Esteros del Iberá, Argentina

The Esteros del Iberá are a seemingly endless expanse of marshes, lagoons, floating islands, lush vegetation, and diverse wildlife, comprising roughly 14% of Corrientes province. The appeal of this gorgeous nature reserve largely comes from being unspoiled by rampant tourism. If you’ve ever envisioned rowing your own canoe into a lagoon teeming with hungry caimans, free from pesky tourists, park rangers, and emergency rescue teams, this is your opportunity.

One reason that these marshlands remain unspoiled is that there is only one road leading to and from the miniscule town of Carlos Pellegrini, from which the marshes are accessible. This road is unpaved, rocky, and subject to flooding, leading only to the larger town of Mercedes, which is five hours away. The rickety bus that tackles this road also has no bathroom, and after being shaken up for several hours, you’ll be checking out the window for the nearest tree so the driver can stop (he will, they’re not in a hurry, plus you can jump out and use the “facilities” whenever the bus breaks down). The bus schedule is very simple: leaves Mercedes for Carlos Pellegrini at 12:30 PM, leaves Carlos Pellegrini for Mercedes at 3 AM. This allows the residents of Carlos Pellegrini to arrive in Mercedes well before siesta to use the bank, see a doctor, go shopping, etc. It also keeps out lazy travelers and assures a peaceful atmosphere around the marshes. Visitors can pay for a ride in a 4×4 instead of taking the bus, which is considerably more expensive, but would get you from Carlos Pellegrini up north to Posadas without going down in the opposite direction to Mercedes first. (The Mercedes bus terminal has regular departures to many destinations in the area.)

Carlos Pellegrini has basic accommodations for visitors, camping facilities (be sure to buy supplies in Mercedes), and a couple of inexpensive comedors to grab a bite (note: the Esteros are part of a nature reserve; you cannot order an alligator milanesa). However, there is no ATM in Carlos Pellegrini, so travelers must visit the ATM in Mercedes. There’s no heat during the winter, and in all of northeast Argentina the damp cold will quickly burrow into your bones and make itself at home; winter clothing cannot be forgone. Contrarily, summertime in this region is stiflingly humid, burning hot, and casts a deathly pall on all living creatures; insect repellent is necessary (a yellow fever vaccine is advisable for travelers to northeast Argentina, transmitted through infected mosquitoes).

Since it’s difficult to know what you’ll find in Carlos Pellegrini before you get there, the kind people of Mercedes will be able to arrange a room for you, particularly at the hostel Delicias del Iberá (688 Dr. Rivas). This hostel is basic but very inexpensive, about $6 per person for a bed. During the winter there is no heat and possibly no hot water, but the staff are helpful and serve a lovely breakfast. The folks at Delicias del Iberá send many travelers toward the Esteros and will sell you the bus ticket to Carlos Pellegrini ($8 each way) and arrange your accommodation, which can range from a hostel at $10–12 per person to an hospedaje. (All prices are listed in $USD.)

Wildlife in the Esteros is fascinating, particularly after dark, including about 45 types of mammals and 350 types of birds (storks, rheas, herons, chajá or “screamer” birds, and many others), plus carpinchos (the largest rodent on earth, literally), yacaré (caiman alligators), abundant fish, the occasional snake (perhaps a freewheeling anaconda can be spotted during the winter), vizcachas (like chinchillas, found on terra firma), a reclusive family of monkeys living near the lagoon, and countless more. Some spots in Carlos Pellegrini sell books to help you identify the local flora and fauna. During a boat tour, you can disembark on one of the floating islands, which comprises about two meters of land loosely floating on another three meters of water, home and restaurant to many swamp-dwellers. Jumping on the islas flotantes is a real highlight, especially if you are traveling with someone who believes that the island will cave in at any moment and leave you to drown.

Since the Esteros are marshlands, the best way to get into nature is by boat. Visitors can hire a boat tour ($12 per person), which comes with a guide and is extremely helpful to begin discerning the major species. You can also rent a canoe ($15 per canoe) and paddle around the marshes yourself, but don’t get too close to the yacaré; they are cute and seemingly docile but everyone gets hungry sometime. (Likewise, the carpinchos are adorable, but they actually have enormous teeth and would probably gnaw your legs off if they smelled like dinner.) Try not to leave the Esteros without renting a canoe, because it’s one of the most peaceful experiences a visitor can have: just you, the marshes, a pure and infinite sky, and an alligator bumping up under your canoe, possibly trying to capsize it and eat you alive. Other services include a walking tour ($8 per person) through the surrounding forests, the guides for which are also very helpful, and actually necessary to locate the timid family of monkeys that lives in the area. Horseback riding ($12 per person) is also available through the nearby countryside, which is gorgeous, though the horses have clearly been through this routine one too many times (the horses don’t swim through the marshes…). Spending time by the Laguna Iberá (the main lagoon on the edge of town) is also priceless, with sunsets that would inspire even the most jaded ecotourist.

The marshlands owe their magical quality largely to the difficulty in reaching them, and therefore the lack of tourists and the ability to listen to crickets chirp with an eerie accuracy. While most travelers to the northeast are really aiming to reach Iguazú Falls, they miss a real gem in bypassing the Esteros del Iberá. Though Iguazú is breathtakingly beautiful, visiting Iguazú during the high season is like this author’s own personal hell. Most everything is better in the off season and heading to Carlos Pellegrini will get you off the beaten track; just check at the bus terminal before you leave to make sure that track isn’t flooded.