5 soul-boosting reasons to hike the PCT

Die-hard “thru-hiker” or aspirational backpacker (like myself), a trip along America’s infamous Pacific Crest Trail has much to offer. Here we explore 5 reasons why hitting the trail is a no-brainer. Could a call to the wild be just the life-altering experience you need?

1. Fresh air anyone?

With 2,650 miles of primitive trail snaking all the way from Mexico to Canada, one thing the PCT has in abundance is space. In epic proportions. Rarely will you find yourself crossing a road or treading tarmac of any kind. How refreshing it is to walk a path absent of crowds and wafts of other people’s cigarette smoke. Whilst you’re enjoying this new-found clean air, expect to repetitively utter the word ‘awesome’ to describe the surrounding scenery, in a totally non-ironic way. Take for example, Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness. Home to the oft-photographed “Knife’s Edge”, where you will inhale lungfuls of frigid mountain air as you scale across its perilous ridge. The remnants of an eroded stratovolcano, these sharp, serrated peaks resemble a Stegosaurus’ spine, perfectly sandwiched between deep valley drainages – vertigo-sufferers be warned!

2. The opportunity to finally disconnect

Unsurprisingly, the wilderness isn’t known for its high-speed data connectivity – in fact, good luck if you find any mobile signal out there at all! When was the last time you didn’t sneak a peek at your phone’s captivating screen for more than a couple of hours? Yet, being forced to switch off those swiping reflexes and tap-out of the bombarding online world is invigorating. It may take a few days to adjust, but once you do it’s incredible just how far your other senses are heightened. You will begin to appreciate your surroundings in a whole new light, the small things we otherwise miss, such as the vibrating tones of circling hummingbirds, or the fragrance of evergreen pines so indicative of Christmas. Call it mindfulness, a digital detox, or whatever you like, but clearing your headspace of over-stimulation to get in touch with your more intrinsic-self should be on everybody’s To-Do list.

3. Trail Magic

I probably shouldn’t even list it here, because the whole point of “trail magic” is the unexpected element associated with receiving a gift of unsolicited kindness. Yet, the PCT is renowned for attracting just this. Total strangers – with no hidden agenda – time and time again aid hikers by providing free rides into town, food donations, and even sometimes hosting them in their homes. At my lowest point on the entire trail, having hiked through rain for three days solid, a chance encounter with an American-Irish family reunion saved me. Welcomed into the fold, within 24-hours of being fed, laundered, and provided an actual bed, I hiked out not only stronger, but with a restored faith in humanity. You will undoubtedly meet a plethora of genuine people from all walks of life on the PCT. Often known solely by a playful trail meme, many a colourful character will become a life-long friend.

4. Appreciating simple things

There’s nothing like an extended trip along the PCT for highlighting the simple things we often take for granted. With an average of five days living in the wild standing between any facilities or food resupply, you will begin to appreciate things like never before. Take for instance, being able to drink clean water straight from a tap – without the need to source and filter it first. Simply mind-blowing. Not to mention how good it feels to remove days of sweat and grime with a steamy shower, or the pleasure derived from a hot meal that wasn’t once dehydrated. The modern world has desensitised us from the wonder of such utilities. Reaching them becomes an exciting, tangible goal. One that holds with it an unparalleled sense of achievement because let’s face it, it requires sheer grit and determination in the face of mental and physical hardship to make. After all, there’s no Amazon on call when you’re days away from the nearest extraction point.

5. Freedom

It’s human nature to lust after a sense of freedom. We didn’t always live crammed into cities after all. So where better than the vast American wilderness to embrace your liberty? Nowhere else have I ever experienced the thrilling delight of marching to the beat of my own drum. Gone were the days of bus timetables, clocking-in, and struggling to figure out my tax obligations. Life sure is liberating when the usual mix of daily worries are dissolved into a simple but variable rhythm: Walk, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. What’s more, no two days are ever the same. Each morning I would awake – slightly sore from sleeping on the ground – to pumping of adrenalin supplied purely from the exhilarating anticipation of facing the unknown. Who knew if I would be mauled by a bear or fall into a ravine? I can’t say that ever happens to me in London.



