You finally made it. The 25 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires has you feeling somewhere between “college walk of shame” and “I just spooned a homeless guy.” You’re in desperate need of a shower; whelp, at least you won’t be short on water.
With over 61,000 cubic feet of water coming over the falls every second (just trust me it’s a lot of water) Iguazu Falls is the largest network of waterfalls in the known universe. Again, a lot of water.
But nothing is ever as simple as just showing up, going “ooooohhhh,” taking a few
thousand pictures and calling it a day. The old dead white dudes that drew the lines between countries liked to incorporate big waterfalls into the mix. Niagra Falls on the border of the United States and Canada. Victoria Falls separating Zambia and Zimbabwe. And here, Iguazu Falls, marking the line between Argentina and Brazil.
Anyway, this complicates things because now you have two options for how you want to see them. Brazil, or Argentina?
Which side is cheaper?
Getting access to the falls is actually quite cheap. Actually getting there will be one of your biggest expenses. I came across an informative blog post from Globetrottergirls, outlining a good amount of the costs. While we didn’t nearly spend $1,000 like this couple over the same time period, we did go beyond our expected budget.
Brazil is a more expensive country in general, the entrance ticket and bus to the park entrance are cheaper here. But really the difference in cost is largely insignificant and not anything that should influence your decision on what side to visit.
Here are the prices for June 2016:
Argentina Park Entrance: $23.00
Brazil Park Entrance: $17.00
Bus to Park Entrance Argentina side: $10.00
Bus to Park Entrance Brazil side: $1.75
*I’ll try to avoid the whole Argentina inflation fiasco and just post the prices in US dollars, m’kay.
With a difference in price between the two sides so insubstantial, a better question is…
Which side is better?
A lot more qualitative and consequently, a lot more difficult to answer.
Both sides give a vastly different perspective of the falls. In Argentina, the feel is a lot more personal, more of an interactive “please touch” museum with an almost guarantee that you’re going to get wet. Miles of elevated walkways, tons of crashing water within touching distance, and curious monkeys that probably don’t have rabies all come together into a very clean, very organized ecological park. Oh, and it just happens to include South America’s largest waterfall.
While most people rush to take their bajillion selfies with La Garganta del Diablo, there are plenty of walkways, hidden coves and picture spots to give the Argentinian side a beautiful dynamic feel.
Brazil, while certainly no less stunning, works to create an entirely different experience. This Northern neighbor is the painting behind the glass counterweight to the interactive experience on the other side.
There’s really only two paths that take you through the park, both ending up at a walkway giving a phenomenal and much more complete view of the falls. There’s more context at the expense of having to keep your distance. If you’re looking to scope and scale, the Brazil side is where it’s at.
Should you see both sides?
If you have the time, absolutely.
However, two days spent looking at something fairly similar might be too slow paced for some. A very rushed eight hours with a car rental might get you to both sides in a day, but it wouldn’t exactly be a vacation.
My personal philosophy is the retiree approach: sleep in a little, grab a cup of coffee and head off for the day. Walk slow, even if you have two good hips – there’s plenty to enjoy. And in between epic waterfalls and jungle fauna, people watching and judging others with easily fill in the gaps. Two days has plenty to keep you occupied.
If you do get bored, there’s always the Itaipu Dam tour – one of the world’s largest cooperative hydroelectric projects and proof that even iron fisted military juntas can come together to build cool things.
5 quick tips for saving money
1 | Bring outside food
Pretty obvious advice. But not only is the food available inside really expensive, it’s also really bad. Some pretty boring sandwiches, airline snacks, and glorified fried…stuff will make you very grudgingly pull the money from your pocket.
Foz de Iguazu on the Brazilian side is a big city with a supermarket stocked with all the options. Some bomb sandwiches and maybe even a few cheeky beers make brown bagging cool again. Puerto Iguazu isn’t an exciting city, but there are a few restaurants to pick up some staples for the day.
Guard any food with your life. Coatis are South America’s equivalent of a raccoon, and they’re clever, aggressive, and hungry for
blood your lunch. Their sharp claws are excellent for ripping through your bags quicker than a wildfire fed by gasoline. Proceed with caution; unless they’re stealing someone else’s bag. Then scoff accordingly.
2 | Don’t fear the buses
The 20 minute bus ride from Puerto Iguazu in Argentina to the park entrance is a little expensive – about $10 for a round trip ticket. Short of hitch hiking, there’s no other realistic way to get there. But the bus process is easy and the transport terminal is very conveniently located in town.
Further, ff you decide to go to Brazil the bus there is muy economico. There are two buses going to Brazil, one to the park entrance and another going to Foz de Iguazu. Both leave from the same terminal in Puerto Iguazu and cost only a few dollars.
Skip any expensive package tours and go on a little self-hosted bus trip.
3 | Anything beyond the basics gets spendy
Both sides have dozens of attractions beyond the basic entrance ticket. It’s questionable if they are all worth it. Boat rides, zip lines, rafting, nature walks, etc. etc. Brazil definitely adds a little more to turn their piece of the action into something more amusement park-ish, but it does come at a steep price. Expect to pay around $25 for each additional excursion you choose to take. While I did not do it myself, a few people did recommend the soaking boat ride which takes you below the falls.
4 | You can skip the whole $160 visa thing into Brazil
Possibly illegal so don’t come suing me in the event you get imprisoned/fined/tortured. But, you know, just in case you’re interested, the border between the two countries is pretty open. Buses regularly shuttle locals between the two towns on either side. If you are only going to a day trip, it is entirely possible to take the 45 minute bus ride from Argentina to the Brazilian park entrance and skip the whole immigration thing entirely.
Obviously, you’ll need to come back to Argentina and can’t continue with any onward travel in Brazil. Keep a low profile and don’t bother waving your passport in the face of immigration officials and there’s a good chance you’ll be fine. If you’re traveling on a United States passport like myself, boom, $160 saved.
5 | Book ahead and score some sweet deals
The majority of my budget for Iguazu went to transportation. Just getting there from Buenos Aires and an onward flight to Rio de Janeiro cost me $180. But because I had booked ahead, in context this cost was reasonable.
Flights within Argentina are notoriously expensive. Most people don’t have the luxury of booking months in advance – about the only time you can find reasonable prices. Buses however, while expensive with sometimes tortuously long travel times, are a possible option.
Don’t buy your bus tickets online. Instead, a few days before your trip go to the bus terminal in your city (Buenos Aires, Salta, Rosario, etc.) and shop around. Using this method I always got tickets 20-30% cheaper than the advertised online price.
In Brazil, things thankfully become a little more stabilized. About a week before I found some very reasonable flights from Foz de Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro through Gol Airlines. For about the same price as the bus you can reach your destination much quicker.
How much did I spend?
Including the price of getting there from Buenos Aires and onward onto Rio de Janerio, my four days split between the two countries cost me $350 USD.
Expensive, yes. Certainly well beyond my goal of about $40/day. Still however, for as much as I did within such a short period of time including one of the greatest wonders the Western Hemisphere, it was all a reasonable price. Definitely worth the cost!