This article has been updated on January 24, 2021
How much time is needed and which side of the Iguazu falls to visit? Brazilian or Argentinian? How to avoid crowds? Plus how much, how to get there from Montevideo
Iguazú Falls is one of those places one would normally introduce together with all the superlatives such as breathtaking, marvellous, magic and so on. Speaking for myself, I have to admit that Iguazú was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. You could argue that there are many breathtaking waterfalls around the world so what makes Iguazu Falls stand out?
Well, we’re talking about a 2,7-kilometre-wide drop with multiple islets which divide the falls into numerous separate waterfalls, with their height varying between 40 and 82 metres. The total number of all individual falls fluctuates from 150 to 300, depending on the water level and the whole spectacle is surrounded by evergreen jungle. In comparison, for example, Niagaras are only 945 metres wide and 51 metres tall.
Other comparisons and UNESCO’s take
Except for Niagaras, Iguazu Falls are also often compared to Victoria Falls. From the perspective of the variables that can be measured, Victoria falls have (at its more than 1,6km width and over 100m in height) the largest curtain of water in the world. The only wider falls are Congolese Boyoma Falls. As for the volume, Iguazú currently has the sixth-greatest average annual flow. I know that such comparisons are a bit silly because one’s overall experience and perception of beauty is determined by multiple factors, not just the size, although to say “size doesn’t matter” in this context would be pushing things a little…
Regardless of this silly “philosophical” dispute about size, Iguazú Falls was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 (Argentinian side), followed by the Brazilian side two years later. And here’s the criterion why: “Iguazú National Park and its sister World Heritage property Iguaçu National Park in Brazil conserve one of the largest and most spectacular waterfalls in the world comprised of a system of numerous cascades and rapids and almost three kilometres wide within the setting of a lush and diverse sub-tropical broadleaf forest.” (UNESCO)
The Legend of Iguazu Falls
A local legend says that there once upon a time, a big bad snake called Boi lived in the river. To keep him sweet, the aborigines (Guaranís) apparently sacrificed a young woman every year as an offering. However, once a brave Guaraní dude decided to rebel against this precedent because the elders have picked a girl he loved for the offering that year.
Off he went to free her before the snake got to her but then both lovers tried to escape through the river. As you might have predicted, this heroism wasn’t to the liking of the bad snake Boi, in fact, it got quite pissed off. Bursting in anger, the bad Boi bent its body to break the river, in order to condemn the escaping pair to an eternal fall. As a consequence, the drop formed the waterfalls we can now admire.
If you excuse the intrusion with my humble mini analysis of the bad Boi‘s actions, to be honest, I wouldn’t personally mind being eternally falling with my lover in this fairy-tale-like place. I mean that it would be a matter of perspective whether we’re flying or falling. For instance, the “half-full” optimist could call it flying because the eternity of the fall should guarantee that one never hits the ground, innit? In the worst-case scenario, it would be the longest ever bungee jump in the history of humanity 😉
Whichever way you perceive that punishment, the pair has been falling/flying/bungee jumping somewhere here, inside such beauty, while millions of visitors, who didn’t even piss the snake off have to pay the entrance fee in order to be able to see this amazing spectacle from the groud unless they pay $120 bucks for a 15minute helicopter flyover. I mean, silly old bad Boi and his “punishment”. Well, I hope that the lovers haven’t started arguing over some minor problems over time. After all, their extraordinary love life might have presented them with certain challenges we could barely imagine 🙂
Which side of Iguazú Falls is better to visit? Argentinian or Brazilian?
The water supply of the falls is Rio Iguazú, which is also the natural border between Argentina and Brazil down here. On the right bank is the Brazilian territory, which is home to more than 95% of the Iguazú River basin but it contains just over 20% of the falls’ cascades. The remaining 80% of the cascades are therefore in Argentina. This divide often leads to the eternal question about which side of the falls is better to visit.
Well, Argentina’s side of the waterfalls has amazing infrastructure that allows the spectator to walk around and in some places even right above this natural demonstration of power and beauty. The Argentinian park is larger and this extensive network of footbridges and paths are giving the Argentinian side a great exploration potential. In other words, on this side of the river, you have more options to wander around the park if compared to the Brazilian side.
