Ibera Nature Reserve, Argentina

 

Howler Monkey

Eleven hours north of Buenos Aires, Argentina, there is a little known reserve that rivals more famous sites to its north, as a location to view some of South America’s unique animals. It’s a comfortable ride from the capital, in an overnight “semi-bed” bus, complete with dinner and a glass of wine.

We arrived in Mercedes, Province of Corrientes, expecting a four hour wait for the connection to the Iberá Nature Reserve (Esteros de Iberá). We were surprised to see a four wheel drive bus, loaded up and ready to go. I asked the driver if he was going to Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. He said he was, said to get on, how much it was he didn’t know. It was 4 am, cold, the bus terminal was nothing but a collection of ticket booths, all closed. We got on.

The bus chugged along a bumpy dirt road, stopped to top up the radiator more than a few times. The winter cold seeped through windows that didn’t close properly. Still, it was better than sitting outside the terminal.

At first light, we arrived at the reserve’s headquarters, a brick building in a cleared area, a large body of water beyond. The name Iberá (sparkling waters) comes from the Guaraní, the indigenous people whose descendants still inhabit the area around the Rio Paraná, south of the Paraguayan border. It’s an area of several ecological zones; a wetlands that catches almost all of its water from rainfall, making it less vulnerable to outside contamination.

It became clear to us that the people onboard had chartered the bus. The organiser approached us, offered to take us on the walk they were going on – el sendero de los monos – the monkey path. We had an option, to walk to the village within the reserve, a few kilometres away. We went with the group.

ibera-birdlife.jpg

The path cut through a tropical forest, speckled light dabbled the leafy floor, vines twisted across the canopy, bromeliads sat in forked trunks, epiphytes hung from branches. Several of the group, from Buenos Aires, offered us binoculars, handy equipment for the birds that darted around us. A large stork sat high in a nest, flapped its huge wings, a loud whoosh broke the stillness of the hushed forest. A deep throated howl followed. It was a family of Carayá, the local Howler monkey, much smaller than their call implies. A tan female with a young one on its back, casually chewing leaves, peered down at us. The black male ran agitatedly through the canopy, long tail in the air.

Back on the bus, a narrow dirt road crossed the water, Ñandubay, the typical hardwood tree of the area, masking the view of the peninsula. In Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, a town of less than a thousand people, the driver dropped the group at their hotel and took us to Los Amigos, a more financially convenient location. It looked closed, the wooden doors and window shutters locked up. We walked toward the back. The señora came out. The family was cutting up a beast. It was in a hundred pieces; sausages, steaks, mincing going on, a wooden table laden with red meat, legs, stomach, a green parrot sitting on a strut beneath it. Not the ideal place for vegetarians. Still, we were only looking for a bed. And it was mid morning by then, the two bus trips taking their toll. We checked in.

After a breakfast of coffee, bread and jam, we wandered the dusty streets to find a friendly tourist office that steered us in the direction of a launch. The streets were full of birds. Red headed woodpeckers hammered on wooden lamp posts. A pair of yellow cardinals with brown wings and swept-back head feathers, ate seeds in the grassland. Small brown cavies darted in and out of the scrub that ran along the side of the road.

We wandered down to the lagoon, spoke to Alberto, a young boatman who told us it was too cold, to come back the next day. We looked at the water, a breeze lathered the surface. It sounded like the best idea. A Curiyú, black and gold, Argentina’s largest serpent and a relative of the anaconda, slid between some nearby rocks.

The protected catchment area of Iberá covers 1.3 million hectares and includes four different ecological regions, and six types of vegetative landscapes, a crucial reason for the diverse amount of bird, mammal, reptile, insect, fish and plant life. It’s a vast area, a watershed for the Rio Corrientes, declared a Natural Reserve in 1983, a proposal designed to preserve the entire unique ecosystem, despite the fact that 60% of the area is privately owned. Ten years later, with encroaching threats such as roads, agriculture, forest plantations, fishing and hunting as well as urban pollution, seven areas were established as special “Units of Conservation.” One of these is the area surrounding Carlos Pelligrini.

We walked back out to the main street, a small boy on a big horse cantered round the corner. Birds were everywhere; overhead, amongst the trees, hovering on fences; flycatchers, wagtails, thrushes, tits, larks, cranes. We hired a bike, rode back out to the park entrance.

