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A terrifying, majestic wonder

The power of Iguazu Falls, the world's biggest, is awesome and then some

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The Iguazu Falls, a spectacular canyon of 275 waterfalls that reach heights of 80 metres, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984.

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The Iguazu Falls, a spectacular canyon of 275 waterfalls that reach heights of 80 metres, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984.

If you have a bucket list, a visit to the spectacular Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay border ought to be on it.

Named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011, this incredibly powerful waterfalls is so spectacular you'll be transported into a suspended state of awe from the moment you set eyes on it.

You'll never see anything like it anywhere else in the world. Yes, it's bigger and more impressive than Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls.

When Eleanor Roosevelt visited Iguazu in the 1940s, she exclaimed: "Poor Niagara!" since Niagara Falls is at least a third shorter. And though Victoria Falls in Africa is still called the biggest "curtain of water" in the world, the falls at Iguazu is longer and wider, stretching a daunting 2.7 kilometres and spilling over the Parana Plateau with more than 275 separate cataracts, all cascading simultaneously to create a scene so picturesque and dramatic you have to pinch yourself to realize it is not a surreal movie special effect.

The drop of each falls varies between 60 and 82 metres and the total number of falls increases when there are heavy rains and the river floods.

There is nothing that can prepare you for the sheer force, power and dramatic impact of these falls; they truly are unique phenomena, a majestic spectacle.

The volume of water crashing over the edges is mind-boggling to the point of evoking a natural fear and sense of alarm at the merciless force and deadly danger of it all.

When I was there with a group, the Iguazu River was swollen from repeated heavy rains.

There was twice as much water flowing as normal, with the result that more than a million gallons a second were pouring in a seamless, never-ending torrent over the edges of the plateau and hammering with thundering and brutal power into the valley below.

The name of the falls is spelled three ways: Iguaçu, if you are on the Brazilian side, Iguazu is the Argentine way of spelling it, and Iguassu is the English form.

The first European to discover the falls was Spanish pioneer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in 1541, who named it Holy Mary Waterfalls.

In the 1930s, Brazil and Argentina recognized the importance of the falls and created national parks to protect it. The parks have since been declared a World Natural Heritage site by UNESCO.

I was staying on the Brazilian side, but got used to calling the falls Iguazu. You will find more than 70 per cent of the falls is located on the Argentina side. We were staying at the fabulous five-star resort, Hotel das Cataratas, the only hotel in Iguazu National Park. The resort is located mere steps from the main falls.

Thus, it was natural for us to first explore the falls from the Brazilian side. A series of steps lead down to viewing platforms built next to the pounding water. The chance to stand so close to the forceful torrents rushing past you and the deafening sound of the water crashing down is an unforgettable, breathtaking experience.

The flow of water put me into a hypnotic, almost Zen-like trance, where the vast and never-ending flow of millions of gallons of water a minute required me to expand my imagination and concept of limitations.

The trail on the Brazilian side eventually leads to a narrow metal bridge-walkway that has been built out into the centre of the rapids, where churning white water crashes and dashes over rocks, sending up clouds of drenching spray. I felt afraid as I stepped gingerly out onto this walkway with certain death rushing within touching distance all around me. Young people were treating the whole experience as a fairground ride and loving the thrill of getting soaked to the skin by showers of waves splashing over rocks.

There is a balcony viewpoint of the biggest waterfall, known as Devil's Throat. Here, I stood and watched the falls try in vain to quench what was clearly an unquenchable thirst.

The word Iguazu means "big water," but there is another story that is more poetic. In it, a god wanted to marry a beautiful girl called Naipi, but Naipi had other plans and took off in a canoe with her lover. The god was so angry, he sliced the river in two and created the falls, immortalizing the lovers in the tumbling water.

To see the falls from the Argentina side, I had to pay a $75 "reciprocity fee." I wondered if it was worth it; after all, the falls did look amazing from the Brazilian side. But I am so glad I did pay the fee and crossed over the Tancredo Neves Bridge into Argentina because I got to see and experience the falls in an even more dramatic, up-close way.

First, a 650-metre upper trail takes you up along a ridge where you get a panoramic view of the curtain of multiple falls across from San Martin Island.

I have no idea why they even allow people to get so close to what is a terrifyingly powerful and deadly force of nature with vast, unimaginable millions of gallons thundering over cliffs. You walk within mere feet of the falls and can stand and watch as the water power churns in violent whirlpools before plunging into the abyss.

Iguazu is a place I believe can only be experienced to understand its true scale and power. The tremendous energy powering up in great clouds of white spray was palpable and immensely invigorating.

After hours of walking, watching and gasping in delighted disbelief at the beauty of it all, I returned with my group to the start. But little did I know my adrenalin would soon be rising yet again when we took a boat ride on the Iguazu River itself and came within touching distance of the menacing falls themselves.

Wrapped in ridiculous plastic raincoats (as if they would work), we set off by boat. Some young people came wearing swimsuits. I guess they knew just how wet we were going to get.

The boat, with a twin set of super-powerful motors, set off at great speed into the white water and we bounced wildly over swirling whirlpools and white waves.

I looked out and saw nothing but killer currents whipping and thrashing around us and I again was left speechless, only this time with dread fuelled by the darker side of my imagination.

Within a few minutes, we arrived at a thundering curtain of water, immense but still a baby compared to Devil's Throat.

The boat came to a stop, paused briefly, and then the engine roared into gear and we dashed forward up to the cascade.

I felt the heavy, pounding water all around us and sharp, pelting spray on my face, and for a second I could see nothing but flashes of whitewater as it splashed over the side of the boat and into my lap.

Then, in a flash, we were out and back bouncing on the rough, churning water, alive and breathing and a short distance from the waterfall.

I felt relief at having survived, but just as I began to relax my grip on the handle in front of me, the boat swerved and powered back up to the waterfall. We had the previous heart-stopping experience repeated... again and again.

One time, we all agreed, the driver was showing off a little to the other boat owners on the water and took us very close to the crashing water, and it was even louder and more terrifying.

Should you do the boat ride? I would have been content with viewing the falls, but I know very few people who go to Iguazu without doing the boat ride, too.

You could also take a helicopter ride over the falls. Some people I was with did this. It was a 15-minute ride and they all returned with rave reviews.

Iguazu is an experience worthy of any bucket list. It is one of the world's true natural wonders, with a beauty that will stir your soul.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 E1

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