The Litoral and the Gran Chaco Travel Guide

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The defining feature of northeastern Argentina is water. Dominated by two of the continent’s longest rivers, it’s a land of powerful cascades and blue- mirrored lagoons, vast marshes and fertile wetlands teeming with wildlife. The riverine landscapes of the Litoral (meaning “Shore” or “Coastline”) – a term generally used to refer to the four provinces of Entre Ríos, Corrientes, Misiones and Santa Fe – range from the caramel-coloured maze of the Paraná Delta, north of Buenos Aires, to the wide translucent curves of the upper Río Paraná, via the gentle sandy banks of the Río Uruguay and the jungle-edged Río Iguazú. All of them exude a seductive subtropical beauty enhanced by the unhurried lifestyle of the locals and a warm, humid climate. Litoraleños, as the inhabitants are called, are also fanatical consumers of Argentina’s national drink, mate, while infectiously lively chamamé music can be heard throughout the historic province of Corrientes.

Places to visit in the Litoral and the Gran Chaco

The region’s biggest city, and Argentina’s third largest, is Rosario, home to a dynamic cultural life, fabulous restaurants and some exquisite late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architecture. However, the Iguazú Falls, shared with Brazil, in the far north of Misiones Province, are the region’s major attraction by a long chalk: Iguazú’s claim to the title of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls has few serious contenders. Running a remote second, in terms of the number of visitors, San Ignacio Miní is one of the best-preserved ruins of the Jesuit Missions – though some may find picking their way through nearby gothically overgrown Loreto and Santa Ana a more magical experience. Less well known than Iguazú and San Ignacio are two of Argentina’s most unusual attractions: the strange and wonderful Saltos del Moconá, the world’s most extensive longitudinal waterfalls; and the Esteros del Iberá, a vast, bird-filled wetland reserve at the heart of Corrientes Province.

Bordering the Litoral to the northwest, the Gran Chaco is a vast, little-visited area of flatlands lying predominantly in western Paraguay and the far north of Argentina. With landscapes varying from brutally desiccated scrub to saturated marshes and boggy lagoons, the main attraction of the Chaco is its wildlife, including hundreds of rare bird species.

Along the Río Paraná

Flowing for some 4880km from southern Brazil to the Río de la Plata, the mighty Río Paraná is an attraction in itself, with its lush islands, delicious fish and vast aquatic landscapes – at some points the flood plain is more than 60km across. North of Rosario, Santa Fe, the much-overshadowed provincial capital, is at first sight less enticing than its rival, but its faded grandeur and revived dock area merit a stopover. Nearby, the dynamic city of Paraná shares not only its name with the river, but also its slow pace and a certain subtropical beauty. Far to the north is Corrientes, one of the region’s oldest and most dynamic cities, and also the gateway to the Gran Chaco.

Victoria

Since an impressive 60km road bridge and causeway across the Río Paraná flood plain was inaugurated in 2003, the somnolent little market town of Victoria, northeast of Rosario in Entre Ríos, has been cajoled into life. Founded by immigrants from northern Italy and the Basque country, it seems to relish its status as an up-and-coming holiday resort, with a lavish casino and a thermal baths complex. RN-11 Paraná– Gualeguaychú road bypasses the town to the north, while Avenida Costanera Dr Pedro Radio skirts round the southern edge, following the contours of the Riacho Victoria (a tributary of the Paraná), where summer tourists flock to bathe at its sandy beaches. The large main square, leafy Plaza San Martín, features an imposing church, the Nuestra Señora de Áranzazu, completed in 1872 with a beautifully painted ceiling.

Santa Fe

The capital of its namesake province, Santa Fe was officially founded by Spanish conquistador Juan de Garay at Cayastá in 1573, but was moved to the current site in 1653 due to flooding. Its most celebrated moment came in 1853, when the first version of the Constitution of Argentina was agreed here (it’s been the traditional seat of constitutional conventions ever since). Located 475km north of Buenos Aires, between the banks of the Río Santa Fe and Río Salado (which empties into the Paraná), the city of around half a million inhabitants is an important commercial centre for the surrounding agricultural region. A 2.5km-long road tunnel (cars $45) connects it with Paraná, around 30km away via RN-168, which in some ways is a more tempting stopover. However, beyond its shabby exterior Santa Fe contains a smattering of historic attractions, a revitalized port area and some addictive sweet treats.

