The marshes in the North of Argentina, perhaps, are not the most well known part of the country and for those visiting only shortly, probably, out of reach. But Ibera marshes turned out to be one of the places in Argentina that is really close to my heart now, and the feelings I experienced there will always stay with me!
We visited Corrientes and Misiones provinces with Latvian tour company “Dabas tūres” on the Argentine spring tour – a 2 week trip exploring South and North of Patagonia, Buenos Aires, Ibera marshes and Iguazu waterfalls.
Other articles in Argentina series:
South of Patagonia – Glacier national park and Largo Argentino
North of Patagonia – wildlife in Valdes peninsula UNESCO site
How to Get to North of Argentina – Travelling by Bus
Travelling from Buenos Aires, we started our journey to the city of Posadas at 7 pm. There are many companies operating the route and we opted for Rio Uruguay. When one thinks of a “night in the bus”, usually, not the most pleasant feelings come to mind, but it is actually not the case here! The travelling by this bus was extremely comfortable! A ticket costs 45 euros for ejecutivo suite VIP class, and we had a lay flat bed (think – a good airline business class!), there is a bathroom, individual entertainment system and you get dinner and breakfast with drinks (including spirits). The view is good from any seat, but especially good on the second floor in the front of the bus. I wouldn’t mind travelling some more this way in South America!
Our guide Duncan joins us on the way, and he will be with us till Iguazu waterfalls. When he boards the bus and starts saying his hellos, at first I don’t quite get what it is that he wants. In the end he turned out to be the best guide from our trip and even joined us on his free day for a tour of Iguazu waterfalls on the Argentina side!
We leave the city at dusk and arrive to Posadas in the morning. The climate is obviously very different here, more moisture and heat. As we disembark in Posadas, I ask Duncan for help locating a pharmacy. I left Europe really sick and I have not been any better for over a week now, just feeling worse by the day. There is a pharmacy just across the street from the bus station and I get some antibiotics – you do not need a prescription to get those in Argentina! The we board our minibus and head to Estancia San Juan Poriahu,which will be our home for the next three days.
What are Ibera Marshes and Who are Guarani People
Before this trip I had never heard of Ibera marshes, but it turns out these are second largest wetlands in the world after Brazilian Pantanal and are about 15-20 thousand square kilometers large. Out of those 13 thousand are a protected area since 1982 and there is a plan to turn it to a national park. It is one of the most important freshwater reserves in the region that has been formed from rain. Ibera means “the bright water” in guarani language. What is guarani? It is the name of the indigenous people and their language, which is the second official language in Corrientes province and one of the official languages in Paraguay. Nearly 5 million people speak it, and for many it is the only language they know. Interestingly, it is one of the most common languages in South America, yet vast majority of people speaking it are actually not guarani!
Guarani met Spanish in the 16th century for the first time, and unfortunately there is not too much information about the history of the people from before. The Spanish really exploited this nation – many were sold as slaves, and women forcibly taken as wives, as they were considered to be exceptionally beautiful. The future of this nation was shaped by Jesuit missions, which are one of the main tourist attraction points in the region. The missions really were saving the people from being sold as slaves, but it came at nearly total ban on the indigenous culture. For example, guarani had many wives, lived naked, which was not accepted in the Christian culture, and even had cannibalism rituals for burial. If they wanted to live with Jesuits, they had to abandon their customs. So on one hand, Jesuits helped save the people, on the other, they are responsible for destroying their culture as much as the rest of the Spanish.
It is interesting that guarani were the ones who discovered the famous yerba mate tea! Nowadays there are only about 14 thousand of guarani remaining, most live in a traditional way – hunting, fishing and in harmony with nature. Unfortunately, many are poor and prone to disease and don’t own any of the original lands. Duncan tells us that nowadays speaking guarani language is a passage way into Argentina – as immigrants from Paraguay can get the indigenous people’s ID, if they know the language. If before all guarani used to be small, dark haired, then these days due to this ID system, you come across all shapes and sizes, even blond and blue eyes ones.
