Colin Barraclough marvels at the wildlife-rich wetlands of Argentina’s Esteros del Ibera
THE Land Rover has barely come to a halt when the air explodes around me with shrieks, warbles, whistles and howls. All night I have pushed northward by road into the sultry darkness of the Argentine night. Now, as I arrive at Rincon del Socorro, a restored estancia on the edge of Argentina’s Esteros del Ibera wetlands, a sun the colour of burnt ochre is edging over the horizon, turning the jacaranda blooms a delicate violet.
Dazed by fatigue, I blink twice as a nandu, a South American cousin of the ostrich, struts across the lawn just metres away. Fluttering, pulsating and trilling, the bird calls multiply with every second.
There is little to prepare the visitor for a dawn chorus in the Esteros del Ibera, a wildlife-rich wetland covering 13,000sq km of the northern Argentine province of Corrientes. Along with Brazil’s Pantanal, Ibera offers the visitor perhaps the most vivid wildlife experience in South America. A vast swamp teeming with wildlife, it is interspersed with lakes that harbour huge mats of peaty silt floating like islands and bonded by the entwined roots of water hyacinths. They are sufficiently strong to support fullgrown trees.
By day, thousands of yacare caiman, or South American alligators, sun themselves as they await a careless piranha. Howler monkeys swing through trees that float over the lakes, occasionally startling a marsh deer, whose webbed feet helps it to reach succulent greenery deep into the swamp. At night, ocelots compete with maned wolves to hunt for carpincho, the world’s largest rodent.
For many years, Ibera was visited only by birdwatchers, who happily braved low-cost hostels in the region’s only town, Carlos Pellegrini, for the electrifying thrill of spotting a strange-tailed tyrant or a field flicker.
Several new estancias and hotels have opened in the region in recent years, however, which means ordinary visitors can vie with veteran ornithologists and still sleep between the softest cotton sheets.
Rincon del Socorro, which opened to paying guests in 2005, teeters on the edge of the swamp, 30km south of Carlos Pellegrini. It was built in 1896 in the Spanish estancia style and for a long time served as a cattle ranch. In 1999 it caught the attention of Doug and Kristine Tompkins, an American husband-and-wife conservation team who have bought large tracts of South American land to conserve disappearing natural habitats.
They refurbished the property and set about protecting Ibera’s delicate ecosystem from human encroachment.
I wasn’t sure about Ibera when we first came to visit,’’ confesses Kristine.
We had been living in the Andes, so the flatness of the wetlands here was obviously a huge change. But there’s a tremendous amount going on and you soon grow to love the big skies and the wild animals.’’
The couple sold the estancia’s cattle, lifted its fences in a near-religious act of renewal and set about encouraging wildlife to return. Restoring the rundown buildings took several years, but they finally opened the estancia under the capable management of Leslie and Valeria Cook, an Anglo-Argentine couple originally from Corrientes.
Nine rooms, some in detached bungalows, look out over a mature parkland of native trees and small lakes. The steamy Corrientes climate is kept at bay by deep verandas and high ceilings of blackened rafters and whitewashed brick, matched by two-tone tiles that cool the floor. Two-metre sepia photographs of wildlife decorate the sitting-room walls; in place of television sets are so many vases of fresh flowers that perfume fills the air in every room.
Indeed, Rincon del Socorro is so thoroughly infused with the Tompkinses’ respect towards nature that at times it can feel like holy ground. Books from their shelves are scattered liberally throughout the resort; glossy collections of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning sit alongside titles such as Ecophilosophy and Saving Nature’s Legacy.
Nosing around my room, I uncover a list of tips on dealing with the wild creatures that wander freely about the grounds. ‘‘ You may well find a carpincho crossing your path at night,’’ it warns. ‘‘ They are utterly harmless but have become so habituated that they act like they own the place.’’
Further down, another tip catches my eye: ‘‘ Occasionally, a mean nandu may hiss at you. If necessary, just run a few steps at it.’’
Total immersion in nature is the estancia’s main draw. The highlight of a stay is a sedate, waterborne safari on Laguna Ibera, which marks the limits of the Tompkinses’ property. Along with a couple from Johannesburg, I clamber into a flat-bottomed skiff manned by guide Martin Gonzalez, who motors us through clusters of waterlilies purpling the lake’s surface.
Gonzalez grew up here and is soon regaling us with tidbits and anecdotes about the local fauna. On reaching a floating island, known locally as an embalsado , he switches to a punting pole and rams the skiff skilfully on to its bank. I hop out to test its surface, my feet sagging alarmingly among the tangled roots but never breaking through. He manoeuvres us alongside a 2m yacare caiman and I am nearly overcome by the urge to touch its hoary hide, much valued by poachers and handbag designers.
The sheer number of birds roosting, nibbling and fishing among the embalsados astonishes. I marvel at the ungainly feet of the wattled jacana that give it the appearance of walking on water as it hops among aquatic plants. We edge past a giant wood rail, disturb a heron-like limpkin as it feasts on snails and alarm a family of southern screamers, which emit an ear-piercing cry that carries far across the water. Flocks of ibises, herons and egrets fill the air with whirling colour and a flutter explodes into brilliant white as a maguari stork rises majestically over the water.
With the sun approaching its sizzling zenith, we return to dry land to feast on a typically excessive Argentine asado of lamb, beef and blood sausage, barbecued over wood smoke. Sated, I settle down for a snooze under a lapacho tree and awake an hour later to find a marsh deer eyeing me curiously.
Ibera’s prodigious wildlife makes it tempting to clutch Tito Narosky’s Birds of Argentina and a pair of binoculars at all times, despite a creeping sensation of nerdiness. I admit it: I succumb. On my second day, I spend three hours circling a lake that could comfortably have been strolled in 10 minutes. I see more than 20 bird species, most clad in startling plumage. Even the little tweetie things that normally go unnoticed prove on closer study to be every bit as rainbowcoloured as their larger brethren.
Most guests fall into a gentle routine of twice-daily forays, venturing off with local guides in the early morning or late afternoon, when animal activity is at its peak. They return to meals tastily prepared from local organic produce and washed down with malbecs and merlots from the Andean vineyards of Mendoza.
Before long guests will have an even greater number of animals to watch in Ibera’s marshes as the Tompkinses have begun to reintroduce several mammals that once thrived in the wetlands but died out through poaching or loss of habitat. In May last year they released the first of several giant anteaters, and they intend to follow up with herds of wild peccaries and, ultimately, jaguars.
‘‘ These are the first species reintroductions in Argentine history, so it’s been an enormous challenge,’’ Kristine tells me.
You don’t need to be a twitcher or wildlife buff to enjoy Socorro, however. You could throw a saddle on to one of the estancia’s many horses and gallop off across the savanna, take the estancia’s private Cessna to San Alonso, a sister property located on an isolated island in the marshes, or simply stomp off alone in rubber boots.
Alternatively, you could quite happily do nothing other than laze by the pool looking at the lapachos, listening to the roosting ibises or working out the best means of frightening off a mean nandu.
Greeted with a grin: Clockwise from main picture, a yacare caiman, or South American alligator; a sedate safari on a skiff on Laguna Ibera; and Estancia Rincon del Socorro
Prey for us: A pair of yacare caiman lie in wait on a floating island