A Traveler’s Dream and Natural Wonder of the World – Iguazu Falls in Northern Argentina

After a relaxing day spent at the Marco Polo Backpacker’s Hostel in the town of Puerto Iguazu (located immediately across from the bus station) I set out to explore Iguazu Falls. As I bought my bus fare (transportation/price info here) and hopped on the shuttle to the falls, I did so with slight trepidation.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I say trepidation because, while hailed as a natural wonder of the world, I feared disappointment. In the past my experience with famous destinations with grand reputations has been mixed. Which is not to say that places like Knossos and Chichen Itza aren’t incredible – they are – but often they’re so sterile, over stabilized, full of tacky tourist crap and – I don’t know – dare I say bland? That I often leave slightly disappointed. For example: Was Chichen Itza impressive? Yes. Does it have the incredible pyramids, wild and untamed essence, and majesty of nearby Tikal? No.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I’m a huge waterfall guy and my expectations for Iguazu were every bit as expansive as the famed falls. Luckily, despite my initial concerns and hesitation I can honestly say that Iguazu was one of the most spectacular, incredible, and breath taking things I’ve ever visited. It was worth the 36 hour round trip bus ride from Buenos Aires and in truth, would have been worth the entire trip in and of itself, even if I hadn’t managed to see other parts of Argentina. It really is that magnificent. If you’re like me and are a bit skeptical about visiting, bury your skepticism and book a ticket immediately. It’s worth it.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The 15 minute bus ride out to the falls was on a small bus packed with a mixture of sweaty locals and tourists alike. As we bounced along the uneven paved streets I overheard the two girls next to me speaking in Aussie English. Before long we’d struck up a conversation, and exchanged all of the usual questions and answers. As we pulled into the roundabout in front of the visitor’s center and disembarked we decided to team up and explore the park together.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

I had read online that the small island of San Martin was incredible, only accessible by a boat/shuttle, and was subject to water levels and flow. The information I’d read suggested starting with it, as the water levels tended to rise later in the afternoon. It didn’t take much to convince the girls to head for the island, and with maps in hand we made our way along small paths, which cut through the thick jungle vegetation before giving way to raised metal boardwalks.

Standing Above the Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

The metal boardwalks were well done. Unobtrusive natural metal colors and made of open wire and mesh, they blended into the scenery without leaving ugly scars across the jungle floor. They also allowed us to effortlessly pass over, beside, and around large waterfalls and uneven jungle terrain.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

While the main falls are the primary draw for any visitor, it’s important to note that the whole region is full of small falls tracing their way down towards the river. Some of these more intimate falls, while smaller, offer their own natural beauty and a more delicate sense of power.

The Beach and Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

As we slowly traced our way down towards the river we wound along metal walkways, stone stairways, and small cliff-side paths. We found ourselves pausing regularly to take in a particularly elegant vantage point, wild life, or to pause for a quick photo op. At one point one of the numerous butterflies in the area landed on one of the girls mid step, in the midst of one of the stairways. Each new step seemed to reveal more and more of Iguazu’s magic.

Swimming at the Foot - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Before long we reached the “dock” area. Which consisted mostly of two small metal docks and some old tires. From the area, there were two lines. One for the small ferry which would take us out to the island in the middle of the river and a second which served as the boarding and prep station for the waterfall excursion boats. These high power speedboats offered a similar service to the Maid of the Mist at Niagara falls and would take eager passengers up into the falls outer mists before, drenching their passengers, before allowing the water to push them back down, and out towards saftey.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

To our delight, once we reached the Isla San Martin we discovered a small sandy beach had been cordoned off and made available as a beach. Eager for the opportunity to fully experience the falls and escape from the steamy-hot summer day the girls and I quickly agreed on quick stopover, before we climbed the massive staircase to the main part of the island. As the girls did their best to change into their swimsuits in as subtle a fashion as possible, I kicked myself for not wearing my swimsuit, stripped down to my boxer-briefs and made a B-line for the water. It was warm, with a strong-but manageable current and made the entire visit and experience that much more real. As the water bombarded my senses with a different set of stimuli it shaped and re-crafted my relationship with the falls. As odd as that may sound – I think my experience would have been every bit as wonderful, but fundamentally different without the chance to actually swim in the river and to connect with the falls in a more tactile way.

