In South America, water is everywhere you look. It’s a landscape that boasts natural wonders like the widest river, the highest waterfall and the town with the most rainfall in the world. This is an invitation to take a deep breath and dive into the most impressive H2O-based attractions in our region.
Text: Martín Echenique @martinechenique illustrations: mathias sielfeld
There’s a special connection between South America and water, a connection as intense as it is abundant. The numbers don’t lie. Here’s one example: South America is home to the largest fresh water reserve outside of the polar ice caps. Our continent, which barely represents 12 percent of the planet’s total surface area, possesses 29 percent of all the fresh water on Earth.
Here’s another example. If we were to divide all that water among the 387 million South Americans, each of them would have approximately 23 million gallons of fresh water a day. This abundance is most powerfully apparent in the Amazon River, which empties 11 million cubic feet of water into the Atlantic during the rainy season.
This is the essence of a continent flush with water inside and out.
The Rainy City
Lloró, Colombia, is located 162 miles from Medellín, hidden at the halfway point of that fertile strip of land between the Caribbean coast and the Pacific Ocean. This town of approximately 12,000 inhabitants seems to be one of those Colombian incarnations of magic realism taken straight from One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s a reflection of the watery, bedraggled Macondo that Gabriel García Márquez describes so eloquently as a divine justice born of the Latin American boom of the 1960s and 70s. Here, in Lloró, the high, lows and in-betweens make for a kind of meteorological magic that results in the sky pouring down incessantly, all day, every day.
According to measurements from Colombia’s Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States, Lloró is the rainiest place on Earth, with an average precipitation of 523 inches per year. In simple numbers, that’s more than 14 yards of pure rain every year, equivalent to the height of a five-story building, or a third the size of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. But due to the irregularity of the measurements and other sources that challenge this first place title, the crown is also disputed among Mawsynram in India (467 inches) and Mt. Waialeale in Hawaii (460 inches).
In a fantasy world where the Water Olympics were a real thing, and all the continents were competing for gold, South America would be one to bet on.
It all begins at the glaciers of the Nevado Mismi, 99 miles west of Lake Titicaca in the Peruvian Andes. A humble wooden cross marks the beginning of the world’s most powerful river, nearly 17,000 feet above sea level and running for more than 4,000 miles before emptying into the Atlantic in a powerful torrent. The Amazon River, that liquid serpent spread out over four countries, feeds a jungle that covers 40 percent of South America and is home to a third of all known species on the planet. It is the true heart of a continent blessed with its share of natural wonders.
The Amazonian ecosystem is responsible for 20 percent of the world’s oxygen, and its river serves as a perfect continental drainage system, with water playing the lead role. However, the region’s stability has been threatened by a constant deforestation process that has done away with nearly 17 percent of its trees. The effects? Long periods of drought – like those currently affecting southeastern Brazil – less oxygen in the atmosphere and less powerful rivers.
Further north, in Venezuela, water takes center stage like nowhere else on the planet. Salto Ángel (Angel Falls) in Parque Nacional Canaima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 500 miles south of Caracas, is the world’s tallest waterfall, with 3,212 feet of free fall.
Today, Angel Falls is considered one of the most impressive places on the continent, a status directly proportional to how difficult it is to reach. The expedition wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie: the only way to get there is by airplane, canoe and foot, in that order. The truly adventurous can reach the fall as part of a three-day, two-night program, flying from Ciudad Bolívar to Canaima, at which point you board a canoe and head down the Río Carrao to Salto Ángel. After visiting the falls, you’ll travel a few more miles to spend the night in hammocks at the base camp, surrounded by tepúe trees before returning the next day to Canaima on your way back to Ciudad Bolívar. The price? US$408, all-inclusive .
Failing to mention the Iguazú Falls would be a mortal sin. Its name means “Big Water” in Guaraní, and the reason is plain to see. A total of 275 waterfalls pour into a 1.7-mile-long stretch of the Río Iguazú along the border between Argentina and Brazil, with the highest fall standing 269 feet tall, equivalent to a 33-story building. The result is an overwhelming panoramic view from the walkways that run along the falls’ perimeter, leaving you just 55 yards away.
The experience is otherworldly.
Ismail Serageldin, a former vice president of the World Bank, made a prediction in a press release this past October: “Many of the wars of this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water.” Perhaps this is true, perhaps not. We won’t know until the century ends. But what we do know is that South America holds a clear advantage over the rest of the continents.
Let’s forget that fresh water is only defined as lagoons, streams, rivers and lakes. The ice and glaciers of Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia are the best reflection of a fortunate continent that possesses more than the most powerful rivers and the rainiest spot on the planet. South America is also home to the second largest ice field outside the poles, only exceeded by the Kluane, Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay and Tatshienshini-Alsek ice fields in the United States and Canada.
The current Patagonian ice fields cover nearly 13,050 square miles in Chilean and Argentinean territory. However, these are only the remains of a giant ice mass that existed 18,000 years ago, stretching from Chile’s Puerto Montt to Cape Horn, similar in size to present day Spain.
Today, the surface that used to be an extensive glacier hides ice in its depths, and plenty of it. The truth is that the glaciers that we know – such as Argentina’s Perito Moreno or Chile’s Grey – are just the tip of the iceberg. The truly interesting aspect lies around and beneath them: the permafrost (soil, rock, organic material and lots of permanently frozen ice). South America has more of these formations than any other continent and, as such, gigantic reserves of fresh water that are still undefined, although some estimate that the permafrost surface area in Patagonia is more than 65,000 square miles, comparable to all of Uruguay in size.
The fact is that South America floats on an enormous reserve of frozen water, which could be the gold of the future. But even beyond this, the continent should consider itself lucky. The water flowing through its veins has sculpted a unique geography, with its climates, forests and jungles hydrated by Andean rivers, torrential waterfalls and millennia-old glaciers.
These are the powerful and mysterious waters of the south. in