Paraná

Favoured by gentle hilly terrain and bluffs that overlook a handsome, pedestrian- friendly riverfront, Paraná is a pleasant place to chill out for a day or two. Like Rosario, Paraná lacks a true foundation date: the area was simply settled by Santa Fe residents in the seventeenth century, who regarded the higher ground of the eastern banks of the Paraná River as providing better protection from attack by the area’s indigenous inhabitants. Development accelerated when it was the capital of the Argentine Confederation (1853–1861), and today it’s the capital and largest city of Entre Ríos Province, with a population of around 250,000. In addition to a couple of decent sandy beaches, it has a particularly attractive park, the Parque Urquiza, whose shady walkways and thick vegetation provide welcome respite from the summer heat.

Corrientes

Sultry, subtropical and sitting on a 2km-wide bulge in the Río Paraná, Corrientes is one of the region’s oldest and most appealing cities. The Spanish founded the city in 1588, in what was traditional Guaraní territory, as an intermediary port along the river route between Buenos Aires and Asunción. Author Graham Greene, who passed through in 1969, was so enamoured he decided to set his novel The Honorary Consul here. Today it’s the capital of Corrientes Province with a population of around 330,000, and though little has survived from the colonial period – the city is studded with the usual modern blocks and slapdash high rises – a handful of traditional correntino buildings remains in the historic centre, Neocolonial edifices with overhanging roofs supported on wooden posts. If you visit from November to February, be aware that both temperatures and humidity can be mercilessly fierce. As a result, locals take the siesta very seriously, not emerging from indoors until dusk on the hottest days. If you must hit the streets on a summer afternoon, though, head for Corrientes’ attractive Costanera, curving for 2.5km along the river. The historic centre, with Plaza 25 de Mayo at its heart, lies close to the Costanera and is where you’ll find most of Corrientes’ oldest buildings and museums, while the main pedestrianized shopping street is Calle Junín, three blocks south.

Corrientes is linked to Resistencia, the capital of Chaco Province, 20km to the west, via the impressive Puente General M. Belgrano, a 2.8km cable- stayed bridge across the Río Paraná.

The Esteros del Iberá

Covering nearly 13,000 square kilometres, the delicate ecosystem of the Esteros del Iberá is a magical landscape of wetlands that offers some of the best opportunities in the country for up-close observation of wildlife. An elongated sliver of land running through the centre of Corrientes Province, in addition to the esteros (swamps) 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 waterlilies.

For many years this was one of Argentina’s wildest and least-known regions, 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, covering most of the Esteros region, 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.

Primary access to the region is via Mercedes, a picturesque traditional town 246km southeast of Corrientes city. In the heart of the reserve, beside the ecosystem’s second- largest lake, the Laguna del Iberá, is the isolated village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (“Pellegrini”), the centre for guided trips into the wetlands.

Mercedes

The gateway to the Esteros del Iberá, Mercedes is a sprawling agricultural town, its drab, modern outskirts mitigated by an appealing centre of old-fashioned adobe and galleried-roof buildings plus some elegant late nineteenth-century architecture. The town is a hub of traditional country life, too: horses and carts are a common sight on its streets and on Saturdays gauchos come to town, traditionally dressed Corrientes-style, with shallow, wide-brimmed hats, ornate belts and wide bombachas (trousers), and accompanied by their wives, who wear frilly, old-fashioned dresses. Some 9km northwest of the town centre (on RN-123) lies the Santuario Gauchito Gil, the most important shrine to the legendary Argentine hero.

The town, built on a regular grid pattern, is centred on Plaza 25 de Mayo, a densely planted square with little fountains. At its southern end stands the rather unusual Iglesia Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a lofty, late nineteenth-century red-brick church whose towers are topped with Moorish domes.

Colonia Carlos Pellegrini

About 120km northeast of Mercedes, Colonia Carlos Pellegrini lies at the heart of the Reserva Natural del Iberá, and is most easily accessed via the largely unpaved but well-maintained RP-40. The journey there takes you through flat, unremarkable land, reminiscent of the African savannah, but with little to prepare you for the wonderfully wild, watery environment of the esteros themselves. The village sits on a peninsula on the edges of the Laguna del Iberá, a 53-square-kilometre expanse of water. The banks of the sparkling lake (iberá means “shining” in Guaraní) are spread with acres of waterlilies, most notably the striking lilac-bloomed camalotes and yellow aguapés, and dotted with bouncy floating islands formed of matted reeds and grass, known as embalsados.

Access to the village is over a temporary-looking – and sounding – narrow bridge and causeway constructed of earth and rock. Just before you cross there’s the Centro de Visitantes “Agua Brillante” (visitors’ centre) with short trails on either side of the road leading through a small forested area to the south; the densely packed mix of palms, jacarandas, lapachos and willows here is a good place to see and hear black howler monkeys. They typically slouch in a ball shape among the branches or swing from tree to tree on lianas. Easiest to see are the yellowish young, often ferried from tree to tree on the backs of their mothers. Birds and butterflies abound, while capybaras often graze on the grass.

