Behind the Waterfalls in Iguazu
Article by Nora Wallenius.
Any visitor to Argentina who has researched their trip for more than five minutes knows that Iguazu Falls is an Argentine “must-see.” Every Argentina guidebook is filled with pictures of the awe inspiring waterfalls, which span over 2.7 kilometers in length and culminate with the largest fall, the Garganta del Diablo at 82 meters high, 150 meters wide, and 700 meters long. On my first trip to Iguazu, I was all about the falls. The national park spans the two countries of Argentina and Brazil, with opportunities to explore the waterfalls with walking trails, boat rides, rappelling and more. Two days on the Argentina side and one day on the Brazil side, I wanted to soak all of it in. The roar of the enormous cascades, the water spraying in my face, and sensation of feeling like a tiny specimen in this huge world – I couldn’t get enough. On my second trip to Iguazu, I had a different mentality. I wanted to know more about the history of the falls, the area where it is located and the people that first inhabited it.
Misiones Province is located in northernmost tip of Argentina, bordering on Paraguay and Brazil. Redrock plateaus and thick jungle forests have left this region fairly undeveloped, save for the bustling tourist attraction of Iguazu Falls. Considered uniquely untouched by modern civilization, there is one vast culture that has lived in and protected the area for centuries. Meet the Guarani people, an indigenous tribe native to Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and parts of Bolivia and Uruguay. The name “Iguazu” actually comes from the native Guarani meaning “big water.” The Guarani legend tells of an enraged deity who split the river in rage when his beautiful betrothed fled with her mortal lover.
The Guarani people suffered under the Spanish and Portuguese invasion during the 17th centuries and were subjugated to slavery and religious conversion. I highly recommend the movie The Mission, which sheds light on the colonization in this region and South America. After the expulsion of the missions in the early 19th century and nationalization of Argentina, the Guarani have focused on creating their own strong community. The language Guarani, literally meaning warrior, is still spoken and taught within the community. The Argentinian communities speak mainly the variation of Mbya-Guarani as each region has its own dialect. The language holds together the multitude of groups and tribes of the Guarani people that have spread over a vast territory in South America.
Modern Guarani culture still fights to hold onto ancient tradition, one filled with spirituality, bravery, and tradition. Native art forms such as basket and cloth making, elaborate decorative feather ornaments, and animal wood carvings are sold in the national park and the town. These are more than just souvenirs, as the proceeds go directly to help support the struggling Guarani community. And let’s not forget every Argentine’s favorite beverage, mate. Yerba mate has been a part of the Guarani culture for hundreds of years, and its popularity has spread all across Argentina. Guarani influence has permeated into the fabric of the nation and continent.
Learning about the meaning of Iguazu and reflecting on its first inhabitants really changed my experience in the park. It wasn’t just a tourist attraction anymore, something to check off my list and move on with my travels. It was something that stays with me to this day- the power of the falls. I could go back one hundred times and still feel like I was learning something new about myself and the world around me. I left a piece of my heart in Iguazu and although it is hard not to feel so small and unimportant, I realized I am not an insignificant part of this world.