The Drug Problem in South America
As we are on our way to estancia, we pass through several checkpoints in the region. There is a massive marijuana issue here, Paraguay being the largest grower of cannabis in South America and Uruguay being the first country in the world legalizing marijuana. When going back from estancia we even see a sight equal to those in Hollywood movies – while our bus is being checked (and not just how long the driver has been driving, but also where exactly, and what kind of permits does he have to leave the province), we see a white car parked on the side, all doors and trunk open, being inspected. There is a man sitting on a chair, hands cuffed behind him, in a white shirt and aviator sunglasses, medium length hair and mustache, just like someone in “Narcos”! Behind him is a fence, and there is a dog – obviously having done it’s share of work for the day! Then policeman stand up, and take the man and his chair to set under a tree, as the sun is getting stronger. “Marijuana”, says Duncan.
Estancia San Juan Poriahu
After about an hour’s drive we get to San Juan Poriahu. It means “poor” in guarani. This used to be a Jesuit mission as well, and the main master’s house, which used to be the church, now is the place where we stay. I have been to a store made in a church, but never before I have stayed in a guesthouse that used to be a church!
When we get into the room, we are very surprised. The design is one from a manor – colonial bathroom, large wooden desk with family photographs and a golden colored metallic bed. This place got central electricity not long ago, and before days were filled with the hum of diesel generator. Obviously, there is no AC here, and during the day you should open the windows, as it becomes unbearably hot! We are also warned not to be surprised that when you open the lid on the toilet, a frog might jump out. This does happen once, but most of the time the frogs hang around the shower or somewhere in the corners, hunting for the rare insects who somehow manage to escape through the net. There is an incredible amount of mosquitoes here – small ones and large ones with stripes, that look yellow on my dark blue pants. It is very humid this year, and that’s why there are so many bugs. Later I read at home what is Zika virus, as even when I had my mosquito spray all over me all the time, I got bitten 30 times just on the legs, while horseback riding. I had about 5 cm of skin exposed between my pant leg and socks. Argentina does have a problem with Zika, so this is something to consider.
The living room, which is also the dining room, is rich. The table has been set with Marcos’s (Marcos Garcia Rams) sisters hand painted plates. Each of them has a different bird on it. We eat our meals together, when the bell is rung. Every day there is a started, main course (someday – chicken, another, a piece of beef for everyone, in the large bowl), and a dessert. Something different every single day, for every meal! One day Marcos’s cousin’s daughter joins us. Another day an older couple, she is German, so someone finally shares European passion for beer, as everyone drinks wine around here. Another day a man interested in buying some cattle, joins with his wife. She looks like from a movie – much younger than him, beautifully shaped and with thick, long dark hair. He is handsome too – a hint of silver in his hair, dark blue shirt and a hat. Wherever these two go, they always have their thermos with hot water for yerba mate and the special cup made from gourd.
Around four, the dining room is ready for the afternoon tea. You can also enjoy it a bit later, if any of the trips run long – as there is hot water in the thermos. The regular tea is from a nearby tea plantation, as this region is famous for growing tea. You can also go to the pool in the afternoon, and it is no regular “boring” hotel pool, but one with beautiful tiles. You’ll have parrots above your head chirping, horses just behind the fence and maybe even some of the girls visiting from Marcos”s wife’s tango school will join to read a book at the poolside.
If this is not enough to be swept away by this place, wait until you meet Marcos himself! You don’t forget him that easily. He also has a hat, light pair of pants and a striped shirt. He smokes much more than one can tolerate, but having a chance to be in his presence, smoking is something you just have to deal with. He jokes and says he is 70, but turns out – just 62. He doesn’t look a day over 50. One side of his family is Spanish, the other – Scottish. He looks much more Scottish, and, listening to the stories of his family, there is much more of that “color blue” in his veins, than any of the other people we have met so far. Not that often you get to meet someone who has shaken hands with Neil Armstrong, knows the entire political and economic elite in the country and is this intelligent and well traveled. He speaks perfect English and starts correcting mine: ”Tangerine! You sound like an American! We say mandarin!” He has been diving in the oceans around the world, climbed mountains and most importantly – knows his estate as no one else.
His passion is birds – when we join him in his pickup later to drive into the marshes, he notices them from a great distance and even without having to check with binoculars, often knows which species that is, just by looking at how it is sitting or flying or where it is (“this one nests here every year!”) Not only he knows the names, he knows how to tell them apart, and there is a story about every bird! “This one we saw with a British ornithologist four years ago, and I bet him a bottle of wine that this is not the same bird he had in his book. He said he was the expert, but I laughed and said I know better – I live here! Of course, I was right!”. His estate essentially is like an extension of the protected natural habitat, as he really cares about the birds. Not without a reason many of the bird species found in the birding guide to Argentina have a note – only found in Estancia San Juan Poriahu.
