The only place in eastern(ish) South America that I knew I wanted to visit before moving to Montevideo: Iguazu. If you’re not familiar, the waterfalls at Iguazu are generally known as the (or at least, one of the) most spectacular waterfalls in the world. There are around 280 individual cascades falling across the geographic region where Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil meet, which form one of the most beautiful, powerful, and impressive natural sites I’ve ever seen, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it there during the 3 months I was living in Montevideo. Fortunately, I did make it shortly after moving to Buenos Aires, because, simply put, these waterfalls are BREATHTAKING.
Which Side to Visit: Brazil or Argentina?
The majority of the falls are split between Argentina and Brazil, and you can have a completely different view and experience from each side. Everything I read prior to my visit, which was (mostly) confirmed by my visit, said: if you want the view, go to the Brazilian side. If you want to actually experience the falls and have time in nature, visit the Argentinian side. Though, I found you can get pretty awesome views from the Argentinian side too. I highly recommend visiting for enough time to see Iguazu from both Argentina and Brazil, because each side offers a completely different view and different experience. And if you’re pressed for time, you could squeeze in a view to both sides in 2 days. But if you’re really pressed for time: (1) if you only have a few hours or less than 1 full day, head to Brazil, it requires WAY less time and offers a spectacular view; or (2) if you have 2 days, you can use 1 full day on the Argentinian side and 1/2 of the other day for Brazil.
I visited the Brazil side prior to the Argentinian side, but think you’ll have a better experience if you do it the other way around, for reasons I’ll detail below. So I’m presenting the falls in the order I’d recommend for a visit. Random note: the bathroom facilities in the national parks in both Brazil and Argentina were AMAZING! WOW. I mean, over most of the world, bathrooms in a national park = a toilet (rarely toilet paper) that maybe gets cleaned once a day by park officials, and possibly a sink (but no soap or way to dry hands); and honestly, I’m always just grateful for any bathroom that isn’t me walking off the trail, so that description is not a complaint. More matter of fact. But the bathroom facilities in Iguazu have attendants that are cleaning all day long, toilet paper, soap, and dryers or paper towels to dry your hands! (And no, you’re not expected to leave tips for use of these products.) Also, while throughout the vast majority of Brazil you rarely find people who speak anything other than Portuguese, the national park is set up with information also in Spanish and English!
Cataratas del Iguazu, Parque Nacional Iguazu, Argentina
The majority of Iguazu National Park is located in Argentina. While the Brazil-side trip is: bus ride, shortish walk over concrete (only 1 path you can walk on), return to bus and parking lot (but let me be clear, that doesn’t diminish how amazing an experience it is), you don’t get much of an opportunity to be in nature. The Argentinian side is a full on national park, with loads of trails you can select from. We arrived shortly after the park opened and stayed until almost close, and still didn’t have time to walk all the trails. And that’s at the pace a healthy, fit adult (without kids) who stopped only once for a bite to eat. You really do need 2 days if you want to fully experience the Argentinian side. Travel tip: if you plan to return a 2nd day, make sure park officials stamp your ticket before you leave the park during your first visit. With this, you will get 50% off entrance the 2nd day (but you must go 2 days in a row). I was advised by numerous locals that we should hike the “Sendero Macuco” trail if I wanted to see lots of wildlife; and that to see the animals I needed to arrive when the park opened, because crowds scare away the animals. I was one of the first on the trail, but sadly, never saw any animals. However, I still enjoyed a really peaceful hike to a small waterfall with a pool at the bottom you can swim in. I traveled during winter so while the weather was perfect for a day hike (around 60F), it was far too cold to go for a swim. A wonderful thing about this trail is that it’s unpaved (the only unpaved, “natural” feeling hike I found in the park). Tips for Sendero Macuco: the park signs for the Sendero Macuco trail show a part of this trail (at the end) rated moderate and/or difficult… ummmm, no. I’m not basing that on a fit-Annise standard; I’m thinking of what this would be like if I went with my out of shape, nearly 70yo dad (sorry pop, if you’re reading this!). It was a super easy hike and the only remotely challenging thing was a few (we’re talking, maybe 20-40 max) very well constructed, concrete stairs going down to the watering hole/view of the fall from below. The entire rest of this trail is so flat parents could easily use a stroller (assuming it’s one with fat tires made for outdoor running/walking activities). Just keep an eye on weather, if it’s rainy season the primarily dirt trail could get messy so you’d probably want to leave the stroller behind.
