Iguaçu (in Brazil) or Iguazú (in Argentina) is a system of waterfalls located right on the border between these two countries. Two-thirds of the falls actually are in Argentina. Paraguay is also very close but does not own any part of the falls. From Brazil, you can enjoy a magnificent overview of the whole set of waterfalls. From Argentina, the footbridges take you to the heart of the falls.
Iguazú Falls is among the greatest shows that Nature can offer on our planet. They are made of 275 waterfalls, spread over a length of 2.7 km (1.7 mi). The most impressive part, the “Devil’s Throat”, is also the highest at 82 m (269 ft). They make the well-known Niagara Falls look dwarf. Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the former US president, is said to have exclaimed “Poor Niagara!” when she visited the falls.
Iguazú means “great waters” in Tupi-Guarani, the language of the local indigenous peoples. These peoples had explained the formation of these powerful waterfalls by a legend featuring their deities.
The Legend of Iguazú Falls
We owe this legend to the Guarani Indians who used to live around the Iguazú River. These Indians believed in a god named Mboi, a giant serpent living in the river. In order to keep Mboi satisfied and quiet, humans had to be sacrificed. One day, a woman called Naipí was to be sacrificed. She was a really beautiful young woman and the daughter of the Chief of the tribe.
In that tribe, there was also a young warrior called Tarobá. Tarobá was crazy in love with Naipí, from the first moment he saw her. All the neighboring tribes were invited to attend this important Ceremony. Before the sacrifice could take place, he kidnapped Naipí and they fled on the river in a canoe.
When he heard about it, the god Mboi did not appreciate it at all. He got extremely furious and violently moved his body, causing a giant crack to appear in the earth, and giving birth to the huge Iguazú waterfalls. Tarobá and Naipí, with their canoe, sank in the falls.
According to the legend, Tarobá became a rock constantly hit by the immense force of the water, and Naipí became a palm tree overlooking the falls. This way, the two lovers are condemned to contemplate each other for eternity, without ever being able to be together again.
The Formation of The Falls (In Real Life)
The formation of the Iguazú Falls is about as violent as in the legend. The landscape was created by huge volcanic and seismic mechanisms.
100 million years ago, massive volcanic eruptions took place. These eruptions resulted in several huge lava flows that were turned into a rock called basalt. The Iguazú area is made of 3 layers of basalt, at 3 different heights.
The seismic movements that followed moved the layers of basalt vertically and horizontally. This created cracks in the earth, that geologists call faults. the Iguazú river now flows in the largest of these faults, enlarged by the erosion of water.
It is easy to spot the different layers of basalt, in certain parts forming like huge “steps”. The colossal amount of water flowing through the falls is constantly eroding the basalt. However, the basalt is a resistant rock, and the erosion is not really perceptible. It is estimated that in the Iguazú region, the total layer of basalt reaches a thickness of 1 km (3200 ft).
The Discovery and Recent History of Iguazú
The first European to see the falls was a Spanish Conquistador called Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, in 1542. He had first named them Santa Maria Falls, but they took the name of Iguazú a few years later.
In 1934, the falls got protected in a 67,000-hectare national park, shared between Brazil and Argentina. In 1984, the park was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
In addition to the falls themselves, the national park protects a big patch of what remains of the Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Forest. This forest used to cover a huge part of Brazil, and has nowadays dramatically plummeted.
As much as 90% of the original forest has been cleared. Thus, The Iguaçu National Park in Brazil and the Iguazu National Park in Argentina are a masterpiece in the conservation of the Atlantic Forest ecosystem and biodiversity.
This is a major reason for the majesty of these falls, the immediate environment is still largely untouched. Only light infrastructures like walkways or a small railroad have been built in the immediate proximity of the falls.
A hotel is also present on each side of the park: the Hotel Das Cataratas in the Brazilian park, and the Sheraton Iguazú Resort & Spa on the Argentinian side.