This was published in the Women Outdoors newsletter, Fall/Winter 2009/2010 (vol. 28, no. 1)
“Warning,” the sign said in Spanish and English. “Dangerous animals may be on this trail.” It was high noon, so I knew the chances of seeing “animales peligrosos” was nonexistent at this point in the day. I snapped a photo, wanting to show the folks back home – especially my mother, who, when I told her I was going alone to Argentina, immediately conjured up some scene of me mixed up with a drug cartel, busted for possession, and exiled to a cold cell for the rest of my middle age. (She watches too much Fox “news,” and forgets that my brother was the dope smoker when we were growing up.)
This was probably the closest I would come to real danger on this vacation. I was starting a hike on the Sendero Macuco (Macuco Trail) in Parque Nacional Iguazú, the 385,000-square-mile national park in the country’s north, on the border with Brazil. The park contains between 160 and 260 waterfalls, depending on rainfall and water flow between the Upper and Lower Iguazú River. I’d gotten a late start and elected to begin on the Macuco, figuring I had the rest of the day to join the tourist hordes on the more popular trails. This was the latest in a series of wise decisions I had made on my Argentina journey, beginning with grabbing a ticket when U.S. airline prices went down 40 percent and continuing with traveling during the South American winter. For a native Western New Yorker who’d lived in Colorado and New England, “winter” down south resembled a mild autumn, even in the subtropical climate of Misiones Province, where Iguazú Falls is located.
The Argentinian federal government established Iguazú National Park in 1935, and the park was added to the list of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Sites in 1984. Having done my research before the trip, I knew that the area contained some of the world’s most stunning waterfalls. But it wasn’t until I toured the small, shopworn Ybyrá Retá (“Country of Trees” in the indigenous Guaraní language) Visitors Center that I understood the UNESCO designation. A satellite map in one of the last exhibits showed that most of the surrounding subtropical Atlantic Rainforest in Paraguay and Brazil has been destroyed – much of it logged and razed to make way for large-scale agriculture, mostly food crops for export to Europe – and the national parks in Argentina and Brazil are among the only intact parcels of this amazing land, where the Guaraní people lived for about 600 years before the conquistadors arrived from Spain and Portugal. The parks are home to a number of endangered species, including jaguar, ocelot, giant anteater, and howler monkey. About 65 other species of mammals, 440 of birds, 3 dozen different reptiles, and 200 tree species live in the parks, and there are more than 2,000 species of vascular plants, many not yet botanically classified. Because of this incredible biological diversity and scarcity, the National Parks Administration doesn’t allow camping or off-trail hiking. The Sendero Macuco was as wild as it would get.
Most of the trail was flat, well-groomed, wide enough to accommodate a vehicle, and blessedly free of mosquitos and other flying insects (a few tiny ants did clamber over my sneakers and up my legs). Early in this balmy afternoon, it was also sparsely populated; I saw perhaps a dozen other humans in my couple of hours on the trail. A few were irritating, such as the pair of women power-hiking while loudly discussing a mutual friend in British-accented English. But most were there for the wildlife, the quiet – unfortunately a rarity at Iguazú, which gets more than a million visitors a year – and the treat at trail’s end: Salto Arrechea (Arrechea Falls), a slim column of water with a plunge pool at its base. After about three kilometers, the path forked and I hiked the boardwalk through the wetlands to the top of the falls, where several young people sat at the railing, dangling their arms and legs over the 650-meter drop. It looked cool and inviting, but I had the rest of the park to cover by nightfall, so I returned to the fork and descended several sets of steep, narrow concrete steps to Arrechea’s base. It was a bit chilly for swimming, but a few backpackers in their 20s clambered over the boulders, looking for a sunny perch.
We were surrounded by butterflies, for which the rainforest is famous; more than 250 species live in the region. A couple of hours later on a much more populated trail, a friendly Argentine watched a butterfly flit near my wrist on the handrail and said sadly, “At least there is one!”
“I’ve seen more butterflies today than I see in a year in the U.S.” I replied, exaggerating only slightly.
“Oh, don’t make me cry!” she responded. “This isn’t the season for them.” She seemed sorry for me, but I was thrilled with the winged population even in the “off” season – large, stunning butterflies with electric blue wings rimmed with black, small orange ones feeding on the salt in bird droppings, and white-winged ones with black spiral patterns on their outer wings. The only specimen that landed on me wasn’t as colorful as the rest, but it was about the size of an average North American monarch and wore an impressive tree-bark pattern in a myriad of brown shades.
