Wet & (re)wild in Argentina

Full immersion in the Iberá wetlands

A heart-warming rewilding story of swamps and lagoons, anteaters and jaguars, and surf-and turf in Portal Carambola – the furry and feathered heart of Argentina’s Iberá National Park

I consider the notion of witnessing a jaguar springing out of the shallow waters

to wrestle

then chomp down 245 million years of scaly evolution.

That’s a functioning ecosystem for you…

As we navigate past a tiny islet in Esteros del Iberá atop which the twelfth caiman of the morning is unabashedly splayed out soaking up winter rays, Rewilding Argentina project manager Dahiana Manzanilla says jokingly: “That’s why we need the yaguareté to reproduce – to start controlling the yacare population!”

The 20-year-old reptile doesn’t batter any of his three eyelids at our passing curiosity.

Dahiana is referring to the reintroduction of the Americas’ largest feline to its natural habitat, one of numerous rewilding actions undertaken by Tompkins Conservation in the Argentine province of Corrientes in a bid to improve biodiversity.

Doug and Kristine Tompkins set up this nonprofit now known as Fundación Rewilding Argentina in 1997, transforming 150,000 hectares of land then donating it back to Argentina as Iberá National Park, which forms part of Great Iberá Park. Work to return endangered animal species to their domains and thereby increase populations began in this region in 2005, and given that the foundation also works in ‘El Impenetrable’ Chaco province as well as Patagonia and Chile, this nonprofit has been undertaking not just a world, but a galaxy, of good ever since.

This southwest corner of Iberá houses the national park’s newest dock Portal Carambola, and while there are facilities including a well-kempt campsite, staying in Concepción del Yaguareté Corá 30 km away makes for a well-rounded experience. An adorably authentic town founded in 1796, Concepción’s vibrant rural culture, traditional customs and well-kempt architecture has placed it as Argentina’s candidate for Best Tourism Village 2021 by the UNWTO. Here, bank clients tie up their horses outside the premises while the Guaraní Indigenous language is spoken in equal measures to Spanish by its 5,000 residents. A quick visit to the Centro de Interpretación visitors’ centre is a useful place to start understanding the wetlands’ story. 

Portal Carambola | All photos by Matias Rebak

One of South America’s largest freshwater sources and the world’s second-largest wetlands, covering an area a piffling 300 square miles smaller than Wales, this is as wet and wild as it gets.

Editor’s note

Since visiting the Iberá wetlands, TOPIA is distraught to hear that wild fires have caused massive devastation in the area. This is a terrible blow for biodiversity, Argentina and the world, and we will be following up about this place that’s dear to our hearts.

Home (today) to species such as the giant river otter, giant anteater, pampas deer, collared peccary, a plethora of avians such as green-winged macaws – and of course our ectothermic sunbathing reptilian amigo – as recently as 20 years ago Iberá’s furry and feathered fauna were relentlessly hunted; mariscadores (hunters) undertaking dangerous expeditions for a fortnight at a time to put food on their table and fulfill collectors’ whims. The loss of wildlife was beyond detrimental.

To counteract this devastation, Rewilding has built ties with rural communities such as Concepción, working to create virtuous circles that regenerate economies and has also repopulated seven native species that had become or were in danger of becoming extinct.

Jaguar, for example, hadn’t been seen in Corrientes for more than 70 years.

Second chances

Rewilding guide Pedro ‘Chopé’ Leiva knows these vast waters like the back of his hand, steering visitors through the lagoons whose levels rise and fall with the seasons, a waterscape in motion that changes when isles break away from terra firma. He navigates by the sun, the moon and the stars because, as a child, he hunted carpincho (capybara) with his dad and his uncle. 

“We mariscadores hunted out of necessity,” he says, recalling his childhood paddling in canoes for days at a time. “My dad was happy for me to  join him and learn the trade –  plus it meant I made my own money.” But as species numbers fell and fewer bichos (critters) were ‘available’, the work got harder; certainly, if they saw a human, the sensible thing was to scarper. 

Sunset money shot

Those hunters are now guides, no longer a threat to the environment, giving themselves as well as nature a second chance. Was it easy to make the change? Chopé says: “I learned to look after the bichos and care for the flora and fauna. Since we’ve done that, our own local economy has changed so I’m happy to be a protector of Iberá.” Not only does he lead daily boat expeditions for small groups of four or five people departing from Portal Carambola, he also works in cattle security, fixing fences to ensure these ‘exotic’ mammals, so called for being introduced to the area, stick within their ranch limits. 

