“Indescribably beautiful”, “should be on everyone’s bucket list”, “one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen” – these are some descriptions I overheard of the Iguacu Falls while working in a backpacker hostel. Over 250 waterfalls line a 3km stretch between the borders of Brazil and Argentina. This tourist attraction is the newest member of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
The waterfalls draw people from all over, most of whom spend about 2 or 3 days here. The usual itinerary consists of both sides of the falls (Argentinian and Brazilian), a quick tour of the Itaipu Dam – the world’s largest hydroelectric plant – and a visit to the Bird Park. I spent 2 weeks working at a hostel in the city of Foz do Iguacu, which straddles the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. The majority of backpackers followed this trend, popping in and out of the city to see the well renowned falls, before heading off to their next destination. While most travellers don’t have the luxury of time to explore the lesser-known areas, it’s well worth taking the time in Foz do Iguacu. I joined a free walking tour of the city with the owner of Bambu, a nearby hostel, Diogo, and his colleague, Bruna.
We made our way down to the Paraná River. Diogo explained that many people don’t visit this side of town because it has a reputation of being a bit dodgy, which is not the reality at all. We strolled along the river on a road covered in trees. We passed local fishermen on their way to score their daily bounty from the river.
After a 20-minute walk, and a quick dip in the cool water, we arrived at a local family’s home. They served us fresh fish from the river along with a few Brahmas, the local beer.
Although I’d never been there before, the afternoon felt very nostalgic. It felt like we were in another time, not rushing around, ticking things off an itinerary, but rather really experiencing and appreciating every moment.
When I returned to the hostel I heard the same stories of visits to the falls, the dam and the bird park. While these are all worthy excursions, I feel like some tourists just follow the masses, feeling pressured to visit certain sites without taking time to explore and discover things for themselves. Diogo and Bruna seemed to want to offer visitors a more authentic experience of Foz de Iguacu, showing off the lesser known aspects of the city.
The following day I joined them once again on a trip to what the locals call “The Secret Falls”. We took a taxi to a rather obscure part of town, off the main street onto a very quiet road lining a forest. We walked down a steep path, surrounded by vines and lush vegetation. After about 10 minutes, we arrived at the hidden spot. The three of us just sat in silence for about an hour, admiring the beauty and taking in the calm atmosphere.
When we were back on the road above the falls, a local man and his wife invited us into their home for a Brahma. My Portuguese is very basic, and almost non-existent when people speak fast, so I didn’t catch most of the conversation. When we had left their home, Bruna explained to me that the man was saying that his family doesn’t have much, but what they do have, they want to share with us because that is what makes them happy. It was such a beautiful and simple sentiment that really made me appreciate his welcoming us into his home.
The next day I braved my dislike of crowds and headed to the Argentinian side of the famous waterfalls. They really are magnificent. But I couldn’t help notice all the people with their backs to the falls, taking selfies, and then analysing the photos afterwards, not once turning to look at the actual waterfalls. Everyone travels in their own way, doing what makes them happy. But I really think the tourist buzz detracts from what travelling is all about – really experiencing things, not just taking photos of yourself looking like you’re experiencing things.
Making a bit more effort to know a city’s culture and hidden gems is what travel is all about for me. If I only did the famous tours in Foz, I would have never experienced the generosity of the locals, and discovered the underrated beauty of the city. I feel very grateful for Diogo and Bruna’s efforts in offering a more authentic side of the city to tourists. I leave Foz do Iguacu with a deeper understanding of the place and the people.
Text and photos by Dana Toerien