Iguazú is one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the world. But there’s far more to Argentina’s far north than a cool cascade. We head off on a mission…
A vast plume of spray was rising above the deceptively tranquil Iguazú River. As I got closer, the cacophony of churning water began to rise to a crescendo. Then I gasped. I’d just got my first glimpse of the seething cascade.
Even sharing the viewing platform with a mass of selfie-stick wavers and garrulous school groups couldn’t diminish the sheer elemental power of the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat. An unfathomable volume of water crashed over the precipice of the horseshoe-shaped canyon – measuring 80m high and 150m wide – and an incongruously delicate rainbow emerged from the milky-white abyss.
No wonder the indigenous Guaraní believed that the serpent-like god M’Boi, the protector of water and aquatic creatures, created Iguazú (which means ‘big water’ in Guaraní). Feeling vengeful after being denied a beautiful girl called Naipi as a sacrifice, M’Boi furiously sliced the river in two, turning Naipi into a large rock and her lover, Taruba, into a palm tree, dividing them forever with the raging water.
It’s thought that Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to set eyes on Iguazú in 1541, but it wasn’t until 1934 that it was declared a national park. Straddling the border with Brazil, the falls arc for almost 3km, comprising more than 250 cataracts, depending on rainfall levels. Argentina lays claim to two-thirds of these, including the Salto Bossetti, where swifts dart through the water and cling to the vertical, glistening-green rock face, and the more sedate Dos Hermanas (Two Sisters), which drop into a jade-green lake where turtles bask and toucans screech in a vision of a tropical Eden.
Far removed from the glaciers of Patagonia and the wide-open pampas, Misiones Province in Argentina’s north-east is a long sliver of jungle-covered land jutting between Brazil and Paraguay. My base here was Awasi Iguazú, an exclusive lodge ten years in the making. In 2007 the government created a 1,500-acre buffer zone between the national park and the city of Iguazú, dividing the land between Guaraní communities and hotels. Awasi, known for its Chilean lodges in Patagonia and the Atacama Desert, grabbed one of the plots.
Just 14 lofty-ceilinged villas are hidden amid tropical foliage, with décor inspired by local flora and fauna and Guaraní crafts. The villas, on stilts to minimise environmental impact, overlook a mesh of shifting greens. Plunge pools offset the steamy heat, you wake to birdsong and you get your own passionate, knowledgeable guide so you can explore at your own pace.
Iguazú Falls, just a 20-minute drive from the lodge, is the big draw of course, but it’s Awasi’s aim to open up more of this fascinating province. I was there to go beyond the falls to discover the region’s increasingly rare ecosystem, indigenous culture and unique history.
Both Awasi and the falls are surrounded by one of the planet’s last remaining fragments of Atlantic Forest. Deforestation for mining, logging and agriculture began with the colonisers but by 1890 a swathe of forest still stretched the length of Brazil’s coastline, creeping into neighbouring Paraguay and the north-east tip of Argentina.
A century later, only 7% was still standing. What is left is a biodiversity hotspot second only to the Amazon.
One evening, Wilson, a Brazilian biologist, gave a passionate talk about some of the forest’s unique flora and fauna. It has around 20,000 plant species – more than 50% of its tree species are found nowhere else in the world – and more than 2,000 species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, including jaguar.
The following morning I crunched over the tangle of leaves and roots along a sun-dappled trail through the primary forest of Awasi’s private Yacu-i Reserve with my guides, Carolina and Jimmy. It’s not a place to trip over mammals – although a surprised opossum darted across our path and Jimmy spotted some tapir tracks. But biologist Caro enthusiastically revealed some of the forest’s secrets, from the minuscule spores on the back of a leaf to a prehistoric tree fern and fungi as pretty as any flower, even the ones dubbed pig’s ears.
Back at the coffee-coloured river, a traditional Argentine asado had been rustled up on an alfresco grill – savoury corn cake and succulent cuts of beef, all washed down with a robust malbec. Then I kayaked along the serene waterway to a soundtrack of the swish of paddles, the rustle of leaves and the hum of cicadas.
