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Cataratas del Iguazu

A telegram in Paul Reps’ book Zen Telegrams goes: “Moth caressing my cheek… could be you…” .

I felt the exquisite tenderness of this metaphor for the first time last week at the Iguazu Falls (Cataratas del Iguazu in Spanish) in Argentina. As I paused on the catwalk over the mighty cataratas to consult my map of the Falls, even as the golden waters – the earth in the region is a deep red, which might be the source of the golden-red colour of the waters – roared on either side of me in their rush to plunge over the hillside into a steep drop, a lemon yellow butterfly came and rested on my hand, tentatively at first, then stayed on to explore… caress… ever so gently… While I held my beath not daring to move, it continued to sit fearlessly, as if lost in thought. For a few seconds it looked this way and that, nibbled a little again, and then flew away slowly over the waters.

At that  moment I experienced an epiphany.  It is not that the butterfly mistook my brown hand for a flower;  what attracted it was probably the green colour of the flier in my hand.  The butterfly must have thought that it was an extension of the dense tropical forest all around us. But for me, that little mistaken landing powerfully epitomized the unity of opposites that only nature has the imagination to sustain: everywhere in Iguazu, fragile, silent, and luminously beautiful butterflies fly convivially over one of the most massive, thunderous and powerful waterfalls in the world.

Walking on golden waters

'Walking on waters'

If the encounter with the yellow butterfly remains one of my frozen-in-time memories of the Falls, another was the sight of two black-and-orange chameleons doing a silent courtship dance on a tree trunk at the edge of one of Iguazu’s 275 massive waterfalls. I was just finishing the upper circuit of the Falls where, after you climb up steps and the ramps that take you to the top of the Falls, you get to literally stand on top of the water (as in the picture above), and feel it rushing out from one side of you, rush under your feet and down the steep precipice on the other side. I was on a rocky island at the end of one section of the Falls, and on either side of the island water was crashing down with a fearsome roar, relentlessly flattening clumps of tall bright green grass that grew bravely on the rocks below – they tried repeatedly to stand up only to be bludgeoned back every time – and throwing up a fine spray of mist that clouded my glasses. Bushy trees were growing tenaciously out of the rocks at all angles, their trunks and leaves moist from the spray.  Butterflies were delicately flitting about their foliage, just out of reach of the water. A giant half rainbow was positioned over the spray mist, caused by the sun shining through the water. It was in the midst of this glorious spectacle that, on one of the trees that was growing inches away from the handrail of the catwalk,  the chameleons were locked in embrace: oblivious to either the drama of the waters or the movement of visitors on the viewing bridge… completely lost in their own world, taking their own time while speaking a language universal in its meaning.

A third unforgettable moment was when I decided to do the lower circuit, using the steep route that I had avoided the day before. This consisted of steps and ramps that descended down to the base of the Falls right down to the river and then gradually rose above the river, climbing along the forested hillside to afford panoramic views of the Falls from a distance. Ramps drenched in spray connected walkers from one waterfall to the other, making the experience of nature as participatory as one could possibly imagine. Each time you crossed one of those ramps, you stood exposed, since there was only a handrail to separate you from the cascading water. Even as I made one such crossing at the bottom of one of the big Falls and felt the spray shower over me, the sun came out and shone on the spray and there were a myriad rainbows before my eyes. It was absolutely magical.

Rainbow over the falls

And of course, once you move back from being touched directly by the falling spray, and walk up though the forest to view the Falls from a distance, you have the butterflies for company : butterflies of every conceivable colour and design – neon blue and purple, lime green and black, bright yellow, orange and black, yellow and white, polka dots, zig-zag patterns…the varieties are endless. And everywhere you look, you encounter virgin sub-tropical forest, protected by national parks on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides: giant trees of bewildering variety (in Latin America even familiar tropical trees seem to have larger-than-life leaves); creepers spreading wildly forming ropes and canopies making the forest look like a movie set straight out of Tarzan or Anaconda; orchids, lilies, begonias, palms, bamboos, ferns, bromeliads; and rich wildlife of tapirs, giant ant eaters, howler monkeys, jaguars and pumas, of which only the ant eaters are ubiquitous, playful and friendly, following tourists around to pick up ice creams, sandwiches and chips…

The Iguazu Falls consist of 275 individual cascades, along a rim that is 2.7 km long, created by a volcanic eruption that left open a crack in the interleaved layers of sandstone and basalt. The highest section of the falls – at the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) – drops 270 feet (around 82 meters) into the Iguazu river, the force of the cascade creating a pillar of mist that rises between 30 meters (98 feet) an 150 meters (492 feet) into the sky. The volcanic fault has created several rocky islands that break up the falls into discrete cascades (hence 275) , but when the flow is at its peak, many of these individual falls coalesce.

Far bigger than Niagara (more than twice as wide, with a much greater volume of water) and higher, the Iguazu are second only to the Victoria Falls in South Africa, which is the largest curtain of water in the world, as well as the highest, creating mist that rises 300 meters (984 feet) above the ground). But the Victoria Falls, being a single waterfall is too immense to directly experience.

What makes Iguazu at Argentina  the most beautiful and spectacular falls in the world (it can also be viewed from the Brazilian side, but more as a panorama and not in this participatory way) is that it affords a more direct experience, due to several factors:  its discrete nature (each of the individual Falls can be viewed up close), its tropical forest setting which, too, can be experienced while visiting the Falls, better views from the ramps and walkways that take the visitor right into, above and below the Falls, and at one point – the Devil’s Throat -, the feeling of being in the midst of three walls of water cascading down the U shape of the gorge. One can also take a boat ride on the Iguazu river right up to the base of the Falls.  On the days that I was there, access to the Devil’s Throat had been closed to the public: the heavy rains in Brazil during the preceding fortnight had caused the water levels to rise so dramatically that the catwalks over the Devil’s Throat were submerged ;  the increase in the volume of water in the Falls at the Devil’s Throat  was evident in the fact that the visibility of that section of the Falls, from a distance, was shrouded by a tall pillar of mist that rose to join the clouds…

Apart from the thrilling experience of coming up close to the powerful waters and the tropical forest,  Iguazu gives the visitor the grand feeling of being on a river that is born in one country (Brazil),  has travelled 1200 kms receiving water from many sources along the way, and empties itself into a canyon in another country (Argentina).   Although over two thirds of the Falls are within Agentina, Iguazu is positioned at the confluence of three countries of Latin America –  Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – and is a part of the folklore of all three.   As the Guarani Indian language (from which it takes its name) describes it, it is indeed the “Great Waters”.

anteater

lone flower blooming on the hillside

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