Legendary Iguazu Falls (and Coati and Cougars and Puma, oh my!)

Iguazu Falls are the waterfalls of the Iguazu River on the border of Argentina and Brazil. They are the largest waterfalls system in the world. The name “Iguazu” comes from the Guarani or Tupi words “y,” meaning “water,” and “ûasú,” meaning “big.” Legend has it that a deity planned to marry a beautiful woman named Naipí, who fled with her mortal lover Tarobá in a canoe. In a rage, the deity sliced the river, creating the waterfalls and condemning the lovers to an eternal fall.

Truly, Iguazu Falls are magnificent in every possible way. Their beauty difficult to capture in photos. Their enormity, impossible to convey. The amount of water flow is beyond comprehension. To see them is to experience them. Pictures cannot possibly capture the awe I felt or the sensation of standing over a seemingly bottomless cauldron of water.

But, here is what I want to talk about. We saw the Argentina side. In fact, both Brazil and Argentina have established an incredible infrastructure so that everyone can access the falls. In Argentina, it resembles a theme park, complete with a train that takes you from the entrance to the furthest walkway that then brings you to the Devil’s Throat – the pièce de résistance.  

We visited the park on a Saturday and as it happens, during Argentina’s winter holiday. Argentines on holiday flooded the park, kids and Maté in tow.

Unfortunately, that many people have an unfortunate impact on a jungle, because make no mistake, these falls are in the middle of a jungle. This part of the jungle just happens to have paved paths and bridge-ways leading you to the multitude of waterfalls. The infrastructure is beautiful and well-organized. However, this access is not without its environmental impact.

Garbage was surprisingly low along the walkways. But at food stands, people did not throw away their garbage. Thus, the Coati, a long-nosed raccoon-like animal, have learned that people equal food. They happily venture out of the forest, like cute little gangs, and crowd the walkways and food stands, begging and scavenging for food. The Coati, furry and cute, fall victim to humans feeding and petting them. But Coati bite, so once in a while a human will learn the hard way that Coati are in fact wild animals. 

Toward the end of our day, we bought a beer at the Subway kiosk, yes, Subway, sat on a curb and watched the Coati feeding frenzy. Not only were all of the tables filled with subway wrappers and other garbage, left to flutter to the ground and become Coati snacks, but several unattended children happily fed the Coati by hand and clueless girls and boys with selfie sticks posed for photos with the photogenic Coatis.

The Coati venturing out of the jungle results in other inconvenient consequences. What preys on the Coati? Cougars and Puma. What do the Cougars and Puma do when the Coati leave the jungle for food? The Cougars and Puma follow them. This is where the consequences become inconvenient, because people and Cougars and Puma generally don’t play well together. That is why, when we first arrived at the park, the trail to the furthest area of the park, the Devil’s Throat, was closed due to Cougar and Puma activity.

Beyond the Coati nightmare, I witnessed people hand-feeding the beautiful Plush-crested Jay crackers. These beautiful Jays now exhibit behavior like the Coati – they associate people with food. This “tame” behavior is not normal nor safe for the species. 

We even heard stories from a former park worker of people attempting to leave the park with Coati stuffed in their backpacks and people grabbing butterflies, smashing them in a book as a souvenir. 

Make no mistake, this is by no means an attack on Argentina or Brazil or its people. Things like this happen everywhere. However, on this day, in an overcrowded park, I was inundated with reminders of how we mistreat and mismanage our environment and wildlife.

Wildlife is exactly that – wild. It needs to stay that way. The sad truth is that because of certain human activity and destruction, many species are extinct, endangered or threatened and the only way to see them is in another failed human institution – zoos. But for the wildlife we have yet to destroy, let us all do our best to keep it wild and free and beautiful.

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