When the Spanish and Portuguese arrived around 1500, this forest was the preserve of the Guaraní, a tribe of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and farmers who lived off the forest’s bounty, harnessing the power of healing plants and subsistence hunting with twig-and-twine traps and feather-covered blowpipes. Communities were scattered across what, to them, was borderless territory spanning Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. They shared a cultural identity, and still do, though their numbers have dwindled and their ancestral lands have been reduced to small pockets.
On a visit to the community of Jasy Bora (Beautiful Moon), close to Awasi, squealing children played barefoot tag in the russet-red earth while handicrafts were displayed on a ramshackle stall: carved wooden jaguars and toucans, jewellery made from seeds, tightly woven baskets.
As Sergio showed me around the village, he pointed out a towering palo rosa tree, a species almost felled to extinction by the Spanish who used it to build boats, and guembé, a philodendron whose roots the Guaraní turn into rope and use to build almost everything. He also demonstrated a series of increasingly elaborate traps that were once used to catch food.
The Guaraní of Misiones may have adopted jeans and T-shirts and want haircuts like Lionel Messi but it was clear that this small community of around 170 is still clinging to its culture. Sergio explained that they have a temple (a simple hut) and a spiritual leader or shaman that interprets the messages of the gods, as well as a cacique who organises the community.
They mix herbal and Western medicine but they still have an unbreakable connection to nature: their home is the forest and they are the guardians of everything in it; their gods are the elements – earth, wind, fire and rain; they believe the sun and moon are brothers. Their myriad myths and legends are passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Clocks or calendars don’t really exist – the seasons are measured by native flora.
“We have mobile phones but we don’t use technology on a stormy day for fear of attracting negative energy,” Sergio told me.
As is the essence of mindfulness, the Guaraní naturally only think of the present. But they realise that times are changing, so they have built a school so their children – the cornerstone of their society, along with the elderly – will have a future.
The lives of the Guaraní altered irrevocably with the arrival of the conquistadors; they became part of the labour force for the New World. Then came the Jesuits, a religious order founded in the 1530s by a young Spaniard, Ignacio de Loyola, to spread Christianity to the New World. A three-hour drive south of the falls lie the far less-visited reminders of these visitors. And it is these sites that gave Misiones Province its name: the Jesuit missionary settlements, or reducciónes, a unique evangelical and social concept.
The Jesuits built 30 missions across Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. My first stop was the settlement of Nuestra Señora de Loreto, the region’s largest mission; by 1700 it had a population of around 7,000. Only the centre of the sprawling site has been reclaimed from the jungle and that afternoon it was only Jimmy and I wandering among the crumbling red stones, shaded by lofty trees entwined with lianas and outsized guembé. Blissfully bucolic, it seemed the perfect spot for the Jesuit’s utopian experiment.
“The first printing press in South America was built here and it was producing books 60 years before Buenos Aires,” Jimmy told me.
But why did the Guaraní give up their freedom and beliefs to join a repressive, theocratic society? Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, a Jesuit Jedi who’s thought to be buried here, is said to have baptised around 100,000 Guaraní. “Many didn’t without a fight – in fact ‘guaraní’ means warrior,” Jimmy explained. “But the Jesuits were intelligent and learned their language and culture. The Guaraní were constantly searching for ‘the land without evil’, a place revealed to them by their ancestors where they could live free from pain and suffering, and that’s what the Jesuits offered them.”
Each mission had a central church. Orchards were planted and the jungle whittled away to grow crops. Family homes were built – the Jesuits tolerated many native beliefs but polygamy wasn’t one of them – as well as schools and workshops, where carpentry, pottery and metalwork were taught.
It was a reasonably egalitarian society for the time – decisions were made with the caciques of each community in the mission and profits were shared. “The Jesuits were the religious equivalent of Che Guevara!” Jimmy added. More prosaically, the alternative to the missions’ protection was death at the hands of the bandeirantes (Portuguese slave traders) or a life of servitude in the mines and plantations of Brazil and beyond.
Nearby, the vast plaza at the heart of the Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana mission gave me some idea of the Jesuits’ ambition, but it wasn’t until I reached San Ignacio Miní that I got a real sense of the scale of their achievement.
