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Argentina’s Wetlands

Nature Reserve Affords Close Contact with Wildlife

Although a glimpse of an alligator was the reason I came to Argentina’s largest protected area, I was still taken aback when five minutes into my boat trip a duck disappeared less than a meter away and resurfaced a few moments later with half its wing torn off.

“Caiman,” said Pedro the guide grimly, scooping the injured bird out of the water before motoring on to the favored sites of more than 350 bird species, an equally impressive range of mammals, and of course more alligators.

Situated roughly half-way between Buenos Aires and the waterfalls at Iguazu, Esteros del Iberá has been a nature reserve since 1983. The scarcity of visitors to the region is almost as remarkable as the diversity and accessibility of its wildlife. There are a dozen or so restaurants, hostels, and hotels in the village of Colonia Carlos Pellgrini, on the banks of one of the park’s largest lakes. However, unlike South America’s closest comparable ecological attraction, Brazil’s Pantanal do Mato Grosso, tourism is a fledgling industry in Esteros del Iberá. As a result, the independent traveler can be pretty sure that he or she will be the only gringo the caimans have feasted their eyes on that day, if not that week.

The absence of large-scale tourism and the responsible attitude of the few local operators that do work in the area richly reward those who make the drive from Posadas or take the bus trip from Mercedes.

At the visitor center just standing still is often enough to encourage much of the wildlife to ignore you. I saw ibises, herons, and dozens of species of insects on my unaccompanied wanderings. A ranger led me down El Sendero de los Monos, a walkway through the habitat of the black howler monkey, where I saw a female and her baby slowly making their way across the forest canopy.

Back in the boat with Pedro, we paused to observe marsh deer, yellow anacondas, and carpinchos—the largest rodents in the world—before cruising up to a basking caiman, alighting from the boat, and walking as close as we dared. The alligator tolerated my interest for a few minutes, watching me with its crooked yellow stare, before easing itself into the lake and swimming off.

The boat returned to the landing as the midday sun gained strength, and Pedro suggested a dip in the lake. “There are no alligators here; we let our children swim on this side, it’s quite safe,” Pedro assured me. So I swam off the excitement of the experience and enjoyed immersing myself in the wetlands at a safe distance from their star attractions.

Single rooms in Posada Ypa Sapukai cost from $15 per night or $27 with full board, but do contact them for latest pricing. The hostel (www.iberaturismo.com.ar) arranges boat trips, horseriding excursions, birdwatching, and hikes.

The tourist office at Colón 1985 (turismo@misiones.gov.ar) has details of tour operators running excursions of two days or more into the region. Or visit www.donnatipping.com for information about the author’s trip.

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