Almost everybody in the English speaking world and beyond has heard of the famous Niagara Falls, but far less know about the bigger badass brother, Iguazu Falls. To be honest, before I started traveling in Latin America, I had never heard anything about Iguazu.
I had the luxury of visiting both natural wonders, Iguazu in 2017 and Niagara in 2018. After these experiences, my humble opinion is that Niagara Falls is a bit like Charlie Sheen, famous but greasy. Whereas, Iguazu Falls is a bit like Morgan Freeman, legendary.
Niagara Falls straddles the border between the United States and Canada. It’s on everybody’s must-see Canada list. Hell, any postcard that doesn’t show in Banff National Park, the CN Tower, Quebec City or somewhere in British Colombia has a brilliant snap from Niagara.
I’m not going to bore you with dazzling facts about the size and history of Niagara. This article is about the experience. If you are interested, you can find some facts here.
There are two Niagara Falls cities. A Niagara Falls, New York and a Niagara Falls, Ontario. They sit facing each other on opposite sides of the Niagara Gorge. I visited the Niagara Falls, Ontario side.
Getting To The Niagara Falls Area
The closest airports to the Canadian side are the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport and Niagara District Airport. Most people fly into the John C. Munro airport in Hamilton. On the American side, you have two options, the Niagara Falls International Airport, and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the latter of the two is probably your best bet. At any airport, with the exception of the Niagara District Airport, you can rent a car and be on your way to Niagara in under an hour.
Alternatively, you could take the train from Toronto (which stops in Hamilton), or the train from Buffalo. The train from Toronto runs much more frequently than the one from Buffalo.
Finally, you can also take a bus from Toronto (also stops in Hamilton) or from Buffalo.
The City Of Niagara Falls, Ontario
When you first get to the City of Niagara Falls, Ontario, there’s not much to see. It’s bleak. As you make your way to the falls the first things you notice are the giant hotels and giant letters screaming The KEG, TGI Fridays etc. Once you get into the thick of the hotel district, that’s when the bright flashing lights, billboards, and casinos hit you.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was in some dilapidated faux Canadian version of Las Vegas. I heard the American side was pretty much the same and perhaps even a little more distraught.
We all kept seeing strange people on the streets of Niagara Falls. We asked an UBER driver one day, “Why are all the people on the streets of here so…” pausing for a moment as we struggled to find a polite way to finish that sentence until our driver interjected, “…f*cked up?” That gave us a laugh. At least the people living there don’t take themselves too seriously.
Once you get past the Vegas vibes you finally reach the main attraction, the stunning falls themselves. The most famous section being ‘Horseshoe Falls,’ which is the primary waterfall that comprises the start of the Niagara Gorge. This is what you see on all the postcards. These falls are much more impressive looking than in pictures. You’re struck by the sheer immensity of liquid flowing over at once and the booming sound of the water.
The Canadian side offers awesome views if you can manage to wrangle your way through the crowds to get a spot on the hand railing. Speaking of crowds, prepare yourself. The number of people there is as breathtaking as the falls themselves.
The Rest Of Niagara Falls
Ok, so all of Niagara isn’t THAT bad. It’s actually a magnificent drive along the road that runs alongside the river, the Niagara Scenic Parkway. There’s also two falls side-by-side on the American side called American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, which look quite impressive.
You’ll also find a much smaller crowd jostling to get a look at these falls compared to Horseshoe Falls. You can even get on 1 of the 2 boats, Maid of the Mist (on the U.S. side) or the HornBlower (On the Canada side). These boats afford you a water level view of the mammoth walls of H20 around you.
There are also fireworks most nights around 10 pm during the summer season from around May to September. They’re visible from the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls. All the falls are also lit at night with colored lights. It’s worth it to go for a little nighttime cruise and to help your brain release a little dopamine thanks to the kaleidoscope of bright colors.
What Do To Beside Visiting The Falls
After you spend a full day looking at the falls and exploring the surrounding pretty facade of parks and hotels, that’s it. There isn’t much else to do in the City of Niagara Falls except eat in overpriced restaurants and gamble at the casinos once the fireworks go out.
If you want to escape the drudgery that is the City of Niagara Falls, you need to rent a car. This opens up all kinds of doors. Just a few of which are visiting the beautiful Niagara on the Lake or one of the surrounding wineries. These places really are the saving grace of the Niagara area and I highly recommend them. I would not have enjoyed myself if I was stuck in the city for my entire 4-day trip.
Overall, it was cool to see Niagara Falls since it’s a ‘Canadian’ thing, but I wouldn’t go back. It’s an example of how indulgent capitalism can spoil nature’s beauty. For the expense of going to Niagara, I can think of many other places I would rather go.
Let’s be honest here. If you like waterfalls, Iguazu Falls is the holy grail of waterfalls. 3x more water cascades down Iguazu than Niagara making Iguazu the largest waterfall system on earth. It’s a beast. Iguazú literally means ‘big water.’
If you are interested in some cold hard facts about Iguazu, you can find some here. The most important thing for you to know is that it’s basically 3 times the size of Niagara and 10 times better.
Where Is It?
Located on the border between Brazil and Argentina in the jungle, the falls spread over a vast area in the Iguazu National Park. The whole area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and thus has been saved from the capitalist depravity that has so heavily smitten the Niagara Falls area.
Iguazu National Park is lush, green and full of wildlife. Add surging waterfalls everywhere and it feels a bit like you’ve landed on Avatar.