After returning from the Macucuo trail, I purchased a ticket to take a boat ride out into the waterfalls (cost was $2500pesos/person = around $50/person). But had a few hours to kill before the next available boat ride, so we hiked the Paseo Superior trail. Tip for boat rides in the park: during high tourist season I imagine that these book up for the entire day fairly early, so I’d make a stop at one of the booths early on to get your tickets and reservation for the day. The remainder of the park trails I hiked were paved (for obvious, safety reasons, as many cross over rivers or the waterfalls) but still make for lovely walks. I then went for the boat adventure ride, which was one of those “touristy” activities I usually pass on. Thank God some of the other Argentinian couples I met at our hotel advised me that it was worth the cost, ecause SO MUCH FUN! OMG. Pro tip: wear a swimsuit or other clothes that quick dry, or at least bring a change of clothes with you, because you will be SOAKED. Forget about wearing a raincoat or poncho, because the boats literally drive into and under the massive falls, so you will be drenched. Enjoy it! This boat ride was by far my favorite part of my visit to the falls, on either side (yes, you can also hire boats on the Brazil side). And this is the perfect occasion for your GoPro, though I did have my iPhone Xs Max and while I was nervous about keeping it out, the waterproofing held up just fine! (Though highly recommend taking and using a GoPro if you have one.)
I then grabbed a snack (yes, even the park has vegetarian options! though not healthy ones, but I was just happy to find something other than cookies or ice cream to eat) while waiting for the park train, and headed to my final trek/visit of the day: Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). Park train info: the train is completely free, but you do need to get a ticket, which will assign you a time to board (as the train only passes every 30 minutes). For most parts of the park, it’s faster to skip the train and just walk. The only exception is when heading to Garganta del Diablo, because it is actually quite far away and I’m not sure if there’s a walking trail to get there. The end of this trek offers views that 100% rival the spectacular views you get from the Brazilian side. Standing above the powerful, rushing waters was really an experience.
Parque Nacional do Iguacu (Foz do Iguacu), Brazil
I parked in the parking lot, purchased a ticket, and hopped on the bus to get into the park. Once in the park, it’s a pretty short walk before you begin to see images of the waterfalls. The Brazil side is definitely BAM! IN YOUR FACE! In the most amazing way. Very early into your walk alongside the falls you get spectacular views that just take your breath away. And if you’re lucky like me, you’ll meet some super sweet Brazilians who offer to take your photo, and you end up becoming BFFs (Brazilians really are THE BEST!!). The entire trip, from parking lot to return (including lots of time spent enjoying the spectacular views and snapping photos), was just 2-3 hours. So you can easily visit the Brazil side in half a day (or less, if you’re really pressed for time).
I would actually recommend visiting the Brazil side last, because the views really are so spectacular that it somewhat diminishes some of the views from the Argentinian side.
Staying & Playing Outside of the National Parks
I stayed for 5 days total, which also permitted lots of free time to relax at my gorgeous hotel in the jungle, La Cantera Lodge de Selva. It was peaceful, warm enough during the day that hanging out poolside and soaking up the sun felt great, but cold enough at night that I needed pants and a jacket (I was here during winter). The location was super convenient (short drives) to both the town center and for crossing the boarder into Brazil.