The village itself is composed of a small grid of sandy streets, centred on grassy Plaza San Martín. There are few services (no petrol station), and no banking facilities, so make sure you bring enough cash with you for your stay.

Gauchito Gil

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.

Along the Río Uruguay

Like the Paraná, the Río Uruguay rises in southern Brazil, flowing for some 1838km into the Río de la Plata. The well-maintained RN-14 toll road (a fast, four-lane motorway) follows the river at a distance beginning at Ceibas, 160km northwest of Buenos Aires, and runs north towards Iguazú, ending up at the Brazilian border. Side roads lead via bridges to the neighbouring country of Uruguay as well as a number of river “resorts”; like many large, continental nations, Argentina has developed a series of holiday towns along its interior rivers, replete with sandy beaches and spas.

The first stop, heading north, is Gualeguaychú – home of Argentina’s most renowned carnival festivities. Further up is languid and picturesque Colón, by far the most attractive of the riverside resorts and boasting the most developed tourist infrastructure, including good hotels and numerous campsites right by its beaches. It is also a convenient base for making a trip to nearby Parque Nacional El Palmar and the Palacio de San José, once General Urquiza’s luxurious residence.

Gualeguaychú

part from having a name that sounds like a tongue-twister followed by a sneeze, San José de Gualeguaychú, or just plain Gualeguaychú (its name is possibly derived from the Guaraní words for “tranquil waters”), is most notable for its Carnaval, generally regarded as Argentina’s most important; during January and February, the town is mobbed with people, particularly at weekends. Gualeguaychú’s passion for processions is given further vent in October, when local high-school students take part in the desfile de carrozas, in which elaborate floats, constructed by the students themselves, are paraded around the streets. During the rest of the year – with the exception of long weekends, when it still attracts revellers from Buenos Aires – Gualeguaychú is a tranquil town with some handsome old buildings in the streets surrounding its main square, Plaza San Martín, and a pleasant costanera (its riverfront on the Río Gualeguaychú, a tributary of the Uruguay).

Colón

Thanks to its tranquil riverside setting, with cobbled or gravel streets and excellent hotels and restaurants, Colón is easily the most appealing of Entre Ríos’ river and thermal spa resorts – it’s at the centre of a 14km strip of beaches that attracts hordes of Porteños, up for the weekend, and Uruguayans, who travel across the Puente Internacional General Artigas from Paysandú. It also makes a good base for visiting the wonderfully exotic-looking Parque Nacional El Palmar, 60km north, or the grand, European-style Palacio San José, about 60km southwest. Every February Colón also hosts an important craft fair, the Fiesta Nacional de la Artesanía, with over five hundred exhibitors from Argentina and further afield. The rest of the year, there’s no shortage of stores selling artisan goods ranging from mates and asado tableware to local cheese and salami.

Colón spreads along the Río Uruguay, with a narrow strip of beach running for several kilometres alongside its alluring riverside avenue, the Costanera Gobernador Quirós. The town’s central square, Plaza Washington, is twinned with Plaza Artigas and together they cover four leafy blocks, ten blocks inland from the riverside; far more elegant and closer to the Río Uruguay, however, is Plaza San Martín, east of Plaza Washington along Colón’s main commercial street, Avenida 12 de Abril – named after the town’s foundation date in 1863.

Colón’s unique winery

In defiance of Colón’s subtropical climate, usually regarded as totally hostile to wine grapes, in 1857 a Swiss immigrant named Joseph Favre planted a few vines from his homeland just outside the city. Seventeen years later, with his vines not only succeeding, but thriving, he added a handsome bodega (winery) in the Piedmontese style – an Italianate villa with ochre walls that would not look out of place in the countryside around Turin. In 1936, the national government banned the commercial production of wine anywhere outside the Cuyo and the Andean Northwest, but Favre’s descendants continued making wine for their own consumption. When the law was finally repealed in 1997, Jesús Vulliez, a local descendant of other Swiss immigrants, bought the nineteenth-century bodega and began producing wine for commercial distribution under the label Bodega Vulliez-Sermet, planting twelve acres with chardonnay, malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, tannat, syrah and sangiovese vines. If you call ahead, you can tour the beautiful bodega, with its impeccably restored interior and cool cellars, and taste the fine red and white wines. The attractive grounds nearby house a large swimming pool and three luxurious cabins (Cabañas Vieja Bodega) sleeping up to six. To reach the complex from RN-14, take RP-135 Colón–Paysandú road and stay on it for another 200m after the turn-off to Colón.