If the above sounds tempting, but you find yourself short of the circa five months required to attempt hiking the entire PCT, just pick a section. Whatever section you choose to discover, one thing’s for sure: the trail will embed in your soul a vivid collection of images and memories that will last a life-time. So, why not try it for yourself? I am living proof that even the unlikeliest of backpackers can not only survive, but be completely moved by the wild.

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For more information on hiking the PCT see: https://www.pcta.org
Free trail maps can be downloaded from: https://www.pctmap.net

The day we came face-to-face with a Grizzly

My heart stopped.  Just moments before, we had been happily enjoying the down-hill momentum and views into Glacier’s central valley, that was until company round a bend ahead.  We froze in our tracks.  A giant male grizzly dominated the trail just 20 meters beyond.

Of course, I’m well-aware that Glacier National Park is home to a grizzly bear population – warning signs are everywhere – but I never really expected to get THIS close to one.  I had hoped to catch a sight of one form the car window.  That would have been nice.  Nice and safe.  If anything, I had been on higher alert earlier that morning as we set out, completely alone, from the Siyeh Bend trailhead.  Crossing through Preston Park meadows still enveloped in mist, I made sure to make our presence known, and scouted the area for any sign of movement.  Nothing.

 

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Entering Preston Park ahead of the sun

 

Leaving the timberline far below, we wound up a shingle trail to summit Siyeh Pass.  There we found a plump lonely marmot, hair blowing in the breeze, admiring the view.  He didn’t seem bothered by us, so we let each other be, taking in the same view of a previously hidden eastern valley with tiny glaciers dotted high above.

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Capturing the views from Siyeh Pass

 

From Siyeh pass the views really exploded.  No longer sheltered by trees, the trail begins a tight descent, switch-backing 3220 feet alongside the stunning Sexton Glacier.  Both Conrad and I became so preoccupied with trying to capture the splendor on our cameras – failing completely – that concerns of bears left our minds.

Our cameras had just returned to bags as the trail began evening out, hugging the edge of Goat Mountain.  That’s when the creature appeared, completely startling us.  Conrad was in the lead (thank God), as we simultaneously stopped dead in our tracks.  He had seen us too.  Definitely a grizzly.  His dark coat hung over huge hunched shoulders, with the tell-tale long snout that identified his bread.  I suddenly felt very vulnerable.  We hadn’t seen another human-being all day.  And here we were carrying a bag full of trail snacks.  What idiots!  I bet we smelt good enough to eat too.

 

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If only we’d seen this BEFORE the bear!

 

My mind rapidly began processing every bit of advice I’d ever consumed about bears.  I knew enough not to run.  Even though instinct kind of made me want to.  Now, what was the difference between dealing with grizzly verses black bears again?  The bear was holding our gaze.  It felt like a Mexican stand-off.  He seemed unsure too.  Then, slowly, he resumed his stride, edging even closer.  Shit!  I’m going to die!  I immediately began clapping my hands and shouting loud, incoherent nonsense – anything that sprung to mind that identified us as people.  Meanwhile, Conrad frantically released the can of bear pepper spray from its holster, the can we had debated paying $50 for just days before.  He pulled the safety tab out ready.  I cowed behind him.

I’m so grateful we never had to dispense the noxious mace.  For one thing, a strong wind was blowing in our direction so we would have probably blinded ourselves!  And for another, by the bear choosing to have a change of heart and divert off of the trail instead of confronting us, he kept himself safe.  Not that we could have defeated him, but National Park policy often dictates that ‘troublesome’ bears – those deemed a threat to humans – are killed.  So we both happily got to live another day!  We watched as he leisurely passed us further down the slope, eventually stopping to inspect some fallen timber, to no doubt on the hunt for food.

