A million tourists a year visit the Iguazú Falls, on the border between Argentina and Brazil, marvelling at the sound and fury of the 275 distinct cascades as they flow over 80m-high basalt ledges, nearly two miles wide. It is perhaps not surprising that such a compelling sight has long overshadowed the attractions of the toucan- and butterfly-filled jungle that surrounds the falls, but that is beginning to change.
Traditionally, rather than stay in the jungle most visitors have shuttled direct to the falls each day from the uninspired, 1960s-built hotels that dominate the Argentine town of Puerto Iguazú and Brazil’s equally unattractive Foz do Iguaçu. But a swathe of new, often upmarket, lodges is in the process of opening their doors, letting visitors get a much fuller jungle experience.
In 2002, prompted by rising tourist numbers, approval was given for a tourism development in the Selva Iryapú, a 600-hectare plot of former Guaraní tribal land abutting Argentina’s Iguazú National Park. Nine hotels have opened to date, with a further five slated to open this year. The project, which includes properties from the Hilton, Hyatt, Panamericano and Radisson chains, is set to double Iguazú’s hotel capacity.
Inevitably, the project sparked controversy. The Guaraní had scraped a precarious but traditional life from the land, hunting for peccary and capybara, the world’s largest rodent, and fishing for surubí and pacú in the Río Iguazú and its tributaries. Some of those displaced now live in prefabricated shelters in town; others have withdrawn to a sliver of nearby forest, where they await the electricity, water and sewage connections promised by officials. One project, the Tekoá jungle theme park, has attracted particular criticism: it purports to extol the virtues of Guaraní life.
Countering those concerns, officials say the Selva Iryapú constructions will bring $100m in direct investment to the region, and point out that each new hotel must be ecologically sustainable and conform to strict limits on height, footprint and materials used.
Of the new hotels that have already opened, Loi Suites Iguazú is my favourite. Set on the Río Iguazú’s steep banks, its 120 spacious rooms are housed in five low-impact, stone-clad buildings. Handsomely decorated with bamboo, leather and Indonesian hardwoods, each opens to the cackles and caws of the forest canopy.
Enticing trails lace off into dense tracts of tropical cedar, earpod and rosewood trees, alive to the chainsaw buzz of subtropical insects. Guests can kayak nearby streams, take the hotel’s motor launch for trips on the Río Iguazú, or simply stroll on forest trails known for hummingbirds and tanagers. They return in the evening to savour Paraná river fish on the restaurant terrace, relax in a well-equipped spa, or simply splash in a tree-fringed outdoor pool as the breezeless night falls.
There are other lodges outside the Selva Iryapú that showcase Misiones’ natural splendours. Posada Puerto Bemberg sits abreast a promontory above the Río Paraná, an hour’s easy drive south of the falls. The colonial-style villa, which opened in 2008, is the last outpost of Argentina’s once-powerful Bemberg family, which found its holdings decimated in the 1940s by state expropriations under President Juan Perón.
Toucanets flap among the earpod and tropical cedar trees that carpet much of the hotel’s 400-hectare grounds, their lushness accentuated by lianas that fall from the canopy, and by epiphytes and philodendrons that coat every exposed trunk and branch. A wooden observation deck is built out from the hillside, offering majestic views of Paraguay on the Paraná’s far bank.
In the main house, colonnaded verandas are cooled by whirring fans, the 14 high-ceilinged rooms opening to exuberant gardens of canna and guadua bamboo. On the lawn above, a sandstone watchtower overlooks a 20 metre swimming pool.
The hotel’s employees delight in educating guests about their surroundings, rushing to dig out books on native fauna from the 2,500-volume library. On a recent visit, even a cleaner dropped her broom to point out a sayaca tanager’s nest. I spent an entire morning with a gardener in the lodge’s native-plant nursery. Sweltering in the afternoon’s steamy heat, I sipped on a cooling tereré, an ice-cold version of Argentina’s green maté tea, with the cook’s assistant.
Misiones’ prodigious wildlife makes it tempting to clutch Tito Narosky’s Birds of Argentina and Uruguay and a pair of binoculars at all times. One morning, I spent three hours padding down a footpath that could comfortably have been strolled in 10 minutes. As reward, I spotted more than 20 species of antbird, woodcreeper and parakeet.
For serious birdwatchers, Iguazú’s most authoritative hotel is Yacutinga Lodge, which tailors multi-day stays to the study of birds, butterflies, orchids or medicinal plants. Its 570-hectare tract of private, pristine jungle is cited by the charity BirdLife International as an area of outstanding importance, and zoologists working from an attached research station have discovered several species of butterfly new to science.
The lodge is almost completely hidden among a cascading mass of lianas and palm fronds, its curved mud walls, inset with boulders and bottles of coloured glass, assembled on a frame of natural-fall trunks. Twenty rustic cabins are dispersed in the forest beyond.
I was awoken early on my first morning by a troop of red-rumped caciques, bulky blackbird-type birds that nest in large numbers as a defence against egg-stealing toucans. Iridescent butterflies in startling shades of pink, black and electric blue fluttered round my breakfast table.
By 7am, Corino Griffini, a guide whose cheerful wisecracks mask deep expertise in the biology of the Misiones jungle, was escorting me to the forest’s pristine core, reeling off titbits and anecdotes about its life forms as we walked.
Yacutinga’s great strength is the up-close contact it provides with the dense jungle. Afternoons can be spent planting saplings of the endangered rosewood, and even a gentle rafting trip on the Río Iguazú can turn into a search for the yacaré caiman, a South American alligator. A handful of Guaraní villagers work as auxiliary guides at Yacutinga, demonstrating tracking skills and showing guests how traditional healers extract medicine from the forest.
You don’t need to be a twitcher or wildlife buff to enjoy Yacutinga – but it helps. Spend a morning lazing by the pool and a family of agoutis – dumpy, oversized rodents – will probably emerge from the forest to breakfast on seeds. A hummingbird may zip by or a flash of cream materialise as a blond-crested woodpecker’s showy head feathers. In Iguazú, nature is so prevalent it will always find a way to interfere.
Loi Suites Iguazú Hotel (www.loisuites.com.ar; doubles from $255)
Posada Puerto Bemberg (www.puertobemberg.com; doubles from $300)
Yacutinga Lodge (www.yacutinga.com; $450 per person per night including meals, excursions and transfer from Puerto Iguazú)