POSADAS — A million tourists a year now visit the Iguazú Falls, where 275 distinct cascades, nearly 2 miles wide, separate Argentina’s Misiones province from Brazil. The sound and fury created as the Río Iguazú pours over 265-foot-high basalt ledges are overpowering, the visceral impact one of South America’s most compelling experiences. It’s hardly surprising that such a sight has long overshadowed the attractions of the toucan- and butterfly-filled jungle that surrounds the falls, but that is beginning to change.
Misiones, named for the mission settlements established by the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order during Spanish colonial times, juts like a finger far into Brazil and Paraguay. Bounded to the west by the Río Paraná and to the east by the Río Uruguay, its forested terrain and sheer remoteness have long complicated contact with the rest of the country.
A century ago, the province was carpeted entirely with subtropical Paranaense forest, which extended as far north as Brazil’s state of Bahia. Guaraní tribes scraped a precarious but traditional life from the land, fishing its streams for surubí and pacú and hunting for capybara — the world’s largest rodent — and the wild peccary pig.
In the 20th century, Polish, German, and Ukrainian immigrants cleared large tracts of land for forestry and farming. What remains of the selva misionera — some 4,250 square miles, or four times the area of Rhode Island — is protected by the Green Corridor, a string of wildlife reserves with beguiling, unfamiliar names like Salto Encantado, Urugua-í, and Yabotí.
In the forest’s inner reaches, howler and capuchin monkeys cavort in the canopy. South American alligators known as yacaré caiman sun themselves on riverbanks and seven feline species — from the tabby-sized Geoffroy’s cat to the mighty jaguar — prowl silently by night.
In the jungle’s dense foliage, however, the chief difficulty lies in spotting them. Far easier to see are the birds: 550 species, more than in all of Europe.
I landed at Posadas, the provincial capital, and spent the night at Estancia Santa Cecilia, a cattle ranch near the Jesuits’ San Ignacio Miní mission. After nightfall, projectors hidden among the mission’s moss-covered stones cast ghostly images onto curtains of sprayed water, the filmed narrative portraying the Guaraní tribes’ sorry history.
I took a taxi eastward the following morning, paralleling the Paraná alongside trucks laden with the trunks of guatambú, petiribí, or camboatá trees, native species named by the Guaraní that have yet to earn names in Spanish or English.
Even on the open road, my nostrils wrinkled at the odor of Misiones’s sun-baked, iron-rich earth. The landscape’s colors seemed unnaturally exaggerated, the saturated emerald of grass and leaves standing out against the earth’s deep, rusty red. Only the monotonous plantations of slash pine, a fast-growing but soil-damaging cash crop, marred the horizon.
At Jardín America, we climbed toward Misiones’s central sierras, passing neat rows of tobacco, cabbages, and maize, and halting in villages where Lutheran chapels minister to a population with its origins in Central Europe. Their traditional wooden houses, each painted a vibrant shade of sky blue, sunflower, or lime, are raised on stilts, a technique that affords protection against snakes, spiders, and damp.
Sweat and tears have kept the settlers a step ahead of the jungle’s reclaiming tendrils, but I could see few signs of prosperity. “Misiones must be one of the only places in the world where children with blond hair and blue eyes scrabble barefoot in the dirt,” the taxi driver said.
As we gained height, the vegetation grew more dense. Swallow-tailed kites soared overhead, their tapered tails trailing elegantly in the thermals. From a vantage point, we looked down at the 200-foot Salto Encantado waterfall before edging along 4 miles of dirt trail to Tacuapí Lodge.
In 2006, local notary Julio Benitez Chapo erected seven cabins on a 128-acre bowl of jungle adjoining the Salto Encantado provincial park. He chose his spot well: Two years later, Hungarian television chose its darker recesses to film a reality show.
Chapo chuckled as he recalled how star model Éva Horváth had lived in a treehouse, challenging a wrestler, a magazine editor, and other minor celebrities to feats of jungle derring-do.
