The legend of Brazil's Iguaçu Falls
FOZ DO IGUAÇU, Brazil -- As I took my seat in the raft and heard the other passengers chuckle, I knew exactly what was going on. I was the only one in our group of eight tourists who spoke English, but it didn't matter. For this, I didn't need words.
The others had already taken their seats in the raft, their bright orange life preservers wrapped tightly around their torsos, when they pointed for me to sit in the front of the boat, on its floor. Our tour guide, a local girl named Julianna, had already told them why I kept pulling out my notepad and taking notes. In Portuguese, she explained that I was here to write a story about the jaw-dropping Iguaçu Falls that will serve as the backdrop for the Vert events at this week's X Games Foz.
The others seemed nice enough. One of them even offered to share a locker. And I'm sure they figured, heck, if the American wants to experience the falls, we'll make sure he feels the deluge before anyone else. I smiled, nodded, played along and took my seat. That's when Julianna yelled from the dock, "Don't forget to hold on."
The day had begun with a tour operator back at my hotel insisting that the only way to experience the power of the falls, which in 2011 were named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, was to climb aboard one of these rafts and feel the teeth of the roaring water crash upon you. Before I left the hotel, the man ordered me back to my room to bring a change of clothes. "You will get very wet," he said in his broken English. "We call this the great shower."
Its grandeur is such that it once prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to say, "Poor Niagara." It's understandable why. The falls are taller than Niagara, climbing to as high as 270 feet and stretching for as far as 1.7 miles. Unlike Niagara's three drops, the Iguaçu Falls feature more than 275 drops. It's mind-boggling.
The falls sit on the border of the Brazilian state of Paraná and the Argentinian province of Misiones and on the rim of the Paraná Plateau. They divide the Iguaçu River into its upper and lower sections.
Geologists say the falls were formed by a vicious volcanic eruption in the area more than 130 million years ago. But legend has a far more entertaining tale, as Julianna explained to me. She said local legend has it that the Guarani Indians, who used to live in the area, would sacrifice the area's most beautiful virgin to Amboi, a massive serpent god who patrolled the Iguaçu River. When one such virgin tried to escape with her lover, Amboi was so enraged that his body dug out massive chunks of the earth as he chased them. Eventually, the two lovers fell down the spill of the river. Naipi, the young warrior, was turned into a large rock and Taroba, who was the chief's daughter, was transformed into a palm tree on the precipice.
"This way they have to look at each other all day but will never again be together," Julianna said.
None of this is on my mind as our raft leaves the dock and we begin making the 10-minute trip up the river to the falls. The river is at first as smooth as glass, and it all feels like nothing more than an entertaining high-speed boat ride.
But the farther we go up river, the more the rapids build. Eventually, it all looks more like a white-water rafting adventure than a pontoon ride. Soon, the falls can be seen ahead in the distance. But their impact can't be felt. A few minutes later, all of that changes.
As we turn a corner around a massive rock, a set of falls on the Argentinian side sits before us. I'm simply in awe. There are at least seven or eight falls with massive towers of water crashing to the river below. I can't take my eyes off it.
We don't get too close. One of our two pilots pulls out a camera and each person on the boat stands up to pose for a photo with the falls in the background. At this point, it's nothing more than a slightly bumpy boat ride that retirees would enjoy.
After the photos, one pilot puts the boat in neutral and both pilots climb into blue wetsuits. These aren't glorified pieces of plastic you buy at the gift shop. These are the heavy-duty, I-work-as-a-deep-sea-fisherman, made-of-rubber model. I'm still not worried, though. Even though I'm the only one on the boat who isn't wearing any sort of poncho, I'm still not convinced this is going to be much more than a heavy mist.
But as our boat begins to head farther up the river, toward the massive Devil's Mouth, the largest cascade in the falls, my thoughts begin to change. Up ahead is nothing more than a whiteout. You can see the water falling off the cliff, but then about halfway down, the collision with the water below is so violent, it turns into a wall of white. Where the falls end and the river begins is anyone's guess.
It is at this moment that I want to thank Julianna for insisting that I didn't bring my camera. Sure, this is a tourist trap and they want me to buy photos from them (which I did). But at the same time, this isn't a moment where I want to be worrying about soaking my camera. I want to just absorb every second I can.
We live in a look-at-me world that is more about the photograph than the experience. Tourists come by the busloads to walk these paths and snap their photos so they can go home and show their friends and family what they saw. But in this moment, it isn't about what you see. It's about what you feel, something no photographer in the world could capture.
As we head even farther up the river, the water gets more and more choppy. We enter the outer bands of mist, and my anxiety begins to build. What will this feel like? Like standing under a waterfall at the water park? Like a shower with the heaviest pressure imaginable?
A few feet more and suddenly, everything changes. The bright sunny skies are gone. The water is coming from every possible direction. The power of the falls crashing into the water below creates a gusty wind that howls right into my face. It's impossible to not look down. In a span of one second, I go from damp to absolutely soaking wet.
My heart is racing. All of a sudden, it's incredibly difficult to breathe. The power of this waterfall has literally taken my breath away. Our pilot navigates our raft parallel to the rock wall and the falls are now dumping thousands of gallons of water on top of us. I don't know up from down, left from right. The water is coming at us from every possible direction.
After a few seconds, the pilot navigates our boat out of the falls and back into the sunlight. Everyone takes a deep breath. And then we go back in for round two. Two older gentlemen sitting in the first row of seats raise one arm each as if they are on a roller-coaster ride. But no sooner do the arms go up before they drop to cover their eyes.
Just as quickly, it's all over. The pilot pulls the boat away from the falls and the co-pilot snaps another round of photos, this one with each of us drenched and the force of the waterfall not more than a few yards behind us.
As we begin to make the trip back to the dock, my only thought is how I want everyone I know to experience the incredible power and force that I just felt. For with all due respect to Bob Burnquist, Travis Pastrana, Leticia Bufoni or anyone else competing at X Games Foz this week, the star of these X Games is sure to be Mother Nature.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Wayne on Twitter @espnWD.