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Falling for Nature : Destination: South America : The falls shake the earth with an unrelenting roar like some wild, trapped hurricane. : Spectacular Iguazu Falls straddle the border between Argentina and Brazil, and it's hard to decide which side is more beautiful

July 09, 1995|MARK WILLIAMS | Williams is a San Mateo free-lance writer.

PUERTO IGUAZU, Argentina — I was standing on Argentine soil at the confluence of two rivers, the Parana and the Iguazu, both thick as soup with muddy red soil carried down by recent rains. To the left lay Paraguay, where some men were launching small fishing boats down at the waterline. Straight ahead was Brazil, looking lush and green as I had always imagined. Behind me stood a monument with three flags marking the joint border between once hostile nations now linked by trade and cultural ties. And by tourism.

Twelve miles upriver is one of South America's major attractions: Iguazu National Park, which straddles the border between Argentina and Brazil and annually draws half a million visitors to what many think are the most spectacular falls in the Western Hemisphere. And there's more nearby. Up the Rio Parana, gigantic Itaipu Dam sits with authority between Brazil and Paraguay, and tourists learn it's the world's largest hydroelectric facility. (When completed in 1982, the dam flooded Sete Quedas--eliminating a waterfall said to have rivaled Iguazu in splendor.) Later, they will be packed off across Friendship Bridge (Puente de Amistad) to the eccentric Paraguayan town of Ciudad del Este, a frenzied collection of shops jammed with cheap electronic gadgets and a rather wicked whiskey called Old Smuggler. Argentines go there for bargains; others may find it a curiosity.

El Hito Argentino, as the three-nation lookout is called, lies at the far end of Puerto Iguazu, a pleasant but seedy town like something out of the Graham Greene novel "The Honorary Consul." There are money-changers and souvenir shops and a couple dozen hotels and residenciales catering to visitors, who mostly get around on big gleaming excursion buses made by Mercedes-Benz AG in Brazil.

Instead of joining the herd, I found the main bus terminal, where I jumped on a rattling local bus with wooden seats going out to the falls, Cataratas del Iguazu. Working the bus's awkward floor shift while smoking incessantly was a reed-thin young man with what I thought were Teutonic blue eyes and hair the color of straw. He spoke Spanish like a native, however, and later I learned he was called el polaco, and descended from a family of Polish immigrants.

Puerto Iguazu lies at the extreme north of Misiones province, a narrow finger of Argentine territory jutting up along the Parana river between Paraguay and Brazil. The region derives its name from the string of Jesuit missions (depicted in the film "The Mission") that two centuries ago formed the core of a clerical empire as large as France. During the past few decades Misiones has received repeated waves of European immigrants, including a few suspicious characters after the last World War who appreciated being able to hop from one country to another at a moment's notice.

On the outskirts of town we passed the road leading to the bridge over the Iguazu river. Dozens of trucks loaded with Argentine vegetables, mostly garlic and onions, formed a long queue to one side as they awaited customs clearance into Brazil, a process that, I was told by one truck driver, can take up to 24 hours. There was another logjam of buses and private cars making the excursion to the Brazilian side of the falls, into their segment of the park, called Iguacu National Park.

The two parks have separate administrations but cooperate on most matters. One notable exception is the clattering tourist-loaded helicopters flying into the gorge on the Brazilian side; in deference to its rich wildlife population, Argentina bans them. There's a perennial debate among visitors over which side has better views and access, with the consensus being that Brazil has the better panoramic view while Argentina offers a closer, more intimate look at the falls.

Nearing the park on the Argentine side I saw a cloud of butterflies--one of 25 varieties here--flash past and seemingly vanish. There are 430 species of birds in the park: toucans with their huge colored beaks; noisy, yellow-breasted bluebirds called urraca ; endangered species such as the wild turkey and royal condor, and ordinary swifts and ospreys, the black birds that have become the park's symbol and are seen nesting beneath the falls.

Moreover, there are about 60 species of mammals, including sleek jaguars, long-snouted and aggressive coati, capuchin and howler monkeys, hog-like tapirs, several types of puma and deer, armadillos, anteaters, giant otters and alligators. None are considered dangerous and they roam freely in a huge protected area of about 135,000 acres on the Argentine side alone. The park is carpeted with more than 2,000 varieties of trees and plants: wild orchids and carnations, ferns and mosses of infinite variety.

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