Friday, April 30, 2010

Raising the River: Iguazú Falls at Near Record Levels

On the South American continent, the mighty Amazon is the king of rivers, and too few people realize that the Río Paraná, which drains an area of nearly 2.6 million square km (almost a million square miles) in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, is a worthy runner-up. Depending on which tributary is considered to be its source, its length is just short of 4,000 km (almost 2,500 miles) and perhaps almost 5,000 km (more than 3,000 miles). At its southern extremity, it joins the Río Uruguay to form the Río de la Plata (River Plate) estuary.

In Argentina, the biggest attraction in the Paraná drainage is the Cataratas del Iguazú, the world-famous waterfalls - more than 70 meters in height and two km across - that form part of the border with Brazil. The major reason for the establishment of national parks in both countries, they are at the moment an even bigger attraction: according to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, heavy rains in the upper Río Iguazú basin (the Iguazú is a tributary of the Paraná) have multiplied the river’s normal flow tenfold to about 15,000 cubic meters per second. According to the newspaper’s correspondent, the water’s roar is deafening, and the river itself has turned red with sediments carried downstream.

As a sight, the Cataratas are always impressive - the falls draw more than a million visitors per year - and at present they must be truly awe-inspiring. Despite the river’s flow, the ten-day weather forecast is pretty good - neither too hot nor too wet - for seeing the falls. Only a little rain is predicted, as most of water is coming from beyond Argentina’s borders.

Because of the river’s size - the last time it carried this much water was nearly three years ago - this would be an ideal time to go; it’s also off-season, so accommodations prices should be lower than normal. But there’s one glitch: the flow has been so powerful that, for a few days at least, it’s eliminated access to the catwalk that leads to the Garganta del Diablo (pictured here), the single most impressive of the dozens of individual falls within the park. Park authorities expect to reopen the access within a few days, however.

For those fortunate enough to be able to see the falls soon, it makes sense to stay on the Argentine side, where the views of individual falls are more up close and personal - not to mention the bureaucratic nuisance of getting an expensive Brazilian visa for US, Canadian and Australian visitors (even more expensive if done in the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, which has a Brazilian consulate. Brazil, unfortunately, inundated its own Iguazú, Sete Quedas, to create massive Itaipú hydroelectric project on the border with Paraguay. Also known as Guaira, Sete Quedas had an astonishing flow of 50,000 cubic meters per second, making it the world’s largest waterfall in terms of volume.

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