We left the Iguazu Falls and headed straight south. We planned to stay in the northeast province of Corrientes for a little while longer to visit the Iberá Provincial Reserve—a 3.2 million-acre protected wetland area within the vast Esteros del Iberá. Iberá is one of the most important fresh water wetlands on the continent and the second-largest wetland in the world after the Pantanal in Brazil. These wetlands are difficult to get to - access is either by private plane (the property has an airstrip and a Cessna on site), or 4+ hours on a rough 4x4 dirt road.
Retracing our miles along the Paraguay border, we drove back down toward Posadas and the town of Ituzaingó. We overnighted again at El Mirador campground, and in the morning drove about 10 miles before we turned off on to Route 41, a dirt road at the northern entrance to the Reserve. The first thing we saw was a sign that told us the road is closed when it rains. Actually it said impassable. Immediately we saw why. There wasn’t really a road…only two tracks, slightly elevated because the rest of the terrain was a chewed up mess. John guided the truck tires on top and feeling like we were in a video game, we slowly we made our way. The tracks occasionally gave way to actual road but when it did, we were left to deal with huge holes and rocks. The forecast didn’t call for rain but then the horizon turned dark. We tried to move a little quicker without bouncing the camper right off the back and hoped the storm would blow the other way.
We settled in for the slow 80 km (50 mile) drive to get to our destination, the Estancia Rincón del Socorro, a former cattle ranch turned guest house. The estancia covers almost 50,000 acres and is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the wetlands.
Our room. During the cattle ranching years this was the veterinarian's office.
Living room at the Estancia
These marshlands and lagoons make up one of the richest and most unspoilt areas in Argentina (and the world), thanks to the work of Kristine and Doug Tompkins’ Conservation Land Trust (CLT). The area’s indigenous wildlife population had been drastically dwindling, until now. Over the last 10 years or so the CLT, through a group of biologists and veterinarians, developed restoration and reintroduction programs of species including the giant anteater and the jaguar. They have implemented more sustainable ranching practices on farms close to the wetlands, and former hunters now serve as tour guides. The hope is that these wetlands will become a national park. That decision that may come soon with a vote set in the Argentinian Congress to make the Esteros del Iberá National Park.
I’ve been following the Tompkins’ work for years, and had the honor of meeting Doug years ago in San Francisco. He died tragically in a kayaking accident last December, but Kris is continuing their work to create a total of 12 (twelve!) new national parks in Chile and Argentina. As soon as I read about this area and the work the Tompkins’ are doing here, I wanted to see it first hand.
As we crawled along the dirt road, we saw pine tree farms and cattle ranches for miles and miles. Then the scenery began to change as we neared the tiny outpost town of Colonia Pelligrini (pop. 684), settled when hunting for animal hide was the primary livelihood. A fence sat one side of a wide channel of marshy water, the other the road. All along this channel, we began to see wildlife. We saw an otter, a marsh deer and an astounding abundance of birds. There are 350 different species of birds here. Huge storks, eagles, egrets, and so many more I had never seen before.
We had 4 days at the ranch. Our stay included delicious food from their organic garden, and all activities such as a boat ride into the wetlands and horseback riding. We took long walks on the property and sat by the cozy fire in the main building. On our first morning we woke to a cold, rainy and windy day for our boat ride. We pretty much froze our tails off but being out on the water, viewing the wildlife, was amazing. Large green floating islands made up of aquatic roots and sediments are in constant motion and are feeding grounds for the wildlife. Their thickness can vary from a few inches to more than six feet. Capybaras (the world’s largest rodent) feed along side dozens of caimans, the occasional red marsh deer along with its smaller cousin, the pampa deer. We saw huge grey screamer birds sitting on their giant nests. The area was full with birds, birds and more birds.
There were so many caimans, it was literally the caiman islands! ....yuk, yuk.
Family of giant screamers
It was cold. We stopped for lunch and the skies opened up. Definitely low season in these parts.
These are not ostrich but in the same family. They were everywhere, including on the property every day.
