In the Realm of the Imagination :: The Wonders of Iguazú Falls, Argentina
Imagine scores of butterflies fluttering around your hands and face. Resplendent butterflies in indigo and orange, and others in red and black, they land on your fingers and forearms, feasting on the salt from your skin as you walk. In the distance, the mist from the waterfalls rises above the treetops. You’re on the Devil’s Throat Circuit, walking along an elevated steel walkway that spans the Iguazú River - and that mist in front of you, rising 500 feet into the air, is the spray from one of the world’s most miraculous wonders: the Devil’s Throat of Iguazú Falls.
"Iguazú" means "big water" in the language of the ancients - and apparently, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt glimpsed the massive Argentine waterfalls, she murmured, "Oh, poor Niagara."
And while it’s true that Iguazú is taller than Niagara and four times its width, the truth is, Iguazú Falls has the second largest annual water flow of the waterfalls of the world - after Niagara. And yet, as we all know, it’s not only about flow - or size - in this world. What Iguazú Falls has over so many other waterfalls around the world is a series of incredible walkways and spectacular views that, thanks to its horseshoe-shaped Devil’s Throat (Iguazú’s largest cataract) enables a person to be surrounded by almost 300 degrees of waterfalls. Almost anywhere a person stands, there is water cascading nearly 300 feet into the Iguazú River.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, Iguazú Falls was also short-listed for the "New Seven Wonders of Nature" by the New Seven Wonders of the World Foundation - and its strength is so great as to provide nearly 40% of power for Brazil and Argentine, thanks to the construction of the Itaipu Dam in 1991.
All of these facts you might well know prior to your arrival at Iguazú - and yet nothing fully prepares you for the magnitude of this natural wonder, not until you are standing on the lip of Devil’s Throat, the water pouring over the Parana Plateau with such ceaseless ferocity that there is nothing to do but smile uncontrollably at the magnificence of Mother Nature. Which is what everyone around you is doing - that, and attempting, somehow, to capture this thrilling beauty on film and video.
The Parana River into which the falls ultimately cascade is the water border between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay - and not unlike that place in the American West where you can be in four states at once, it’s possible to visit three countries in the time it takes to eat a sandwich.
While the Brazilian side affords helicopter rides, more than two-thirds of the falls are within Argentine territory, which is where the majority of visitors see Iguazú. For it’s on the Argentine side of the falls that you can ride the Rainforest Ecological Train, a British-built, open-sided train that travels approximately five miles through the rainforest. And it’s also on the Argentine side of the falls that you can climb into rubber rafts and take the Ecological Tour through the jungle and along the shores of the Upper Iguazú River - and see alligators. And it’s also on the Argentine side of the falls where you take speedboats that soar through the rapids, aiming straight for the cascade, resulting in a thunderous baptism under the San Martin Waterfall. Think Disney, without seatbelts.
Recently, LAN Airlines inaugurated its new Lima - Iguazú air service, which shortened travel time for most US travelers (previously, most travel to Iguazú originated as far south as Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires) - and, perhaps best of all, provides LGBT travelers with the perfect opportunity to avail themselves of one of the most hospitable and charming hotels in the world: Posada Puerto Bemberg.
WHERE TO STAY:
Posada Puerto Bemberg, Hotel de Selva, Iguazú, Argentina:
There are places in this world where you feel immediately at home - and then there are places that make you feel as if you’ve been here before, in another life, at another time. The true miracle, however, is when these two feelings of déjà vu converge and you find yourself completely at home in a place that is both new to you and wonderfully familiar. The Sanskrit word is "sattva," which, loosely translated, means " pure existence" - and such was the state that enveloped us as we arrived at Posada Puerto Bemberg.
Located in the Misiones jungle, in the Argentine province of Misiones, Posada Puerto Bemberg is what remains of a familial estate and yerba mate plantation that, at one point, encompassed nearly 125,000 acres. The land was owned by the illustrious Bemberg family, founders of one of Argentina’s largest breweries, Quilmes, and it was the Bembergs who, in 1925, with their yerba mate plantation, brought running water and electric power to the Province of Misiones.
At that time, access to the falls was only from the river - and the first posada was built in 1940 as an overnight respite for visitors to Iguazú Falls. Of course, as everyone who’s seen Madonna in "Evita" knows, much changed in Argentina, and it wasn’t until after years of tumult and upheaval that the Bemberg heirs came together to create an eco-reserve with what remained of their property.
It’s fitting that the reborn Posada Puerto Bemberg quotes "King Lear" in its mission statement: "He’ll shape his old course in a country new," for the latest incarnation of the posada, which opened quietly in November of 2008, divides its nearly 1,000 acres into a 700-acre reserve, while utilizing 123 acres for a jungle recovery plan, which has, already, replanted more than 5,000 indigenous trees and plants.
We arrived at night, traveling from Iguazú Airport to Puerto Libertad, the very small town whose origins are inextricably connected to the Bemberg family and industries. We passed through the one-street town and onto a dirt road, illuminated only by the headlights of the van. We were deep in the jungle - and then we were pulling into a cul de sac, where the staff of Puerto Bemberg stood in front of reception, waiting to greet and welcome us to their home.
