Itaipu Dam, the Second Largest Hydroelectric Power Station in the World

The Itaipu Dam astride the Paraguayan-Brazilian border

photography by: Omri Westmark

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In order to grasp the sheer scale of the Itaipu Dam across the Paraná River, one must resort to a series of outlandish comparisons. Straddling the Brazilian-Paraguayan border, this massive engineering marvel is not only ridiculously large, but also serves as a source of pride for both nations. As no words or photos can truly convey the dam’s true enormity, visiting the world’s second largest hydroelectric plant is the sole way to appreciate its colossal size.

Info and History

Since the dawn of human civilization, people have harnessed the power of water flowing through rivers to fuel our ever-growing economy. As time went by, we replaced the primitive watermills with insanely large dams, exponentially increasing the energy output. There is probably no better epitome of the progress we made than the Itaipu Dam, one of the seven modern Wonders of the World.


Nestled astride the Paraná River, the second longest river in South America after the Amazon, the Itaipu Dam was built as a joint project of Brazil and Paraguay, whose shared international border runs along the middle of the river. Following decades of negotiations and construction works, the hydroelectric power plant was inaugurated in 1984, when its first 700 MW generating unit began operating.


Until 2003, when China’s Three Gorges Dam was completed, it was by far the largest hydroelectric dam in the world in terms of power capacity, with its 20 generating units annually producing up to 90,000 TWh. If you wonder how these figures are translated into day-to-day life, well, as of today, the Itaipu Dam accounts for 90 percent of the energy consumption in Paraguay, and roughly 15 percent of Brazil, a country of over 200 million people.


The entire structure is actually comprised of four interconnected dams, amounting to a total length of more than 7 kilometers, the tallest point of which is 196 meters. While the power plant provided tens of millions across Paraguay and Brazil with cheap and clean energy, it was not without a controversy. The formation of the upstream reservoir entailed the displacement of around 10,000 families, followed by the inundation and the subsequent destruction of the Guaíra Falls, which was the planet’s largest waterfall by flow rate.


If you wish to understand the project’s true gargantuan extent, the only way of doing so is by comparing it with other engineering marvels which are widely perceived as large. For instance, if the dam was to dismantled tomorrow, the extracted amount of steel and iron would be enough to construct a whopping 380 Eiffel Towers. Moreover, the total mass of all the soil that was removed to make room for the power plant is more than 8 times bigger than that of the tunnel linking France and Britain underneath the English Channel.

Visiting the Dam

Despite not being a tourist attraction per se, the hydroelectric complex of Itaipu is open for sightseers every day from 8:30 to 17:00. Any person who wants to explore this engineering wonder with his or her own eyes must first book a guided tour via email ([email protected]‏), mentioning the number of participants, their names, nationality, place of residence, age and a phone number.


If you opt to visit the Paraguayan section of the dam, there are 2 main types of tours, both of which are completely free of charge and available in Spanish only. A technical tour where visitors can have a glimpse inside the control center, and the more basic standard tour. As part of the latter, participants will first be taken to a room at the visitor center, where they’ll watch a short, explanatory film that shed a light on the construction and routine operation of the hydroelectric facility.


Shortly after, visitors will embark on a bus on their way to the first stop, a lookout with sweeping views of the entire dam and the Paraná River. The brief gazing session is then followed by a ride across the complex, including a short drive along the massive white turbines, the 500-meter-long spillways and the artificial lake. During the one-hour tour, the bus will cross the international border into Brazilian territory, albeit without stamping your passport as passengers are not allowed to alight.