Iberá Wetlands: Breathtaking & Important Natural Reserve
Reserva Natural del Iberá, Esteros del Iberá or Argentina’s Pantanal: whatever name is used, this is an outstanding place to spend some time. Esteros (and Pantanal) means swamp-land, and Iberá is Guarani for ‘shining water’. This wetland area is a unique place and, after the Pantanal, the second largest in the world. It is also one of the most important freshwater reservoirs on this continent .
We definitely recommend a visit. Like the Jesuit missions of Misiones province, it is on the way between Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls, but in the neighbouring province of Corrientes.
There are 3 ways to Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, a small town that receives visitors to the area:
- Ruta Provincial 41 from the North (140Km from RN12)
- Ruta Provincial 40 from the East (120Km from RN14)
- Ruta Provincial 40 from the South (120Km from RN123)
We didn’t consider the first because we had heard it was in terrible condition.
After our visit to Las Marias , we tried the second. There’s a sign at the beginning of the road: PROHIBIDO EL TRANSITO EN DIAS DE LLUVIAS. It was dry and clear, so we drove in. After 20Km we stopped for the night. Next morning, the sky looked a bit threatening, but we drove on. Just 30Km from the highway, our way was completely blocked by a bogged timber truck and trailer in the middle of the road. We turned around. By the time we arrived back at the highway it was pouring with rain – maybe the timber truck was a godsend!
Option 3 was a bit of a detour for us, and took us an extra 3 days to arrive at Carlos Pellegrini. But the closer we got, the more convinced we were that navigating these blocks and detours was worth it. More and more water beside the road meant flowers everywhere and a lot more birds.
Now, I don’t know a heron from an egret or an ibis, but there were some interesting-looking birds that I don’t think are related to any of those… We also saw capybara – most notably, trotting across the road in single file about 100m ahead of us, and completely disappearing into the water by the road. Who knew it was deep enough for that? We also saw deer and a single iguana, which stayed put long enough for a photo. It took us over an hour to drive the last 20Km! We knew we had come to the right place.
Alligators, Sunsets and Colibris
Our first alligator was spotted along the boardwalk over the lagoon at the rangers’ station. And yes, at first I thought it was a log floating in the water. They stay so still. Carlos Pellegrini is on a peninsula which juts into Laguna Iberá. You reach it over a 100 year old bridge – it is said that this was built as a temporary structure!
We came across our second alligator as we were walking down the street between the tourist office and the municipal campground. He was just sitting there, under a tree, with vegetation all over his back, looking like a garden statue. Even though I know they are not as dangerous as crocodiles, and humans are not on their food list, I didn’t want to get too close!
We spent 3 delightful days there, hanging out in the campground by the water, watching the cheeky red-crested cardinals trying (and sometimes succeeding) to steal human food; pursuing the elusive colibris (hummingbirds) for photographs – they are just too fast; watching the sunset over the lagoon; admiring the strangeness of the capybaras as they munched the grass and rolled in the shallow water, seemingly oblivious to the human presence; and chatting with other visitors to the park.
The Town of Carlos Pellegrini
One day we walked into the town to buy bread and a few other necessities. It’s a sleepy little town, with wide, sandy streets. It has accommodation and other services for visitors, and a variety of architectural styles. There is evidence of wealth and poverty, sometimes almost next door to each other.
The Boat Trip
A highlight of the whole experience was the boat trip, giving us a different view of the flora and fauna of the wetlands. It was great. The guide was very helpful even though he spoke no English. We saw a lot of birds, alligators, capybara and deer, not to mention the water plants – water lilies, water hyacinth, duckweed and water poppies to name just a few.
At one point he stopped and helped us out of the boat to walk about on a small island. Here we saw a most unusual and beautiful dragonfly. We were out for over 2 hours. On the way back he stopped the boat to let Juergen photograph a plant we had noticed on the way out. It’s a bromeliad, related to the pineapple, called a cardo gancho. The flower was around 30cm in diameter and the plant itself, over a metre.
What we didn’t see
You should know that Laguna Iberá is only a small part of the massive area of wetlands called Estero del Iberá in Corrientes [map link].
You should also know that there are many more activities available than the boat trip we did. We went out at around 10am, but it is also possible to go later in the afternoon or even at night, especially around full moon.
Guided night walks are also on offer, where you will see animals that are not around in the daytime, and may also see a flower that only blooms at night.
There are a couple of walking trails, near the ranger station that take you into the forest, where the howler monkeys live. Someone we met went about 20m into one trail and turned around because of the swarms of mosquitos! I was thankful that we have already seen a lot of howler monkeys so didn’t have to try that.
We met a young Swiss/German couple at the campground. They are in the early stages of a year in South America. After visiting Iguazu Falls with its thousands of visitors per day, they said that they were overjoyed to be in such a peaceful and beautiful place.
UPDATE 22.Sept.2016: as I write this I’m sitting in Porto Jofre in the North-Pantanal in Brazil. After experiencing the “real Pantanal” we recommend visiting the Iberá wetlands even more strongly, especially if you are on a budget! Except the big ticket item, the Jaguar *), we had seen everything at Iberá which we found in the Pantanal. In a way, we saw and learned more at Iberá than here – and certainly in a much more laid-back atmosphere.
*) to go out on a boat in the Pantanal was Rs400 for the 2 of us (~US$125), in Iberá we paid ~US$10 per person. We saw two jaguars, but shared this experience with 12-15 other boats, all packed with guys handling enormous cameras and lenses with camouflage covers – talk about lens envy! Apart from that we saw more wildlife on our drive in, than on the boat trip. In Iberá only three boats went out the day we visited, the boat ride was slow and peaceful, and I returned with many more outstanding photos than from our Pantanal trip…
Carlos Pelegrini has a lovely camping place, with clean bathroom, hot water, nice shelters with asados, green grass – a perfect place to stay if you can get in! Stupidly the entrance has a concrete gate with just 3 metres clearance – too low for many camping vehicles (like our Berta).
Whatever route (see beginning of this article) you choose: try to get information about current road conditions and a weather forecast before you decide to drive to Carlos Pellegrini! We asked at the tourist information of Apóstoles, who were nice enough to telephone a tour operator who knows current road conditions. In Mercedes we asked at the local police station at the main plaza.
Tours into the Iberá wetlands
The easiest access into Esteros del Iberá is from Mercedes, but after heavy rain the road will be impassable. There are numerous operators in Mercedes to choose from. You may be able to find tours from Apóstoles, the closest town to the north-east of the Esteros del Iberá. This is a little further than Mercedes and a less prominent access point, so prices might be higher.
As a backpacker on a budget you can also take the local bus from Mercedes to Carlos Pellegrini and book all activities in the small town.
Resources and further reading:
National Geographic listed the Esteros del Iberá as Best Trip for 2015
An excellent page to identify most birds found at Iberá
The Iberá conservation project [in Spanish]
Page of an Argentinean tour operator : this site explains the beauty and current threats to these amazing wetlands.
ATTENTION: we have so many photos of the Iberá wetlands that we have decided to publish a second GALLERY POST !