The Falls - Iguazu Falls, Argentina

After a relaxing break in the falls/river the girls realized more time had passed then they had expected and after a quick exchange of information they re-boarded the ferry and made their way back towards their scheduled boat tour. Sad to see them go, but glad to have had the company for the first part of my time in the falls I turned my sights to the long, steep stairway which would take me up the side of the Island’s cliff face and eventually lead me to one of the islands two incredible viewing areas.

There’s a lot more to share, including my visit to the Devil’s Throat, wild insects, dragon-esque lizards and more. Jump to Part II: Iguazu Falls, the Devils Throat and Wild Beasts: Adventure in Northern Argentina.

Have questions about the falls? Comments or your own experiences? Please post a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Like the photos and video in this post? They were shot on a Canon G11 (latest version: Canon G12) and a Vixia HF200.

The Ruins of Chichen Itza and A Grand Cenote

Ruins of Chichen Itza

Over a thousand years ago Mayan engineers laid down the plans for a mighty undertaking.  One that required precision, patience, insane amounts of manpower, and a shocking scientific knowledge about the world, solar system, and engineering.

Sunrise in Playa del Carmen

My morning started shortly after 7.  As the sun rose over the bay, I meandered my way along the main drag in Playa del Carmen.  I walked lazily, hoping to find something edible and affordable for breakfast, before connecting with the day-long bus tour to Chichen Itza and a large Cenote I’d booked the afternoon before.  I was curious and a bit anxious.  The all day tour was only $40 USD.  A fair bit less than a lot of the other competitors and dirt cheap for an all day tour.   Especially one that included the entrance to the ruins, a buffet lunch, and entrance to a large stabilized cenote/swimming area.

Sunrise in Playa del Carmen

The weather was incredible.  The remnants of the previous day’s storm were lazily clinging to life as the sun gently pushed its way towards apex.  All the while the Sun’s rays cut giant holes through the clouds, lancing giant golden rays towards the coast and into the water.  It was truly one of the most breathtaking sunrises I’ve seen in a very, very long time.  In many ways, it was the most majestic thing I’d see all day. Eventually I found my way back to a bench in front of the closed restaurant where I was schedule to meet my driver.  Ere long I noticed a few other travelers doing the same thing and struck up a conversation.  As it turned out, several of the women near by were traveling together and from the west coast.  The younger ones were in their late 20s/early 30s and were loads of fun.  We quickly exchanged stories and laughed as we anxiously tried to figure out what/where/how we would be finding our way to the bus. As it turned out, the ladies were actually scheduled with a different tour company, much to our collective disappointment.  My disappointment increased as I was led to the vehicle we’d be using: Unlike the van I’d been promised we’d be taking I was greeted by a 16 person mini bus.  Annoyed at the increased size, my frustration deepened as I realized that I’d also been lied to about the tour language.  I’d been told it was an English only tour, instead it quickly became obvious that the tour would be delivered in Spanish 2/3 of the time with the occasional English follow up.  Uncomfortable in my tiny seat, pissed off about being lied to and anything but happy about the Spanish historical video playing on the Van’s TV I settled in for the 2+ hour drive from Playa del Carmen to the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