 

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The only photo of the bear – taken once our safety seemed fairly certain & my pounding heart recovered

 

I spent the remainder of the descent along the gushing Baring Creeks constantly looking over my shoulder, rattled.  I didn’t dare get any food out.  But wow!  What an encounter.  My respect for nature increases every day.

 

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Baring Falls. Sunrift Gorge.

 

 

We hiked the Siyeh Pass Trail from Siyeh Bend, ending at Sunset Gorge. The trail is just over 10 miles long and gains 2240 feet.  There is a further option to extend the hike up to Piegan Pass and view Piegan glacier, but you will have to back-track from the pass to re-join this circuit.

Photographed in early August 2018.

Becoming an unwitting Mountaineer in Snowdonia National Park

Last week Conrad and I shattered a personal record.  Having made it across the border to Wales for the first time ever – yes we only live in London – we somehow managed to take a ridiculous 7 hours to complete a 6-mile walk.  I use the word ‘walk’ loosely here.  What followed involved some seriously sketchy scrabbling as our hiking poles got stowed away to grip onto wet rocks for dear life.  Please don’t make me another tragic face on the news following a failed mountain rescue attempt I prayed.  On the plus side, the views were exceptional. Continue reading Becoming an unwitting Mountaineer in Snowdonia National Park

A week in Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons

In my previous post, I outlined my child-like desire to visit America’s first National Park and introduced the 3-week trip that finally made my dream a reality.  After years of sitting on the bucket list, we finally witnessed Yellowstone’s geological wonderland in September of 2015.  It didn’t disappoint.  The place has it all: Mountains, geysers, canyons, waterfalls, animals, hikes… tick, tick, tick.  With merely a week and an SUV, we attempted to cover as many park highlights as possible before travelling south to the Grand Tetons en route to Salt Lake City.  Here’s a flavour of our days and some tips I’ve taken away. Continue reading A week in Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons

Road-tripping USA: Yellowstone to Vegas in 21 Days

I first became captivated by Yellowstone watching a BBC documentary.  It charted the dramatic seasonal changes to the park’s ecosystem, including majestic elk migrations,  hibernating bears, and the ever-changing foliage.  Animals fought the harsh perils of winter.  Not all survived.  The geothermal landscape struck me as hostile and wild.  With a land mass larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and sitting on top of a super-volcano thought powerful enough to cover the continental US in ash, Yellowstone sky-rocketed to the top of my bucket list.  But America’s first National Park is not the most convenient place to reach from the UK, so we put it on hold until we had the time to take a big trip.

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The rainbow-hued Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s largest hot springs

Our chance finally arrived in September 2015.  In-between jobs we took 21 days to explore a chunk of the wild west, flying into the mountain town of Bozeman Montana via Denver.

Our plan was long but simple.  Hiring a car and beginning with Yellowstone, our route to Vegas would transport us south through 5 National Parks, 3 State Parks, and a National Monument.  It would span 4 states – technically 5 but I’m not counting Idaho’s 44 miles – with most of the driving distance concentrated in Utah.  We would stick to the scenic, off-beat roads wherever possible, aiming to avoid the dreaded interstates at all costs.  Thanks to the ever-changing scenery and epic natural wonders dotted along almost the entirety of the drive, I can truly say this trip was the most memorable, completely awesome of all time.  I only wish we had longer.  I thought I’d share our itinerary along with some highlights for anyone hoping to visit this part of the US.

