One of the World’s Great Wonders Has an Amazing New Hotel
Oddly enough, it didn't smell like rain. The sky had turned from blue to silver to a deep, dark gray as our trio of kayaks explored a remote stretch of Argentina's Yacuí River, a tributary of the larger Iguazú. With its milky green waters and banks lined with the towering palmito and palo rosa trees of the Atlantic Forest, the Yacuí, set in the northeastern province of Misiones, is about as far from the cosmopolitan streets of Buenos Aires as you can get.
We'd driven 90 minutes due east from the town of Puerto Iguazú, on the unpaved Route 101 that runs along the border of Iguazú National Park, to reach this remote location. After clambering down a makeshift pier, we'd dropped our kayaks in the water and begun paddling upstream, with no end point in mind — our destination was the magical rain forest that straddles the river, once a vast wilderness that covered more than 100 million acres of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. My Argentine guides, Paula and Pancho, noticed the darkening sky too, but I told them to press on. The metallic tang I've always associated with an approaching storm was missing from the air, and after coming all this way I wasn't about to give up.
Then raindrops the size of quarters started falling fast and thick. The shallow seat of my kayak began to fill with water. All three of us made a swift turn for the pier.
"Are we there yet?" I shouted ahead to Paula, wiping the rain from my face. "Almost!" she replied, poised and unflappable, even as lightning flashed in the distance. Behind me, Pancho looked equally cool and confident in his Ray-Bans and wide-brimmed hat.
I knew my question sounded childish. But I was ready for dry clothing and a drink, and I knew we were in for a long, wet drive home. Home in this case was the new Awasi Iguazú, a 14-suite lodge just outside Iguazú National Park that provides a luxurious new base from which to explore a region that has long lacked great hotel options.
Covering some 170,000 acres, the park draws 1.3 million visitors a year, most of whom come to see one thing and one thing only: Iguazú Falls, a series of 275 cascades that run 1.7 miles across the border between Argentina and Brazil. An Instagrammer's paradise, Iguazú is at the top of many people's South America bucket lists, right up there with Machu Picchu and the Galápagos.
The Brazilian side may have only 20 percent of the falls, but it does lay claim to the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, a colonial-style property awash in old-world luxury. Argentina has most of the falls — and a complete network of trails and walkways that allow you to see them from various perspectives — but Puerto Iguazú, the closest city, is filled with midrange inns and hostels, all of which attract their share of bus tours. Awasi, by contrast, consists of 14 freestanding pine cabins — 13 of which are 1,076 square feet, with the 14th clocking in at 1,650 — standing in three discreet rows, each reachable by winding stone paths cutting through the jungle. All have private plunge pools and blend seamlessly into the environment. Standing on your deck, you're surrounded by nothing but rain forest and sky and creatures. Some of the animals you may see, others you only hear: coatis, crickets, even the stray ocelot.
The low-slung main lodge, the focal point of the property, is where guests gather for meals or to sip a glass of Malbec at the striking bar, hewn from petiribí, a native tree. Elements like marble and brass would feel out of place here, so the Buenos Aires–based designers Patricia Diedrichs and Eugenia Choren looked instead to woods, linens, and muted colors, especially beige and soft green.
Choren knows how to bring style to the wilderness: for seven years, she designed farms and cottages in the Corrientes province in northern Argentina for noted conservationist and North Face founder Douglas Tompkins. At Awasi, tasteful pencil drawings of native flowers and birds by the artist Elba D'Arino, Choren's mother, hang on the walls of the public areas. Colorful baskets woven by members of a nearby Guarani tribe rest on the tables. And a seven-piece light installation fashioned from 40 layers of fishing line illuminates the dining area, where your multicourse meals might include pillowy mushroom ravioli or a delicate ceviche of surubí, a local freshwater fish.