The mission was founded in 1610 in Brazil but following constant attacks from the bandeirantes, Montoya organised an exodus south along the Paraná River, resettling in the current location in 1696. It was home to 4,500 Guaraní and it’s the best restored of Argentina’s surviving missions. There’s a small museum, and what remains of its impressive stone structures are carved with native flora and fauna in a style that became known as ‘Guaraní Baroque’.
The missions thrived, formed armies to fight off the bandeirantes and were economically self-sufficient, but it was politics that brought about the downfall of these unique city-states. Spain felt that the Jesuits had become too powerful and the Portuguese wanted control of the indigenous population. The Jesuits were eventually expelled in the 1760s, after which the missions declined and the Guaraní communities dispersed.
Paraguayan forces finally destroyed San Ignacio Miní. What remained was enveloped in vegetation and only rediscovered in 1897. I marvelled at a stone column still trapped in the fierce embrace of a strangler fig.
Traditionally, the Guaraní didn’t build their houses from stone, but their ancestors asked the guardian spirit of the stones to give them permission to build the missions. They believe that the stones are still alive. That evening, at the atmospheric sound and light show, as ghostly white-robed Guaraní and black-robed Jesuits flitted through the ruins, it felt like they were.
The Jesuits also built missions in the neighbouring province of Corrientes, a 90-minute drive south of San Ignacio Miní. Here, they kept cattle on the fringes of the vast Iberá wetlands – ‘bright waters’ in Guaraní – that sit at the convergence of floodplains, chaco grassland and the southernmost reaches of the subtropical forest.
Built as an estancia in 1868, Hotel Puerto Valle sits on the banks of the Paraná River looking across to Paraguay. That afternoon I took a leisurely kayak down a narrow channel where water hyacinth tumbled from the banks and petrified trees stood like sentinels. A long-legged jabiru – the name means ‘swollen neck’ in Guaraní – stalked through the shallows, a jewel-coloured kingfisher nosedived for its supper and great egrets perched in the trees like white fruit.
On the drive to Laguna Valle the following morning, I could see how humans had transformed the landscape. Pine and eucalyptus trees stood tall, row after regimented row, in stark contrast to the anarchic beauty of the Atlantic Forest. The lagoon itself was shallow and mirror-flat and echoed the cobalt-blue sky and wisps of cloud. It was flanked by shimmering vegetation that accumulates to form floating islands, the perfect habitat for an array of wildlife.
Adult black caiman basked motionless in the sun, while juveniles slipped silently into the water as our boat approached. I got up close to shaggy brown capybaras – a Guaraní word that no one could translate – the world’s largest and arguably most attractive rodent. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a skittish, doe-eyed marsh deer, a flash of orange through the rippling grasses. But otherwise all was calm. Today, M’boi was clearly in a benign mood.
The author travelled with Journey Latin America (020 8600 1881) on a ten-night tailormade itinerary. This includes two nights at Awasi Iguazú and three nights at Puerto Valle on a fully inclusive basis, international flights with British Airways, domestic flights, transfers and two nights in Buenos Aires B&B, including excursions.
Argentina has accommodation to suit all budgets, from family run guesthouses to boutique hotels; camping sites to luxury hotels. In Misiones, Awasi Iguazu has villas including all food, drink and excursions. Puerto Valle in Corrientes is all-inclusive. In Buenos Aires, Legado Mitico offers a good B&B as does Vain Boutique Hotel.
1: Buenos Aires
Latin America meets Europe is this charismatic capital city
2: Iguazú Falls
Incredible natural wonder amid sub-tropical forest
3: Mendoza and winelands
Sample the country’s finest Malbec at a high-tech winery
4: Salta and the North-west
The colonial city of Salta is the gateway to the extraordinary landscapes of the wild north-west
5: Lake District
Postcard-perfect glacier lakes flanked by lush forest
6: Península Valdés
Coastal Patagonian nature reserve that’s a mecca for southern right whales, Magellanic penguins, elephant seals and more
Visit colourful El Chaltén, walk amid jagged peaks and visit the otherworldly Perito Moreno Glacier
8: Iberá Wetlands
The world’s second-largest wetlands, home to caiman, capybara and a host of birds
9: Tierra del Fuego
Go to the deep south for a real end-of-the-world feel