The High-level Itinerary

Day(s) Key Locations Rough Driving Route
1 Bozeman to Gardiner – Yellowstone North Entrance I-90 & US–89
2-4 Yellowstone N. Park Mainly Grand Loop Rd
5-6 Grand Teton N. Park US-20, US–191/ US–287, Teton Park Rd
7 Jackson, WY [via Mormon Row] Teton Park Rd, Moose Wilson Rd, US-26, Antelope Flats Rd, Mormon Row, Gros Ventre Rd
8 Logan, UT US-26 & US-89
9-10 Salt Lake City [+ side-trip to Cottonwood Canyon] US-89
11 Richfield, UT [Via Park City] UT-224 [Guardsmen Pass Scenic Byway], US-189 and US-89, UT-24 & UT-118
12-13 Bryce Canyon N. Park [Via Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument & Capital Reef N. Park] UT-119, UT-24 [short detour], UT-12 [Scenic Byway 12]
14-17 Springdale, UT – Zion N. Park UT-12, US-89 S & UT-9
18-21 Vegas [Via Valley of Fire S. Park] UT-9, I-15, NV–169 & I-15S
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Map created on Roadtrippers
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Catching views of the mighty Yellowstone Canyon from North & South rims
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The view from the Fairy Falls trail – after a brief scramble up an adjacent hill
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Staying for 2 nights in the historic Yellowstone Lake Lodge the animals came to us
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Making it to Yellowstone sights early and having them to ourselves: West Thumb Geyser
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The Colter Bay Nature trail, giving us this screen-saver worthy view of the Tetons
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When a lone elk crossed our path on the String & Leigh Lakes trail releasing an echoing cry
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Watching the sun go down from the bar of Jackson lake Lodge

 

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Catching these frisky moose at it whilst driving near Jackson Hole
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White Water rafting on the Snake River: FREEZING but beautiful

 

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Taking a bike tour of Sat Lake City and learning all about this quirky place

 

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Hiking in Big Cottonwood Canyon outside SLC where we saw even more moose

 

 

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The scenic overlooks of Bryce Canyon

 

 

 

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Attempting to reach the top of Angels Landing in Zion [before loosing my nerve!]
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Meeting friends in Vegas

 

A parting word of advice:  A week before our trip commenced I was glancing over the Yellowstone N.P website and discovered – to my horror – that a section of the grand loop road (the only road through the park) would be closed for construction works during our visit.  This changed some of our plans and might be the reason why our route looks a little disjointed.  I would recommend checking out this kind of information on the park’s website long in advance – ops!

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Regional View of Yellowstone & Grand Teton Parks. [Click on map for detailed park maps]
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Channeling my inner park ranger

 

 I hope to write some separate posts containing more details once I get around to sorting out the hundreds of photos!

Snapshots from Winter in the British Lakes

Amidst a fresh sprinkling of mid-December snow, with piles of warm clothes, we braced ourselves for a long drive. Nearly six hours north of London, nestled close to the Scottish border, and the Irish Sea, lies the English Lake District.  Lakeland as it’s been coined, has provided the inspirational landscape for centuries of literary greats, with the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, and the children’s writer and creator of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter being some of the most famous.

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As one of a limited number of UK National Parks, I had wanted to visit the lakes for years, but as British roads are not the best I just couldn’t face the drive. And every time it came to the crunch of booking a trip I faced the sad dilemma that in same travel time – and with the help of a plane – I could instead reach the sunnier climes of Europe, and a small stretch further the Caribbean! Oh and the weather ‘Up North’ (what Londoners call anywhere north of the M25) is noturiously iffy.

December is certainly not a peak period in the Lakes as it’s not a ski destination. But I love visiting places when they are considered out-of-season, because sharing wild adventures with hoards of other tourists dampens the appeal. So our photos may look a little bleak, but they show a snap-shot of one of Britain’s most rugged protected lands in the middle fo winter. Unfortunately I was experiencing a nasty cold that annoyingly hit just the day before we left London, so what we expected to be 5 days of hiking, turned out a little more chilled. I thought I’d share a few snapshots from the trip to give people a taste of a part of Britain less often seen in Instagram.

