The defining feature of northeastern Argentina is water. Dominated by two of the continent’s longest rivers, plus several of the country’s other major waterways, it’s a land of powerful cascades and blue-mirrored lagoons, vast marshes and fertile wetlands. 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, just north of Buenos Aires, via the gentle sandy banks of the Río Uruguay and the jungle-edged Río Iguazú to the wide translucent curves of the upper Río Paraná. All of them exude a seductive subtropical beauty enhanced by the unhurried lifestyle of the locals and a warm, humid climate. The Northeast is also famed for mate and chamamé. Litoraleños, as the inhabitants are called, are fanatical consumers of Argentina’s national drink, while the infectiously lively chamamé music can be heard in the highly traditional province of Corrientes.
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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 in the huge Jesuit Mission region – 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, but increasingly visited as the infrastructure improves, are two of Argentina’s most unusual attractions: the strange and wonderful – but capricious – 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.
Further south, the region’s biggest city, and Argentina’s third largest, is Rosario. It is home to a vibrant cultural life, including its own laidback version of tango, fabulous restaurants and some exquisite late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century architecture.
Bordering the Litoral to the northwest, the Gran Chaco is a vast, little-visited area of flatlands forming the central watershed of South America and 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 bird species and all manner of native animals.
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 yerba mate 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.
Mesopotamia (literally, “land between rivers”) was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the region between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, or modern-day Iraq. Argentina’s MESOPOTAMIA offers quite a different landscape, but it too lies between two great waterways, the Río Paraná and Río Uruguay, which merge just north of Buenos Aires to create the mighty Río de la Plata. The Paraná, which has its source in deepest Brazil, measures just over 4700km – making it the longest river in South America outside Amazonia – and forms much of Argentina’s frontier with Paraguay; the Uruguay, less mighty but impressive nonetheless, divides Argentina from its tiny eastern neighbour, also called Uruguay, and further upstream, from Brazil. The closest of the Litoral’s provinces to Buenos Aires is Entre Ríos, or “Between Rivers”: one of the country’s smallest provinces, it offers a soothing verdant landscape characterized by low hills – mostly little more than ripples – known locally as cuchillas. The province’s most impressive attraction is the Parque Nacional El Palmar, an enormous protected grove of dramatically tall yatay palms towering over the surrounding plains. The park is easily reached from Colón, the pick of a string of slow-paced riverside resorts running up the Río Uruguay along the eastern border of Entre Ríos; while one of Argentina’s liveliest carnivals, heavily influenced by Brazilian customs, is held at another river resort, Gualeguaychú, in the summer. North of Entre Ríos is the largely flat province of Corrientes, with an attractive provincial capital, Corrientes city, and the countless lagoons and wildlife treasures of Iberá at its centre.
Central Corrientes: the Esteros del Iberá
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.
Colonia Carlos Pellegrini and around
COLONIA CARLOS PELLEGRINI lies at the heart of the Reserva Natural del Iberá, and is mainly accessed via the unsealed 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 water lilies, 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.
If you come from Mercedes by bus or with your own transport, access to the village is over a temporary-looking – and sounding – narrow bridge constructed of earth and rock. Short trails on either side of the road lead through a small forested area south of the visitors’ centre; the densely packed mix of palms, jacarandas, lapachos and willows here is a good place to spot 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, and no banking facilities, so make sure you bring enough cash with you for your stay (nobody takes credit cards).
The Esteros del Iberá
Wildlife-spotting excursions are organized through the posadas, which take visitors out in their small motorboats, with the boatmen acting as guides. After speeding across the centre of the lake, the boats dip under the causeway bridge, calling in at the visitors’ centre to register, before cutting their engines to drift through the narrow streams that thread between the islands on the other side of the laguna. This silent approach allows you an incredibly privileged view of the esteros’ wildlife; turning a corner you suddenly find yourself among a wonderful landscape of water lilies and verdant floating islands, the whole of it teeming with bird and animal life. Sometimes guides will take you onto the floating islands themselves; it’s a particularly bizarre experience to feel the ground vibrating beneath your feet as you move. Another trip takes you along the Río Miriñay, home to slightly different varieties of flora and fauna to the lake. Enquire also about horse rides in the nearby marshes, another excellent way to see birds and the like, especially in the morning.
