Covering nearly 13,000 square kilometres (one-sixth of Corrientes Province), the delicate ecosystem of the ESTEROS DEL IBERÁ is a magical landscape that offers some of the best opportunities in the country for close-up observation of wildlife. An elongated sliver of land running through the centre of Corrientes Province, the esteros (marshes) are bordered to the north by the RN-12, to the east by tributaries of the Aguaypey and Miriñay rivers and to the west by tributaries of the Paraná. The southern tip touches the RN-123, which runs east–west from the border town of Paso de los Libres, joining the RN-12 150km south of Corrientes city. In addition to the esteros that give the area its name, you will see a good many lakes, ponds, streams and wonderful floating islands, formed by a build-up of soil on top of intertwined water lilies.
For many years this was one of Argentina’s wildest and least-known regions – a local legend even had it that a tribe of pygmies lived on the islands – harbouring an isolated community who made their living from hunting and fishing the area’s wildlife. Since the Reserva Natural del Iberá was created in 1983, hunting has been prohibited in the area and many locals have been employed as highly specialized guides, or baqueanos, and park rangers, thus helping to preserve the unique environment. The ban on hunting has led to an upsurge in the region’s abundant bird and animal population, with an amazingly diverse range of species thriving here.
In the heart of the reserve, beside the ecosystem’s second largest lake, the Laguna del Iberá, is the spread-out village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (“Pellegrini”). The main gateway to the esteros, though is Mercedes, a picturesque traditional town 120km southwest of Pellegrini. If driving, note that the road linking Pellegrini to Posadas in a northeasterly direction is not always viable, especially after rain (in any case, best in a 4WD); whatever you do, enquire about its current state before attempting it.
Along roadsides throughout Argentina you’ll see mysterious shrines of varying sizes, smothered in red flags, red candles, empty bottles and other miscellaneous bits and pieces. These are erected in homage to the semi-mythical Gauchito Gil, a kind of nineteenth-century gaucho Robin Hood – one of those folkloric figures whose story has some basis in reality yet has undoubtedly been embellished over the years.
Born – perhaps – in 1847 in Corrientes, Antonio Gil refused to fight in that province’s civil war and fled to the mountains, robbing from the rich, helping the poor and healing with his hands. Captured by the police, he claimed that he had deserted from the army as he had been told in a dream by a Guaraní god that brothers shouldn’t fight each other. An unimpressed sergeant took him out to a spot near Mercedes to execute him. Gil told the sergeant that when he returned to town he would find that his son was seriously ill, but as Gil’s blood was innocent it could perform miracles, so the sergeant must pray for his intervention. Unmoved, the sergeant cut Gil’s throat. When he returned to town, he found that the situation was indeed as the gaucho had described, but – after fervent prayer – his son made a miraculous recovery.
The sergeant put up the first shrine to thank him, and Gauchito Gil has since been credited with numerous miracles and honoured with many shrines, all bedecked in the distinctive red flags – which may represent his neck scarf soaked in blood – making the shrine look like the aftermath of a left-wing political demonstration after all the protesters have gone home. The shrine erected near Mercedes, on the place where he was killed, presumably began life as a simple affair, but such is the popularity of Gauchito Gil that the site has mushroomed over time into a vast villa of humble restaurants, makeshift sleeping areas and souvenir stalls; there is even a kind of museum exhibiting the offerings made to the Gauchito, such as football shirts, wedding dresses and children’s bicycles, along with more conventional rosaries. Simpler offerings, often made by passing motorists to ensure a safe journey, include ribbons and candles. January 8 sees Gauchito Gil pilgrims flock to the main shrine from the whole country. There is a close parallel with the folk-saint shrines to the Difunta Correa, whose main pilgrimage site lies near San Juan but is also honoured by smaller versions nationwide.