Iguazú Falls for Families: What You Need to Know
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I’m going to begin this post the same way I'll end it — by imploring you to put Iguazu Falls on your travel wish list. Straddling Argentina and Brazil, Iguazu Falls takes effort to visit, but don't let that stop you from making the trip.
About Iguazú Falls
The photos you see of Iguazu Falls are usually of Devil's Throat (Garganta del Diablo in Spanish), which is the largest of the 275 waterfalls that make up the area. Without Garganta del Diablo, Iguazu Falls would still be an amazing national park. With it, Iguazu graduates to bucket-list level.
The first decision to make when visiting Iguazu Falls is whether to visit from Argentina, Brazil or both. Brazil-side visitors will need a visa, which as of 2018 is much easier to get than it used to be. After seeing the falls, a visit to the Argentine side is sufficient for most visitors, although only the Brazilian side features helicopter tours. Argentina bans helicopters due to noise pollution and disturbance of wildlife.
If you enter from Argentina, the Puerto Iguazu airport (IGR) has frequent connections from Buenos Aires. Use AAdvantage miles to book award seats on LATAM. The seats cost only 6,000 miles each way for intra-Argentina travel. (Tickets within Argentina -- or within Chile -- are a terrific use of AAdvantage miles.) I did have to call to book the tickets, but availability appeared to be wide-open. Note that most Iguazu flights depart from the city airport: Jorge Newbery Airfield (AEP), not the Ministro Pistarini International Airport. Allocating three nights, with two full days at the park, would be enough. Puerto Iguazu just doesn't have much else to do.
We went in July, which was just about perfect: lows were in the 60s in the afternoon and the 50s in the early morning. The temperature allowed us to enjoy being outside without withering in the heat. July is also the least rainy month of the year. In a drought year, it might affect the falls themselves, but during our visit the falls certainly didn’t lack for volume. Here’s a handy weather reference.
If you time your visit in other seasons, be aware of both the heat and the higher chance for rain. Both also bring bugs -- you are in the jungle, after all.
Where to Stay
The hotel inside the national park, which used to be a Sheraton, is now operated by the Melia chain and isn’t worth the hefty premium. I'll talk a little more about this later.
We stayed at the Falls Iguazu Hotel & Spa about 10 minutes away from the park entrance. I found the highly rated property on Hotels.com for just $110 a night. Using the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, you could get an effective 20% rebate on that rate in rewards by earning 10x miles on the charge and earning towards a free night in the Hotels.com award program (ends Jan. 31, 2020). The rooms were new, well-maintained and large. The setting was quiet and tranquil but still modern enough to have a decent pool cafe and a lounge for an after-falls glass of Malbec. Even better, our room slept four, included breakfast and even a one-way airport transfer. To be fair, we did spend $30/day on taxis, so you'll need to factor that cost into the equation.
Did I mention that massages were $36 for 45 minutes? Not only did my husband and I each get one, but we even bought our teenager a leg massage after our 9 mile hike at the falls got to him a bit. The spa equated most that you see at four-star hotels in the United States and included an indoor Roman bath.
Once You Arrive
You'll need cash as Iguazú National Park only accepts Argentine pesos for admission — no credit cards. There is an ATM at the entrance, but it was empty when we visited. Here is current admissions information for Iguazu National Park. Be sure to keep your receipt to get 50% off admission on your second day.
Once inside the park, use what I call the theme park strategy. Chances are you will arrive right at opening. You may be concerned by the crush of flag-waving tour guides and the throngs following them. Don’t be. Let them go on the train straight to the top of the falls to see Garganta del Diablo.
What your family can do instead is take the Sendero Verde (Green Trail) to the lower trail. If you didn’t visit Garganta del Diablo at all, Iguazu Falls would still be an impressive sight. Working your way through the 275 falls makes the top even more breathtaking.