The current owners of Puerto Bemberg had a dream to create a place for those who love the comforts and intimacy associated with family homes - while also complementing the jungle’s indigenous pleasures. In short, Posada Puerto Bemberg seeks to create a haven where culture, wine, and decorative arts commingle with hummingbirds, toucans, and maybe a puma or two.
Dinner that night was taken in the 2,500-volume library cum dining room (complete with grand piano) where a half dozen tables were laid with silver cutlery and crystal. A group of women was at a neighboring table, toasting to each other with Argentine wine. Our party was attended to by two young men, who stood at the room’s far end, watching to insure that everything we needed was immediately available. The atmosphere was not unlike being in a private home for a weekend visit, albeit one where the domestic staff has been in residence for years and where the owners are happy to share their good fortune, even when absent.
Posada Puerto Bemberg has only 13 guest rooms and one suite (with private balcony). All the rooms are spacious, with high ceilings and en suite bathrooms (with L’Occitane toiletries), and all furnished with earth-toned artisanal pieces with splashes of tropical color. Headboards, for example, are made from wood salvaged from the Italian tenements of Buenos Aires and the beds are dressed with Egyptian cotton linens and llama-wool blankets. A pillow menu offers nearly a dozen choices including goose feather, foam, latex, balsamic - and our choice, semillas, which was a pillow stuffed with the husks of Saracen wheat seeds that adapted to both the head and neck and was reputed to be perfect for the relief of stress, muscular tension, headaches, and migraine. What we know, for sure, was that we awoke in the morning feeling incredibly blessed, realizing that we had an entire day to spend at this incredible establishment.
Each room has its own patio, perfect for morning coffee while listening to birdsong - or for reading one of the books from the shelves of the curated library in every room. There is also a 65-foot swimming pool, as well as a watchtower, which enables viewers to gaze across the expanse of the property, over the treetops to the Parana River and the banks of Paraguay beyond.
Every morning, there is breakfast, again served in the library cum dining room - or out on the colonnaded veranda overlooking the lawn. Breakfast is not to be missed for it is an opportunity to taste the incredible bounty from Posada Puerto Bemberg’s organic fruit and vegetable garden. As the Posada is staffed almost entirely by residents from the neighboring small town, Puerto Libertad, the cuisine is an amalgam of indigenous recipes supplemented by Chef Joselina Hoffmann’s years of culinary experience. Breakfast is delicious.
The overwhelming temptation at Posada Puerto Bemberg is to wander off and discover what fascinating treasures lie in wait: a hummingbird path, for example, or a treetop skywalk, leading to an open space, perfect for meditation or a cocktail at sunset - brought to you by one of the attendants, just as you were imagining how perfect it would be to have a beverage.
There’s also La Cave, a wine cellar stocked with 1,600 bottles, selected from strict tastings, resulting in 60 labels from 20 vineyards, emphasizing Malbec and Torrontes, Argentina’s most emblematic varieties. From La Cave, the view is splendid - and it’s entirely possible to linger here, sipping and contemplating the good life in the Argentine jungle.
In addition, the finishing touches are being put on Le Pavilion, a 120-capacity space with a commanding river view, which all but begs for LGBT weddings. What could be more romantic than an LGBT destination wedding at Posada Puerto Bemberg? There’s even a chapel on the property, built in 1930 by Bustillo, one of Argentina’s foremost architects, which also has superb river views, all the way to the banks of Paraguay (where once upon a time, the locals would gather to hear Mass from across the river).
Above and beyond the creature comforts (of which there are plenty), Posada Puerto Bemberg prides itself - and rightfully so - on being a sustainable, eco-reserve. Biodegradable cleaning products are used exclusively, while recycled wood was used for the library and La Cave (both of which were built with planks from a former athletic club). And apart from the organic garden, there is also an indigenous plant nursery, where a broad range of medicinal plants is cultivated (including stevia, with leaves 45 times as sweet as sucrose).
One morning, we wandered across the property, over to the original family manse. Left in disrepair for decades, the large colonial home is currently undergoing extensive renovation, with the goal of adding a number of suites to Posada Puerto Bemberg’s offerings. For a few minutes, as workmen moved behind us, we stood on the veranda, looking down the hill toward the Paraná River and across to the hills of Paraguay beyond. For a few minutes, we imagined how it might have been for the Bembergs when they lived here, early in the 20th century: cocktails in the evening as the sounds of the jungle drifted up from the treetops. They had brought a new future to a province previously unlivable. They had created a town where none had existed before. They’d had a dream of sustainable economic and social development.
And now, it was happening again: the Posada reborn for a new generation of intrepid and respectful travelers, for those who appreciate both a good bottle of wine and the beauty of indigenous birdsong.
On a map of the surrounding area, you might see the town of El Dorado listed as further to the south - but we might argue that we found the mythical El Dorado with all its attendant claims to happiness at Posada Puerto Bemberg.
Listed on "Conde Nast Traveler’s 2009 Hot List"
LINK: Posada Puerto Bemberg
(Story continues on next page: Where to Eat, What to Do...)