On the other hand, the Brazilian side has – let’s say – better angles of the whole spectacle. After all, from Brazil, you’re looking at the Argentinian side that has 80% of the cascades and you can enjoy that panoramic view pretty much during the entire duration of the one single trail on the Brazilian side.
The whole competition is however completely and utterly unnecessary. The well designed and organised tourist infrastructure around Iguazu Falls allows any visitor to see both sides, even in one busy day. I would however personally recommend splitting your visit into two days in order to be able to take it easy and fully enjoy the beauty of this place. Furthermore, it could provide you with an opportunity to skip the crowds, which we’ll talk about later.
How much and how to get there
The airports are on both sides of the falls. The internal flights are rather inexpensive, for example from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazú would cost you about €35, if you book your flight well ahead. From the airport on the Argentinian side, the shuttle takes about 40mins to your hotel for a decent €4,65. From Puerto Iguazú, a small touristic town filled with hotels and restaurants on the Argentinian side, there are numerous bus companies that will take you to the falls. The bus journey is about 20 minutes and it will cost you an equivalent of €6.
If you heading to the Brazilian side, the bus is the same price – it only takes a bit longer to get there, depending on how fast the immigration process is on the day of your visit. I’d advise you to check if there are any national holidays and so on because they can make your border crossing experience longer than necessary. The park entry on both sides of the falls would cost you an equivalent of about €16,50. Both, Brazilian, as well as Argentinian side, also accept card payments. Take snacks and water with you because everything in the park is, as always at least double the normal prices.
The trails on Argentinian side
Inferior and Superior walks
The Inferior trail, I opted to begin with, turned out to be my favourite one and the great way to start the whole thing. This 1.7km/1,5hrs walk takes you around the bottom edge of the Iguazu Falls. It’s very pretty and impressive as you feel like being inside the spectacle. It’s easy to walk, although there are numerous steps one has to take upon. The Superior trail is of a similar length (1,75km) and pretty much stairless. It takes you around the top edge (sometimes even literally) of the falls, which gives you a different, more panoramic perspective of the whole area.
San Martin Island walk
Depending on the height of the river, you can also have an option to get closer to the falls as well as to the whole environment, by visiting San Martin Island. You can get there off the Inferior Trail by taking a free boat ride which would drop you of on the island’s beach, from where you can climb the stairs to the “San Martin balcony”. And no, you can not swim there): This rewarding circuit provides a spectacular panoramic view of the Devil’s Throat and the Brazilian side of the falls. Unlike the trails above, this one requires a certain degree of physical difficulty and takes about two hours to complete. Ideally, try catching the first boat at 9:30 😉
This 7.7km/3hrs (round trip) trail is the longest, most “secluded” walk in the park. It is mostly just an easy walk on the path through the jungle with some informative signposts. Here is, where you can enjoy the variety of fauna and flora, including the caí monkeys if you’re lucky. Please note that the restrooms are only available at the beginning of the trail.
Arguably the most popular trail in Iguazu Falls is the Devil’s Throat (Garganta del Diablo) circuit. It’s 2,2km long and it takes you right above the spot with the highest water flow of the falls. It’s a truly spectacular concert of sheer natural power and this walk gives you a seat right in the front row because the observational platforms are literally right the edge of the drop.
However, because it’s considered to be the highlight of the park, these “balconies” get rather busy. With more and more tourists pouring into the park, except the close-up observation of a powerful waterfall, this path also offers a great opportunity for your inner harmony trial (by fire) or at least as a test measuring your tolerance to the massive selfie crowds. FYI, you are also able to visit this trail during a full moon 🙂
I got personally only irritated only much later in the day when I arrived at the already busy Garganta del Diablo trail. There was literally no space to walk and a lot of acrobatics were needed in order not to be hurt by selfie sticks. The fact that local “professional” photographers occupied a large portion of the platform (with the best view) to take your picture with the falls without crowds for money, also didn’t help.
The thing is that many of the visitors here are rather inconsiderate (well, an English person would say it that way) but it would in fact mean that they totally don’t give a shit about others at all. For example, I was a gentleman and let the two young Chinese ladies go ahead of me to the first row at the viewpoint after cueing for 20 mins in a sardine-busy-like crowd. Well, these ladies took ages taking like a trillion selfies and videos each, hitting me with their selfie sticks several times while making faces like “why does that guy in the way”.
