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.Read More
Wildlife-viewing in the Chaco
Wildlife-viewing in the Chaco
The main reason for visiting the Chaco is to see its varied and fascinating wildlife. Despite the vast lists of elusive, endangered mammals given in the region’s tourist literature, though, only the very luckiest or most patient observers will see a jaguar, maned wolf, giant armadillo or mirikiná (nocturnal monkey). The surest bet for seeing any animals is to hire the services of one of the region’s few but excellent tour operators.
Parque Nacional Copo
In the northeast corner of Santiago del Estero Province, the Parque Nacional Copo is the best remaining chunk of prime dry Chaco left in the country and the only area of protected land in the Argentine Chaco big enough to provide a sustainable habitat for some of the region’s most threatened wildlife, including the elusive Wagner’s peccary. Giant and honey anteaters also inhabit the park, as do the threatened crowned eagle, the greater rhea and the king vulture. Frequently parched, it’s a huge expanse of approximately 1140 square kilometres, with 550 square kilometres of provincial reserve attached to the west.
Parque Nacional Río Pilcomayo
The edges of the woodland patches of the Parque Nacional Río Pilcomayo, to the north of Formosa city, can be great for glimpsing the larger mammals, including giant anteaters, honey anteaters, peccaries, deer, three types of monkey and pumas. Capybara, the two species of cayman, and even tapir live in the wetter regions of the park. Jaguars are believed to be extinct here, but the maned wolf can, very occasionally, be found – indeed, this park offers one of your best chances of seeing one. Almost three hundred species of birds have been recorded here, including the bare-faced curassow and thrush-like wren, both highly endangered in Argentina.
The Complejo Ecológico, on the RN-95 near Presidente Roque Sáenz Peña, however, is really the best place for guaranteed viewing of the endangered beasts of the Chaco, including the maned wolf, jaguar, puma, tapir, honey anteater, bare-faced curassow, giant anteater and giant armadillo. This zoo fulfils an important educational role in an area where ecological consciousness is sometimes acutely lacking. Poorly funded, it nonetheless does an excellent job at rescuing, releasing or housing wounded or impounded specimens that are the victims of road traffic accidents, fires, illegal hunting and unscrupulous animal trading.
When to go
When to go
The Gran Chaco records some of the highest temperatures anywhere in the continent from December to February, often reaching 45°C or more. At these times, the siesta becomes even more sacred and people take to drinking chilled tereré. The best times to see wildlife are in the early morning or late afternoon and the best time of year to visit is from June to September: although night frosts are not unknown in June and July, daytime temperatures generally hover in the agreeable 20–25°C bracket. Moreover, the deciduous trees lose their leaves, so you’ve more chance of seeing wildlife. The rainy season generally lasts from October to May but violent downpours are possible throughout the year. For outdoor activities arm yourself with insect repellent, sunscreen and a hat, especially in summer; and make sure you have plentiful drinking-water supplies.