Parque Nacional El Palmar

As you head north from Colón along RN-14, the first sign that you are approaching Parque Nacional El Palmar is a sprinkling of tremendously tall palm trees towering above the flat lands that border the highway. The 85-square-kilometre park was set up in 1966 to conserve groves of the yatay palm, which once covered large areas of Entre Ríos Province, Uruguay and southern Brazil. Intensive cultivation of the region almost wiped out the palm, and the national park is now the largest remaining reserve of the yatay; it is also one of the southernmost palm groves in the world. Though the terrain itself is nondescript rolling grassland, the sheer proliferation of the majestic yatay – with many examples over three hundred years old and up to 18m in height – makes for a wonderfully exotic-looking landscape. The park is best appreciated with an overnight stay – the extensive acres of palm forest are absolutely stunning in the late afternoon light, when their exotic forms stand out against the deepening blue sky and reddish gold of the earth.

There are a number of well-signposted trails in the park, taking you along the streams and through palm forests; the longer of these are designed for vehicles, though if you don’t mind trekking along several kilometres of gravel road, there’s nothing to stop you from doing them on foot. There are great views from La Glorieta, a gentle bluff from where you can take in the surrounding sea of palms. Wildlife in the park includes ñandús, armadillos, foxes and capybaras and, particularly around the campsite, vizcachas and monitor lizards.

Misiones Province

The proboscis-shaped territory of Misiones, in the extreme northeast of the country, is one of Argentina’s smallest, poorest but most beautiful provinces, and has a lot more to offer than the juggernaut that is Iguazú Falls, the only place most visitors ever see. What looks odd on the map makes perfect sense on the ground: Misiones’ borders are almost completely defined by the wide Paraná and Uruguay rivers. The province’s distinctive iron-rich red earth ends abruptly just over the border with Corrientes, while the torrent of water that hurtles over the waterfalls at Iguazú must surely mark one of the world’s most dramatic and decisive frontiers. Along the Brazilian border, formed by the upper reaches of the Río Uruguay, you can see one of the world’s most unusual – if not most powerful – sets of cascades, the Saltos del Moconá, weather conditions permitting.

The territory was named for the Jesuit settlements that flourished in the region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the most impressive mission on Argentine soil is the much-photographed ruin of San Ignacio Miní. Misiones became a centre of considerable immigration in the early twentieth century: mostly Ukrainians, Swedes, Japanese and Germans. The province’s wildlife-filled jungle and its emerald fields and orchards – pale tobacco, vivid lime trees, darker manioc and neatly clipped tea plantations, painting the landscape endless shades of green – are further attractions that make wandering off the beaten tracks of RN-12 and RN-14 infinitely rewarding.

Posadas

The steamy, blisteringly hot capital of Misiones, Posadas is a large, sprawling city on the Río Paraná, connected to the city of Encarnacíon in Paraguay via the 2.55km-long Puente Roque González de Santa Cruz. Though it’s primarily just a gateway to the more rustic delights of Misiones, the city is a pleasant and prosperous place with a lively feel, some attractive buildings tucked away among the centre’s mostly modern constructions, and a revamped Costanera, a wonderful place for a stroll or cold drink on a summer’s evening. The town also hosts a lively provincial festival, known as the Estudiantina, which runs over three weekends in September. During the festival local schools prepare and perform dance routines – all with a strong Brazilian influence.

The historic centre of Posadas is relatively compact, though walking between the central Plaza 9 de Julio and the Costanera can be sweaty work in summer. The city’s commercial centre is concentrated on the streets west of the plaza, with pedestrianized Calle Bolívar in particular forming the hub of the clothes shops that make up much of the town’s retail activity.

Mate: more than just a drink

The herby leaves used in making mate, Argentina’s national beverage, come from an evergreen tree, Ilex paraguayensis, a member of the holly family that grows in northeastern Argentina, southern Brazil and Paraguay. Its leaves and buds are harvested with machetes in the dry southern winter (June–Aug) and used to make the yerba or mate herb. The preparation process for good yerba is complex and subtle: first comes the zapecado, literally “opening of the eyes”, when the mate leaves are dry-roasted over a fire, to prevent fermentation and keep the leaves green. They are then coarsely ground, bagged and left to mature in dry sheds for nine months to a year, though this is sometimes artificially accelerated to two months or even less. A milling process then results in either coarse caá-guazú “big herb”, or the more refined caá-mini.