Wildlife in the Esteros del Iberá
Home to well over three hundred species of bird and a mindblowing variety of reptiles and mammals, the Esteros del Iberá are a paradise for any visitor with an interest in animals. Armed with binoculars and a guidebook to South American species, you stand an excellent chance of observing dozens of different varieties in just an hour or two; a good guide will help, too.
A common sight and sound around the Laguna del Iberá are chajás (Southern screamers), large grey birds with a patch of red around the eyes and a look of bashful nervousness. They frequently perch on the trees on the lakeside, nonchalantly chanting “aha-aha” but occasionally emitting a piercing yelp (hence the English name) similar to the sound a dog makes when trodden on. Other large birds include sleek, black Olivaceous cormorants; Maguari storks, with striking black and white plumage, and a tendency to soar on the thermals above the lake; and Striated herons, characterized by a black crown and a lazy disposition. A particularly impressive sight during the spring nesting period is that of the garzales, where hundreds of normally solitary herons unite in a spectacular mass gathering. Another magical, if rarer, sight is the elegant jabirú, a long-legged relative of the stork with a white body, bright crimson collar and a black head and beak. Different species of kingfisher also put on a show of aviation prowess, swooping across the water or diving into it. Wattled jacanas, on the other hand, prefer to scuttle over water lilies and floating weeds, seldom showing off their lemon-tipped wings. Another strange-moving bird is the Giant wood-Rail, or ipacaá, whose Guaraní name is onomatopoeic; it croaks plaintively as it tiptoes around near houses, grabbing any food left out for it and scampering off to peck away at it.
Reptiles and insects
Birds are not the only wonders around the esteros. Among the reed beds at the edges of the lake you may catch sight of large snakes, such as the handsome yellow anaconda, its golden skin dotted with black patches; they can reach up to 3m in length. As you approach the edges of the floating islands, in particular, charcoal-grey caymans, or yacarés, freeze, often with their ferocious-looking jaws stuck open, or else they suddenly slither into the water, where they observe you with only their eyes peeking above the surface. Another startling spectacle is provided by creepily large spiders, which lurk in huge webs among bushes and reeds, waiting for their helpless insect prey. Some guides delight in making it look as though the boat is heading straight for them, so arachnophobes be warned. Rather more appealing are the hundreds of butterflies, in every colour imaginable, an enchanting sight you will see all over the region.
Mammals are well represented, too. Howler monkeys – which really growl rather than howl – are much easier to hear than to see, but you might, if you are patient, observe their antics near the visitors’ centre or in other tall trees in the area. Listen, too, for the sudden splash of a capybara, or carpincho, diving into the water. On land, this guinea-pig-like mammal, the world’s largest rodent, looks almost ungainly, but they are incredibly graceful as they glide through the water. The floating islands are where the capybaras go to sleep and graze. There, and on the marshy lands and pastures around the more isolated extremes of the lake, you may also spot the rare marsh deer, South America’s largest, equally at home in the water and on dry land. If you approach them gently, these astonishingly beautiful animals seem to accept your presence and continue grazing lazily on aquatic plants. Rarest of all of the esteros’ wildlife, and certainly the hardest to spot, is the endangered aguara-guazú, or maned wolf, a reddish long-legged creature that awkwardly lopes through the vegetation, moving first its two left legs and then the two right ones – or so they say.
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.
Thanks to its setting, variety of activities and attractive hotels and restaurants, COLÓN is easily the most appealing of Entre Ríos’ resorts. It also makes a good base for visiting the wonderfully exotic-looking Parque Nacional El Palmar, just 50km north, or the European-style splendour of Palacio San José, about 40km southwest. Moreover, Colón is linked to the major Uruguayan city Paysandú, 15km southeast, via the Puente Internacional General Artigas. Every February Colón 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 artesan 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, where you will find the municipalidad, is twinned with Plaza Artigas and together they cover four blocks, ten blocks inland from the riverside; far more elegant and closer to the Uruguay, however, is smaller 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. The most distinctive district is the sleepy port area, a small but charming cobbled quarter lined with a clutch of handsome colonial-style buildings which slopes down to the riverbank, immediately to the north of Plaza San Martín; if you are driving, watch out for the huge toads that often hop across the street here.