Having so much time in this area (all you “need” is 2-3 days, if you’re solely focused on visiting the parks) gave me the chance to explore the nearby cities in Argentina and Brazil. I had a wonderful time in both, ate lots of great food and met wonderful people. I completely fell in love with Brazil and Brazilians when in Rio, and fell even deeper in love during this trip. Without a doubt, Brazilians rank at the top of my list of friendliest/warmest people I’ve met anywhere in the world (tied with the Irish in Ireland, and South Pacific Islanders, especially those in Fiji and Vanuatu). There are so many wonderful restaurants and cafes to enjoy in Foz do Iguacu, and, of course, I loaded up on the incredible Brazilian cheese bread and Acai!!! (And had no trouble finding a plant-based restaurant to eat at, thanks again Google maps!) Despite being right across the boarder from Argentina, just like in Rio, few people speak anything other than Portuguese. But just like Rio, it doesn’t matter if you speak Portuguese or not, Brazilians will befriend you and try to have conversations with you (I’ve lost count of how many shining souls think that if they speak slowly enough I’ll understand… even with my Spanish speaking skills, I’m usually lucky if I understand 50%!). And I love that about them!
By having 5 full days in Iguazu, I also had loads of time for wine, wine, wine (!!) and enjoyed the fabulous selection of restaurants available on the Argentinian side. Wine shopping in Iguazu, Argentina, is a MUST for wine lovers. Iguazu may be the best place in Argentina to buy wine (in terms of price and selection)! I learned that 95% of customers in the major wine stores are really, really rich Brazilians who cross the boarder just to buy wine- and to buy the most expensive bottles. This means that all of these wine stores can order in bulk and offer really fantastic prices. I found wine in Iguazu for 20% to 30% cheaper than I’ve been able to find in Buenos Aires (and even when I have found certain of my favorite wines on super sale in Buenos Aires, the price was, at best, equal to the normal sale price in Iguazu), and found certain varietals I’d been searching for that you simply can’t find or buy (no matter the price) in BsAs. However, not all wine stores are priced equally- so do some shopping around. There are a crazy number of wine stores and the first one I walked into had really high touristy prices, but a few I found after had amazing prices!
- You don’t need a rental car.
- However, if you want a rental car, make sure to reserve way in advance of your trip. My visit was in winter, which is low season (because there’s less rain, so less water volume), and still rental cars were completely booked by the time we arrived. We only had a car because my boyfriend made the reservation 1 month in advance- and this is during low season.
- There are buses that can take you from Iguazu (in Argentina) to both Brazil and Argentina, and for other trips you can hire cars/drivers (Uber is not available in this area). Yes, your hotel can help you, but also talk to other guests (especially those who speak Spanish and have already negotiated lower prices with drivers so you can get recommendations and have an idea of what you should pay- as drivers will no doubt quote a much higher price initially, expecting to negotiate).
- That said, I loved the flexibility of having a rental car. It allowed us the flexibility to drive to the Brazilian side (the boarder was about 5-10 minutes from our jungle hotel) and spend time there as often as we wanted. It also allowed us to make as many trips into town as we wanted without having to wait or negotiate our cab fare.
There are so many wonderful dining options in this area, on both the Brazil and Argentina side of the falls. But there are a couple of places that definitely stood out to me, and that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting the area; both are located in Argentina. For a casual/quick bite that is both affordable and absolutely delish, head to La Misionera, Casa de Empanadas for some of the best empanadas I’ve eaten in all of Latin America. And family owned, which makes me love the restaurant even more! (And plenty of vegetarian options to choose from.) La Misionera is located downtown in Iguazu, near the majority of restaurants, bars, and tourist shops, so it’s easy to find. If you’re looking to treat yourself and have a fancier (and more expensive, but still reasonably priced, especially for quality of food and service) dinner, I had a lovely evening at Aqva.
Should you also visit Paraguay?
I chose not to for several reasons, including (1) there’s not much (if any?) of a view of the falls from Paraguay, and (2) safety concerns. The nearest Paraguayan town, Ciudad del Este, is mostly known as a popular spot for cheap shopping (especially, electronics, etc), with prices 30%-50% lower than the cost in Brazil or Argentina. That also means lots of knock offs, and high crime rates. I was warned not to take any credit cards or things of value, as the incidence of street robbery is super high. I decided to leave Paraguay for its own trip, when I have the time to visit Asuncion or other places a bit more stable and that have more to offer than just shopping.
I absolutely loved my trip to Iguazu and hope everyone has the opportunity to see this breathtaking site in person. It’s so worth the trip!