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"Poor Niagara." Eleanor Roosevelt's words, not mine, upon gazing upon Iguaz' Falls for the first time. Then again, I don't think I could muster more than a mouth-agape, "Woah." Among the natural wonders of the world, Iguaz' ranks high: straddling the border of Brazil and Argentina, it's an Edenic storybook scene with a ring of 275 separate cascades gushing brown and visceral out of the sweaty jungle. Butterflies bounce in the air. Rainbows appear in the mist at every turn. Standing above the Devils' Throat, the park's largest, one gets the urge to jump, over 4,000 gallons of water cascading down 269 feet every second hypnotizing with its thunder.
On the other hand, while the Brazilian side is just a pretty panoramic lookout, the Argentine side of Iguazú National Park is a bit of theme park—worth doing, and UNESCO designated, if somewhat tame. I choo-chooed on a tourist train to a series of catwalks over the river, boarded the Great Adventure jungle drive in an open-air jeep, and a cruised the lazy river, spying caimans sunning on rocks, their sharp underbites jutting out menacingly. Like mascots, cute coati (a cousin of the raccoon) demand photos as they beg for treats. And like Disney, after the thrilling speedboat ride to the base of the falls, I laid my head in uninspired tourist traps.
Posada Puerto Bemberg, a 30-mile drive away, is changing that. Down dirt roads, past the dusty rust-colored village of Puerto Libertad, where gray-haired ladies sip mate on their porch, it's the best of a new crop of high-end eco-resorts that offer the chance to pair the Falls with a more authentic local experience. Situated on 988 acres of a former yerba mate plantation, it is the owners' passion project, a testament to their family's heritage, which leaves it feeling more like a friend's country house than luxe hotel. The low-slung, yellow-stuccoed colonial buildings offer 14 basic rooms hewn from the shell of a 1940s hotel, all with cathedral ceilings and rustic décor (think llama blankets and artfully distressed furniture). Colonnaded verandas open out to a lawn and jungle beyond. Meals, cooked from the extensive onsite organic garden-fresh pastas, grilled river fish with tropical fruits, and steak paired with gruff Malbec—can be taken al fresco or in the living-cum-dining room, replete with oversized couches and a library of art books. But the true heart of the resort lies in its warm, familial service and activities. We spent days tromping past orchards to nature trails, spying birds and getting a tutorial on medicinal plants before indulging in an asada next to a gurgling stream; visiting the 1930s Bustillo-style Itati Chapel, an incongruous Deco gem. Spectacular sunsets from a lookout built into the canopy of the trees are what postcards are made of, toucans cawing nearby as ice clinked in our caipirinhas.