ROAR OF THE JUNGLE
checks into a luxurious South American hotel where proximity to nature really is a multi-sensory experience
HOTEL DAS CATARATAS in Brazil is so deep within Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park that members of the forest’s wildlife population are regular visitors. A few days before my visit in the hot summer month of December, an adult jaguar had wandered out of the forest and onto the lawn next to the swimming pool, causing no small measure of alarm among the morning sunbathers (the animal was quickly tranquillised and removed to another location). And although this was an isolated incident, other animals, such as more benign coatis (South American racoons), agoutis (large, guinea pig-like animals) and toucans, can regularly be seen in the grounds of the hotel.
It’s not just the forest that makes the hotel such a compelling location. Its raison d’être is the spectacular Iguaçu Falls, for which it is named. Forming part of the border between Brazil and Argentina, and very close to the frontier with Paraguay, they’re not the tallest falls on the planet but are certainly among the most impressive in terms of scale and location; this is, after all, where the film The Mission was shot.
Within this Unesco World Heritage Site, 275 individual falls form a three-kilometre semicircle in the Iguaçu River, in all covering an area three times the size of Niagara Falls. The most impressive of Iguaçu’s falls is Devil’s Throat, 80 metres high and through which half the volume of the River Iguaçu flows.
And the national park area is itself immense: actually two parks – the Brazilian Iguaçu National Park and its Argentine counterpart, Iguazú National Park – it covers 2,400 square kilometres that are globally important in terms of biodiversity. Here are found jaguars, ocelots, pumas, tapirs, giant anteaters, caymans and howler monkeys, and among the many birds are white-tailed trogons, tinamous and a multitude of parrot and macaw species.
Those staying at Hotel das Cataratas are in a prime position to explore the falls and further afield. It’s the only hotel within the park, and between 7am and 9am, and also after 5pm, guests get private access to the walks around the falls, which are just two minutes away (the circuit is open to the public at 9am, when the paths and viewpoints can get quite crowded). The low, continuous rumbling of the falls can be heard from all points of the hotel and is delightfully soporific, while the vapour cloud is also an ever-present reminder: it rises 200 metres above the falls, and I mistook it for smoke when flying in to Puerto Iguazú on the Argentine side.
Hotel das Cataratas opened in 1958. Set amid manicured lawns and carefully landscaped gardens, the distinctive two-storey pink building is built in Portuguese colonial style. Formerly operated by the airline Varig, it came under the auspices of Orient-Express Hotels in 2007 and has since undergone extensive refurbishment that has resulted in the addition of new rooms, restaurants, a bar and a spa. In all, there are 193 rooms including 15 suites, the best rooms having direct views of the falls. And, very much in keeping with colonial style, the rooms have hardwood floors, dark wood fittings and traditional Portuguese blueand- white azulejo tiling in the bathrooms and elsewhere.
The management is keen to stress that the location of the hotel and its relationship with the park authorities are all-important – Orient-Express gives financial support to the park, in particular to its carnivore-protection programme that focuses on the conservation of cats such as jaguars, pumas, ocelots and margays. The relationship also means that the hotel cannot make fundamental changes to its facade and that it must be careful not to introduce exotic species to the environment. The proximity of the forest also results in a relaxed attitude towards dress codes.
“It’s important that our products and services are not over the top,” says Stephen Hauser Ferreira, who’s responsible for room management. “They need to fit in with the park. We cannot ask people to wear a jacket and tie in the restaurant – our clients are experienced travellers and they know what to expect.”
One result of the recent renovation is Cataratas Spa, which uses botanical products sustainably harvested from the surrounding forest. The spa has five rooms dedicated to different types of therapies, which range from hot-stone treatments to massages that employ Amazonian essential oils.
Also new are Itaipu Restaurant, which has a veranda area for outdoor fine dining with views of the falls, and Bar Tarobá, located within the main wing. These are in addition to Ipê Grill, the poolside restaurant where a breakfast buffet is served; it also hosts evening barbecues.
For those who wish to do more than relax by the pool, the falls and the forest provide ample opportunities for exploration. One absolute must is to take a helicopter ride above the falls, the only way of getting a true impression of their grandeur. A boat trip directly into the spray is also a lot of fun, but be prepared to get soaked to the skin – photography isn’t practical.
An interesting side trip is to go Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este. Notorious as a centre for the smuggling of anything that can be smuggled (due to its proximity to the Brazilian and Argentine borders), it’s a cacophonous bazaar of dusty streets, thronged markets and crowded stalls where knock-off trainers go cheek-by-jowl with pirated DVDs, and fake handbags jockey for space with cheap Chinese electrical goods – and, surprisingly, there’s a large Taiwanese community, as well as Koreans, Lebanese and Iranians. Interesting as it all is, this is not a place to go to alone, and certainly not after dark.
But perhaps the most rewarding experience is to take a trek through the forest guided by the hotel’s resident biologist, Wilson Fernandes, who spent several months with native people in a remote part of Paraguay. Fernandes is an acknowledged expert on the flora and fauna of the park, especially with regard to the traditional medicinal uses of many of the plants. To walk the forest with him is to gain real insight into the way that this fragile ecosystem functions – an ecosystem that outside the park is under threat from encroaching agriculture. He hopes, as does the hotel, that each visit to the park will increase awareness of the environmental issues facing the park, as well as bringing in much-needed hard cash – a hope that any visitor would surely share.
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