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Castlerigg Stone Circle, just outside of Keswick, shares the same mysterious origins as Stonehenge. It is thought to be over 4500 years old
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The north shore of Derwent Lake as the mid-afternoon sun slowly recedes. A very calm place.
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Looking down on Tarn Hows, most of which was frozen. I didn’t know before this trip that a ‘tarn’ is a glacier-made mountain lake or pool – I guess I missed that lesson in geography class! You can just see the 1.6-mile trail that encircles the water with no one on it to the right.
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There are around 3 million sheep living in Cumbria, so herds are a common sight throughout the park. We saw this loner up high on Kirkstone Pass. He stood in a small patch of grass chewing away happily, completely unfazed by the falling snow and biting wind.
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We named him ‘Eddy’

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The ferocious (and very loud) Aira Force waterfall – seen from the bottom (here), and top (right). Packing waterproofs was essential!

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Completely alone on the short trail to witness this impressive falls in the North-Eastern Ullswater area of the park. Thundering rain is probably why.

Most people tend to visit and stay in the main areas of the park – namely Lake Windermere, Grasmere, and the northern town of Keswick. Whilst we drove through these areas and found them beautiful, we wanted to experience a retreat, so based ourselves in the Great Langdale Valley further west. In reality though with a car, nothing feels that far away!

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A Winter Wonderland for two. There are so many hiking trails throughout the Lake District, from gentle grades encircling lakes like this one at Tarn Hows, to difficult technical mountaineering. You can find more information here.
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The Lake District is a National Park, but unlike in many other countries there is no physical border with entrance stations, so the park gets funded partly by charging for car parking. After making a quick calculation, we opted to become members of The National Trust (£65 per year). This made all National Trust carparks free, and includes access to hundreds of other properties and sites across the UK. Alternatively there is a decent public transport system of buses to get around the park, which is useful for hikers.
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Slater Bridge in the tranquil Little Langdale Valley area of the park.
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Leaving the bridge we follow miles of meandering Cumbrian stone walls as they disappear up and over the hilltops.
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One very happy-looking hiker – probably because he isn’t carrying the backpack!
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Colwith Force, a pretty multi-tier waterfall system on the River Brathay, which we stumbled upon after traipsing through ancient moss-coated oak woodlands.
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Another tier of Colwith Force. I was surprised to see a light on and movement in that tiny stone building (not sure who occupies it?)
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Elterwater village green in the Great Landgale Valley. The Lake District is full of picture-postcard worthy tiny villages and hamlets made from local stone, and of course brilliant pubs!
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Little Langdale Tarn sits nearly hidden away at the foot of Wrynose Pass. Seen here from the public bridleway on the south shore – there is no public access to the water, as it sits within private farm land.
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The Great Langdale Valley, the day it rained and rained and rained… somehow we managed to get wet even with full waterproofs on!

Car journey aside, I found myself captivated by the Lake District. I couldn’t quite believe that the lofty peaks, so perfectly framing the lakes beneath were English. I definitely hope this to be the first of many return trips – maybe the next one at Easter-time, or early summer. And much to my surprise I learnt from a local down the village pub, that next time I could take a fast-track Virgin train from London Euston to Oxenholme in little under 3-hours! Well who knew?!

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Off to the pub.

The Power & Beauty of Nature: Iguazu Falls

Where: Iguazu Falls, border of Argentina and Brazil

When: November 2012

 

The largest waterfall system in the world is nestled within a diverse, lush ecosystem straddling Brazil and Argentina. Where the Iguazu River spills over the edge of the Paraná Plateau, roughly 275 discrete falls create a magnificent spectacle nearly twice as tall as Niagara, and more than three times as wide.  Add to that the jungle setting, and Iguazu beats Niagara hands-down.  No casinos line the dramatic gorge, instead they feel fittingly secluded, surrounded by a landscape home to colorful toucans, butterflies, and curious monkeys.

No pictures can capture the majesty and splendour of these cascades. Visiting them is an immersive experience, where you’ll feel their cooling spray on your face whilst hearing the waters powerful roar. It’s an almighty display of nature.  And utterly worthy of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to behold. Conversely, you can expect all subsequent cascades to be ‘ruined’ after the trip, as they pale in comparison!