I also saw, fleetingly, a number of birds on the Macuco, but only one mammal: an agouti, a small rodent related to the guinea pig, foraging in the brush trailside as I made my way back to “civilization.” I crossed the park road and took the end of the path through meadowland to the Rainforest Ecological Train, a small-gauge railroad reminiscent of 20th-century amusement park rides, but greened for the 21st. The propane-fueled engine quietly hauls four long, open cars, with eight passengers crammed into each set of facing wood bench seats, at a few kilometers per hour from one group of waterfalls to another. Although I could’ve hiked to some of my destinations faster, I had to ride for the kitsch of it. The train disgorged its passengers at the end of the 5-mile line, the trail to Iguazú’s star attraction, la Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat).
This waterfall rivals Niagara (both American and Horseshoe Falls) in size, and surpasses it in sheer spectacular beauty. I didn’t bother trying to take pictures from the platform crammed with tourists from various countries, but simply watched people and enjoyed the mist falling on us. It took me 10 minutes just to get a turn at the overlook – and this was the slow time of year; I couldn’t imagine the crush in high season. As a firm believer that the journey is the destination, I enjoyed the walk to the Garganta almost as much as the falls themselves. The “trail” is a 1-kilometer series of steel walkways that cross the river from island to island; this path, like the Upper Trail, is extremely sturdy and wheelchair accessible. The bird and butterfly watching was enjoyable; although from a distance I couldn’t tell the swallows from the swifts, I loved the brilliant ballet of their skimming the water for insects.
I rode the train from Garganta Station back to Cataratas Station and resumed my hiking on the Upper Trail, one of two paved paths offering various views of seven waterfalls. These were much smaller than the Garganta, but beautiful singly and impressive as a whole. Falling water is among my favorite symphonies. The bird life on this path was also fascinating – hawks flew along the cliffs and settled in dead ambay trees, and on the trail between Salto Ramirez and Salto Chico, two colorful toco toucans ate fruit in a tree several yards above our heads.
At the start of the Lower Trail I encountered the tamest mammal in the park, the South American coatí. Like squirrels and other animals in U.S. national parks, coatis have developed an appetite for human junk food and turned into unattractive beggars. They were cute in an odd way, with their raccoon-like faces and paws, long snouts, soft-looking coats, and ringed tails. I saw the first group of eight or ten before dusk in the forest next to the trail, foraging in the leaves and other ground cover, oblivious to the passing humans. Later, when I heard that they’d jumped on tables outside the snack bar while people ate lunch, I hoped that the animals had been rooting in the forest for insects and fruit, not for pizza and empanadas. Farther down the path I found a trio walking gracefully atop the handrails like synchronized dancers. Another hiker reached out and tried to pet one, ignoring signs and warnings in all the park literature that coatí are wild animals that shouldn’t be fed or touched.
Dusk comes rapidly near the equator, so I did a quick circuit of the Lower Trail and headed up the hill toward Two Sisters Falls. On the way to the park exit I passed the lovely Viejo Hotel Cataratas, now the park’s medical center, built in tropical colonial style with white stucco walls, curved terra cotta tile roof, and deep veranda. Just to the south was the vast lawn of the characterless Sheraton International Iguazú, where lively plush crested jays fed in the waning light. With their indigo plumage, jet black crown feathers, and startled yellow eyes, they looked like drag queens compared to ordinary North American bluejays.
At day’s end, the plush crested jays weren’t the only squawkers: when she discovered that she was one of the four of us tourists who weren’t going to make it onto the 6:30 bus back to the nearby town of Puerto Iguazú, a young U.S. woman began flouncing around, whining loudly, “This sucks!” I couldn’t imagine what her hurry was – the town was charming in that tropical Latin American way, but there wasn’t much there but hotels, bars, restaurants, shops selling clothing and tacky souvenirs, and dozens of youth hostels. I struck up a conversation, mentioning that I’d learned on my first visit to Latin America 23 years ago that nothing much started on time and you just had to go with it. She agreed, saying she was from Kansas, had most recently lived in Chicago, and had been sent to Buenos Aires by her company for six months. I’d hoped our conversation would calm her down, but she continued to complain until the 7:00 bus arrived.
My soft hiking trek over, I returned to town to feast on scrumptious homemade gnocchi alfredo at Parilla Pizza Color, which featured white tablecloths, the ubiquitous evening soccer game on large-screen TVs, and a tree growing in the middle of the dining room. Then early to bed at the motel; I had a 19-hour bus ride back to Buenos Aires beginning the next morning. But that’s an adventure of another kind…