The Iguassu river basin extends over some 62,000 sq km. The Rio Iguaçu rises in the Brazilian hills near Curitiba at an altitude of around 1,200m, from where it flows west for some 1,300 km across the Paraná Plateau, a thick layer of very hard basalt lava formed as a result of a massive Triassic volcanic eruption over 100 million years ago.
On its way it widens majestically, as a result of receiving the waters of about 30 rivers, and sweeps around a magnificent jungle stage, plunging and crashing in tiered falls, which lie at an altitude of 160m at the edge of the plateau on the border with Argentina and Paraguay.
Above the main falls the river, sown with wooded islets, opens out to a width of 4km. There are rapids for 3.5 km above the falls: a 60m precipice over which the water plunges in 275 falls over a frontage of 2.7 km at an average rate of 1,750 cubic meters a second (in 1992 after heavy rains the rate rose to 29,000 meters a second). The most spectacular part is the Garganta del Diablo, visited from the Argentinean side. Downstream is a 28 km long gorge stretching to the Rio Alto Paraná and formed as the river has eroded its way back up the river. The falls are 20m higher than Niagara and about half as wide again.
Above the impact of the water upon basalt rock hovers a perpetual 30m high cloud of mist in which the sun creates blazing rainbows. Viewed from below, the tumbling water in its setting of begonias, orchids, ferns and palms with toucans, flocks of parrots and cacique birds, dodging in and out of the very falls, and myriad butterflies (at least 500 different species), is majestically beautiful. Most of the falls lie in Argentina, which leads the Argentines to claim, ‘Argentina puts on the show and Brazil charges for the view’. The Brazilian side offers a superb panoramic view of the whole falls and is best visited in the morning when the light is better for photography.
The Argentine side offers closer views of the individual falls. At the heart of the Iguassu Falls lies the Devil´s Throat, where 14 separate falls join forces, pounding down the 90-meter cliffs in a deafening crescendo of sound and spray. A catwalk runs to the base of the first level of the falls where you are surrounded by the roaring water, the mist and white foam that are boiling up all around, the green of the jungle, uprooted trees and a 180-degree rainbow. It is an overwhelming sensation.
Due to the biodiverse climate of the falls wildlife is rich in this area, as you would imagine. All throughout the different stages of the falls you can see various species of butterfly, among them the electric blue Morpho, the poisonous red and black heliconius and species of Papilionidae and Pieridae. The air becomes filled with literally hundreds of them and they often land on different parts of your body.
Common also are the quati (South American coati), an animal that looks similar to the raccoon, however it is brown and with a longer tail and a long pointy nose. These animals are so used to tourists that they will come right up to you and want to be your friend. More animals inhabit the national park, of which Iguassu falls is part. Iguaçu is part of a national park of the same name (Parque Nacional Foz do Iguaçu) that is divided between Brazil and Argentina. The Brazilian National Park was founded in 1939 and the area was designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1986.
The park covers 170,086 hectares, extending along the north bank of the Rio Iguaçu, and then sweeping northwards to Santa Tereza do Oeste. The subtropical rainforest benefits from the added humidity in the proximity of the falls, creating an environment rich in vegetation and fauna. Most frequently encountered here are red brocket deer, white-eared opossum and monkeys. Jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, puma, margay, white-lipped peccary, bush dog and southern river otter also exist here, but are much harder to see. The endangered tegu lizard is also common.
Birdlife is especially abundant here and toucans, grey-bellied spinetails, antshrikes, kites, black and white hawk eagles, blue ground doves, dark-billed cuckoos, black-capped screech-owls, cardinals, finches and swallows can all be seen. Close to the falls is the Itaipú dam, the world´s largest power station. It measures 8 km long and its 18 turbines have an installed capacity of 12,600,000 KW and produce about 75 billion KW a year, enough electricity to power the whole of Southern Brazil and much of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais. Governments of Brazil and Argentina are proud to trumpet the accolade, ‘one of the seven wonders of the modern world’ (the only one in South America), which was given to it by the American Society of Civil Engineering in Popular Mechanics in 1995.
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