One afternoon we head out to do a boat trip – and a caiman comes really close to us! It is so close that we can see every scale on its body and look deep into his eyes. In another place Marcos shows us how he ‘fishes“ – caimans soon start to surround him, there are nine of them there at one point! Usually he tries to catch a piranha to feed the caimans, but somehow this time none would bite. Meanwhile, some of our gentlemen from the group use this chance to swim nearby. Duncan looks visibly worried.
A bit further away we see the jabiru – famous local bird that is the second largest in South America after Andean condor. The males are 25% larger than females and can be 1.50 m tall. Close by we see another famous Argentine bird hornero. And then also some of the monkeys in the trees look very different than what we expected – they are very quiet. There are so many mosquitoes under the trees that we don’t last long and soon run to a more windy place.
We see many herons, woodpeckers and caracaras, so many that soon we start ignoring them completely. On the next morning I wake up around 5 am, as the voices of birds are so loud! By the time it is breakfast, they have become more quiet. While we live here, Marcos takes us to see the shining red caiman eyes in the dark, and tries to catch the little ones (“these are not dangerous!”), shows us owls hiding in the barn and we see lightning bugs in the night. As well as bright galaxies, shining in the far, far distance. It is this dark around here!
He has about 2500 animals in his estancia, but he does have several gaucho’s helping him. Seeing them move cattle is an experience not to forget as well. Gauchos look like wearing a costume – beret, stripy pants and riding barefoot. No concern of mosquitoes whatsoever. When we drive in Marcos pickup, we sometimes feel like we might get stuck, as he takes such roads we would never dare to. Mostly we see cows, but sometimes donkeys – turns out, they are very cautious and warn other animals about the presence of predators. We see wolves and foxes in the distance, and only because we pay such a great attention. You can see felines too, but only if you are extremely lucky.
A few times it seems that Marcos will drive over one of the capybaras, as they lounge on the road. They seem so slow, lazy, and jump off the road the very last second, when you are nearly driving them over. Capybaras are the biggest rodents in the world, relatives of guinea pigs. The babies should really beware, as the big ones are too big for caimans, but smaller ones are just the right size!
During the day we see the bats too, and these really do drink blood! Turns out, they can share, and they know whom they have lent blood to ask back for some if the hunt has been unsuccessful. When we drive by the entrance gate, we see burrowing owls, sitting on some bushes. As soon as we stop, they disappear underground.
But most of all Marcos is happy about the deer, which we feel like we see everywhere, but they are very rare, actually. He sees a very small deer and says – “2 days old!”, then, according to him, pewit chick has hatched yesterday, and the big black caiman is over 40 years old. Duncan is surprised than Marcos spends this much time with us – usually he takes a few trips with tourists, but not all the time, as like he is with us. The only activity he skips is horseback riding, as he has hurt his leg this year.
While everyone is at the back of the pickup for better pictures, I stay inside the car. Not that many bugs there and also a chance to spend 3 days in his company. He has an opinion about everything, freely discussing music or politics. I am now amused that on the first day I asked about internet connection here, as it was supposed to be here. Turns out, the cell tower was hit by a lightning a few weeks ago and there is not even cell connection! When we leave the estate and get back to civilization, I get a few worried messages on the phone “call me as soon as you get this!”, “are you ok?”. People were worried we got kidnapped in South America! I’d say the three days without any connectivity, the real “digital detox” is the best part of this trip! As being there, in the moment, sun disappearing behind us, looking in the distance at the strange tailed tyrant and comparing our binoculars with Marcos, this is something to remember.
It is time to go further. Already for three days it is supposed to rain, but it still doesn’t. On the last morning the sky is really dark and Duncan and Marcos warn us – if we want to get out of here today, we should leave now. In case of strong rain it is not unheard of this place turning into an island! I wouldn’t mind spending a month or two here, and returning with my 900 page novel, asn this is a place where you can definitely find some inspiration! Without any rush, going to breakfast with a ring of a bell, and know that there always will be orange jam, and during lunch and dinner Diet Coke – as for some reason Marcos really likes it!