Viewing platform on the Brazilian-side

The falls are shared between the two distinct National Parks, both of which were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the 1980s. You might recognise some of these images, as many films have leveraged the other-worldliness of the cataracts powerful mystique, including the 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Looking into the abyss of Devil’s Throat – La Garganta del Diablo

We based ourselves on the Brazilian side, flying into Foz do Iguaçu, a 20-minute taxi ride to our hotel within the park. Most other hotels are located in the town of Foz do Iguaçu, just on the other side of the airport.

Rainbows are a common sight in the afternoon
Looking wet.
Taken from the main viewing platform on the Brazilian-side
Looking across to Argentinian lower circuit platform

Brazilian Side – Parque Nacional do Iguaçu

Cost pp: 64 R$ (approx $20 US)

The Brazilian park is a small, simple set up, with one main access road to the visitor centre, where visitors board the internal eco-friendly bus service. The buses ferry people a few miles along the serene jungle road, to reach a handful of short trails and walk-ways, each providing views of the falls. The main walkway extends into the lower canyon floor, arguably providing the best view of the highest, deepest, and most iconic of the falls – the Devil’s Throat.  This giant horseshoe-shaped curtain of gushing water is simply incredible.

Cooling down

A precarious walk down a long spiral staircase (hopefully now decommissioned), took us to the boat loading dock for Macuco water safaris.  The small inflatable rafts seemed popular with the tourists. Yes they are a tad gimmicky, but great fun.  Transporting you a short way along the river to experience the falls from another angle – underneath! Suffice to say we got soaked.

During our stay, we returned to these viewpoints numerous times to witness the changing environment at different parts of the day. We were able to do this on the recommendation of a friend who had honeymooned in Brazil. He convinced us that it was worth the expense to stay at the sole hotel INSIDE the park, which is now called Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas. It wasn’t really in-line with our budget travel plans, but I’m so glad we took the hit, as outside the limited park opening hours the falls felt like they belonged entirely to us. This made the trip all that more special.

Taken late in the day with no one else around
Brazilian-side Park Map

Argentinian Side – Parque Nacional Iguazú

Cost pp: 500 ARS $ (approx $28 US)

An hour’s drive from our hotel – but a ‘stones-throw’ across the ravine – it felt a bit more like Disney. Having shown our passports at the border, we entered the Argentinian park which is much larger than it’s neighbour, with more facilities. From the commercial area at the entrance, complete with gift shops and over-priced food outlets, we joined the long queue for the ‘ecological’ train that travels through the forest to the top of Devil’s Throat. [I should note that it is possible to hike and avoid the train ride, but given the searing heat, and distance involved we made the decision to reluctantly queue instead!]

We headed straight for the Paseo Garganta del Diablo – a 0.6 mile-long trail that brings visitors directly over the falls of Devil’s Throat. We got soaked by the spray, but the feeling of being so close to the water as it surges over the edge was exhilarating!

Devil’s Throat from above

We spent the rest of the day wandering along the array of established trail circuits, many of which follow elevated metal walkways to get different perspectives of the many falls. It really was incredible, and I can easily see how people can spend multiple days in this side of the park, but to be honest our enjoyment was hindered by the frustratingly humid, buggy climate! Maybe it was the time of the year, but the mosquitos were rampant – perhaps it was our accidentally matching yellow t-shirts – and the heat made all the walking very taxing.

Looking downstream in the mist (Sheraton Hotel is just visible on the left cliff)
Sweating!
Watch out for the monkeys. (And the mosquitos)!
Forest walkways

The Argentinian park also offers boat services, and contains a hotel – I think it is a Sheraton.

Argentinian-Side Park Map

Tips

  • Although the Brazilian park only comprises less than a third of the entire falls, you’ll find the view from this side to be much more panoramic than the view from the Argentinean side. However, if you have come all that way to see Iguazu, you will ideally want to see both aspects. For that plan to spend at least 2 full days.
  • Remember your passport when travelling between the two parks!
  • Pack inspect repellent with high DEET, and drink lots of water because it is very humid.
  • Both parks are generally less busy by the mid-to-late afternoon, once all the tour groups have passed through.