Iguassu: Water, Wildlife and Sheer Wonder

The raging waters are magnificent, but it is the surrounding national park that truly sets Brazil's Iguassu Falls apart.

At twilight, after three days of bright azure skies, swirling winds blew up to unleash a tropical downpour.

The day's sightseeing over, guests gathered excitedly on the terrace of the Hotel das Cataratas bar to gasp at nature's show. Suddenly a gentle evening drink became one big caipirinha cocktail party, everyone exclaiming over the dramatic lightning as palm trees flailed in the gusts.

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Then, as quickly as the storm had come, the skies cleared to reveal an astonishing sight. Between black clouds the crimson sun was sending shafts of orange onto the Iguassu Falls. The vast river gorge, stretching far into the distance, came ablaze with shifting shades of gold, red and purple, piercing the pounding waters that send up mist like billowing smoke. A stillness held as everyone, drinks in hand, was drawn out onto the lawn in amazement. "It looks like Valhalla" murmured an American woman, transfixed, but the drama was still unfolding. Soon afterwards the colours faded and the moon appeared, veiling the falls in a ghostly silver light.

The midnight rainbow

The Force of Nature

The majesty of Iguassu's roaring waters, viewed close-up, is what initially draws visitors to this chasm on the Parana river straddling Brazil and Argentina. But the most surprising memories they take home are invariably of its rainforest setting. Yes, it is extraordinary to stand on walkways out across the river as columns of seething white water, almost close enough to touch, come thundering down from a great height. But how much more impressive that all this is framed by luxuriant trees where parrots perch and giant rocks where crocodiles bask in the sun.

Protected national parks encircle the falls on both sides of the international border. In Argentina, forest trails wind over and around a swathe of individual cascades. A small train conveys visitors to a long walkway over the upper river that leads to a vantage point above the most amazing waterfall of all, the horseshoe-shaped Devil's Throat. Water gushes over in a white boiling mass, like tumbling bales of kapok pushed by a giant hand.

Elsewhere in the park, there are speedboat trips that drive their screaming passengers straight through the spray where falling water hits the lower river. In complete contrast, sedate river journeys lead along quiet streams where flower-covered creepers drip from the trees and giant fluorescent butterflies flit past. Jungle trails wind over russet earth through towering trees to clearings above the cataract.

Breathtaking views from Brazil

But it is over to Brazil for the long, breathtaking views of Iguassu. And, most amazing of all, a path that hugs the side of the gorge, dipping down from Hotel das Cataratas to the base of the Devil's Throat. At any time of day this is a strong contender for the world's most spectacular one-hour stroll. But early in the morning and at dusk, when the national park is closed to everyone except guests of the hotel, it is like stepping through the looking glass and into an enchanted paradise.

Spectacular views of "The Devil's Throat" from Brazil

Wake up in the dark and set out as dawn is breaking: a pink-streaked sky, animals and birds at their most active and no-one else around. Just you, the waterfalls and the swallows that nest behind them. Come nightfall and toucans are tapping their beaks as they spar in the trees, while small animals scuffle out from the undergrowth. The sinking sun casts a soft glow on the dozens of cormorants on the opposite bank stretching out their wings to dry. Those fortunate enough to visit when the moon is full have an amazing experience in store: the night rainbow that curves in front of the falls.

A Rainforest Hideaway

Tucked into the jungle, with terraces and gardens all around, Hotel das Cataratas has the ambience of a colonial ambassador's private residence. A sugar-pink, mansion-style building, it was designed in the 1930s although not completed until 1958 due to World War II. Dark, tropical-wood floors and marble tables lend a real period feel. There is something supremely indulgent about making a foray out into the wild rainforest, then returning and just minutes later being led to the dining room by a uniformed waiter for grilled fish from the river, a palm-heart salad and a chilled glass of white wine. As sleep beckons, you can throw open your window and listen to the waterfalls' distant roar. Close up, Iguassu's thunder is truly terrifying but from the softness of your bed it turns into the sweetest lullaby.

By Amanda Keene, a UK-based travel writer

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