Misiones and San Ignacio Mini
Not long after we leave the estate, it really starts to pour. All we see is bright red soil and grey green forest. Green fields around, small, poor houses and trucks transporting wood. Duncan and our group coordinator Ilze discuss how the trucks used to carry one enormous tree, but now they are basically transporting firewood. The cutting of the forests has happened here as well.
Soon we are about to come to the first Jesuit mission and we stop at a gas station got a quick bite. We eat incredibly tasty cheese tapioca buns. The girl selling them looks just like a regular Eastern European girl – blue eyes, and our grey-blonde hair. Duncan says that there are many, many Polish and Russian descendants. He meanwhile gives some money to a guarani girl selling some psychotropic plant. Not buying it, but just giving money for her and the baby, so she has something to eat.
First we visit Santa Ana mission, which together with San Ignacio Mini and three other missions is part of UNESCO heritage list. The day is extremely hot and humid, and we can barely walk. Luckily, there is not a single mosquito in sight! Unfortunately, our luck runs out quickly, as just as the guide is describing the aggressive bees, Jekabs gets stung by one. But at least we see the beautiful butterfly the size of a hand. It is so quick and does stick around the beehives so we don’t get a chance to take a picture. Supposedly, seeing it is good luck!
Turns out our guide has Russian ancestry as well. He shows us the graveyard in the mission that has many European and even Chinese graves.
Soon it starts to pour here as well, and we drive to the next place – San Ignacio Mini. This one is much more massive tourism sight, with a museum and a big entrance gate. As we disembark the bus, the rain catches up to us again. Soon it passes, just dark ominous sky remains. We could spend a few hours walking around, seeing the architecture and the small guarani rooms, as well as birds, but we feel exhausted.
Our next stopping point is the town of Capiovi, know as the Christmas town of the province, already in mid November all the streets are decorated in ornaments, which are made of… plastic bottles! 25 degrees warm evening, summer basically, and Christmas around us! We also stop at Salto Capiovi, the waterfalls in the town, like a trial run for our next day’s trip to Iguazu! As we sit down to eat dinner (steaks, of course!) the storm really comes this time, it is pouring, streets look like rivers and lightning strikes every couple of seconds, until electricity disappears. So we sit in total darkness, looking at the tropical storm and enjoying it with every fiber!
We are thankful to “Dabas Tūres” (www.dabastures.lv) for the support in making this article reality. Dabas tures offers internationally acclaimed birding tours in Latvia (lake Lubana, cranes and owls and many other bird tours), as well as numerous tours in other countries – spring in Argentina, Scottish landscapes, the castles of Northern Poland, all suitable for friends of nature. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge about birds, as the expert guides will teach you all about spotting the fauna and you will learn a lot!
Other articles in Argentina series:
South of Patagonia – Glacier national park and Largo Argentino
North of Patagonia – wildlife in Valdes peninsula UNESCO site
I had no idea this place existed until I read your post- absolutely STUNNING! Fantastic photos too! What a beautiful place to explore! Going to have to add it to my ever-growing bucket list!!
Amazing! 🙂 let me know if you ever go and I can share more tips & tricks 🙂
Your photographs are beautiful! It sounds nice to go out with such a bird expert…but I’d love to see the capybaras!
You got to the absolute essence of the trip – the bird expert! Without the bird guides we would have missed most of the incredible, rare bird species, as we would have not know where to look! 🙂
This looks like such a cool experience! I got really interested in capybaras when I was a kid, and I would love to see some in the wild like that!
They are super cute! Just the way the move slowly, slowly and then when the car approaches really close they jump so quickly! Incredibly adorable animals 🙂
Your photography is stunning. I love the crisp bird shots with the beautiful bokeh. And those bus seats look absolutely comfortable. I would definitely use those as a means of transport throughout South America. Are they always that great?
Depends on the class of the bus you book, you can also book regular seats for cheaper. But for this long journeys I would recommend to go for more comfortable ones!
Such an interesting read. We are planning a trip to Patagonia next month. Your trip to Ibera marshes seems like really amazing! Will consider visiting there. Also the bus service looks very comfy, would love to travel through Rio Uruguay services. The gorgeous pictures you have taken are photography goals.