There’s something about waterfalls that captivates the human mind. Like gazing into a campfire, it’s easy to become mesmerized by a little falling water. Victoria Falls and Iguazu Falls have established themselves as two of the world’s most impressive natural wonders, leaving millions of visitors awestruck each year. Both falls offer incredible views, numerous activities, and plenty of wildlife. However, they each have several unique advantages and disadvantages.
Located on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is a popular starting/ending destination for a southern Africa trip. With a maximum height of 355 feet (108m) and a width of over a mile (1,708m), Victoria Falls claims the title of “biggest single curtain of water” of any waterfall in the world.
Victoria Falls can be easily reached from the Zambian town of Livingstone or the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls. Getting a short term visa to cross between the two countries for a day is relatively easy and direct flights from Johannesburg are less than two hours long. The falls are located in National Parks on both sides. While tourism and development are increasing (there are plenty of locals to sell you souvenirs at the park entrance), the area is nowhere near the concrete jungle of Niagara Falls.
The biggest drawback of Victoria Falls is that the water essentially cascades into a large crevice. It isn’t possible to see the falls from the bottom of the gorge. In fact, you barely even see the bottom of the falls during the rainy season due to the powerful mist rising up from the gorge to a height of 1,300+ feet (400m+). The only way to really appreciate the vastness of the falls is by helicopter. However, despite the mist, seeing and hearing the roar of the falls from up close is an incredible experience.
Victoria Falls is a phenomenal place for adrenaline junkies. The bridge spanning the first gorge offers a 364 foot (111m) bungee jumping opportunity, although their safety record is a bit questionable. You can also take powerboat rides along the Upper Zambezi River through the rapids to Livingstone Island at the edge of the falls. Once at Livingstone Island, it’s possible during the low flow months to swim directly to the edge of the falls at the “Devil’s Pool” with nothing but a slippery rock wall separating you from the massive drop.
Mist rising from Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls from Zambian side
Mist at the start of the rainy season
Jumping into the Devil’s Pool
Devil’s Pool in December
Iguazu Falls is situated in a rainforest on the border of Argentina and Brazil. With a maximum height of 269 feet (82m), it is considerably smaller vertically than Victoria Falls. However, the falls span an area of 1.7 miles (2,700m) with numerous separate cascades instead of one large curtain.
Iguazu Falls can be reached via the smaller Argentinian town of Puerto Iguazu or the larger Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. From either municipality, the entrance to the country’s respective national park is only a short bus ride away. Unfortunately, there are no short term visa options so a full $160 visa is required (for US citizens at least) even if you just want to see the other side for a few hours. Direct flights are available from major Argentinian and Brazilian cities but, like most South American flights, they are quite expensive. Many visitors opt for comfortable overnight buses from Buenos Aires or São Paulo (18+ hours). 80% of the falls lie on the Argentian side, with only 20% on the Brazilian side. However, both sides are well worth a visit.
The views offered at Iguazu Falls are unmatched by any waterfall in the world. From the Argentinian side, you can see the falls up close from the top (just feet from the edge) and the bottom via an excellent network of trails in the national park. The views from the Brazilian side are incredible in their own right. You can see views of the falls from high above and then experience panoramic views with water falling on three sides of you (260 degrees) inside the “Devil’s Throat” (Portuguese: Garganta do Diabo). The trail networks do a good job of providing countless incredible viewpoints without being too obstructive or distracting from the natural beauty.
While Iguazu Falls can’t match Victoria Falls in terms of adrenaline activities, there is plenty to keep you busy. Odds of seeing wildlife around the falls on any given day are quite high. Coatis, Capybaras, Caimans, and other animals are common. One of the best parts of Iguazu Falls is that you can access the bottom of the falls via boat. For less than 20 USD you can catch a powerboat from the Argentinian side directly to the bottom of the falls. The boats are agile enough to navigate the rapids and get you right underneath some of the drops. Getting soaked to the bone is inevitable, which isn’t so bad considering it’s usually sweltering hot (swimming isn’t allowed).
Iguazu Falls from the Argentinian side
Devil’s Throat from the top (Argentinian side)
Devil’s Throat from the Brazilian side
The boat rides are a great way to see the falls up close
The Brazilian side offers great “big picture” views
Both Victoria and Iguazu Falls are incredible, but each one caters to different desires. If you are looking for the biggest, baddest waterfall imaginable with a deafening roar and mist so strong that it’s raining upwards, go to Victoria Falls during the rainy season. Likewise, adrenaline junkies have more options at Africa’s contender. If you are a photographer looking to get the best possible waterfall pictures or just like being surrounded by natural beauty rather than above it, Iguazu is a better bet. Considering the fact that views are the best part of visiting waterfalls for the majority of people, I have to give the nod to Iguazu Falls, just because the viewing options are unparalleled.