The city itself is thought to have become a regional power around 600 A.D.  For the next 400 years the city enjoyed varying degrees of power before eventually collapsing around 1,000 A.D. – though the site itself retained a significantly reduced population there after and is believe to have remained active for several hundred years, largely due to the large Cenotes. Upon our arrival we made our way down dirt pathways that were lined by local Mayan craft art supplemented by the usual tourist crap.  The sheer number of small table stands and vendors is a tribute to the immense draw Chichen Itza has as a tourist attraction. I recently read that Chichen Itza is Mexico’s second most popular/visited Archaeological site.   The site itself was fairly sterile.  Major buildings have been restored/stabilized, vegetation cleared, and grass planted in major areas. As we paused in front of the main pyramid, “El Castillo” our guide explained the incredible details of the pyramid’s construction and orientation.   The pyramid was built with painstaking attention detail so that every step, tier, and decoration had some sort of powerful meaning or purpose. The most impressive of which was the way the steps and edges of the pyramid aligned during the equinox twice a year.  Wikipedia explains the event, “On the Spring and Autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent – Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl – along the west side of the north staircase. On these two annual occasions, the shadows from the corner tiers slither down the northern side of the pyramid with the sun’s movement to the serpent’s head at the base”. You can see the staircase sans shadows in the photo above.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

From the main pyramid we cut down and across towards the “La Iglesia” structure in the Las Monjas complex of buildings.  On the way we paused briefly at several small pyramids and temples before reaching a heavily decorated building, which had a number of powerfully carved decorates dedicated to/depicting the Mayan god of rain Chaac.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

From there it was on to the Observatory – another incredible piece of astrological/archeological mastery, before pausing briefly for a snack.  Then it was back to the main plaza by the primary pyramid – which, by the way, can no longer be climbed by the public.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

From there we explored several of the other smaller temples and archeological ruins, pausing to take in the impressive carvings and monster-like figures carved into the local stone.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

In addition to the site’s amazing archeological wonders, it’s also home to a plethora of unusual plant life.  The plant life creates a vibrant, often enthralling backdrop to the ancient Mayan wonders, and re-affirmed my respect for the Mayan’s resilience and ability to carve their way through thick jungle. In retrospect, I wish I’d seen Chichen Itza long before visiting Guatemala’s Tikal. While impressive in scale and scope I could not help but feel that Tikal dwarfed Chichen Itza in every way.  The pyramids were larger and more majestic, the jungle wilder, the ruin complex larger, the site itself less polished.  I had high expectations for Chichen Itza.  After all, the site has been selected as one of the “New Wonders of the World” and has drawn travelers, scholars and heads of state alike.  These expectations were somewhat disappointed.  That said, however, it truly is a wondrous place.  Just make sure you see it BEFORE you see Tikal.

Cenote Looking Up

From Chichen Itza it was back onto the bus for a brief trip down the street to a large cenote-turned water park.  The cavernous Cenote had been stabilized and reinforced, with a small, secondary tunnel carved into the side of the large cavernous area.  I quickly changed into my swimsuit, and began to make my way down through the cave/tunnel, pausing briefly at the two overlooks that opened up onto the sinkhole/cenote’s interior.

Mexican Cenote

The Cenote itself was incredible.  A large tubular sinkhole that stretched at least 100 feet down into the earth, before cutting into deep blue/green water, there was a small waterfall that cascaded down the sheer face of the cenote’s walls, before splashing across the water’s surface.  The whole area was surrounded by long vines, many of which stretched at least 100 feet from the surface, down into the cenote.

Cenote Jump

Once at the bottom, I jumped in and swam for a bit.  Pausing briefly to look up towards the surface.  All the while reveling in the natural beauty of the Cenote’s fern, moss and vine covered walls.  From there it was up a series of steps to a jump some 15-20 feet up.   Once there, after a momentary pause I launched myself out and into the dark green waters, dodging fish and hanging fines as I torpedoed down into the water.  As impressive as the Cenote was above water, our guide told us it stretched another 70 some odd meters below the surface. Truly an incredible place. From there it was back onto the bus for a tired nap and long drive home.  The following day I’d be piling onto a plane and making the short flight back to Arizona. The Yucatan is truly a wondrous place, one I hope you will all consider visiting.  It is home to amazing natural beauty, delightful food, amazing experiences, and a rich archeological history. On that note, this post is the final in my series on my December 2009 Central America trip.  Stay tuned for new posts, adventures and destinations.