Explore the little known marshlands of Argentina with some of the best fishing and awe-inspiring wildlife in the continent!
Yellow and black, it was hiding among the sun-bleached branches at the water’s edge. Our boat nudged closer to the island. I lifted my camera and pulled the creature’s beady eyes into focus. Then, in a quarter of a second, measured by the camera’s rapid frame-burst, the anaconda snapped open its jaws, sprang forward, and hissed in my face. In the Esteros del Iberá, I learned, it’s hard to avoid getting up close and personal with nature.
Yacarés look fierce but pose little threat to humans.
The Esteros del Iberá is the least known of Argentina’s natural wonders: a world apart from the Pampas and gaucho land of the popular imagination. Its 63 lagoons are spread across an area the size of Wales and mark the former course of the Paraná river. In these vast wetlands an improbably rich ecosystem thrives, but until recently it received only a passing mention in many guidebooks. Only now, with a flurry of low-rise, eco-friendly development, is the Esteros finally opening up to tourism and has some of the best fishing tours in Argentina.
To reach the Esteros from Buenos Aires, you can either fly to the nearest major airport (Posadas, four hours’ drive), or do what most Argentineans do and take an overnight coach to the dusty town of Mercedes.
In Mercedes we found shy, smiling Roque waiting by a Toyota Hilux 4×4. He ferried us down the dirt track otherwise known as “provincial route 40″ on the final leg of our journey. After an hour, as a red sun crawled over the horizon, we approached the makeshift bridge which serves as a gateway to the Laguna Iberá. Iberá means “bright water” in Guarani, and as the pick-up rattled over the bridge, the surroundings fell away as if we were driving across a gleaming ocean.
The sweeping lawns of the Posada de la Laguna were dotted with a selection of multicoloured birds. One had a punkish shock of bright red head feathers, as if it had been dunked headfirst in a pot of Day-Glo paint. The birds barely noticed us; it was hard not to trip over them as we rolled our luggage through the freshly cut grass. Later, at breakfast, I turned to see a pair of hummingbirds on the veranda. They would return every morning.
The yacaré feast on the local fish. Fat and happy, they pose little threat to humans. And some say it’s OK to swim, as long as you don’t mind the odd nibble from the palometas, a type of piranha found in these parts. I decided that any swimming would be confined strictly to the hotel pool.
The boat whipped across the lagoon and we entered a maze of small islands. Maximo cut the engine. These floating embalsados are formed from knots of vegetation, some growing so big they can support trees. Blown by the wind, they make the Esteros an ever-changing delight.
A yelp of pleasure broke the silence, prompted by the sight of a family of mutant-looking creatures swimming into view: guinea pigs on steroids, with webbed feet and furry bricks for noses. We had just had the first of many encounters with the capybara, or carpincho, largest rodent in the world.
Soon we settled into a rhythm. After each expedition we would return to the posada for a meal in its rustic dining room. There are no other restaurants in this remote area, but this was all-inclusive without the compromises. The menu offered everything from chipas, a local cheesy dough-ball snack, to European dishes given a local twist, such as mushroom risotto with a herby, correntino lamb ragout. And, of course, fantastic Argentinean steak with bottles of big, chewy Malbec from Mendoza.
When the Esteros became a natural reserve in 1983, hunting was banned and indigenous Guaranis like Maximo retrained as guides. Now it is becoming more and more popular on an Argentina tour. Each day we explored a
Dorado Fishing in the Marshlands of Argentina
secluded new site offering an uncanny array of river otters, bizarre spiders, carpinchos, yacarés, snakes, butterflies and howler monkeys. We would hear rumours of a beautiful rare deer that constantly seemed to elude us. And then there were the birds. Almost 400 species call these marshes home. Some are difficult to miss, such as the chaja, that resembles an ugly turkey and emits a gurgling scream, like an infant being strangled. Others take a little searching out: kingfishers, heron, ibis and eagles. I’ve never been a twitcher, but after a few days in the Esteros you find yourself on first-name terms with birds such as the glittering-bellied emerald, a hummingbird, and (my favourite) the wattled jacana, a wader with arresting yellow and brown plumage.
The lagoon system is so vast we rarely saw another boat. And, out on the water most days, it was only at mealtimes that we noticed the arrival and departure of other guests; a few young backpackers, earnest German nature lovers and only the occasional Argentine. We chatted to one Argentinean couple who were using their retirement to tour their huge country by car. They seemed astonished that we had even heard of the Esteros. They hadn’t, and had ended up here after following a road sign out of curiosity.
We turned into Jose’s reserva where he’s gradually returning the land to nature. In this hot, wet, pressure-cooker environment, nature works twice as hard, which means that in just a few years, orchids, strangler figs, palms and mimosa have overrun acres of former farmland.
And Jose is not alone. Nearby, the controversial millionaire Douglas Tompkins, who made his money from The North Face and Esprit clothing labels, has bought more than half a million acres with the intention of preventing any development that might jeopardise the area’s ecosystem. He even plans, the locals whisper, to reintroduce the long-vanished jaguar to the Esteros.
Chimu Adventures offers tours to The marshlands in Argentina including a Dorado fishing adventure.