On most ‘Top 10 South America’ guides you’ll see the Iguazú falls, in fact I’d be surprised if it didn’t make the top three. As a natural wonder, largest waterfall complex in the world, and spanning three different borders, it’s no surprise Iguazú is one of the most popular tourist destinations worldwide. Journecology visited in March 2017, there was something that bugged us the entire time; something similar to other famous destinations we have visited. I coin this, ‘The Iguazú Dilemma’.
What are the Iguazú Falls?
The Iguazú Falls is the largest waterfall complex in the world with 2.7km of cascades along the Iguazú river and marking the intersection of the Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil borders. There is no doubt that they are an awesome sight, with an entire park dedicated on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the falls and multiple viewing locations all surrounded by tropical jungle. The main attraction of the falls is the ‘Devil’s Throat’, a 82m deep U-shaped chasm where water plummets into the abyss, and the wind whips up clouds of spray.
Exploring just the Argentinian side of the falls takes at least one whole day, with beautiful nature trails, Disney style train rides, and miles of walkways separated by viewing platforms and restaurants. The park is a huge money maker for each respective country as tourists from all over the world flock to this remarkable destination. So what’s the problem?
It’s simple; there are too many people. Walking around the park is like a constant damp slalom. Walkways are (quite rightly) kept narrow so as to not disturb the forest, leaving barely enough room for two way traffic. Constant shoulder barging, screaming children banging into your legs, and the occasional slap from a soggy umbrella or selfie stick – Iguazú sadly is chaos. If it wasn’t for our visit to the less well known Sendero Macuco nature trail or the sheer awesomeness of the falls, it would’ve been an all round frustrating experience.
One issue is the poor designation of spaces in the park. Upon arrival, vast areas of forest have been slashed to provide huge paved areas, information buildings and general… space. However, nobody is going to stay there for more than a minute or so, they want to see the falls of course! Consequently, the average sized viewing platforms are throbbing with bodies with countless suspended iPhones and GoPros poking above. What’s more, ‘official’ photographers cordon off the majority of the area so couples can get the perfect picture, with no one else in it! There’s no system here, it’s a free for all of ponchos, gesticulating limbs, and desperate Instagram photos.
Iguazú is at the border of three countries, and each country has their own city which pretty much serves the falls, and a fair bit of drug trade – needless to say the Brazilian and Paraguayan sides are not the safest. There are two international airports which serve the attraction and huge roads have been sliced through the jungle to shuttle tourists in and out. On top of this, the turnover of tourists is very quick, with each person staying about 3 days before moving on so transport runs to the max.
Repercussions to the Environment
Needless to say there are severe repercussions to the surrounding environment, despite some efforts made by the park. Within the area, large areas have been cleared to make room for infrastructure, and consequently animals are disrupted. Notably the Coati population has become reliant on stealing tourist food as their habitats are destroyed. They are developing an increased confidence and even aggression towards tourists, and park rangers struggle to keep them under control, often reverting to hitting and kicking the animals away. This is a similar case for the Capuchin monkeys around the park. Children and adults were seen feeding them so they could take photos and selfies. Often food was given in plastic wrappers which were later tossed to the floor, and all the food would not normally be appropriate for a primate diet.
Outside the park is where more notable damage is caused however. When visiting the Guira Oga Wildlife Sanctuary near Puerto Iguazú, we were told the stories of many of the animals here. Massive roads slicing through the forest make it difficult for animals to cross, and larger animals are often hit, injured, or killed. Smaller animals would rarely cross the road, leading to potential genetic isolation and disrupted seed dispersal. This confluence of borders also is a hot-spot for the illegal animal trade, with regular confiscations being made in the cities surrounding Iguazú Falls.
Iguazú is a wonder that captures the imagination of many, gets people (especially children) excited about nature, and has the potential to draw vast crowds. Yet whilst doing this, it is destroying the very environment and experience it is trying to promote! So how do authorities get around this? There is no limit on the number of people allowed to enter the park, it’s a reasonable £15 entry and it’s becoming increasingly accessible – so there’s not really much deterrent to visit, especially for nationals (of which there are three countries!). A cap on visitors would reduce economic gain (potentially some eco-tourism/conservation value), an increase on the price may discriminate against poorer people entering the site, and also cutting back numbers would reduce the overall interest generated from a visit to Iguazú. But maybe there’s a benefit to all this?
What if a site like Iguazú is treated like a lost cause, or perhaps a ‘dumping ground’? Now hear me out… We live in a world of disposable highs, accumulating ‘followers’, ‘doing’ countries, and selfie sticks. Sadly my impression is that there are few people who truly care about what they are seeing, and look beyond the bubble of ‘seeing that place I saw on the 30 second UNILAD video’, rather a good opportunity for their next Facebook profile picture. Because of the ‘viral’ internet phenomenon, and power of ‘snowballing’, a few places on the Earth are becoming dis-proportionally popular, and consequently are suffering. For example: Iguazú Falls, Machu Picchu, Koh Phi Phi Leh, Angkor Wat, the Mona Lisa, Venice, Hallstatt, The Great Wall… I could go on. Perhaps doing this is actually acting as greater protection for those places less discovered. Maybe we should leave these places to ‘die’ at the hands of the ‘followerphilic’ Instagrammer and seek out lesser known destinations, knowing that only a responsible few will visit.
Although an interesting thought, there’s no ideal solution to The Iguazú Dilemma. Do we increase prices and cap entry to reduce tourism flow as the world becomes increasingly navigable for a lot less money? Do we sacrifice some beautiful locations to flocks of tourists in the hope that it protects a lesser known hidden gem? Or should we just suck it up and accept that if we want to visit a ‘top ten’, we’re going to experience many irresponsible travellers, overcrowding, and a reality far from what we see online? Journecology recommends to do what you can, be responsible during your visit and lead by example.