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Day 74: The Iguaçu Falls

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Coatimundi capering in the branches.
Michael Palin - BrazilI started my Brazilian journey up in the north, in the vast Amazon Basin, in which fifteen percent of all the river water in the world is contained, and I'm completing it 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) to the south, where another gathering of rivers creates a world record of a different sort – the biggest waterfall system in the world.

Up in the Pantanal we were between the south-flowing giants, the rivers Paraguai and Paraná. Looking at my map this morning I see that I'm now on the very edge of Brazil, where it meets both Paraguay and Argentina, only a few miles east of the Paraná River, and a few miles north of a town called Wanda, just across the Argentine border.

The River Iguaçu, on which I'm about to embark, is a comparative minnow in the Brazilian scale of things. It rises just outside Curitiba and flows, for some 1,200 kilometres (745 miles), to meet the Paraná, picking up speed and volume from tributaries along the way. Twenty-three kilometres (fourteen miles) short of the confluence of the two rivers, the placid Iguaçu plunges off the edge of a plateau, three kilometres (nearly two miles) long. This is what makes the Iguaçu Falls a world-beater. The Victoria Falls in Africa has the longest single curtain of water in the world but it is the sheer width of the Iguaçu spill that makes it special. When the river is full, there are nearly 300 separate waterfalls along its rim.

I'm heading up the Iguaçu, towards the falls, in a Zodiac dinghy in the company of Marina Xavier, a biologist from São Paulo who lives and works in the park. It's very warm and humid and the early morning cloud is breaking up and there is sporadic sunshine. Every now and then much bigger boats with powerful twin engines, and serried ranks of tourists strapped down inside, race past us, anxious to get to the falls as soon as possible. The wooded riverbanks rise steeply on either side of us and though this is not the wettest time of year, the river is splashing and bouncing over the rocks around us.

Marina says that the Iguaçu National Park is more a conservation area than a tourist area. Only three percent of this protected stretch of tropical rainforest is regularly visited, despite the great diversity of wildlife. Earlier, as we waited at a lodge to get our tickets, there was a lot of activity above us from coatimundi, scurrying creatures with black striped tails and long black noses, leaping about in the branches, and not far off was an armadillo, nose down, searching for something. But, as in the Pantanal, the jaguar remains the king of Brazilian wildlife. The beast that everyone wants to see. Marina smiles. Yes, they're beautiful, and they are the symbol of the park, but they're hardly ubiquitous. She's only seen one in the seven years she's worked here.

I ask her about the threats the park service has to face. Rather surprisingly, she names the palm heart business as one of the worst culprits. Obtaining this delicacy involves destroying an entire tree, and as palm seeds are an important part of the animals' diet this is having quite an impact. Then there's poaching, of course. Poaching as opposed to legal hunting, I ask?

Marina shakes her head.

'There's no hunting allowed,' she says firmly. 'Anywhere in Brazil.'

I ask about the collaboration between the Argentines and the Brazilians, who have joint responsibility for the park. Do they get on well?

'On biodiversity, yes.' Then she smiles and adds, 'Soccer, never!'
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The majesty of Iguaçu. This is one of almost 300 separate falls along the rim.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 74: The Iguaçu Falls
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: The Iguaçu Falls
  • Book page no: 310

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  • Around the World in 80 Days
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