Adrenaline-seeking families should discover South America’s secret wonder of the world.
You hear it before you see it. As we descended on the Cataratas Trail, the sound of rushing water grew louder with every step as did our anticipation. We turned the second corner and encountered our first, breathtaking vista. Cameras clicked. Tourists asked other tourists - most not speaking each other's language - to snap their photos in front of the curtain of cascading water, none of us realizing that the views got more jaw-dropping and the sound more thunderous farther down the path. By the time my family and I reached the footbridge that extends to La Garganta del Diablo, or Devil's Throat, where the water crashes from 262 feet above, we could no longer hear each other speak or the cameras click in rapid fire.
My husband, sons (ages 12 and 14), and I had made our first trip to South America to experience one of the world's most wondrous - albeit little-known - waterfalls, so massive in size that it straddles two countries. On the more tourist-friendly Brazilian side, it's known as Iguaçu or Iquassu Falls; on the Argentinian side, it's Iguazu Falls. Either word translates to "big waters" in the native Guarani language. According to tribal legend, Iguaçu Falls is the result of jealous rage. When a beautiful woman named Naipi fled with her mortal lover in a canoe, an angry serpent god sliced the river, creating the falls and plunging the couple to their deaths.
At nearly 8,900 feet wide, Iguaçu Falls is actually split into 150 to 270 individual cascades, depending on the seasonal water level. I explained to my sons that it’s not only an UNESCO World Heritage site, but Iguaçu Falls also was named one of the “New Seven Wonders of Nature” in a global vote in 2011. My youngest son, Aidan, quickly argued, "I think it should have been one of the Old Wonders, too." I'd have to agree.
Where to stay?
While the falls brought us to Brazil, it's the world-class Belmond Hotel das Cataratas that kept us here. Perched in pink on a hill next to the falls, the Portuguese-colonial luxury spa resort is the only hotel inside Iguaçu National Park. The unrivaled location gives guests exclusive access to the falls in the early morning before the park opens and again, in the evening, when all the tour groups have departed.
My boys judge any resort on two criteria: the bountifulness of the breakfast buffet and the size of the swimming pool. The hotel delivers on both accounts. In addition to a breakfast with endless selections to please even the pickiest eaters, the hotel offers gourmet dining (plus a pleasing kids' menu) at the Itaipu Restaurant or a gaucho-style barbecue buffet at the poolside restaurant, Ipê. The pool, surrounded by lush, manicured gardens that attract boisterous tropical birds, just may be the largest hotel pool that we've every seen. (There’s also a small wading pool for little ones.) Even though it's heated, I'm was happy to sit in a lounger, sipping a caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail made with cachaça, sugar, and lime.
Fully renovated in 2010, Hotel das Cataratas has both connecting rooms and suites for families, complete with kid-sized robes and complimentary Havaianas flip-flops. The rooms are bright and airy with Ipê hardwood floors; the spacious bathrooms accented with azulejos tiles are stocked with Amazonian soaps. The Cataratas Suite has four private balconies with stunning views of the falls. For added entertainment, the hotel provides PlayStations, DVDs, and toys.
But it's the staff that sets this resort apart: the waiter who brings cool, lavender-scented towels after lunch, the groundskeeper who lines the walkways with candles at night, and the front desk attendant who was more than happy to switch on the court lights so my sons could play a game of night tennis.
What to do?
Honestly, it's difficult to pull ourselves away from the resort, but the falls beckoned, and if we're really being honest, we are sort of adrenaline junkies. Among the park activities, we saw abseiling (a 55m rappel to the banks of the Iguaçu River with the falls' mist spraying in your face) and whitewater rafting. However, because of record floods during the prior months, both activities were suspended until repairs could be made.
Instead we opted for a speedboat ride into the waterfalls. We had two options: on the Brazilian side, the Macuco Safari offered a 2- 1/2-hour adventure including a two-mile trip into the jungle aboard an electric buggy and a short, guided nature walk, culminating in a boat ride down the rapids for a dunking under one of the smaller cascades. But my impatient, adventure-seeking boys chose the 12-minute, heart-pounding, "are we really doing this" plunge straight into the larger San Martin Fall on the Argentinian side aboard an Iguazú Jungle boat (ages 12 and up). As we hit the falls, the sound was deafening, and the deluge of bone-chilling water forced me to close my eyes. My mouth opened to release a squeal of (mostly) delight. The "baptism” repeated three times. We arrived back on shore, soaked to the bone but exhilarated.
Before the boat ride, we walked the Upper Trail through a subtropical rainforest on the Argentinian side - home to howler monkeys, pumas, and jaguars - and across the very top of the falls. We then dropped to the Lower Trail where vibrantly-colored butterflies fluttered all around us. Their exquisite hues were matched only by the rainbows - so many rainbows - stretching over pools of water. If you visit during a full moon (4 to 5 days per month), you’ll witness a rare sight - a lunar rainbow. Led by the Hotel das Cataratas’ resident biologist, guests take an exclusive tour to see this phenomenon when the park is closed to others.
KidTripster Tip: A shuttle operates within the Brazilian national park. Once on the outside of the park, you can hire a taxi at the visitors center to drive you to the Argentinian side. Make sure to bring your passports. You will need to show proof that you paid the reciprocity fee for Argentina in advance of arriving. Along the way, have your driver stop at the point where you can stand in three countries - Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay - at the same time and take a photo.
KidTripster Tip: The Argentina reciprocity fee is expensive: $160/person. The fee is valid for 10 years and includes multiple entries into the country. You’ll have to decide if the trip to Argentina is worth it for your family. Both countries offer a different experience: in Argentina, you'll see the falls up close, and in Brazil, you'll admire their grandeur from more of a distance.
What to do beyond the falls?
On the recommendation of nearly every local we met, we visited Parque de Aves (Bird Park), just outside the Brazilian park gates. Normally, we're not huge zoo fans, but this park was truly unique with its large open-air aviaries that allow you to enter the world of South America's winged wonders. My cautious older son held the park map protectively over his head as we walked into the macaw aviary, the largest one in the world. The birds, whose wingspans stretch 3 feet, soared, swooped, and then swarmed when the bird keeper brought fresh coconut into view. But the highlight was the extraordinary toucans - at least a half dozen varieties - perched perfectly, just waiting for us to snap their photos. We were able to get so close that we could see the faint, tiger-like pattern on their oversized bills. "I like the birds even more than the waterfalls," exclaimed my future zoologist and youngest son. “This is totally awesome.”
We spent one last afternoon marveling at the astonishing view of the horseshoe-shaped canyon. We boarded a helicopter for a ten-minute flyover of the waterfalls. It’s from this vantage point that we were finally able to see all the cascades, plus Hotel das Cataratas' picture-perfect location. When we returned to the resort, the boys and I climbed the winding staircase of the hotel's tower to watch the golden Brazilian sun sink into the horizon, understanding fully why Iguaçu Falls is truly a wonder.
KidTripster Tip: Some commercial flights will do falls flyovers, so have your cameras ready. It’s a much cheaper alternative to the helicopter ride.
Fly to Rio de Janerio and then take a flight to Foz do Iguaçu on either Gol or TAM.
KidTripster Tip: If you plan a super long layover in Rio, it’s possible to make a trip to Christ the Redeemer. However, Rio traffic is a killer, so leave yourself plenty of time. If you see that it’s cloudy on your flight in, don’t bother. Click here for more on how to do it.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah says the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas is one of the loveliest hotels that her family has ever had the pleasure of staying at.