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The world's most mesmerizing waterfalls

Waterfalls hide in all corners of this planet, from specks of islands like Réunion to bustling countries like India, some gushing straight down and others dilly-dallying along rocks, some amidst glaciers and others tucked away in parched landscapes.
Image: Huka Falls, North Island, New Zealand
One of the highlights of New Zealand's diverse scenery is its abundance of waterfalls, and Huka Falls on the Waikato River stands above the rest thanks to its technicolor blue waters and location right near Huka Lodge on the North Island.Alamy
/ Source: Forbes

Waterfalls hide in all corners of this planet, from specks of islands like Réunion to bustling countries like India, some gushing straight down and others dilly-dallying along rocks, some amidst glaciers and others tucked away in parched landscapes. Each has its own charm, so how to narrow down the world's most spectacular?

Dean Goss, along with fellow waterfall connoisseur Bryan Swan, have taken quite a calculated approach, working up an algorithm that figures in volume of water, height and verticality of drop, as well as setting—be it pristine or overdeveloped.

"We grew up collecting waterfalls like little kids collect baseball cards," says Goss of he and Swan. They met after stumbling across each other's web sites devoted to waterfalls and merged forces to create World Waterfall Database, the most comprehensive online resource for waterfall information, complete with a "World's 100 Best Waterfalls" list.

Their obsession has certain benefits: In 2003, a respected Japanese photographer named Yoshikazu Shirakawa caught wind of their list and brought them along as consultants when he toured the world shooting the 100 greatest waterfalls (his final cut differs a bit from theirs). "He loves a list of superlatives," says Swan. The project ended with a gallery reception and a coffeetable book priced for $400 "that would probably require a trip to the emergency room if you dropped it on your foot."

Gary Black is another professional photographer who's interested in waterfalls—they've been his specialty for the last three decades, over which time he's accumulated tens of thousands of photos.

Although he grew up just 15 minutes from Niagara in Ontario, Canada, "my favorite waterfalls don't tend to be the hugest ones," says Black, who prefers to photograph large-but-cascading streams. "They hit the rocks on the way down—it's not a solid, straight drop."

The reasons for being attracted to certain falls are as varied as falls themselves. Forbes Traveler has narrowed down the world's cataracts to the most awe-inspiring, unique ones in a mix of destinations, near luxury accommodations or accessible with world-class tours.

Sometimes the best way to see a fall is nothing new: According the Black, the Maid of the Mist boat tour is the perfect way to see Niagara, despite the new-fangled helicopter rides, floodlights at night, and revolving dining rooms that have cropped up since the ferry's inception in 1846.

ca. 1990-2003, Iguazu Falls National Park, Argentina --- Lush plants grow from the Iguazu Falls, which borders Argentina and Brazil. --- Image by © Craig Lovell/CORBISCraig Lovell

Blue-ponchoed passengers travel down the Niagara River right to the base of the falls, where "there's a wall of water on your left and a wall of water on your right, and mist all over the place. It's a totally different perspective than seeing the falls from up above. It's wow."

A favorite of Goss is a waterfall that was discovered just six years ago. German botanist Stefan Ziemendorff was working in the Peruvian highlands when he came across a 2,531-foot fall (the third tallest in the world) named Gocta.

Purported to carry a nefarious sprit, it had been known by natives—who refused to go near it—for centuries. Ziemendorff looked online for information about Gocta, and, finding none, contacted Goss and Swan, who were the first to report it.

Goss has visited so many falls (about 3,000) and seen photos of so many (he talks about most as though he's been there in person) that he now has a knack for identifying the location of a fall without knowing anything about it but its picture. Iceland's falls are particularly distinctive, he says.

"There are a lot of beautiful waterfalls in Iceland because there's so much volcanic activity going on. Over the course of centuries or millennia a volcano erupts, it forms a layer of lava, organic stuff grows on top and then that gets matted down, and then there's the next flow."

Svartifoss in southern Iceland is the smallest waterfall (at 80 feet) to be included in Shirakawa's roundup. "It has amazing black rock columns; he was absolutely enthralled by the bedrock."

From just-discovered, gigantic cataracts to aesthetically inspiring falls, from one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World (Victoria Falls in Africa) to preternaturally blue waters lurking in Croatian parks (Plitvice), the world of waterfalls carries such varied enchantments.

The list of the top ones is ever-changing, thanks to new discoveries as well as evolving cravings—whether you desire a fall that's intimidatingly powerful or simply meditative." It's like asking, what's better, steak or sushi?" says Goss. "It all depends on the mood."