“All the neighbors got something out of the shoot, from hotel bookings to manual labor,” laughed Chapo. “Helga, an old German neighbor, even got a hundred pesos for her ox. She was delighted: The contestants were asked to wash it, so the animal even came back clean.”
That night, I settled into a cozy wooden cabin stuffed with forest oddments: a soapdish carved from a branch; a basin from a trunk. A stout bamboo had found a new use in the bathroom, its spreading shoots providing a convenient means of storing lavatory paper.
I fell asleep to the cackle and caw of subtropical birds and woke early to the sound of munching. It was nothing more impressive than a squirrel, perched high in a nearby pindó palm, interrupting its morning feed to screech occasionally at passing kites.
But I was glad of the intrusion: As dawn broke, a parade of puffbirds and parrots, cuckoos and caciques alighted on a nearby branch, each newcomer more colorful and exotic than the last.
After breakfast, Fidel Ramírez, the lodge’s naturalist guide, led me down narrow forest trails to show me more of Misiones’s colorful birdlife. His technique was determinedly low-tech: by imitating a chick’s squawking, he could draw even the shiest bird from the foliage.
“The call of a chick is hardwired into a bird’s brain,” he whispered, pointing as a ruby-crowned tanager hopped into view. It was followed, seconds later, by a swallow-tailed manakin, a rare creature that performs an elaborate dance to attract a mate.
After leaving Tacuapí, I had planned to visit a cataract on the Río Uruguay called the Moconá Falls. A geological oddity, the waterfall slices lengthwise up the river, reaching the Brazilian bank 2 miles to the north. Paradoxically, the falls are more impressive in times of drought, when they can reach nearly 70 feet in height.
But heavy rain had swollen the river, rendering the cataract invisible. I took a bumpy, 15-mile trail instead, pulling up at Don Enrique Lodge, where three impeccably decorated cabins overlook a gurgling forest brook and the dense foliage of Yabotí Biosphere Reserve on the far bank.
Eliseo Lemos, the lodge’s guide, rowed me across the stream in the fading afternoon light and recounted anecdotes and tidbits on jungle survival as we walked through the forest’s pristine core.
In the 1920s, Lemos’s great-grandfather had received 125 acres of land from the Argentine government in return for settling near the country’s frontier. “It was a different era back then,” he said. “They gave him a medal for shooting 68 jaguars and built him an access road for felling 50 trees.”
Yet the early settlers also learned less destructive techniques from the Guaraní, trapping tapirs by luring them with fermented sap from the pindó palm and fishing streams with a liana whose sap paralyzes fish gills. “The liana contains a chemical so strong that you can just scoop the fish out by hand,” he said.
From Don Enrique Lodge, a little-traveled road heads north, rising and falling with the sierras’ forested gulleys. Human population is scant: I spotted a few lonely pioneers eking out a living in clearings hacked from the jungle before pulling in at Iguazú National Park. The contrast was abrupt — Iguazú was thronged with visitors.
From the park entrance, a near-silent, gas-powered train disgorges passengers at trails that connect lookouts above, below, and beside the rainbow-kissed tumult. Visitors can float downriver by raft, head out on a photographic safari on forest-fringed streams, or take a high-adrenaline run by motor launch into the waterfall’s blinding cloud of spray.
During a full moon, it’s even possible to view the falls after dark, when night-herons, corzuela deer, and raccoon-like coatíes bed down for the night.
I left until last the most exhilarating spot, the Garganta del Diablo, a U-shaped cauldron of water of unimaginable power. Just days before, workers had replaced a half-mile of steel gantry ripped away by surging water. The walkway leads to a lookout platform suspended immediately above a swirling vortex of water.
Yet as clouds of vapor emanated from the cauldron’s boiling heart, fragile-looking swifts darted nimbly through the maelstrom to nests secreted behind the curtain of water. In Misiones, I realized, nature is so prevalent it will always find a way to survive.
Colin Barraclough can be reached on colinbarra@hot