Just outside Buenos Aires, Argentina is one of South America’s most unexpected landscapes – the Paraná Delta. Part of the continent’s second largest river system, it is accessed via a Victorian-style toy train and the town of Tigre, an idiosyncratic cross between England’s Henley-on-Thames and Italy’s Venice.
With a population of some 12.5 million, Buenos Aires can sometimes feel oppressively urban, hectic and traffic-choked, especially on the stiflingly hot days of January and February. Yet barely 35km northwest of the city centre is a subtropical tangle of tea-coloured waterways and lush islands reminiscent of the Amazon or the Everglades.
The Paraná Delta has long been a popular summer bolthole for porteños (residents of Buenos Aires), who come to sunbathe, swim and eat asados (copious beef-heavy barbecues) at beach resorts accessible only by boat.
The gateway to the delta is the island-town of Tigre: imagine a cross between an undeveloped Venice and a subtropical Henley-on-Thames, and you’re halfway there. Bounded on all sides by the Luján, Reconquista and Tigre rivers, it is named after the jaguars – which were known locally as tigres – that once roamed here.
A hundred years ago Tigre was one of the most glamorous destinations in South America, primarily thanks to the Tigre Club, Argentina’s first casino, housed in an opulent mansion dripping with French chandeliers, Venetian mirrors, and marble staircases.
Local and international celebrities – from the Prince of Wales to Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso – flocked here to gamble and carouse. British-style rowing, boating and social clubs lined the river banks and there was a packed calendar of races and regattas.
Wealthy porteños built second homes in Tigre itself or country retreats on the myriad islands that dot the delta. Smugglers, bandits and outlaws, meanwhile, holed up deeper into the wilderness, away from prying eyes.
The 1930s, however, heralded the start of Tigre’s decline. In 1933 the casino closed, Buenos Aires’ fashionable set moved off to destinations like the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, and the town’s glamorous buildings fell into disrepair. Fruit and timber exports from the small port and a trickle of day-trippers barely kept the town ticking over.
But in recent years Tigre has undergone something of a renaissance. The Tigre Club has been turned into an art gallery, the promenades that line the rivers have been revamped, its mock-Tudor and Belle Époque buildings have been restored, and tourists have returned.
One of the great pleasures of Tigre is the journey from Buenos Aires. Although you can catch a commuter train, most travellers opt for the far more atmospheric Tren de la Costa, a toy train that runs from the suburb of Olivos. The “Train of the Coast” feels like it has been plucked from the Victorian era – which, in many ways, it has.
Built by British engineers at the end of the nineteenth century, it briefly flourished, before falling passenger numbers prompted its closure in the 1960s. However, it was revived in the 1990s after being purchased by a private consortium.
En route you can hop on and off at a series of eleven red-brick, British-style stations, each of which has its own theme: Estacíon Borges has an art café and a collection of sculptures, Estacíon Barrancas has a lively weekend antiques market, and Estacíon Anchorena is dedicated to tango, with regular classes and displays.
For much of the 30-minute journey the train hugs the waterfront, chugging through leafy suburbs filled with townhouses and golf courses. The train pulls in at the edge of Tigre, near the Puerto de Frutos – a working port and craft market – and the rather tacky Puerto de la Costa, one of South America’s largest theme parks.
The highlight of any visit to Tigre is a boat, canoe or kayak trip into the Paraná Delta. At first you pass island-hotels, sports clubs, houses raised up on wooden stilts and linked via precarious walkways, and the rusty, semi-submerged skeletons of abandoned boats.
Most people content themselves with a short cruise, but to really get away from it all you need to head deeper into the delta, staying overnight in a remote cabin and hiking or horseriding through the forests. Wildlife-spotting opportunities abound here: the region is awash with hummingbirds, pygmy owls, cormorants, as well as colocolos (small wild cats), marsh deer, and capybaras (large rodents).
Viewed from above this labyrinth of waterways, islands and rainforests – which spans almost 22,000 square kilometres – looks like the veins of a giant heart. Down on the water, as the signs of habitation steadily disappear, the wilderness closes in on you. Birdsong, the electric hum of cicadas, and the dull drone of mosquitoes fill the air.
It seems inconceivable that one of the largest cities in Latin America is only 30 minutes away.
Top image © Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock