateral length of more than a mile-and-a-half. There are national parks on both the Brazilian and Argentine sides of the river.

The Argentine park is something like 135,000 acres of subtropical forest. It is very well-known for its bird life. We saw toucans, blue dacnis, plush-crested jays, magpie tanagers, chopi blackbirds and others that we could not identify. We also saw monkeys, agoutis, a large rodent; guinea pigs, and; coati, a relative to raccoons.

We hiked the sendero superior, the upper trail, and the sendero inferior, or lower trail. Both of these are relatively short, easy hikes and they put you up close to the falls. We also took a ten-minute journey on a small train out to the boardwalk that leads to the garganta del diablo’, the "devil’s throat," the largest of the falls in terms of volume of water. The thundering noise here is unbelievable.

When you are tired of waterfalls, take the Macuco Trail, which plunges into the subtropical forest and is a great reminder of John Muir’s observation that in nature, everything is connected to everything else. Birds were everywhere but most evident early in the morning. Like many park animals, the monkeys hung out wherever there were people, hoping for a handout. These were the Capuchin monkeys. The coati likewise gathered near people places.

Before we headed to Argentina, I had written the superintendent of the park, Daniel Crosta, to tell him that I would be there. He and one of his assistants came over to our hotel to see me following one of our days there. He told me that the park is the most heavily visited of the Argentine parks, with almost 1 million visitors annually. He also explained that park officials are struggling with many of the same problems national parks across the world face: inadequate budgets, poaching, and tension with people living around the park. He invited me to talk to his rangers the following day at the park’s new visitor center. I eagerly agreed.

The Argentine ranger is one of the country’s iconic figures. They have good uniforms, a hat that is not completely unlike the flat hat that U.S. rangers wear, carry weapons and have law enforcement authority, and are governed by a separate statute that confers upon them special status in comparison to other Argentine park employees. They are very well-trained as graduates of Argentina’s ranger training school, the best of its kind in Latin America. In my opinion, only the Costa Rican rangers come close to being as professional as the Argentines.

My message to them had to do with the importance of standing together with other Spanish-speaking rangers to improve the lives and working conditions of their ranger colleagues in other Latin American countries, many of whom work under very adverse conditions, with lousy supervision, and poor pay. I also stressed that protected areas like Iguazú cannot exist without the support of the local people. It is simply impossible to station a ranger every 100 meters or so around the park to protect it; local people have to be our allies, not our enemies.

Someone who is a lot smarter than I am once observed, “Victoria Falls in Africa shows us what the word ‘magnificent’ means. Iguazú shows us the meaning of ‘beautiful.’” I agree.