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 1998, Jesús Vulliez, a local descendant of other Swiss immigrants, bought the nineteenth-century bodega and began producing wine for commercial distribution under the label Vulliez Sermet, planting five hectares with chardonnay, malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, tannat, syrah and sangiovese vines. If you call ahead, you can visit the beautiful bodega, with its impeccably restored interior and cool cellars, taste the fine red and white wines, and eat at the bodega restaurant (closed Tues). The attractive grounds nearby house a large swimming pool and three luxurious cabañas sleeping up to six (www.vulliezsermet.com).
Parque Nacional El Palmar
As you head north from Colón along the 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 examples 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. Bordering the Río Uruguay along its eastern fringe, the park is composed of gallery forest, dense pockets of subtropical vegetation formed when seeds and sediment are borne downstream from Brazil and Misiones. It is best appreciated on an overnight stay – the extensive acres of palm forest are absolutely stunning in the late afternoon light, when their exotic forms sing 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.
Up the Río Paraná: Rosario to Corrientes
The mighty Río Paraná is an attraction in itself, with its lush islands, delicious fish and relaxing aquatic landscapes. Anyone looking for urban pleasures should head for Rosario, the country’s third-largest city, whose famously handsome people, active cultural life and fascinating architecture make it one of Argentina’s most attractive cities. Nearby Santa Fe, the much-overshadowed provincial capital, is at first sight less enticing, but its faded grandeur and revived dock area merit a stopover. Opposite, the dynamic city of Paraná shares not only its name with the river, but also its slow pace and a certain subtropical beauty. To the south, since it was linked to Rosario by a splendid bridge, the traditional town of Victoria, famous for its monastery, has been opening itself up to tourism. Some way to the north is the provincial capital of Corrientes, named for the strong currents in a sweeping loop of the Paraná. One of the region’s oldest and most dynamic cities, it is also the gateway to the Gran Chaco.
Sensual, sultry, subtropical and sitting on a bend in the Río Paraná, CORRIENTES is one of the region’s oldest and most attractive cities, founded in 1588 as an intermediary port along the river route between Buenos Aires and Asunción. Its charm is derived largely from the number of traditional correntino buildings in its crumbling – but very handsome – centre, based around the Plaza 25 de Mayo. These Neocolonial edifices, with overhanging roofs supported on wooden posts, are interspersed with more elaborate late nineteenth-century Italianate architecture. Corrientes’ modest museums, most notably the original Museo de Artesanía, where you can see fine examples of the province’s distinctive crafts, are given added appeal by being housed in these traditional buildings, and its central streets make it a pleasant place to just wander around for a day or two. If you visit from November to February, though, be aware that both temperatures and humidity can be very high. 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, head for Corrientes’ attractive Costanera, curving for 2.5km around the northwest of the city centre where native lapacho trees, with exquisite pink blossom in spring, provide a welcome bit of shade – though mosquitoes like it here, too.
Corrientes is linked to Resistencia, the capital of Chaco Province, 20km to the west, via the Puente General M. Belgrano, a suspension bridge across the Río Paraná. The city itself is reasonably compact: all the major points of interest lie within the streets north of Avenida 3 de Abril, which runs east–west through the city towards Puente General Belgrano. The whole of this approximately triangular area is bordered to the northwest by the Avenida Costanera General San Martín. There are two centres: the centro histórico, with Plaza 25 de Mayo at its heart, lies to the north and is where you’ll find most of Corrientes’ historic buildings and museums, while the less interesting Centro Comercial is focused on Plaza Cabral, ten blocks southeast of Plaza 25 de Mayo and Corrientes’ main pedestrianized shopping street, Calle Junín.