I was hoping we would see the capybara. Little did I know they are extremely abundant here. Like, everywhere! They have a gestation period of only 4 months and have 7 or 8 babies. They weigh between 70 and 145 pounds! There were 25 or 30 on the property when we arrived. Predators are important in a healthy ecosystem I guess! I still think they are cute as hell.
They are very social...
And they made me smile whenever I saw them.
We took waaaaay too many capybara pics.
Capybaras all over the landing strip. Pilots have to circle until someone comes and chases them off.
Late that afternoon, on our drive back from our boat trip something magical happened. We were bumping along in the guide’s land cruiser, cold, tired, ready to be done. Then I looked up through the windshield and saw what I thought was another red marsh deer. It was that tall, with similar legs. But the head was wrong. That part was more like a dog or hyena. It stared right at us and then suddenly, it ducked and dashed toward the side of the road. It moved like a dog trying to get out of reach of a human. Then it turned, came back and stood in the middle of the road again, staring right through the windshield at us. I grabbed John and hollered for him to look. He grabbed is camera and started shooting. Our driver/guide stopped the truck and excitedly got out his binoculars. You know its something special when the guide gets excited.
In front of us stood the rare maned wolf.
A creature so strange and so beautiful - I couldn’t take my eyes off him. We all sat quietly, barely taking a breath. Then he darted to the side of the road and ducked under the fence. On the other side, he stopped, sat up, took one more look at us and then doglike, loped off into the grass. I don’t know why but his presence stayed with me for days. A rare wolf in a rare land.
The next morning we set out on horseback into the wetlands. The estancia has 21 horses, all beautiful. Riding horses on an estancia with a gaucho is a required activity for anyone spending any time in this country. The culture of the gaucho runs deep in Argentina. These nomadic cowboys came to life after the Spaniards let loose their cattle on the grassy pampas centuries ago. They lived by taming wild horses, hunting down cows, and drinking mate (the ritual tea here in Argentina). We see modern day gauchos on our drives through the back roads, wearing their dusty boinas (a kind of knitted beret) offering us a friendly wave as they pass.
Lucas is the resident gaucho at the ranch, and immediately we could tell how much he loved his job. He told us some day he plans to do the same type of trip we are on, but on a horse. The evening before our ride he shared a book with us, detailing Argentina’s deep relationship with horses - from cattle ranching to polo playing to sheep herding. We couldn’t have asked for a more scenic place to take our first ride in Argentina than with this particular estancia in the wetlands of Ibera. Settling into our saddles, much more cushy than we are used to with thick blankets and sheep skin padding, we trotted along under a beautiful sunny sky. We rode for hours through tall grasses, scraggy trees, and out to the "coast", spotting tons of wildlife along the way.
Lucas, the resident gaucho. Loves, loves his horses.
An injured gray zorro fox
At dinner we saw Lucas again, showed him our photos from the ride, and then somehow it came up that we would love to see this beautiful place from the air. Lucas told us there was a pilot coming in the morning who could take us up if we wanted to book a flight. John’s eyes lit up. He had taken flying lessons a few years ago, but had to give them up when his mom got sick, and then we left on this trip. We booked a flight for 9:30 am. The next morning, we took off from the grass air strip feeling very African safari-ish. After a few minutes the pilot handed over the controls to John. Then told him to fly where ever he wanted. We soared low, just above the waters, with the deer and capybaras doing their thing below us.
As far as the eye could see, it was a massive marshy savannah. Seeing this remarkable landscape from the air, and knowing it is being preserved and protected, left an indelible impression.
When we were finally on the ground, John said to me, “Some day I am going to turn to you and say, remember that time I flew a plane over Argentina’s biggest wetlands?” I said, “Yeah,…and I’ll remind you of that crazy wolf-deer-hyena creature that took my breath away”.
The word “Iberá” means “bright waters” in Guaraní tongue. When we were watching the sun bounce off the lagoons and the palm trees sway in the water as we flew over them, it is not hard to guess why the old Guaraní Indians chose such a name for this place.
It is a bright, beautiful, magical place on earth.
Here is a super quick look at the animals of Iberá in action: