Corrientes, fewer than 800 km from Buenos Aires, is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. There you’ll find a spectacular labyrinth of wetlands rich in wildlife.
For some years now the Esteros del Iberá (“shining water” in Guaraní) have been part of the map of the best ecotourism destinations in Argentina. There is no place like it in the country – nothing as virgin, environmentally intact, where animals and birds roam freely. But it hasn’t always been this way, and in fact the wetlands in Corrientes are a recent phenomenon. In 1983 the Iberá Natural Reserve was created an area of over 1,300,000 hectares to protect the wildlife that was threatened by hunting (both for subsistence and for the fur trade). Some native species like the swamp deer, capybara, yacaré and foxes narrowly escaped extinction. Others, such as the giant anteater, yaguareté, pampas deer, collared peccary, red macaw and tapir are currently endangered. During the recovery process hunting and fishing were banned and shellfish gatherers – former hunters from the area – were hired as park rangers. Several access points to the reserve were opened and neighboring towns slowly began to develop touristic activities.
Most visitors will be able to see most of the sights of the Esteros del Iberá in about three or four nights, or a bit longer if you don’t want to rush. The weather can be a conditioning factor for a visit, since none of the access roads are paved, and after heavy rain they’re much more difficult to traverse. We recommend taking a 4×4 vehicle and traveling by day – when you’ll also be able to spot ñandúes, capybaras and deer along the road – or using a transfer service from a nearby city like Colonia Pellegrini. The most developed access to the reserve, Colonia Pellegrini is a small town on the shores of the Iberá lagoon with just under 700 residents, an interpretation center and most basic services – but no bank, ATM or pharmacy. You can take a plane from Buenos Aires to Mercedes, which at 130 km from Colonia Pellegrini, is the closest city to stock up on items you’ll need during the trip. If you’re coming from the north, perhaps after a visit to Iguazu Falls (400 kms away), the access point is Cambryetá, 15 km from the town of Ituzaingó. This side of the reserve has several options for lodging, such as the beautiful Puerto Valle estancia (www.puertovalle.com.ar). Coming from the west, you can access the reserve through Concepción, a tiny town with a vibrant cultural life. Here you’ll find boutique inns like La Alondra (www.laalondra.com.ar) and El Nido (www.nidodepajarosposada.com.ar ), as well as a couple of museums and and an interpretation center run by the “Iberá Porá” guides association. This is a group of local youth who work as tour guides, creating a link between visitors and locals. To contact them and find out more about visiting Iberá, send them an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org Their phone number is +54 3782 477339.
IIn Colonia Pellegrini and its surroundings, there are several all-inclusive lodges, ideal for travelers who would prefer not to spend time worrying about trip logistics. These are usually small lodges with few rooms, ensuring exclusive and personalized attention. They offer packages according to the length of your stay and include all meals and rides. Several have pools and beautiful parks where you can marvel at local wildlife. Options include Rincón del Socorro (www.rincondelsocorro.com.ar), Aguapé Lodge (www.iberaesteros.com.ar), Casa Sana Ana and Iberá Lodge (www.iberaexplorer.com ).
Walking through Iberá, every moment feels like part of a photographic safari. Reservoirs, lagoons and marshes are home to beautiful plants like water lilies, water hyacinths, ferns, lilies and bulrushes. There are also hundreds of birds species – and other highlights include caimans of all sizes (even newborns in their nests), huge capybaras, marsh deer, howler monkeys, small river wolves, boa constrictors, guazú aguará, gray foxes and butterflies. Many of these animals seem to have no fear of humans, allowing visitors to observe their behavior from up close and get great photos.
Every day hundreds of tourists come, camera in hand, to observe Iberá’s wild birds. More advanced birdwatchers are able to recognize birds’ songs and plumage, while beginners can take in the sights and photograph the diversity of local species. This wetland is one of the world’s best locations to see birds because of the hundreds of beautiful, unique species that live there, such as the ñandú, chajá, mallard, maca, kingfisher, carpenter, macaw, cardinal, celestino, ipacaá, thrush, heron, jacana, federal, stork, carancho, jabiru and many others.
Explore the area by boat, canoe, horse, by foot, or even all of the above – almost all can be done in one trip. Generally, lodgings have one or more boats and organize trips to see animals or to simply sail across the immense, mirror-like water. Canoe trips are generally offered by baqueano guides, who use a long pole to push the rustic canoe through the wetlands. Baqueanos also guide horseback rides through nearby fields and wetlands. Beforehand, tourists are given high-top boots because during the ride the water level often can reach up to the horse’s stomach. Depending on the depth in the area, tourists may also get the chance to swim next to the animals.
Nocturnal boat rides are one of the most exciting experiences, particularly on nights with a full moon. Senses sharpen in the dark under a sky satiated with stars, and when the guide turns on a flashlight you’ll see dozens of red eyes glimmering. The jacaré, ready to begin its nightly hunt, dives suddenly into the thicket, giving you a rush of adrenaline. By day their huge open mouths aren’t so scary – and leaving them open allows them to cool off during the sunny hours (as reptiles, they can’t regulate their own body temperature). These boat rides are also a perfect time to take in the sounds of nature and use your imagination to envision what’s going on amongst the reeds and trees.
More adventurous travelers who want to see the inner, most wild parts of the Esteros can go on a two- or three-day kayak excursion through the channels. You’ll sleep in tents or shelters, and visit the homes of the few families that live there year-round, surrounded by water. The trip includes both paddling and trekking across the wetlands in photo expeditions.
Fishing is allowed in some areas with a license, under the supervision of guides (preferably fly fishing and catch-and-release). Among the species, you’ll find the dorado, which can reach up to 12 kilos, the surubí, the river salmon and the tararira, which coexist with immense shoals of small fish. There are also palometas, piranhas, bogas, tarpons, catfish and dientudos. The best season for fishing is typically from December to April, though it depends on the amount of rainfall, which can change the structure of the estuary.
In the 1950s the yaguareté became extinct in Corrientes due to hunting and habitat modification. Restoring this missing predator to the Esteros is one of the projects spearheaded by the Conservation Land Trust (www.theconservationlandtrust.org), a foundation founded by Douglas Tompkins in 2011 as an experimental breeding center. It’s located in San Alonso, a private island that used to operate as a tourist residence but is now a biological station dedicated exclusively to the reinsertion of the anteater and the future of the yaguareté. It can be visited for scientific purposes.