Iguazú: The Largest Falls You've Never Heard Of

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see on any trip to Argentina, including for families with young children.

Iguazú Falls. When Eleanor Roosevelt saw them, she is reported to have said, “Poor Niagara.”

When the water is high, “Cataratas de Iguazú” has over 250 separate waterfalls. Visitors can expect roaring water, an exhilarating boat ride into the spray and a subtropical jungle setting. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the falls form part of Iguazú National Park, which borders Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

While some parents, imagining poisonous snakes and rare tropical diseases, may not think that the jungle and small children make a perfect combination, rest assured this makes for a great family trip.

To Go, or Not to Go?

Iguazú is featured on all the travel sites for Argentina, but we wondered what to expect for our daughter, who had just turned 3. The information I found said it was a great destination for those over 6, but it wasn’t suitable for smaller children. Was she old enough to enjoy it? Were we being overly ambitious?

In the end we decided to go for it, which was the right decision. Age need not be an issue, though you will want a stroller for those under the age of 2 or for lazy walkers. If your child enjoys nature, boat rides, trains, geology, butterflies or birds, you should be fine.

Where to Stay

The towns closest to the falls are Puerto Iguazú (Argentina) and Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil). The most convenient places to stay are on the grounds of the parks themselves: the Sheraton (an unsightly fortress on the Argentinean side) and the Tropical Das Cataratas Hotel (an elegant colonial hotel) on the Brazilian side. But you pay for the privilege—published rates for the Sheraton are US$225-600, the Tropical runs between US$260-730.

We stayed at Orquideas Hotel because it offered cabins with small kitchens, grounds to stroll around in, a restaurant and pool, and a massage therapist (bliss).

Timing and Costs

Allowing three days for the trip worked out well: one to arrive and lounge about, one to see the falls from the Argentine side (where the vast majority of the falls are located), and the last to see the Brazilian side and head back to Buenos Aires.

The flight takes two hours from Buenos Aires, and runs about US$225 per adult, US$150 per child (under 12, under 3 are free) with Aerolineas Argentinas. We paid an extra US$270 per adult (no charge for our daughter) for transfers to/from the airport, a Jungle Superior cabin at Orquideas, entry fees to the parks and a private guide (with transport) to take us to the falls for two days.

What to Expect

We easily filled day two (10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) with our visit to the Argentinean side. When you arrive, there’s a good visitor center with maps that show the walks. The main ones are Upper Circuit, Lower Circuit and San Martin Island, where there’s a small beach. Entry to the park is very reasonable, even with higher charges for foreigners: A$40 (US$13) for adults, A$20 (US$6.50) for children aged 6-12 years, children under the age of 6 are free. Boat excursions (US$35) and helicopter rides (US$70) are extra—book these in advance with a travel agent if possible.

A series of wide, level, suspended walkways take you close to the falls, and there’s a natural gas-powered train to speed things along. The day goes quickly, as you’re essentially walking through the jungle (second generation growth), and there are lots of opportunities to spot toucans, jewel-colored birds, masses of butterflies and coatis (little raccoon-like creatures that love to forage through garbage cans). It took ages for our daughter, Indigo, to spot the toucans (the trees are high), but when she saw one flying away she doubled over with laughter. Half of its length was its beak!

The main attraction is Garganta del Diablo, Devil’s Throat. This waterfall is a wide, semicircle with a dramatic drop of 82 meters (269 feet) and mist exploding at the bottom. However, we were more taken with this stunning sight than Indigo was. The platform was very crowded with people jostling for the amazing view and posing for photographs. Indigo much preferred running free on less-crowded platforms, throwing sticks into the water, looking for butterflies and climbing on the benches.

A bit of an adrenaline junkie, her top attraction was the boat ride to the falls. We had coached her on what to expect—fast turns, lots of noise, a choppy ride and a complete soaking when we edged up to the falls. I wouldn’t suggest this excursion to any parent who blanched when reading those words. The Zodiacs (inflatable boats with an engine) hold about 15 people and a few guides. Those in the know wear rain gear or swimsuits, and you are given a waterproof bag for your belongings. As we jetted out and zigged a few turns, we watched Indigo out of the corner of our eye, waiting for an “I want off this boat NOW” reaction. No chance—she was in her element. And as the boat pulled up to the shore, we had to do some quick thinking to avoid a meltdown as she wanted to do it again right away.

On day three, our guide took us across the border to Brazil, where there are amazing, panoramic views of the falls. It really is worth it—every photo you take looks like a postcard. (Note: We were traveling on U.K. passports; U.S. passport holders need a visa to enter Brazil; this must be obtained prior to your visit, and at the time of publication cost US$100.)

Months later, our daughter still shouts with excitement when she tells people about the adventure. “The boat went FAST. And the water came down, down, down on our heads!” she says, slapping her hands on top of her head. But she described it best as I put her to bed the night of the boat ride: “Now I know why people laugh and scream at the same time.”

Planning Essentials

[This article was originally published in January on our Alpha test site. It has since been updated.] 

Destinations: Argentina, Iguazú

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Bird Watching, Sightseeing

User Comments

Featured in the Mission (film) Oh woow! So this is where those falls are! They make for a dramatic settings in the movie The Mission. I always wondered where those were. I can't wait to see them! It must be awe-inspiring.

A great impression of what to expect Some very useful tips are included in this article. (e.g. US needing visas for Brazil) and I love the way it is written from a family perspective