One of Argentina’s forgotten corners and poorest regions, the GRAN CHACO is a land of seemingly unending alluvial plains, with areas of arid thornscrub in the dry west, and subtropical vegetation and palm savannah in the humid east. It has little in the way of dramatic scenery, no impressive historical monuments and few services for the visitor, but if you have a special interest in wildlife or like to get far away from the gringo trail you will find it rewarding, provided you avoid the blistering heat of summer. In the sizeable sectors not yet cleared for agriculture, it harbours an exceptional diversity of flora and fauna, making it worth your while to break your journey for a day or two as you cross the region. Birdwatchers fare best: more than three hundred bird species have been recorded in the dry Chaco; and anglers come from all over the world in search of fish such as the dorado.
Wet Chaco scenery is mostly found near the river systems of the Río Paraguay and the Río Paraná, where the rainfall can be as high as 1200mm a year, causing heavy flooding at times. It is characterized by palm savannahs, patches of jungle and plantations of sugar cane, soya and fruit. Narrow strips border the main rivers that cross the region from west to east: the Río Pilcomayo and the Río Bermejo, which, after a fairly energetic start in the Bolivian highlands, grow weary with the heavy load of sediment they carry by the time they reach the Chaco plains. They meander tortuously, frequently change course, and sometimes lose their way entirely. In some places they dissipate into swamps called esteros or bañados, or lagoons that can become saline in certain areas owing to high evaporation. Rainfall diminishes the further west you travel from the Paraná and Paraguay rivers and the habitat gradually alters into dry Chaco scenery, typified by dense thornscrub that is used to graze zebu-crossbreed cattle, but cleared in those areas where irrigation has made it possible to cultivate crops such as cotton.
This zone was known to the conquistadors as El Impenetrable, less because of the thornscrub than for the lack of water, which only indigenous groups seemed to know how to overcome. Indeed, Formosa and Chaco provinces still have one of the most numerous and diverse indigenous populations in the country, including the Komlek, who are members of the Guaraní group and make a living from manual labour and crafts such as basket-weaving and pottery; and the Wichí, who still rely on hunter-gathering for their economic and cultural life but also sell beautifully woven yica bags made of a sisal-like fibre.