Another hunter-turned-guardian is Diego López, who, for a decade, picked off four capybara a day. When he saw the positive benefits that tourism brought to Iberá, he was persuaded to try his skills elsewhere. While he would use horse-drawn canoes (the best way to move around the wetlands) to transport trophies, today they serve a more positive purpose as these wooden vessels are the only way to reach the homestead he shares with wife Diana. 

What a way to arrive! As our steed sets off with all its force through the shallows, the slim wooden canoe jerks forward and I fall backwards, laughing, into the lap of the person sitting behind me. As the speed picks up to a canter, we slide over the stream to a splish-splosh soundtrack, until the water becomes deeper and our horse starts to paddle, hauling the canoe through sparkling tranquility, the young gaucho guide taking a thorough soaking for the cause.

You can also saddle up for a three-day equine expedition and swim with your steed, the ultimate wet and wild experience

The couple opens their rural home, constructed from piri grass, so visitors can enjoy a slice of traditional lifestyle in the wetlands. Stirring a large blackened pot over an open fire, Diana serves up a beef stew and homemade chipá, delicious cheesy manioc dough balls. 

This surf-and-turf excursion is one of many sustainable cultural activities found around Concepción, says conservation coordinator Talía Zamboni, and fortunately the future looks bright. “Rewilding has been running courses and training guides in Concepcíon since 2016, and there are a lot of young people studying to be park rangers and guides, learning from nature,” she says.  

Those eager to taste culture should check out Cocineros del Iberá, a 100-strong network of cooks who use regional ingredients to prepare traditional dishes, often creating a dining experience out of their homes.

Teatime chez Reina Sandoval is legendary, an abundance of torta frita (fried cakes) best slathered with homemade papaya jam and quince tart, while Raúl Aguirre ‘s three-course dinner likely includes guiso carrero, a beef stew made with andaí pumpkin, a filling suppertime meal; both cooks are based in Concepción. 

The shape of freedom

Is there anything more freeing than crossing infinite waters, puffy clouds and turquoise sky perfectly mirrored, a snoozy caiman completing the canvas? Why, yes there is, dear reader, and this freedom will warm your heart’s cockles. Observing the mighty pampas deer swimming through lagoons or the collared peccary, a musk hog, snuffling around for roots in their natural habitat is wonderful, but how they got there is down to Rewilding’s dogged perseverance. 

Pampas deer live in the grasslands of South America at low elevations and typically have three-tined antlers

Freedom comes in the shape of endearing baby oso hormigueros (anteaters), whose elongated claws rip through tree trunks as if they were butter, seeking out then sucking up ants with a skinny long tongue. (A truly curious diet.)

At the Anteater Rescue Centre in San Cayetano Provincial Park near Corrientes city, the team has been rescuing orphans from Salta, Santiago del Estero, Formosa and Chaco provinces since 2007. Take Iquatú, an adorable and curious 18-month-old who happily licked my hand like an eager puppy. As a baby he got through eight bottles of milk a day, and he’s come on so well at the rescue centre that this spring he will move to Iberá National Park, joining 200 free Giant anteaters who live in self-sufficient populations.

Over the course of the day’s navigation, I counted around 40 caiman of various terrifying sizes and lengths. (They become less terrifying after learning they consume aquatic insects and fish rather than English women.) Chopé was thrilled we observed around 17 pampas deer bounding over land and through water, and also witnessed quite the social gathering of collared peccary and capybara. Not one caiman stirred as we motored past. The musk hogs barely gave us a second glance. “The carpincho used to run away when they saw me coming,” says Chopé.

“But they don’t any more.”

Is there anything better than sharing a maté at the end of the day?

Inspired? Hear from the wilderness conservationist behind all of this

Kris Tompkins takes us to the edge of the world

What’s so good about this?

Without being distracted by the fact that crocodilians have three eyelids – and no vocal cords either, by the way – this story of travelling differently demonstrates the epic effect that rewilding work has on entire ecosystems.

Sorrel Mosely-Williams writer profile

Meet the writer

A freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires, Sorrel Moseley-Williams pairs well in many situations as she’s also a sommelier. Decanter of good words, creator of Sorol WinesDill & Tonic G&T and top chef fluffer, you might spot Sorrel sampling vintages by tiny wine producers in the Andes (or indeed her own two Cabernet Franc 2021), fishing for paiche in the Bolivian Amazon or on the pages of Monocle, Decanter and Condé Nast Traveller – and reporting for TOPIA from the wildest parts of South America. She’s also the Academy Chair of 50 Best Bars, South America. Follow @sorrelita.

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