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
RESISTENCIA is Chaco Province’s sprawling administrative capital, with nearly half a million inhabitants, and the principal gateway to the Gran Chaco. Despite its commercial importance and lack of colonial architecture, the city is a pleasant enough place; it has a feeling of spaciousness about it and is known for the outstanding friendliness of its inhabitants.
The city’s nickname is “Ciudad de las Esculturas” (“City of Sculptures”), owing to over two hundred outdoor statues scattered throughout town. The man behind this use of art to instil civic pride, Aldo Boglietti, also founded a remarkable cultural centre called the Fogón de los Arrieros, at Brown 350 (daily 8am–noon & 9pm–midnight; $5). Its name means “The Drovers’ Campfire”, and it’s where artists came to meet, share their particular art form and then continue their journey. You can come during the day to look round the eclectic mix of paintings and sculptures left behind by visiting artists, but it’s more fun in the evening, when you can have a drink or empanada at the cosy bar. Best of all, try to catch one of the events – concerts, poetry recitals and the like – staged once or twice a week in the main salon or, weather permitting, the patio.
Tours in the Gran Chaco
Tours in the Gran Chaco
The logistics of visiting the parks and reserves in the Gran Chaco region, and Formosa Province in particular, are complicated to say the least. Argentina’s hottest climate, poorest roads and most inaccessible terrain are likely to frustrate even the most adventurous of travellers. Signposts are erratic and wildlife lurks where you least expect it. You will certainly need a helping hand if you are to get the most out of the Chaco and you will be best off going on an organized tour with a reputable company. Aventura Formosa, Paraguay 520, Formosa (t03717/433713, e[email protected]), has extremely reliable tours run by an experienced local guide with a tremendous in-depth knowledge of the region, its geography, wildlife and culture. El Jabiru (t03715/432435, wwww.eljabiru.com.ar) does bird-watching trips into the Bañado de la Estrella and other trips in Formosa, including to the Parque Nacional Río Pilcomayo; English spoken.
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; recommendations are listed in a separate box.
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.
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 (daily 8am–7.30pm; t03732/424284; $5), 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.