Don’t forget that this was a crowd of about 9-10 people per square metre at the time, it’s like when you literally can’t move unless you use an extended physical power. But I was still not entirely irritated with them by then. To be honest, at the time I was mainly irritated with myself, regretting my decision to let them go first, thinking how stupid I was. But when they were done with making their selfies, they have also started to watch them on the spot as well 😀 and that act has shattered my “tolerance test” results 😀
Anyway. Once you enter the Brazilian side, there’s a free bus that will take you towards the falls. The bus returns to the entrance of the park from the end of that trail. The Brazilian side only has one major trail that is 3,2km long. It’s an easy stair-y walk, during which you constantly see the falls in their entirety. Again, the early hours make this place less crowded.
You could also consider the 9km Poço Preto guided trail that cuts through the jungle. Similarly to Macuro, this trail is more about fauna and flora, rather than the falls themselves, although at the end you get a tour in inflatable kayaks on the river (far above the falls). This trail is doable on foot, on a bike or in an electric vehicle.
How to avoid the crowds?
I recommend taking the very first bus from Puerto Iguazú at 7 am to arrive with the first group. Once you enter the Argentinian part, you can opt for a free ‘train’ ride to one of the two stops that would get to the 3 major trails/walks mentioned above. If you do arrive early enough to make the first ‘train’, take it and head straight to the 2nd stop (Garganta del Diablo). That way you will avoid the crowds at this busiest spot. We’re talking about 1,64 million visitors per year but it feels like if they were all there on the same day together with you, as I’ve explained above.
If you fail to be early like me – because the wine was too good the night before or for whatever other reasons – just forget the train and take a 10-minute walk to get to the 1st stop of the ‘train’ where the inferior and superior trails begin. The Devil’s Throat walk will be busy by the time you get there anyway, but you can still enjoy the less crowded Superior and Inferior walks. Otherwise, you’ll get stacked right at the entrance waiting for the second or third train and the cues behind you will just get longer and longer, while the park is still relatively empty.
Most people usually opt to wait for the train so you have some time before the trains transfer the huge crowds deeper inside the park. FYI, at the entrance, you need to get a free train ticket that will indicate the time of your train. As I said, unless you make it to the 1st one, forget the train and walk to then not yet busy superior and inferior walks. You can always take the train ride from the 1st stop to the Garganta del Diablo stop after you will enjoy the emptier superior and inferior walks.
Practical notes, links and few curiosities
- You’ll get wet. Please note that you’ll get wet off the falls’ rainy flow that reaches the paths with the help of the wind, especially on the Brazilian side. So bear that in mind, especially if you carry water-sensitive equipment with you. Another important thing is to remember the name of the bus companies that got you to the entrances of either of the parks as there will be many people/buses at the exit;
- Heat and humidity. Be aware that the region is very very hot and humid. I mean very hot and humid.
- Entry requirements: Then there are of course the entry requirements, like visas and all that but I believe that you already know whether you need a visa to either Argentina or Brazil.
- Animal feeding: Please do not feed any animals you may encounter in the park for your safety as well as for other reasons.
- Lockers: Both sides of the parks also provide lockers, in case you needed to store your luggage.
- Fancy a helicopter ride? You can also take a rafting mini trip here. A helicopter ride is $120 for 15mins, boat rides are also available… My budget was a bit of a boring git here, unfortunately ):
- UNESCO Iguazu Falls page.
- Films shot at Iguazu Falls location: Just for fun, here‘s a list of films that were shot also at the location of Iguazu Falls.
Stay and safety
I’ve only stayed on the Argentinian side but I am positive that the larger Foz do Iguaçu (pop 258 thousand) on the Brazilian side, is also literally flooded with hotels, hostels, B&B and all kinds of accommodation like its Argentinian counterpart. Puerto Iguazú felt cosy and very touristy, although, with 82 thousand people, it can’t be exactly called a small town either. As far as I am aware, both towns live off tourism and as I’ve mentioned above, the tourism infrastructure here is well developed, maintained and organised.