The whole place manages to feel organic and earthy — but not too earthy. It reminded me of renowned safari properties like Singita Boulders Lodge, in South Africa's Sabi Sand Game Reserve, and Abu Camp, in Botswana's wild Okavango Delta, where the design feels elevated yet not out of touch with its environment. This is the jungle, after all, the most biodiverse part of Argentina, where most days the humidity hovers between 75 and 90 percent. I quickly learned that there was no point in fighting the heat, bugs, or damp, or Misiones' rich red soil, which quickly stained my shoes and clothing. You're not here to be holed up in an air-conditioned palace.
To that end, Awasi follows the safari model when it comes to meals, drinks, and outdoor activities: everything is included. But it one-ups the safari experience in that each cabin comes with a personal guide (in my case, Paula, with help from Pancho) at no additional cost. That white 4 x 4 Ford Ranger is for you alone. Want to rise early for a jog along the back roads? Sure thing. How about a bird-watching excursion away from the crowds? That's fine, too. With a staff of 75, including 16 guides, catering to a maximum of 28 guests, the hotel puts service first.
"For most travelers, everything outside of the falls is secondary. We want the secondary stuff to shine," says Virginia Contreras, the operations manager for the Awasi Iguazú as well as two older Awasi properties (also in remote locales — the Atacama Desert and Torres del Paine National Park, both in Chile). Ten years ago, it would have been risky to expect people to stay three nights and go beyond Iguazú's star attraction. Nowadays, when so many travelers want to go deeper, explore further, and see things few others have seen before, there's a built-in audience for a place like this.
When I visited the falls I was impressed, but the experiences I didn't even know were coming turned out to be just as memorable. Like the sunny morning when, with the sky a robin's-egg blue, I piled into the truck with Paula, Pancho, and a last-minute tagalong guide, Bernardita, for a road trip — three hours each way — to visit San Ignacio Miní. I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of this UNESCO World Heritage site, one of four remaining Guarani-Jesuit missions in Argentina, located 155 miles south of the falls. The journey sounded daunting, but I was game for an adventure.
The ride was a straight shot down a rural highway lined with dense forests of pine and eucalyptus, with the occasional ibira pita tree — recognizable by its gorgeous yellow flowers — breaking up the sea of green. We passed farms and fruit stands and listened to an endless mix of Coldplay. By the time we turned onto a small paved road, I was ready to stretch my legs.
Nothing — certainly not my hasty Google Images search — could have prepared me for how magnificent San Ignacio Miní would be in person. Massive stone walls towered in orderly rows around a grand lawn that fronted the remains of a red stone church, its archways covered with elaborate Baroque motifs. At its peak, in the early to mid 1700s, the mission housed a handful of Jesuit priests and more than 4,000 Guarani, who were moved here, tribe by tribe, to live in stone dwellings and made to sculpt, play music, and study Catholicism. The Guarani — not the priests — were responsible for the carvings.
After the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its territories in 1767, the mission was abandoned and lost to time, the trees and plants eventually covering it wall by wall. It was restored in the 1940s and again in the 1990s. "Imagine this huge town in the middle of the rain forest," Paula said. But my brain couldn't fathom it. I suddenly was overcome by a feeling of sadness, thinking of the Guarani who were forced to move and adapt to a foreign culture.
Though the journey to San Ignacio Miní and back was long, I never found myself minding, which is a testament to the friendliness and intelligence of the Awasi guides. All hail from Argentina, Chile, or Brazil and have diverse interests and specialties, from geology and botany to photography. Paula's passion is ornithology, something that became clear during the two days we spent visiting Iguazú Falls.
The Awasi is just 20 minutes from the park's entrance, a surprisingly small-scale affair. On our first outing, we hiked 1½ miles along the Green Trail and the Lower Circuit, which consists of pathways that wind through the rain forest and eventually, closer to the falls, give way to a series of suspended footbridges that afford panoramic views. Paula spotted two chestnut-eared aracaris, a type of toucan, hopping between branches, while Pancho pointed out cicada exoskeletons lined up in tidy rows along the trunks of various trees. Families carrying coolers and pushing strollers passed us, oblivious to nature's hidden details.
