Southern Exposure 20: Iguassu Falls

Embry’s mother, Louise Martin, loved to travel. When she was a little older than Embry is now, she made one of her last excursions to Rio and then to Iguassu Falls, the massive waterfall several hundred miles south of Rio. Unlike our experience in Rio, the weather there for her was perfect. The falls, however, were totally fogged in, which it turns out is not all that unusual since they are located in the rainforest, where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay all come together. In any event in honor of her mother, Embry was determined to visit these famous falls, which her  mother could only hear and not see. They are listed among the seven or eight  natural wonders of the world. So she had put it on our itinerary and had booked us into the national park hotel on the Brazilian side of the falls.

Now if you have been following my blog you will recall that Embry was brought up a Presbyterian and I, an Episcopalian. There is a big difference between the values, life styles, and world views of the members of the two denominations. Presbyterians always go for the cheapest option or the best deal even though they can afford much more. Episcopalians always go first class even though we can’t afford it. That is why I assumed that the national park hotel Embry had booked must be like one of our modest, rustic, national park hotels in the U.S.  No problem for me, however, since I have made the necessary adjustments in expectations when Embry books a hotel or an Airbnb.  I was resigned to toughing  it out and figured if the falls were half as impressive as Embry thought they must be, it would be worth suffering through meager accommodations.

The tip off for me should have been Embry’s off handed comment, “Oh, by the way, you are paying for this one.”

Our plane landed at a one-horse airport that was  at the edge of the rainforest. We were easily able to get a cab, which took us along a two-lane road for maybe five miles through the sweltering tropics, past a few junky-looking hotels and tourist shops and deposited us at the gate to the national park. Not knowing what to do next, we wandered over to the small office where we were greeted warmly by the attendant, who said something like, “Oh, you are the Howells. The van is already here and will take you to the hotel.” We piled in with five or six other passengers and began our half-hour ride through the three-level rain forest on a straight, two-lane road with few signs that humans had ever ventured here.


 The forest suddenly opened up to the grounds of the hotel. Perched alongside a steep bluff providing breathtaking views of what certainly must  be the widest water fall in the world, the pink,  Colonial-style, Belmond des Cataratas Hotel was about as far removed from a rustic national or state park lodge as you can get. It was as if someone had picked up the Greenbrier or the Homestead resort hotel, shrunk it a bit, and dropped it down in the middle of a vast three-layer rain forest, next to one of the most impressive natural wonders on the planet.

The hotel was built in the 1950s though with its colonial style it seemed much older; and it was every bit as elegant and tasteful as the Greenbrier or Homestead. There was no golf course, but everything else was there—the understated elegance, the manicured grounds, the large pool, the fitness center, tennis and volleyball courts, billiard room, stunning dining venues, paneled bar room, verandas providing glimpses of the falls, and , of course, the gracious and attentive service. It was the only hotel that I have ever stayed in where the attendant at the check-in desk insists on giving you a personal tour of the hotel before escorting you to your room. I handed her my credit card, and being the Episcopalian that I am, never once looked at the bill. I have no idea what our 24 hours there actually cost. Whatever it was, it was worth it.

Now you may think that describing the hotel before describing Iguassu Falls is putting the cart before the horse. You are correct except you must understand that it is impossible to do the falls justice either in writing or photography. The falls are not as high as Niagara Falls but much wider, so wide that it is not possible to see the entire falls at one time. Mist rises up from the bottom, and rainbows appear and disappear depending on how much mist is rising and the angle of the sun. About a mile downstream below the falls there is a large Sheraton Resort Hotel on the Argentine side; but other than that, there is no visible sign of human habitation, a far cry from the commercialism around Niagara Falls, most of it hideous. Since the only place to stay in the park on the Brazilian side is the Cataratas Hotel (which though it appears much larger has only about 200 rooms), it is like you have these falls to yourself.  Buses, however, do bring in other visitors, who are staying at the mostly junky hotels outside the entrance to the park. The afternoon of our arrival when we viewed the falls from the main viewing areas outside the hotel, there were no more than 20 or 30 people around; and the next morning when we got up around seven and made the two-mile, round-trip hike to the base of the falls, we saw only two people going down and three coming back up.

So, yes, Iguassu  Falls gets my vote as one of the top wonders of the world and deserves its place. The hotel is certainly among the top five I have ever stayed in. Maybe not Shangri-La but close to it. It was certainly worth the diversion en route to Buenos Aires, our final stop before heading home.

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