Colonia Pellegrini

On the lawn, there were two carpinchos, the largest of the rodent family, weighing up to seventy five kilograms. A stag with long antlers grazed nearby. Across the road, I thought I saw three black boars. We moved closer, they were carpinchos too, sitting in the grass together, their heads held high, the sun glistening off their brown fur; noble creatures, for rodents.

We walked down a track where another deer foraged in a swamp, tall grasses hiding it momentarily. It glanced round at us, moved away slightly, continuing to graze. Further in, the area opened to grassland, an armadillo, its black banded tail and hard armour-shell visible for a second before it shot off at a surprisingly lightening speed, a blur that changed directions twice as it fled.

We were feeling lucky. We went back to our bicycles, started pedalling along the road and caught a glimpse of two otters, frolicking, climbing onto the rocky shore. We moved closer and the otters dived, yet one came back up to sneak a glance, bark at us and move on.

otter.jpg

That night we chose not to eat at our hostel, they were still busy with the beast anyway, and we dropped our bikes back at Yarkarú Pará, a restaurant not far from our hospedaje. Jorge spoke quickly, had a passion for food. He whipped up cannelloni while we had a beer on the veranda as the winter sun went down, the same kid on horseback, a silhouette kicking up dust, herding his horses home for the night. We walked back in the dark, not expecting to see animals, maned wolves and jaguars too shy to be near the village, we hoped. We slept pretty well but the hotel was freezing, the concrete walls like a refrigerator. We had our breakfast in the sun and made our way to the lagoon.

Alberto was nineteen, had gone to school in the capital and returned, tourism providing a living, though not everyone in the town was in agreement. The area had once been a rich hunting ground where thousands of caiman, wolves and carpincho skins, were traded, although the “Isleños,” the local inhabitants and descendants of the Guaranies, had only ever been subsistence hunters and fishermen.

The launch hovered near an expanse of grass and the odd taller shrub. Alberto explained how the roots of the aquatic plants merged to form a huge floating island that rose and fell with the water depth. A couple of carpinchos lay on the shoreline as we pulled closer. White egrets flew overhead.

We motored around the island to where it broke up into small canals. A yacaré (caiman) swam across the water in front of us, more gathered on the banks. Smaller than a crocodile and predominantly fish eaters, the yacaré, along with the carpincho, were clearly major beneficiaries of the declaration of the reserve.

As we swung around a family of carpinchos swam in a line, only their heads visible, making for solid ground. The younger ones went ashore while the adults stayed in the shallower water, their rumps in the air, feeding on aquatic plants. Gracious in water as well as on land, carpinchos were like a cross between a giant guinea pig and a miniature hairy hippopotamus.We grabbed a quick coffee at our hostel while horses and a guide waited. Martín was in his seventies, at least, more round than tall; a beret, soft shoes, baggy pants and a gaucho belt with heavy silver buckle and coins. He led us out of town, along a road deep in dust. We turned into a paddock, a large stand of palms in the distance. Birds of prey hung in the sky. Parakeets squawked in a thicket of thorn trees. We crossed the paddock, split a herd of cattle, passed through swamp land where horses grazed, and went into the palm forest, the area cloaked in a quiet peacefulness. It was a glimpse of the co-existence of the wild and domestic.

We went back to Yarkarú Pará for dinner again, busier, locals drinking beer, talking. It was another cold night, making it hard to imagine visiting in summer when temperatures soared.

The next day, a Sunday, there wasn’t any transport from the village. But we knew the group from Buenos Aires were leaving. I walked around to their hotel to see if they could give us a lift to Mercedes and the bus terminal for all points north and south, not wanting to stay another night in the refrigerator room.

It was good news. They had space for us and we left in the afternoon. But even then it wasn’t over. As we rattled out of town just before dusk, we spotted viscacha, relatives of the chinchilla, scampering on a small grassless hill; crazy looking mammals, striped faces, like a possum crossed with a monkey and a wombat. Esteros de Iberá was still amazing us.

Carpincho

 

 

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~ by Drifting, Rambling on February 19, 2008.

3 Responses to “Ibera Nature Reserve, Argentina”

  1. […] Let the author know what you think, contact them and continue reading, here […]

  2. Great little well-written story Tim. I think it’s Wanderlust material, why don’t you try them? I’m going to send you an email now. xxx Philly

  3. thats for sure, brother

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