A Day on an Argentine Ranch

Poling in the Esteros

I knew I wasn’t in Buenos Aires anymore when everyone greeted me with “Buenos Dias” instead of “Buen Dia” and said good-bye with an “Adiós” instead of “Ciao.”  I was in a rural area where the Spanish is not influenced by Italian as it is in the large, metro area of the capital.  I had come to Corrientes Province to visit the Nature Reserve, Esteros del Ibera, marshes that are a naturalist’s dream with hundreds of bird and animal species.

The name of the marshes, Ibera, comes from Guaraní and means shining water.  These marshes are one of the largest and richest sweet water wetlands in the world.   Here the water flows so slowly that you cannot see the current.  It drops at a rate of only 40 centimeters every 10 kilometers.  Floating in the lagoons are drifting islands of matted vegetation with soil about half a meter deep, but there are 2 to 3 meters of water underneath these islands.  If you fall through the matted vegetation, it would be like falling through ice, impossible to find the opening again.  The safest way to visit these deep marshes is with a guide using a small boat, powered with a motor to get across the lagoons, but paddled and pushed with a bamboo pole when you are close to shore and the wildlife.  I saw alligators, snakes, capybaras, marsh deer, fox, and many birds, all in their native habitat.  Frankly, I felt too close to the alligators at times and wanted to show due respect by leaving them more room.

However, what impressed me the most was my discovery of the “gaucho,” the Argentine cowboy, who is alive in the Province of Corrientes.  Here, the gaucho does not exist for show.  I saw this firsthand during my stay at a working ranch, 10 kilometers from Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, the Estancia San Antonio, www.elpayedelibera.com.

I first saw the gauchos on horseback, working the cattle.  The gauchos showed their herding skills, and I noticed some differences from American working cowboys.  Gauchos’ saddles did not have saddle horns and a sheep skin and a blanket were used with the saddle.  The gauchos themselves were not wearing leather shoes or boots.  Leather serves no useful purpose after getting wet in the marshes.

Later, one of the gauchos saddled the horses for our horseback ride.  I can count on my fingers the number of times that I have ridden a horse, but those experiences cannot compare with this ride through the shallow marshes on the ranch.  I could hear the palm leaves brushing against each other in the wind, the horse’s hooves cutting through the water, and the cry of the Southern Screamer, a bird locally known as the chajá (Chauna torquata).  There was also the fresh, clean scent of the air as it blows off of the lagoons.  The view on horseback was the same as hundreds of years ago.  I could not see any fences or electric lines.   I felt complete confidence in the horse that I was riding and the gaucho leading us across these unspoilt wetlands.

Saddle Up!

After the horseback ride, we came back to the ranch house for a barbecue, an Argentine “asado,” of beef and water buffalo.   Argentina has excellent climate and soil conditions and mild temperatures that permit cattle to graze year round without the need for shelter.  There is a barbecue or asado tradition.

Asados are eaten throughout the country; at home, in parks, and for lunch at a construction site.  There is always an excuse for a good asado.  The cuts include the ribs, round steak, flank steak, and offal such as sweetbread, blood sausages, small intestines, and kidneys.  Our barbeque at the ranch had prime cuts cooked to perfection.

When it was time for coffee, I sat in the breezeway between the kitchen and the main part of the traditional ranch house.   I lost count of the number of birds I saw at the feeders, but whenever the male, female and young Yellow Cardinals (Gubernatrix cristata) appeared, they would make the other birds leave.

I wanted to visit the Nature Reserve’s Information Center and walk the monkey path through the forest.  As we were going into town, I saw a group of tourists who were not as fortunate as me.  They were riding horses down a dry, dusty road.  I felt sorry that they were not going to experience the sounds, scents, and views that I had enjoyed.

The noise level as we approached the small town of Colonia Carlos Pelligrini increased considerably.   This was surprising because the dirt streets are laid out in a grid, 11 blocks by 9 blocks wide.  This is a small town of wood and adobe houses.  The noise was coming from large trucks taking the rice harvest away and also from trucks carrying cattle to market.  Ranchers were selling cattle because the price they could get had doubled from a year ago.  Also, the weather was dry, and large trucks could successfully travel the 120 kilometers to Mercedes, a livestock breeding center, on the washboard dirt road that has a gravel base.  Four-wheel drive vehicles don’t have problems.

Ranching has existed in the wetlands for hundreds of years, and naturalists do not see a detriment to nature in the area.  However, rice growing changes the profile of the land and the water usage.   To grow rice, fertilizers are used, fields are leveled, and canals dredged, with water being diverted to irrigate the fields.  How close can rice growing exist to the Wetlands Nature Reserve?  There is controversy concerning this issue.

Reminders of my day on an Argentine ranch

I had traveled the 700 kilometers from Buenos Aires to Mercedes by car.  There is also bus service.  The Provincial Capital, Corrientes, 250 kilometers from Mercedes, has an airport.  Florida’s Everglades are easier to get to than these wetlands.  But Florida doesn’t have the gaucho, the Argentine culture, and the plant, bird, and animal species that are unique to the Southern Hemisphere.  And the excellent shopping in Mercedes!  I plan to go back when I have more money to buy leather and woolen goods.  I did manage to buy some steak knives as souvenirs.  Two had horn handles and two wooden.  They will serve as good reminders of my day on an Argentine ranch.

About the author: Delores Johnson, Email: ArgentinaRetirement@gmail.com, has written several travel articles and an eBook, Argentina Residency and Retirement:  How I Did It, available through Escape Artist.

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