NATURE’S WONDERLAND IN NORTHEAST ARGENTINA

“Iberá” means “brilliant waters” in Guaraní — and the vast marshland, lakes and floating islands of the Esteros del Ibera that occupy a large swath of Corrientes province in northeast Argentina live up to its name.

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Lake Iberá with a floating island on the left.

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A Jacana strides across a floating island.

We had learned about the Esteros from the car rental agency in Buenos Aires, then followed up with an on-line search for a place to stay. We settled on the Irupé Lodge in the village of Carlos Pellegrini, in the middle of the Esteros. Our contact warned us, when we told her we would be driving down from Iguazu Falls, that the last 140 km were not paved and would slow us down. She wasn’t kidding.
After lunch in Posadas, on the Paraná River across from Encarnación, Paraguay, we headed west and drove right past the turn-off; there was no sign. We stopped at the next police station for directions, turned around, found the road and headed south. It was not only unpaved, it was fine dirt, no gravel. We remarked more than once as we ploughed through a couple drifts that it was a really good thing it wasn’t raining, else we would have been stuck. We rolled into Pellegrini at 18:00, three hours after our planned arrival time.
Met at the door by Facundo, the manager, we gratefully accepted proffered drinks then followed him to our room — one half of a cottage, built over a huge marsh, with large bath and deck overlooking the marsh and lake. It was the most relaxing place we had seen in a very long time.

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The Itakva Restaurant in Posadas, Corrientes Province, looking out at the Paraná River with Encarnación, Paraguay on the far shore.

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Dock on the shore of Lake Iberá.

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One of the rooms at the Irupe Lodge, Carlos Pellegrini, looking out at the marsh.

Dinner and all the meals that followed were 5-star and the menus are based almost entirely on local produce. There are no TVs or radios in the lodge or rooms, so the entire world could blow up and we would not have known it. What a treat!! Exhausted, we retired early so we could arise and enjoy the early morning boat tour, together with a walking tour of an area near the park rangers’ HQ and visitors’ centre that is home to a family of howler monkeys. The normally shy simians obliged us by staying in camera range.

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A howler monkey, Esteros del Iberá sanctuary.

The 2-hour boat tour around the floating islands and edges of the lake and brought us up close and personal with caimans (the South American alligator), capybaras — the world’s largest rodent – and an amazing variety of water and land birds. If you are a birder, add this spot to your “bucket list.”

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A South American caiman, cooling off.

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Four Southern Screamers on a floating island in Lake Iberá.

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Ringed Kingfisher looking for a meal.

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A red-crested cardinal rests on a rail at the Irupé Lodge.

Mid-afternoon Nené, a priest in an earlier life, appeared in his “carro.” “Carro” means “car” in Central America but in South America “carro” is a horse-drawn wooden cart. Imagine our surprise.

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Ramon “Nené” Gomez and wife Dolly in their carro.

Nené showed us the sights of Pellegrini: the oldest resident’s house, the central area, named for Gen. José de San Martín, and the cemetery.
What could be interesting about a village cemetery? Well, political parties define people in these parts, so many of the tombs are painted or covered with coloured tiles that reflect the political party to which its inhabitant belonged. The most interesting was a pair of tombs, husband and wife, in different colours. They must have had interesting dinner-table conversations!

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Home of the oldest inhabitant in Carlos Pellegrini.

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The cemetery in Carlos Pellegrini. Occupants of the blue tombs belonged to the provincial Liberal Party; red tombs, the provincial Autonomous Party; green tombs, the national Radical Party; white tombs, the national Justicialista (Peronist) party. The pink tombs have no political significance. The two grey tombs on the centre right reveal that the husband and wife of the Matia-Suiza family, belonged to different political parties; one has blue ribbons, the other red.

The next morning we were off for a day with a gaucho family in Uguay, a 45 minute drive south. We arrived at the home of Ramon “Chacho” Ojeda, his wife Mercedes, and their 3 daughters, mounted up and headed into the countryside. The first stop was at the home of Eustacio Gonzalez, an 83-year old who looks years younger and has resisted his children’s entreaties to move to one of his several houses in Buenos Aires. Chacho told us that Don Eustacio did try it, lasted two weeks, and moved back to Uguay.
Uguay is not really a town. It is an area with 95 inhabitants, all farmers, with an elementary school and a clinic. Chacho has 31 hectares, 7 horses, 4 cows, and 23 sheep. In 2010 he bought a black face sheep to introduce a new strain because the black face has more meat. He plans to expand his herd in the coming years.
Next stop was Chacho’s mother-in-law, Victoriana, who was born and has spent her entire life on this ranch. She greeted us with mate, the traditional Argentine tea, fried bread, and crackers.

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Ramon “Chacho” Ojeda and his mother-in-law, Victoriana Medina, in the kitchen of her ranch house, Uguay.

She is a weaver and we saw her loom, spinning wheels — one made from the base of an old sewing machine — an ancient iron, and wool shears made about a century ago by England’s Sheffield. In this part of the world, Victoriana is well off: she has 76 hectares, 56 cows, 6 horses, and 90 sheep. Her husband died in 2009 so Chacho, Mercedes, and a grandson help her run the ranch.

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One of Victoriana’s pedal looms. The blanket was made from her sheep’s wool on the loom it is draped over.

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An iron over a century old.

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Sheep-shearing shears, made by Sheffield in England, date from the early 20th century and are still used. They are resting on the hand-tooled sheath that holds the shears and under that is a saddle.

The ride out and back was easy. Going and returning we were treated to the sight of South American Great Rheas eating among the cattle, burrowing owls, and the South American vizcacha, a small rodent that lives in burrows.

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Burrowing owls next to their burrows, Uguay.

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Two rheas — large South American flightless birds related to the ostrich in a pasture at Uguay.

Back at the lodge the afternoon bird tour by boat took us to a different part of Lake Ibera. More birds, caimans, and a brief sighting of a marsh deer made this a completely different experience from the morning tour.

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Buck and doe marsh deer.

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Adult Tiger Heron on a floating island in Lake Iberá.

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A fledgling Tiger Heron on the edge of its nest. It would take flight within a few days.

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Capybara mother and three babes. The fur of the capybara is called nutria.

Three days after arriving, we packed our bags and headed south. This time the road was hard, packed gravel. Two hours later we skirted the small city of Mercedes and headed southeast to overnight in Rosario then on to Buenos Aires.

[box type="shadow" align="aligncenter"]I waited 30 minutes for these photos. The vigil began when the Great White Egret landed on the lawn of Irupe lodge, having just speared its dinner in Lake Iberá. It began poking the fish, which was still wiggling, and proceeded to pick it apart with its beak. It was a slow process and about half way through—the fish by now dead but still mostly intact—a Wood Rail approached. The egret grabbed the fish and watched the Wood Rail nonchalantly stroll by, totally uninterested in the egret’s meal. Fifteen minutes later the egret had done enough damage to the carcass that it was able to swallow the remains whole, then flew off, a big bulge half way down its long, elegant neck.[/box]

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About The Author

For over 35 years, Tommie Sue Montgomery has traveled, lived, done research, and taught in Latin America. For a quarter century her focus was Central America, primarily El Salvador. In the last decade she has been sharing her knowledge and love of Latin America as a enrichment lecturer on cruise ships from Mexico to Cape Horn. These voyages have enabled her and her husband to travel overland throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and the Southern Cone. When not traveling, Oshawa, Ontario is home.