Like Niagara, you can visit Iguazu Falls from two different countries, Brazil and Argentina. When I visited the falls, Brazil had still made it obtusely hard to obtain a visa for Canadians (and Americans), so I stayed on the Argentina side. Unfortunately, that meant I only got to see the falls from Argentina, but it’s supposed to be better than the Brazilian side. I heard of an American girl ‘sneak’ across the border for the day by taking a local bus that frequently crosses the border and isn’t subject to intense customs scrutiny, but I figured it wasn’t worth the risk getting stuck in Brazil with all my stuff in Argentina.
Getting To Iguazu Falls
There are two cities that provide access to the Iguazu Falls area. Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side, and Puerto Iguazú on the Argentinian side. There are airports serving both these cities with flights from major metropolitan areas in Argentina and Brazil. The only caveat is that flights tend to be very expensive unless you book them far in advance.
You can also take the bus to both Foz do Iguaçu and Puerto Iguazú. Bus travel is a very popular and comfortable option in both Brazil and Argentina. I took a 17-hour first class bus on Via Bariloche from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazú that included a hot dinner, an airplane-sized bottle of Malbec, seats that folded down 160 degrees and English-language movies. It was the most comfortable bus ride of my life.
Once you are in one of the two cities, all you have to do is take one of the frequent bus connections to Iguazu National Park. Just make sure you don’t get on a bus going over the border.
Iguazu National Park
When you enter Iguazu National Park from the Argentina side you’re nowhere near the waterfalls. You have to hike through the jungle on one of the many hiking paths. I preferred doing this as it’s more of an adventure.
Let me help you visualize the experience of hiking through Iguazu National Park to the waterfalls:
Imagine hiking on a trail surrounded by dense green foliage. As you look around you, you see 5 types of bird you’ve never seen before including a beautiful orange beaked toucan.
Some cute coates are following you, but you know not to go near them because you’ve seen a few gruesome signs warning signs showing what happens if you get too close.
As a magnificent looking butterfly catches your eye, you remember how just one week ago this part of the park was closed due to the presence of a jaguar.
Suddenly, you notice everything is wetter and the humidity is cranked up a few more notches. As you start to sweat profusely you hear a faint sound. Continuing on the trail, the sound gets louder and louder. You don’t notice your heart rate rising as you pick up the pace to see what that noise is at the end of the trail. Finally, the trail ends and you break into a massive sun-bathed jungle clearing. Thundering water gushes down multiple cliffs in front of you creating a small mist cloud soaking everything in the vicinity.
You’re close enough to the falls to almost reach out and touch them. There’s only a handful of people around to witness this magnificent sight. That’s when the person standing next to you says you still haven’t seen the most powerful waterfall in Iguazu National Park, La Garganta del Diablo, aka The Devil’s Throat.
La Garganta Del Diablo
The main attraction, Garganta del Diablo, is the Horseshoe Falls of Iguazu. You can walk there, or take a cool old-school train. The train drops you off at the start of a couple hundred meters of catwalk over the Iguazu River. From the catwalk all you can see is a mist cloud at first, then everything gets wet as you move closer to the roar.’
From the Argentina side, you get to see The Devil’s Throat from up top. There are platforms built for you to get extra personal with the precipice. You are close enough to be almost standing over the falls, which makes things a little more exciting. These falls are immense. Everybody struggles to take photos because the mist cloud is so dense. It’s thick enough to prevent you from seeing the bottom of the falls. I couldn’t help but think if I fell in, I’d be falling into oblivion.
The viewpoint on the Brazil side is a platform lower to the ground, which affords the tourists there a full view of Garganta del Diablo. I imagine this would have been pretty cool to see as well. The advantage to the Argentina side though, is you get an awesome look down into the Iguaza River gorge and lined with about a hundred waterfalls. Either way, it’s an impeccably grandiose sight.
The Boat Ride And The Other Waterfalls
Also like Niagara, in Iguazu, you can hop on a boat and get the ground level view of the waterfalls. Unlike Niagara, the boats are much smaller holding only about 20 people, which allows a better experience.
It’s not a boat ride for the faint of heart, nor if you don’t like getting wet. You will get completely soaked. Luckily the company running the boats gives you a big dry bag to put in your backpack and any clothing you don’t want to get wet.
On the first part of the ride, we ripped towards Garganta del Diablo. We stopped just outside the mist cloud next to two respectable waterfalls, Dos Mosqueteros, and Tres Mosqueteros. All around us were walls of water. It was incredible. Then our boat driver took us back and soaked everybody by driving the boat under a smaller waterfall on Isla San Martin. Apparently, this was just the warmup.
We continued back and circled around Isla San Martin to a separate, but just as impressive waterfall area. The most notable falls here included San Martin, Mbiguá, Gpque Bernabé Méndez, Adán, Eva and Bossetti. Our boat captain brought us closer and closer to San Martin, the most formidable-looking waterfall of the bunch. I could feel my spine start to tingle.
San Martin was still large enough to create a decent sized mist cloud, which is a sign that the waterfall has an extra kick. We went straight into the mist and a few seconds later the falls were pounding down right beside us and onto the boat. I momentarily lost sight of everybody while we got drenched. The next instant we were out of the falls and into the sun. Everybody on the boat was left smiling. That was until we realized we were going in again.
Iguazu For The Win
Iguazu Falls was the bomb. It was at the same time beautiful and exhilarating. You get a real sense of adventure hiking through the jungle in search of a gargantuan system of waterfalls. To be honest, this is what I thought Niagara Falls would be like. Or at least be somewhat more in nature.
As legend has it (or at least what every blog post / article on Iguazu mentions) after Eleanor Roosevelt saw Iguazu for the first time she lamented, “Poor Niagara.” Whether she said it or not, the words ring true.