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We’d come to South America for a wedding of a Paraguayan international student we’d hosted at Macalester College. With Paraguay’s proximity to the falls, we figured they were well worth a three-day side trip. A tricky side trip, if you want to avoid paying $160 — twice — for visas from both Argentina and Brazil to see the same waterfalls.
Iguazú Falls span the border between Brazil and Argentina with the countries lining their own respective sides of the Iguazú River leading to the massive, semicircular ring of waterfall drop-offs. Eighty percent of the views are from the Argentine side, so we figured we’d save Brazil for a future jaunt.
So-called reciprocity fees are now in place because the United States currently charges Argentines and Brazilians $160 to merely apply to visit this country.
With the help of a creative Miami travel agent, we devised a strategy that enabled us to buy only Argentine visas. Acknowledging my Spanish inadequacies, we hired an Argentine driver and a guide, who met us at the Ciudad del Este airport.
The road from Paraguay to the falls winds over a peace bridge to Brazil, but a simple car ferry gets you to the Argentina side of the river and the tranquilo that is the Posada Puerto Bemberg.
Family’s long history in jungle
Francesco’s forebears came from Germany as missionaries to Buenos Aires in 1853 and they soon moved up to the aptly named Misiones province in the northeastern corner of Argentina. In the 1920s, they forged a plantation in the thick jungle, growing yerba mate, the area’s popular tea. They built a school and capilla (chapel) in the 1930s and still live in the colonial-style family home.
The Bembergs’ fortunes rose and fell with world events. Francesco’s father, Michel, and his brothers joined French freedom fighters, challenging the Nazis in World War II.
Then in the 1950s, dictator Juan Peron’s government seized their 18,000 acres of property in its quest to nationalize everything and root out foreigners. The place grew tangled and overgrown until the family was able to buy back 4,000 acres, importing pine trees for lumber. A decade ago, they turned the place into a hotel, making Condé Nast Traveler’s “hot list” in 2009.
Their compound, perched on a bluff over the Paraná River, was only accessible by boat until the highway was built in 1949. Back then, it was a two-day trip by oxcart to the falls or a harrowing boat ride.
Now, with our driver’s air-conditioned sedan, it took less than an hour to arrive at Iguazú, where we were greeted by coatis, small pointy-nosed cousins of the raccoon that swarm around and grab tourists’ food if they’re not careful. We explored the upper falls first, then boarded the boats for the up-close and chilling ride that swung under the falls, only to circle around for a second breath-snatching run beneath the thumping water of Iguazú Falls.
A Disney-style train in the afternoon took us to the trail snaking over walkways and catwalks — past crocodiles, toucans and butterflies — to the Devil’s Throat. Our guide suggested saving the site until the end of the day, like an aria at the climax of an opera. He was right.
You stand perched on a catwalk, silenced by the roar of water cascading off the U-shaped precipice at something like 85,000 cubic feet per second. Rainbows appear in the mist as you stare. And when the push of tourists becomes too much, you board the little train and head back to the Posada Puerto Bemberg’s turquoise pool.
tranquilo. Muy tranquilo.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767