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Discovering Iguaçu’s hidden side

It is said that when Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca “discovered” Iguacu Falls in 1542, he would have stumbled headlong into the churning waters if it wasn’t for the enormous roar and spray the last  hundred feet before the precipice. After years of exploring the two continents, from the swamps of Florida to the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil, in seeing the massive cataracts, Cabeza de Vaca surely must have felt that he had reached the edge of the world.

I knew that the watery spectacle of the falls was only part of the story. Iguaçu National Park was officially created in 1934 in Argentina and in 1939 by Brazil and declared a world treasure by UNESCO in 1986. The Park, which includes the falls and surrounding forest, lies at the convergence of the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.  The Park is one of the few remaining vestiges of the Atlantic Rainforest which  had once covered most of eastern Brazil, but today,  has shrunk into disconnected patches along parts of the coastline and southeastern border.  When my husband and I hiked  the Poço Preto trail on the Brazilian side of the National Park, we saw but a thread of what might have been.

Considering the somber name, “Poço Preto,” or “Black Well,” it seemed like we’d be in for a dark disorienting jungle. But Poço Preto is anything but. Traveling the Poço Preto Trail takes a full day, and the first leg of our journey was on foot.  On our hike, the first thing I noticed were the big features: Palm tree fronds fingering the breeze. The bamboo’s highest branches curved like the tips of  prehistoric ferns. The shorter ambay trees with their delicate straight trunks and a parasol of large star-shaped leaves.  But the more spectacular were the small details that our guide pointed out:  The fruit of pariparoba bushes, erect like small white birthday candles in the middle of its large oval leaves. The solid column of pau marfim, or “ivory pole” tree with its pale yellow, lichen-stained bark.  Insects among  upper branches rattling down tiny pollen-yellow flowers and melipona stingless bees buzzing like a flurry of buttercups around the entrance to their hive.   In subtropical forests such as that of Iguaçu National Park,  50% of the trees are deciduous due to seasonal temperature differences.  As we were here in June, Brazil’s autumn, the floss-silk tree with its thorn-studded trunk had lost its leaves and pink flowers, but seed pods dangled from the tips of bare branches like large brown pears. When the pods open, they release a white fluff, which some local people use to stuff pillows and mattresses.

After an intense cup of cafezinho waiting for us at a small barn (espresso blooms in Brazil in the most unlikely places!),  we picked up our bicycles parked near a heliconia plant with its hanging yellow and red parrot-beak shaped blossoms. Among the heliconia plants, grew the creeper plant with red-bell like flowers which the locals nicknamed sangue de chuva, or “the blood of rain.” We rode our bikes over slicks made from past rains, the tires slapping at the damp mud.  In some places, ants had turned mounds of clay into crumbly chocolate-brown sand and even chewed up whole swaths of the pathway.  Carpenter beetles had chomped branches from the trees and drilled holes inside these branches to lay eggs. A tapir left his paw track on a small wash. We ran across a group of earnest British bird watchers, staring up into the canopy and silently lifting their binoculars. We got off our bikes and cautiously moved past them. The forest which seemed so close to the deafening roar was actually quiet.

It is easy to go for the spectacle, as many tour buses to Iguaçu would prove. But better still is to be educated as to the whole picture surrounding the spectacle. This takes more time than we had, but our guide Marcelo had spent many years studying the forest.  He took courses in tourism and the environment  at a local college, but a lot of his knowledge is self-taught, inspired by pure devotion to nature and his love of reading. This love  must be in his genes. His father was also an avid reader who lived in Maceió, a city in Brazil’s Northeast.   Marcelo said that his father had read and re-read practically all the books in the local library so as not to go crazy. In fact, Marcelo’s romance with his wife began when he saw her reading a book.  The romance led to their wedding on a boat ride below the falls. In a wedding photo which he showed me, his pretty young bride is wearing a bridle veil that looks like a flurry of tulle and white mist.

The smell of the trail changed, as if the jungle had suddenly broken out in a sweat. Suddenly, brown capuchin monkeys jumped from the trees, crashed into the underbrush, trampolined up and fluttered about the canopy.  They  hurtled through the air in a screaming fit before disappearing into a frenzy of swinging branches.  One monkey dove upside down and all I could see was its hooked tail. For some minutes, there were elusive flashes of flying fur.  Then, as quickly as they came, the monkeys must have decided, en masse, to hide.

At the end of the trail, we came to a swamp. In the surrounding trees, lianas hung from branches in an unruly tangle or had twined around each other or around tree trunks, some growing so close to the bark they seemed like arteries.  In the canvas-green water, cormorants tracked silver Vs among the protruding stumps of dead branches. A yellow-bellied alligator sunned itself on a log. Two toucans alighted on the tops of bamboo trees and showed us profiles of their banana-like beaks. We set down our bikes and lounged on hammocks, waiting for a motor boat to take us back to the trail head.

The falls itself seem almost a metaphor for the history of land being split apart.   Originally, the land belonged to the Caingangues, a branch of the Guarani tribe. In 1494,  the Treaty of Tordesillas gave the western part of South America –  including the Iguaçu region — to Spain, and the eastern part of Brazil to Portugal.  For the next hundreds of years, the borderlands between Brazil and Argentina switched hands as Spain and Portugal fought for the same territory and access to the Rio de la Plata. Finally, in 1767, the Treaty of Madrid gave the eastern Iguaçu region to Portugal, and the western region to Spain. The falls itself are stunning; more than 275 separate falls pour down the sides of the several canyons, the heaviest cascade releasing 13.6 million liters every second.  These thunderous cascades create rainbows which connect delicately the two former rivals:  Argentina and Brazil.

On the Brazilian side, the falls are panoramic; the voluminous cascades bring down soil, giving the top spray a champagne-colored tinge.  Some falls cut through rocks, sparing bushes which grow on the cliffs’ edge. Some falls tumble onto stone shelves and pour into the river. On the Argentinean side, the views of the cataracts are more intimate because catwalks have been built along the edge of the canyon.  I strolled right above the roiling pools, and along the cliffs where water jetted through clusters of tough grass clinging to the rocks.   From Argentina, a small boat shuttles passengers to and from St. Martin Island that sits in the middle of a calmer section of the falls. At the island’s its highest point, vultures perch on the rocks and old branches and stretch open their wings in the sun.

There is an excursion which takes passengers upriver on heavy inflatable rafts to the grandest confluence of waters –  the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat –  to see the curtains of water tumbling from above. But nothing prepared me for the spectacular view from above the Garganta at the end of a long catwalk. Approaching the falls, the Iguaçu River was wide and benign enough for a turtle to sleep on a log or a fisherman to cast out his line from a small boat. The current bubbled around rocks, and combed the reeds on the riverbank. Then the roar, and the mist flew against my face and finally, the water so intense at the precipice, churned into liquid clouds. At this point, I was at the pure white abyss, where the water seemed suspended and the rainbows that had arched from above, now shot up from below.

At the edge of the long Garganta catwalk, I seemed to be dangling into eternity. The cataracts were here since before man, long before the days when mariners,  afraid of falling off the edge of the world,  grabbed white-knuckled the deck railing of their caravels, or when Cabeza de Vaca lurched back just before he could have tumbled  to his death.  Arriving at this point, there would be nowhere else to go but downwards in this endless furious mass of an upside down heaven. Yet the beauty makes us step back, just in time.

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