Esteros del Iberá

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South America » Argentina » Corrientes » Mercedes
May 22nd 2009
Published: May 25th 2009
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Corrientes might be the finest province of Argentina: the scenery is overwhelming, there's wild animals everywhere and fruit growing whereever you look and the correntiños are probably the nicest people on earth. This region is very poor, for the first time Argentina has shown me it's not a first world country. People live in improvised houses, often made from wood and mud, and eat what the land gives them. Gauchos (the local cowboys) roam the fields. No one is working for a nameless man twenty levels above them: work doesn't serve this strange purpose of winning the game where you strive at being the one that has the most money when he dies. It serves life, working the land that gives you food, building houses, taking care of people. It seems a very natural way of living, in balance with the world around you, not drawing more from it then there is, cooperating with the land instead of enslaving it. And it seems much less soul-eating then what one can observe in the great West. Of course, not everyone here will agree on that: kids are leaving this region to find a better life in the big cities - generally ending up in the slums, and some families crave more of the gadgets people in europe like to spend their money on. Still, there's much more people who love their Corrientes, the quiet rural life, the harmony and friendliness. And though they're often poor, the people will do anything to help you and make you feel at home.
I came here to witness nature's splendour in the Esteros del Iberá, vast wetlands full of wildlife, and one of the world's greatest reserves of drinkable water. A huge provincial park has been created to protect these richesses, which seems to be working more or less (for example, former hunters are now park rangers, they now the terrain best). Parts of it have been donated by a wealthy mr. Douglas Tompkins from the USA (i need to look up his name), which i was vastly impressed with at first, but has some nasty sides: gauchos have been driven away from their home (on land they didn't buy, though there's common law that the land you inhabit becomes yours after a number of years), there's illegal hunting, and this man shows quite an interest in drinkable water (he's bought a whole river with the adjacent lands in the south) that seems to go further than community service.
I arrived in Mercedes - about 100 kms from Colonia Carlos Pelegrini, the centre for visiting the wetlands - on a Sunday, which of course meant there was nowhere to go. I walked to the free campground / barbeque park and pitched my tent. Hector, a travelling shepherd currently working in Mercedes, ventured into a long conversation with me, with litres of mate on the side of course. Meanwhile, there were cows in the river next to the camping, and on the other side the provincial championship in cycling was held. Relaxed, quoi. Venturing into town made the lazy Sunday feeling even stronger: youngsters cuising the streets in cars and on scooters, long talks with a kiosco girl, and meeting a crazy old lady who offered me the ugliest stew in the world before trying to grab my manbits. The evening held more talks with shepherd Hector, who got a bit incoherent because of the wine. Even later, i watched a village party, felt quite homely and went to bed.
On the 18th of May, i followed Hector's tips on hitchhiking to Carlos Pelegrini, which led to an hour-long walk through the rain to the beginning of the road, then waiting for cars that never came, and taking the bus in the end. Colonia Carlos Pelegrini is pretty touristy, with a lot of hotels, but at the same time it's still a nice, quiet village, too far away from anywhere to have anything of services for those passing through: the villagers make and grow everything themselves, so there's no real need for vegetable shops. I spent two hours walking through town, talking to everyone, and ending up buying fresh spinach from someone's garden.
I based myself in the modern, pretty and pretty expensive camping, and met an assorted bunch of Belgian, French, Swiss, German and Argentine fellow travellers. Before that meeting turned into the inevitable fiesta, I ventured onto the park's trails. There's only 3 kms of official trails in the park, but they are amazing: after five minutes i was surrounded by a family of howler monkeys, stared at by capybaras (giant guinea pigs), spotted mountain cats and more birdlife then ever. And this in gorgeous rainforest and savanna, with views on the laguna and the marshes. After nightfall (which is really early now)
The next day I wanted to take to the water. The standard way is to get into a motor boat with other tourists and a guide, but luckily you can rent a canoe on the camping. There were already cayman laying around the municipal pier as i set out on my solo cruise. Soon I was rowing through the immensely beautiful scenery, in perfect peace. In a canoe, you can silently approach families of capybara and sunbathing cayman (who get a bit creepy when you're really close). It is a very powerful experience: there's wildlife everywhere, and no one else.
As the wheather kept on being superb, i spent another day in Carlos Pelegrini, walking around, enjoying village life and nature. On the 22nd of May, i sat in the sun all day, trying to hitchhike back to Mercedes, which didn't work out, i took the bus in the end. Nevertheless, it was a day of fine talks with people passing by or attempting to get a ride as well. Life is not too fast in Corrientes, you just go with what happens. And getting stuck somewhere always turns out to be good fun.


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