The national park
I’m caught in a hurricane. A film of moisture masks my face with a grip so resolute it’s fruitless to wipe it away. Wind whips haphazardly at my shirt, while a deafening roar mirrors my sudden adrenalin rush. When I’m finally able to open my eyes, blue skies crown walls of waterfalls. I’m alone in Devil’s Throat — a series of cataracts within the Iguazu Falls — and it’ll be another hour before tourists start arriving by the busload.
My base is the pink Portuguese colonial-style Belmond Hotel das Cataratas — the only hotel in Brazil’s Iguazu National Park. My room features pineapple-print curtains and an intricate azulejo-tiled bathroom. The palm-lined pool is made for sipping fresh coconuts, while my massage in the spa uses sustainably-sourced products from the Brazilian rainforest.
The hotel’s main draw, though, is the exclusive access it offers guests to the surrounding 275 cascades and forest. The park is open to visitors daily from 9am-5pm but is otherwise reserved for hotel guests, jaguars and pumas.
Before I strike out solo, I ask Maria, the park biologist, what to do if I see a big cat. “Respect its wishes,” she replies. I wait for a chuckle and further instructions, but none comes. She isn’t kidding.
There are around 35 jaguars and 80 pumas in the park, but these shy animals aren’t likely to turn up near well-trodden paths — at least that’s what I tell myself as I slip on a pair of Havaianas for the 15-minute trek from my room to the falls.
It’s spring in Brazil and pink pineapples erupt from the undergrowth, while yellow orchids perform backbends over branches with mouths agape. There’s a distant hum of water, which embellishes the chorus of macaws. I follow a paved path that descends gently, flanking a panorama of rushing falls.
A rustling in the bushes convinces me I’m about to be breakfast, before a squat, raccoon-like animal emerges, contemplating my scent with its wiggling upturned nose. It’s a coati — signs displaying photos of these mammals’ vicious handiwork are plastered around the park, warning visitors against mistaking them for pets. Two red-breasted toucans watch from a palm tree as the creature curiously sniffs the ground before moving on to more exciting endeavours.
I reach a walkway that juts out over rushing water. When former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt surveyed this scene, she declared, “Poor Niagara!” I can see her point — the falls that plummet all around me stretch out in a semicircle for 1.7 miles and are divided into various sections by tiny islets dotting the Iguazu River. It’s an exhilarating feeling being in their midst.
Great dusky swifts disappear between gaps in the rapids, which provide a safe haven from predators. I inch out further along the canyon, and am met with an onslaught of water, making my clothes stick to my skin like candle wax. I peer over the edge of a raging torrent. In the moving mist, the brilliant arc of a rainbow splashes colour across the scene. I then spot a troop of day-trippers trundling down towards me, kitted out with selfie sticks and ponchos. That’s my cue to head back — but I’m glad I had this place to myself for a little while.
How to do it: Doubles at Belmond Hotel das Cataratas from £215, B&B. TAP Portugal flies from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, via Lisbon, to Rio de Janeiro 16 times a week.
Alternative: Aire de Bardenas, Spain. Bordering the Bardenas Reales, cuboid guest rooms feature a glass wall overlooking the desert. Doubles from £157.
Read more in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)