By doing the opposite of what the crowds did, we experienced a leisurely hike through the forest, had lunch and then made our way to Garganta del Diablo around 3pm. The 1-kilometer path was almost entirely deserted, while the next morning it was beyond packed. Most of the paths were kid-friendly, but like at most natural parks, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your kids. If they are at all prone to wandering, be sure to keep a hand on them as well. That said, both the Sendero Verde and the path to Garganta del Diablo would accommodate a stroller.
If you've been researching Iguazu Falls, you've probably already come across the Maid of the Mist-style speedboat ride. Should you do it? This one is a definite maybe. First of all, there’s a strict age limit of 12. If you have a kid that looks anywhere near 12, they will want to see a passport to verify age. At 13, our son didn’t make the cutoff without an ID.
You also have to keep in mind the entry — it’s a narrow and wet stone stairway with a sketchy rope for balance. If you have any mobility issues, the speedboat ride is not for you. You will also get drenched. My husband did the ride solo and enjoyed it greatly, but didn’t enjoy being soaked to the bone in chilling falls water for the rest of the day.
An alternative is the all-ages slow-boat ride, which is more like a mangrove tour than feeling like you’re in the falls. It’s a “nice to have.” There’s no need to book in advance unless it’s high season — you’ll save a bit by booking on-site.
Speaking of lunch, once you’re done with the Sendero Verde, you can cut over to the (formerly Sheraton) Melia hotel for lunch. Afterward, you can stroll to the train station and have a much less crowded experience at the top. The hotel is well-known not only for the location but also for the tribe of monkeys that live there. Cute, right? Well, not so cute when the guy above and one of his friends dove at the food not once, but twice in the same meal. My daughter decided her memoir title will be “A Monkey Stole My Mustard.” Catchy, don’t you think?
Like pigeons or seagulls, the monkeys got disruptive. There must have been a dozen hanging on the Melia's balconies — not just the restaurant. In the two hours we were there, they stole food — not just from us — broke dishes, chased guests from balconies and just created havoc. It’s really difficult to imagine enjoying morning coffee from your balcony at the hotel while a monkey does his business on your table.
Avoid eating outside at Iguazu Falls at all costs. Don’t even pack snacks. The cookies in our bag became immediate coati bait. The critters are cute until they start chasing you in a pack.
The one place we did enjoy an outside snack was the coffee shop near the entrance. The animals don’t come down that far and the alfajor cookies, similar to a really fancy moon pie, were fantastic.
Cash: An Important Practical Consideration
Cash might not be available when you need it. I've visited more than 40 countries, including some with pretty unstable currencies. However, I’ve never visited a country where I could not get money. That happened to me more than once in our week in Argentina.
We arrived into AEP, Buenos Aires’ domestic airport, where I immediately found an ATM, but just as quickly found it was empty. At 9am the currency exchange booth was closed. There’s an ATM at the Iguazu airport, but it couldn’t read my Capital One debit card. IGR didn’t have an open exchange booth as most flights coming into it are domestic.
Our hotel was out of pesos as well. They thought “we might have some tomorrow,” but at that moment I was completely without pesos to pay a taxi or to buy anything else outside of the hotel. Fortunately, I found a taxi driver willing to accept US dollars. Note: Bring small bills — she drove me into Puerto Iguazu to get cash. It took us three banks to find an ATM with money in it that would also accept my card. Turns out Argentine payday is the first of the month (we arrived on the third), and ATMs get cleared out the minute that paycheck hits. Plan accordingly so you don't get caught like we did.
While I obsessed over where to stay and what to eat, once we got to Iguazu Falls, I realized it was more important just that we were there. Iguazu is a pain to get to as it requires a flight from Buenos Aires and there isn’t much to do there besides the falls, but it doesn’t matter. Just go. My teen son gave his usual deadpan response, "It was great," but added, "It wasn't only a highlight of our South America trip, it was a highlight of all our trips." Only those who have a teenage boy understand the depth of that statement.
Have you been to Iguazu Falls? Please share your tips!