The same applies to safety. I mean with the standard tourist hotspot pickpocket precautions, you are pretty much safe. Well, to be precise, those precautions are not exactly standard ones, because you have to extend them by coatis 🙂 The locals like to joke that the biggest danger in the area comes from coatis as they’re known for stealing food from tourists in the park, which isn’t a reputation that is entirely made up, as you can see here 🙂 FYI, please note that they can also be rather aggressive.
You should also know that in the Misiones Province of Argentina, where the falls are located, there’s a rare presence of Dengue Fever. We’re not talking about an outbreak or a Dengue hotspot. The whole country has recorded around 42 thousand cases in 2020, which is about 1/3 of the cases in Thailand. But it’s still good if you protect yourselves from the bloody mosquitoes anyway.
I’ve personally picked a place called Habitaciones Panchita. The bed was comfy, the fans did the job and there was even a small desk as well as a sink. The room itself was of modest size but haven’t visited the area to stay in my hotel room anyway. The whole place was sparkling clean and generally well maintained. There’s a balcony to have a smoke with a cup of coffee or tea both of which were available in a shared kitchen.
Location-wise it’s 6 mins away from the bus terminal and 3 blocks from the city centre. If you are looking for an affordable private room ($13,-US per night/shared shower), this is the right place. I wish more accommodations were at this level that the friendly host Sebastian‘s has to offer.
What would I do differently if I visited the falls with the knowledge I have now?
Except for trying to piss the bad Boi in order to be condemned to the eternal flight in the place with my girlfriend, I would fight the wine temptation the night before with a stronger will and wake up for the first bus. The second bus I’ve taken meant that there were already too many people brought here by the first buses from the various companies and I couldn’t get to Garganta del Diablo earlier when it wasn’t so busy yet.
I would also split my visit into two days and went to the Brazilian part early morning the next day, I’m sure it would have been less busy during an earlier visit. FYI, there’s apparently another option to get around the crowds and that would be getting there in the afternoon at around 3 pm. I haven’t tried it so I can not confirm, whether it works or not.
How to get to Iguazú from Montevideo, Uruguay
I’ve travelled to Puerto Iguazú from Uruguay’s Montevideo. It proved to be a bit of a challenge but it’s doable. The only trouble is to manage and catch the right connection. The first part of the journey is to catch a bus from Montevideo to Salto (6hrs/€30). Then you have to cross the river to Argentina’s Concordia with a local bus. In Concordia can catch the 12hrs/€42 bus that goes from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazú.
A word of advice: Please make sure you will pre-book the connecting bus from Concordia. I haven’t done so I got stuck there for 1/2 day because the bus was fully booked. And Concordia isn’t exactly the holiday location. It’s very hot, there’s not much to see and being the only gringo in town, it felt like I had to watch my back. The fact that I’ve been on the road for nearly 24hrs also didn’t help the process of forming some feelings towards this town. In fact, Concordia was the first place I visited during this trip, where I’ve asked myself: “What the hell are you doing here?” Thankfully, Iguazu Falls took it all away fast 🙂
Next possible destinations
I’d certainly recommend visiting the Argentinian capital. It’s an incredible city with friendly people, tango, wine, cafés and terraces and many museums and other things to see, do or experience. Read the extensive guide about things to do in Buenos Aires here, in case you were interested.
Uruguay: Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo
Another option is taking only a couple of hours worth of a ferry ride from Buenos Aires will take you over the river to the Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento from where it’s another two hours bus ride to the country’s capital Montevideo. Read more about Colonia, Montevideo or other places in this special little country here, in case you were interested.
Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio
If you are alternative lifestyle-friendly, I’d recommend considering checking out Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio, the two Uruguayan settlements on the Atlantic shore, where I came to Iguazú from. Expect beautiful beaches, epic sunsets, a very friendly crowd and a rather vibrant nightlife. More information could be found here.
For nature lovers, there’s mighty Patagonia. Take a plane to Ushuaia, El Calafate or Bariloche to visit the ever amazing and mind-blowing wilderness of Patagonia. Some itinerary suggestions that comer Patagonian “highlights plus”, with links to more detailed guides about particular locations, in both, Argentinian as well as Chilean Patagonia could be found here.