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 The eighth wonder of the world

One of the most popular destinations Hin Argentina and a sure-fire candidate for the eighth wonder of the world, the Iguazú Falls –or Great Waters in guaraní, the local Indian dialect- lie on the triple frontier of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina and are a powerful magnet for visitors from all over the world.  The resounding roar of water thundering over the lip of the 90-metre Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Gorge) and the sight of massive quantities of white froth that seem to hang in mid-air before plunging far down into distant spray instil you with a strong sense of vertigo, a terrifying attraction that draws you ever closer to the fragile rails of the balcony overhanging the main falls. 

Visitors to the falls can enjoy the views and feel the vibrations that rock the surrounding earth of one of the most awe-inspiring experiences in the natural world in many different ways: from strolling along innumerable walkways on both the Argentine and Brazilian sides with thrilling vistas above and below the falls, giving you the feeling you are floating mere inches above the tumbling waters, to nail-biting sorties right into the mouth of the gorge in rubber dinghies which threaten to toss the occupants into a furious cauldron only metres away.  And in case you did not get wet enough then, the return trip darts under other falls, surging through drenching white mists and streams worthy of a fireman’s hose on full to leave you spluttering yet exhilarated. 

A geological fault redeemed by natural resources

The Devil’s Gorge is possibly the most spectacular of the 275 waterfalls that make up this astounding complex of cascades arrayed in a 4 km-wide horseshoe shape across the Iguazú River which flows down from the Serra do Mar mountain in Paraná, Brazil.  This sudden deep drop was caused by a geological fault possibly the result of a volcanic eruption some 200 000 years earlier, although due to the natural process of erosion, geologists calculate that the actual edge has moved back 23 kilometres from its point of origin and will continue to do so. 

The first sighting of the Great Waters

The falls were originally discovered in 1541 by the conquistador Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, best known for his famously-entitled chronicle “Shipwrecks”, who sailed across from Spain with the intention of taking possession of the lands of the River Plata after Pedro de Mendoza’s death but lost his way and his ship on route.  Shipwrecked in Brazil, he walked from Santa Catalina to Asunción in Paraguay and on his journey fell in with some guaraní Indians who took him on a canoe trip to the top of the falls, an experience he noted with amazement and awe. 

“Poor Niagara

Four centuries later, the breathtaking sight of the tremendous amounts of water –an average of 5000 cubic metres per second which fall over drops of 90 metres- plunging through the lush green beauty of the surrounding rainforest prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to say, simply, “Poor Niagara”.  Indeed, the Iguazú Falls are nearly four times the size of Niagara and comparable only to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

The triple frontier

The region formed by Puerto Iguazú in Argentina, Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, is today known as the Polo Turístico Iguazú.  Each city has its own very different resources and attractions which combine to give this part of the world a unique feel, while the falls and the tropical rainforest surrounding them are amply protected by the umbrella of the Iguaçú National Park in Brazil and the Argentine Iguazú National Park, created in 1934 and declared a UNESCO National World Heritage site 50 years later. 

The original rainforest

The rainforest of Misiones is part of the Parana rainforest, a natural formation that until 1910 covered the whole of the north of the state of Sao Paolo in Brazil and reached down to the north of Argentina.  Of that original lush forestation, only 6% is left standing today.  Whereas in Brazil and Paraguay, the rainforest is under serious threat of extinction, excepting some key natural reserves, the situation in Argentina is different as the Misiones rainforest was not initially raided to the same extent. 
But there is major cause for concern as in just over half a century, the Misiones rainforest has been depleted by 70%.  This rainforest first came under threat at the end of the 19th century when Misiones officially became part of Argentine territory, fruit of the victory of the Triple Alliance (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay) over Paraguay.  Large timber companies soon set themselves up with a quasi-slavery employment regime which survived until the first labour laws of the mid 1940s. 
However, the task of depleting the rainforest soon fell into the hands of the new industrial companies that bulldozed swathes of destruction through the trees in the 1970s.  Together with the growth of small-scale subsistence farming among the indigenous Indians, this is resulting in the gradual erosion of the rain forest. 

Discover the jungle for yourself

The care of the Argentine rain forest and its inhabitants in the Iguazú National Park is, however, in the hands of experts keen to share their knowledge and preservation concerns with ecologically interested visitors and there are several tours available to suit all interests.  The floor of the rain forest, which gets the least sunlight, is home to plants with large leaves and a broad scope of insects as well as large mammals like the tapir, the wildcat and deer, while colossal trees such as the Amazonian rosewood reach up through the canopies of hanging gardens to poke through the green roof and provide a perch for the eagles. 
For those who want to wake up to the sounds of the jungle a tree-top lodge in the heart of the jungle, Yacutinga Lodge, a stunning refuge in its own private nature reserve which offers every comfort for keen nature lovers.


Remember The Mission with Jeremy Irons and Roberto De Niro?

But Misiones is not just about the beauty of its natural gifts.  A significant period of the history of the Jesuit Church took place here, set against the struggle between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns over their rights to territory in South America and immortalised in Roland Joffé’s 1986 epic film starring Jeremy Irons as the Jesuit priest intent on protecting the guaraní native Indians backed up by Robert De Niro as a converted slave trader, both grappling with Ray McAnally’s powerful church functionary sent by the King of Portugal to decide the future of the Jesuit missions and the native communities they ministered to. 

The civilization of the guaraní Indians

The Society of Jesus, founded by the subsequently-canonized Ignatius Loyola in the mid-16th century, was set up to be a religious order of energetic well-educated young men as roving missionaries to preach and administer the sacraments wherever there was the hope of accomplishing the greater good.  It was not long before they established themselves in Brazil, Peru and Paraguay, which included Argentina, Uruguay, parts of Bolivia, Chile and the south of Brazil.  They rapidly organised the small tribes of native Indians into Reductions or communities to be evangelized, setting up schools and carefully shaping their social and cultural development all the while respecting their innate rights. 

The system worked largely because the relationship between the Jesuits and the Indians was pacific and mutually respectful in nature and the communities were far from Spanish and Portuguese settlements which tended to clash with a civilization so different from their own.  In their heyday, over 140.000 native Indians lived in some 30 Jesuit communities, of which 11 were in the area now known as the province of Misiones.  However, the Reductions soon came under the threat of Portuguese slave traders in the 1620s who carried out violent raids on the communities in search of men and women to be sold as slaves to the Fazendas and estates on the Atlantic coast.  

The colonization of Misiones

Finally, the Jesuit fathers decided to move southwards to the Yabebirí river where they re-founded San Ignacio Miní and Loreto, followed by Santa María La Mayor on the coast of the river Uruguay and Santa Ana deep in the thickets of the rainforest, all of which have been restored to a greater or lesser degree and may be visited today. 

The end of an era

The Jesuit’s exemplary task of evangelization and education which continued unhindered until the mid-18th century was not without its detractors and critics, particularly as the missionaries also excelled at trade with all sectors of society.  The advance of the Enlightenment and the growing influence of the Freemasons in Europe encouraged ideological opposition to the Catholic Church and more particularly to the Society of Jesus, finally leading to the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portuguese territory in 1757 and from Spanish territory just 10 years later.  Once the priests had left, the Spanish could not find a way to get on with these religiously-organized villages and so these disbanded.  The glorious mission buildings gradually fell into disuse and decay as the guaraní communities drifted away into social structures of a different kind, died or crept back into the jungle.  Today, their descendants have merged with the immigrant white population, losing their language and culture, while the ornately decorated churches which enshrined their spiritual and social emancipation lie in ruins

















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