I was so focused on the forest that my first glimpse of the Devil's Throat — the U-shaped gorge on the western end, which as much as half of the river thunders over — crept up on me. Then I became just one of the horde, with nothing else on my mind but taking in the spectacular show. We quickened our pace, snaking over the metal footbridges as the water grew louder and the rainbows multiplied. Eventually, from our viewpoint about midway between the river and the top of the gorge, we could appreciate the breadth of the cascades.
As the spray hit me at the Bossetti Falls, on the opposite side of the Devil's Throat, I stood transfixed — with so many questions. What was that emerald plant that stuck to the rocks? Podostemon grass, Paula answered: it thrives despite the pounding water. Why Bossetti? He was an Italian explorer (first name Carlo). The fact that I seemed to be the only person with a private guide wasn't lost on me. It felt decadent, but otherwise I'd have been tapping away for answers on my smartphone and missing so much.
To get closer to the Devil's Throat, we waited until late in the afternoon of the following day. The air was a humid brew, so we opted for the train, a faster, easier way to get to the 3,609-foot bridge that brings you to the gorge. This walk, as opposed to the footbridges of the Lower Circuit, took us above the Iguazú River itself. The water was murky — something I'd learned was due to the iron-rich soil and extensive plant growth, not pollution. Catfish swam below the bridges, side-necked turtles sunbathed on rocks, and all appeared calm, until we were about 50 yards from our final destination.
Though you can get a pulled-back view of Devil's Throat from Brazil, its scale and power are best appreciated in Argentina. The drop point, from which the water begins to fall some 270 feet, bisected a landscape of blue sky and white water, the top half cloudless and serene, the bottom a chaos of rapids and mist with no end in sight. It's amazing what the force of 450,000 cubic feet per second can do.
This was hardly the guides' first rodeo. I asked Pancho whether he ever tired of coming here. "No," he replied. "The light, the crowds, the atmosphere — it's never the same." I believed him. As we walked away, I caught a glimpse of a rainbow arcing over the Devil's Throat, its reds and yellows and greens fractured by the mist.
Your Guide to Seeing Iguazú Falls
With the debut of the Awasi Iguazú, the Argentinean side now has a luxe place to stay. Here's all you need to know about getting there and getting around.
The best way to reach Iguazú Falls is to fly to Buenos Aires, then take the two-hour connecting flight to Puerto Iguazú. I flew both LATAM and Andes Airlines, a local low-cost carrier; Aerolíneas Argentinas also offers nonstop service.
Where to Stay
The Awasi Iguazú (doubles from $1,000 per person, all-inclusive) has 14 large villas. Numerous excursions, including visits to the falls, are part of the price. The Awasi guides will pick you up on arrival in Puerto Iguazú.
Crossing the Border
Many travelers try to see Iguazú Falls from both Brazil and Argentina. Each side has its merits, though Argentina's network of trails is longer, and 80 percent of the falls lie on its side of the border. If you do want to go to Brazil, keep in mind that, for Americans, visas cost $160 and can take up to five business days to process, so you have to plan in advance. Argentina does not require a visa. If you want to stay in Brazil, the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas (doubles from $284) is the best accommodation near the falls.
What to Pack
December through February is peak summer, when temperatures can climb to 90 degrees. Spring and fall offer milder weather. No matter the month, the humidity is ever present. Bring a bathing suit and flip-flops, in addition to quick-drying clothing, comfortable walking shoes, and several hats. Be prepared for your clothes to get dirty, as the soil easily stains.
Before & After
You'll likely want to spend time in Buenos Aires before and/or after your visit. The Four Seasons (doubles from $605) has a great location in Recoleta. The rooms are spacious, but you're really there for the outdoor pool, overlooking the property's garden and Beaux-Arts mansion, and for the lobby bar, which embraces the polo aesthetic (think plenty of leather and wood) and serves excellent wines by the glass.
Content in this article was produced with assistance from Awasi Iguazú.