The vessel you drink it out of is also called a mate, or matecito, originally a hollowed-out gourd of the climbing species Lagenaria vulgaris, native to the same region. It’s dried, hollowed out and “cured” by macerating yerbamate inside it overnight. These gourds are still used today and come in two basic shapes: the pear-shaped poro, traditionally used for mate sweetened with sugar, and the squat, satsuma-shaped galleta, meant for cimarrón, literally “untamed”, or unsweetened mate. Many mates are works of art, intricately carved or painted, and often made of wood, clay or metal – though connoisseurs claim gourds impart extra flavour to the brew. The bombilla – originally a reed or stick of bamboo – is the other vital piece of equipment. Most are now straw-shaped tubes of silver, aluminium or tin, flattened at the end on which you suck, and with a spoon-shaped protuberance at the other; this is perforated to strain the mate as you drink it. Optional extras include the pava hornillo, a special kettle that keeps the water at the right temperature. A thermos-flask is the modern-day substitute for this kettle, and can be replenished at shops and cafés; “hot water available” signs are a common sight all over Argentina but especially in the Litoral.

Mateine is a gentler stimulant than the closely related caffeine, helping to release muscular energy, pace the heartbeat and aid respiration without any of the side effects of coffee. In the 1830s it even met with the approval of a wary Charles Darwin, who wrote that it helped him sleep. It’s a tonic and a digestive agent, and by dulling the appetite can help you lose weight. Its laxative, diuretic and sweat-making properties also make it very effective at purging toxins, perfect after excessive asado binges.

The dos and don’ts of mate drinking

If you find yourself in a group drinking mate, it’s just as well to know how to avoid gaffes. The cebador – from cebar “to feed” – is the person who makes the mate. After half-filling the matecito with yerba, the cebador thrusts the bombilla into the yerba and trickles very hot – but not boiling – water down the side of the bombilla, to wet the yerba from below. The cebador always tries the mate first – the “fool’s mate” – before refilling and handing it round to each person present, in turn – always with the right hand and clockwise. Each drinker drains the mate through the bombilla, without jiggling it around, sipping gently but not lingering, or sucking too hard, before handing it back to the cebador. Sucking out of the corner of the mouth is also frowned upon. A little more yerba may be added from time to time but there comes a moment when the yerba loses most of its flavour and no longer produces a healthy froth. The matecito is then emptied and the process started afresh. Saying “gracias” means you’ve had enough, and the mate will be passed to someone else when your turn comes round.

The Jesuit missions

One of the most remarkable episodes in South American history, the creation of Jesuit missions in the heart of Guaraní territory in the seventeenth century represents a two- hundred-year experiment in social engineering. They sparked a flowering of wonderful artistic talent and thriving commerce, but ultimately collapsed in tragedy, a series of events memorably fictionalized in the 1986 film The Mission. The movie created a surge of interest in the mission ruins north of Posadas (but also in Brazil and Paraguay), a region that was effectively independent until Spain and Portugal brought it under control in the late eighteenth century.

The largest, San Ignacio Miní, is also the best preserved in the whole region. Far less well maintained – and much less visited – are the ruins of Santa Ana and Loreto, south of San Ignacio; these crumbling monuments, set amid thick jungle vegetation, are less dramatic but appealing if only because they attract fewer visitors. All three missions can be visited on a day-trip from Posadas, though it’s well worth spending a night in San Ignacio, visiting the ruins in the morning – the best time for photographs, when the low light enhances the buildings’ deep reddish hues – and again at night. The fourth set of Argentine ruins at Santa María la Mayor (entry included with tickets to the other missions) is 120km southwest of Posadas, and is for diehards only.

The Saltos del Moconá

The quiet village of El Soberbio lies in one of Misiones Province’s most enchanting areas, best known as the access point for the Saltos de Moconá, an unusual but decidedly uncooperative set of waterfalls. One of Argentina’s strangest but most spectacular sights, they spill down the middle of the Río Uruguay for around 3km, tumbling from a raised riverbed in Argentina into a 90m river canyon in Brazil.

The split-level waterfalls – the longest of their kind in the world – are formed by the meeting of the Uruguay and Pepirí-Guazú rivers just upstream of a dramatic gorge. As the waters encounter this geological quirk, they “split” once again, with one branch flowing downstream along the western side of the gorge and the other plunging down into it. This phenomenon is visible only under certain conditions: if water levels are low, all the water is diverted into the gorge, while if water levels are high the river evens itself out. At a critical point in between, however, the Saltos magically emerge, as water from the higher level cascades down into the gorge running alongside, creating a curtain of rushing water between 3m and 13m high. The incredible force of the water as it hurtles over the edge of the gorge before continuing downstream explains its Guaraní name – moconá means “he who swallows everything”.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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