My Spanish is so crummy, I mixed up my esperando and espero, then horas and años, during a conversation with my Paraguayan hotel clerk.
Turns out, I told him that I was hoping (not waiting) for my friend to come in five years (not 5 p.m.).
We all shared a hearty laugh and I soon found myself on a short, early evening flight from Asunción to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s City of the East — a commercial armpit near a huge dam, the triple border with Argentina and Brazil but, more important, our jumping-off point to perhaps the most jaw-dropping venue on the planet: Iguazú Falls.
The roaring curtains of water — named in 2011 as one of the world’s Seven Wonders of Nature — hypnotize visitors with their sheer drops and deafening power.
Niagara Falls, by comparison, is a leaky faucet. Really. With 275 distinctive cascades — including the Gargantua del Diablo, or the Devil’s Throat — Iguazú Falls drop 260 feet at some points. They are a third taller and four times wider than Niagara. That’s why Eleanor Roosevelt, upon her first gaze at the cataracts, reportedly uttered with a sigh, “Poor Niagara.”
Staged on a fishhook-shaped series of cliffs and islands, Iguazú Falls cannot merely be accessed via a series of hiking trails and steel catwalks putting visitors literally in the mist. For another $60, you can splurge for the Gran Aventura, or Great Adventure, which bushwhacks you through the butterflies, exotic birds and spider webs of the jungle on a massive all-terrain, open-air tank, before handing out waterproof bags for a drenching voyage on open-deck boats that take you right under the icy, crashing falls.
But like any wonder of the world, the falls attract tourists by the boat, ferry, plane and trainload. On the day we visited, local Argentines got in free, joining gaggles from Denmark, Japan and everywhere in between who poured into the national park — cameras cocked. Visitors can actually rent ladders, so elbowing for optimal views isn’t always enough. You should pack a periscope.
Thankfully, we found a respite from the chaos at an old tea plantation transformed into a 14-room luxury hotel in the jungle about an hour away from the falls. And in the process, I learned the true meaning of my new favorite Spanish word: tranquilo.
With a soothing pool, nearly 1,000 acres of jungle river hiking trails, hallucinogenic flowers, a gourmet restaurant and wine cave, Posada Puerto Bemberg proved to be the perfect yin to the falls’ yang.
“You feel like ants marching through the park,” said Francesco Bemberg, the inn’s fifth-generation owner. “Then, you come here and say, ‘Ah, my God,’ because we take your breath away in a different way.”
Naturalist, boat pilot on staff
The hotel’s shady verandas, high-ceilinged rooms, octagonal watch tower, organic gardens and riverside overlook proved to be as memorable as the wonder-of-the-world waterfalls we’d come to see in the first place.
On one hike, my wife, Adele, caught a glimpse of a large-tailed jungle cat cutting through the brush. On another, she slipped in a pool near a small waterfall, losing a ring — only to find it an hour later in an underwater crack in the rock.
“Un milagro,” according to an Argentine family who took off their shoes and helped search for the lost ring: a miracle.
Bemberg’s staff includes naturalists and a boat pilot who takes you out on the hotel’s private launch, offers chilled local beer and encourages you to jump in the Paraná River and swim up to a smaller but equally breathtaking waterfall adjacent to the property.
There are more convenient places to stay, no doubt, such as the Sheraton resort in the Iguazú park, a white wedge of an eyesore amid the jungle’s green landscape — but built close enough to the falls that you can feel the spray at the swim-up bar.
Posada Bemberg, though, was one of those places upon which you stumble and spend your stay patting yourselves on the back for finding such a perfect oasis from the scorch of tourism.
Car ferry to Argentina
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.