San Ignacio Mini & The Iguazu Waterfalls

Taking the bus from Buenos Aires, I embarked on a mammoth 15 hour trip to the tropical north of Argentina, to the Iguazu Waterfalls, with a quick stopover at San Ignacio. I was initially a bit apprehensive about being stuck on a bus for such an extended of time, but to my surprise, it was a rather pleasant trip – much better than being stuck in economy class on a flight for the same length of time. I travelled with Crucero del Norte buses, whose sleeper coaches are extremely comfortable – the seats are enormous and almost recline flat, the service is great and I even managed to get a rather good night’s sleep, both on the way to Puerto Iguazu and back to Buenos Aires.

Anyway, so after departing Retiro Bus Station in Buenos Aires, I arrive mid-morning at San Ignacio (a quick detour on my way to Puerto Iguazu). The sleepy little town of San Ignacio’s claim to fame is the Jesuit Mission ruins which are located on the outskirts of the town. For those who have not seen the 1986 film ‘The Mission’, starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, here’s a quick history lesson about the South American Jesuit Missions, located primarily in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina: During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jesuit order of priest in South America formed Jesuit Reductions, in response to the Spanish Empire’s own Indian Reductions in which they gathered the native populations into centres or communities, in order to Christianise, tax and govern them. Rather than westernising native populations, the Jesuits allowed the natives to retain their own cultures whilst converting to Christianity. These Jesuit missions gained great autonomy from the Spanish Empire and were an economic success. Fear of the Jesuits’ independence and their success heightened over time and in 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish ruled South America. The mission communities slowly collapsed, becoming victim to slave raids or being absorbed into European culture. Today, only the remains of these great missions can be see today, which they themselves are slowly becoming victims of the natural elements.

The Jesuit Mission of San Ignacio Mini was founded 1632. At its hight in the 18th century, it had a population of 3000 people, with rich cultural and handicraft activity which was commercialised through the Parana River nearby. After the Jesuits left 1767, the mission fell into decay and was finally destroyed in 1817. San Ignacio Mini is one of the best preserved Jesuit ruins in South America and in 1984 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Upon visiting the site, I was amazed at its size and construction – it was fascinating to see all the little dwelling all constructed in neat rows, their small doorways and little windows created from roughly cut local red sandstone. I could almost imagine this little community living within the parameters of the mission. I was amazed at how these Jesuit priests managed to create such a well thought out community, in which would have been dense tropical jungle. The most amazing part of the site were the ruins of the once grand church, located at the heart of the mission. It looks so grand and foreboding at the same time, especially against a menacing grey sky. It was a shame to have visited the ruins on such a grey and drizzly day (only the second day of my entire trip where it rained), as I’m sure they would have been even more magnificent in the bright sunlight. Also, if you happen to stay in the village of San Ignacio, the ruins can be visited at night, and a light show is performed for those lucky visitors.

After my pit stop at San Ignacio, I continued on to the town of Puerto Iguazu, the Argentinian gateway to the famous Iguazu Waterfalls (which can also be accessed from Foz do Iguacu on the Brazilian side of the falls). This little town, primarily surviving on the transient tourism (most people stay for only two or three days at the most – there isn’t much else to do here, except see the waterfalls, which can be done in a day), is full of hostels, hotels, restaurants, cafes, souvenir stores, you name it. I stayed at Hostel Bambu Mini, which comes highly recommended. This is actually the second half of Hostel Bambu, which is located about a few hundred metres down the road. I had a fantastic time at Bambu Mini – met some amazing people, enjoyed the BBQ dinners the hostel hosted, indulged in their tasty breakfast and home-like atmosphere – the only negative thing about the place was having to spend two nights in the same dorm room as a incessant snorer.

After getting a broken night’s sleep, like almost everyone else staying in Puerto Iguaze, I headed off the see the Iguazu Waterfalls. The word Iguazu comes from the native Guarani words “y”  meaning “water” and “uasu” meaning “big”. The Iguazu Waterfalls were first discovered by Europeans in 1541 by the Spanish Conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. The falls consist of 270 individual falls stretching over about one kilometre, where the Iguazu River tumbles into the Parana Plateau. The park itself is well organised to deal with the onslaught of visitors – there is an exceptionally good information centre, a labyrinth of highlighted walking tracks through the jungle leading visitors to spectacular sights, raised platforms so visitors can get as close as possible to the waterfalls (and I mean close, you can actually get so close that you can be drench in water from the spray of the falls), visitors can also go on organise boat trips down the river to the base of the falls, and a train runs through the park, linking one end to the other, to assist in transporting visitors to Devil’s Throat, the greatest and most impressive of all the falls. I was so lucky to get such a perfect day at the falls – the sun shone brightly almost all day and it wasn’t too hot or humid either. Many people debate on whether the Argentinian or the Brazilian side of the falls are more impressive – many people visit both sides in order to discover this. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to visit the Brazilian side, so I had to be satisfied with only seeing the one half of the falls. Which I’m not complaining about. They were, in one word, spectacular! Definitely worth the lengthy bus trip from Buenos Aires and back.

Words & Photography by Jade Spadina
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