Argentina: gauchos and glaciers

Argentina is as far from north to south as the distance from the Shetlands to the Sahara. Here Michael Woods gets to grips with the must-see destinations

7 mins

Pablo the boatman tossed a bare fish hook over the side of the aluminium dinghy and, with hardly a pause, hauled aboard a plump shiny fish with a down-turned mouth and a jagged row of sharp teeth jutting menacingly from its forward thrusting lower jaw – a piranha. Considerately Pablo despatched the fish before dropping it into the bottom of the boat and putting the hook back into the water. Two more fish were reeled in but by now I was no longer concentrating on the fisherman.

A large black cayman was coming our way, nosing threateningly through the submerged vegetation, and surfacing with suppressed malevolence right beside the boat. Would a careless arm, dangled in the cool water, be wrenched from its socket or was the reptile intending to lead into the dinghy and tip us all into the lake where it could pick us off one by one? I need not have feared. Cayman eat fish and all it was waiting for was its regular piranha snack from Pablo. Indeed, as I was to discover later, the cayman was actually doing us a favour.

The Iberá Wetland Reserve in the Corrientes Region in the north of Argentina is an enormous 120-mile long marshland little known outside of the country. Hardly a soul goes there, parts of its 1550 square miles have yet to be explored, and yet the wildlife is prolific and extraordinarily easy to see. Over 300 bird and 50 mammal species live in the dense woodland lining the banks and on the floating islands or camalotes. We crept up on rare marsh deer, spying them through the reeds from the boat, and boldly approached capybara which didn’t bat an eyelid until we got within about four yards. These animals look like giant, ginger, wild-boar-sized guinea pigs and are the largest rodents in the world. They spend a lot of time in water emerging with their families of young to graze the camalotes or the grass around the park centre.

The camalotes ripple lazily when you walk over them like heavy curtains moving to a slight draught. Although some are thick enough to support small shrubs you have to step with care for it is possible to break through the crust and disappear into the lake beneath like a skater dropping through ice. There are masses of water birds here and it is a mecca for herons and ibises, egrets and kingfishers. We even watched a rare snail kite hunting exactly what its name suggests, snails. Its bill has a severe but fine hook at the tip and, like a fishmonger extracting winkles from their shells, it uses this to pull out the soft snails’ bodies, dropping the shells under its perch.

A wallow in the shallows

During the heat of one afternoon we went to the edge of the lake for a dip, a word I use advisedly for it was no more than a refreshing wallow in the shallows. We met a woman who was also dipping there and she told us that, although the piranhas are generally reluctant to swim into shallow water, they will try to take fingers and toes. To prove it she showed us the scars on her hands from previous piranha bites. Monkeys live in the forest around the lake shores but we failed to find any although we did spot a distant armadillo bustling around in the leaf litter in search of supper.

After a final sunset cruise we drove back to La Villa Juana Francisca just outside Mercedes where we were staying with Lillo Fava and his wife Victoria. Lillo breeds cattle and horses on this 5,000 acre estancia where he also welcomes guests into his porticoed house. Argentinian food is a mixture of Italian, Basque and Spanish and is usually fresh and mostly local. I watched Amando, the chef, struggling to lasso a milk cow for our breakfast coffee. It looked as though it was going to be black until a gaucho came along and, taking the rope, expertly captured the reluctant animal. He used her calf to prompt the mother to let down her milk and quickly filled a can.

Breakfast was typically continental with fresh croissants and rolls but with local savoury additions such as small, warm, cheesy dumplings. After breakfast I tried mate, a sort of green and bitter tea made from yerba leaves (Brazilian holly) and a South American speciality. It is sucked through a silver straw called a bombillia from a mate or gourd. If bubbles appear on the surface while it is being poured then this is a sign of friendship.

While Lillo is keen enough on ranching, his real passion is immediately apparent as you approach La Villa Juana Francisca for the drive takes a sudden turn to the left and circumvents a large rectangular green lawn, his polo field. Consequently his horses are outstanding, the most wonderful animals to ride. They turn on a sixpence with just a touch of a rein to the neck and lean into corners like racing cyclists.

After breakfast he invited me to spend half a day riding out with several of his gauchos. Like his head man, Pasque, they were dressed in black trousers with colourfully striped gaiters, open necked shirts and black hats with the wide brim flipped up at the front as if caught in a sudden powerful head-wind. For comfort they had thick fleecy sheep skins fastened over their leather saddles. We rounded up cattle, collecting them from the four corners of fields the size of an average English farm and moved them to a cattle dip. Some recalcitrant animals needed more coaxing than others and broke into a canter to avoid the muster. They were no match for our ponies though who covered the rough ground easily, twisting round thorn bushes with hardly a check and avoiding the holes of the plains viscachas, an Argentinian rodent about the size of a fox.

Once corralled the cattle are pushed through a dip and submerged in a foul-looking liquid intended to protect them against a parasitic fly. Some panicked as they hit the water and tried to twist round and climb out of the entry. With other beasts immediately behind there was very soon a tangle of animals thrashing about in the dip until one of the gauchos sorted them out.

Trelew: An Argentinean seaside town

Resisting the opportunity to buy a pair of $24 spurs in nearby Mercedes, I flew south to Trelew and drove to Puerto Madryn, a seaside town which could as easily have been located on the north coast of the Mediterranean as on the Atlantic seaboard of Argentina. South of here is Punta Tombo, a small nature reserve of around 50 acres, created mainly to protect a colony of more than a million magellanic penguins which crowd in here in the spring to nest in holes. This is the largest mainland colony of penguins outside of the Antarctic. The nature trail, which meanders through this penguin town, crosses one of their main highways but on a low, wooden-decked bridge. As the sun moves round to the north and the day warms up, adult penguins crowd underneath in order to take advantage of the shade.

I was at Punta Tombo on January, high summer for these birds, and the young were just losing their appealing grey, nestling down and had not yet acquired the full smart evening dress of adulthood. Consequently they looked about as scruffy as these youngsters ever would as they loafed around the entrances to their nests and waited for their parents to come home full of fish to feed them. Down at the sea, adult penguins, freed for a while from the responsibilities of parenthood, were surfing, diving and playing among the glistening waves.

Argentina is as far from north to south as the distance from the Shetlands to the Sahara and, although Peninsula Valdes, to the north of Puerto Madryn, appears on a map as a mere pimple on the coast, it is actually the size of the Cornish peninsula. At the narrowest point it is possible to see the ocean on both sides, in the Golfo San Jose and the Golfo Nuevo, and here there is a visitor centre for the area is noted for its spectacular wildlife. Peninsula Valdes is where the famous killer whales come storming up the beaches to snatch young sea-lions, worming their way down to the sea again to first play with, and then feed on, their prizes. Seeing such an event is far from easy and requires careful timing and lots of pre-planning in coordination with local contacts. Sadly I missed it.

But there were elephant seals, mainly females with some younger animals, who lay around irritably on the pebbles. They were moulting, a process which leaves them feeling ratty as the top layer of skin peels off too and appears to become sore on contact with salt water. Consequently they had to stay out of the sea and so lay on the beach like great bags of wobbly jelly which shuddered every time they moved. Physical contact with one another seems to be essential, but only as long as the others keep still and do not fidget.

Sea wolves: tawny-maned, puganacious animals

Round the corner in Golfo Nuevo there were sea-lions, or sea wolves as the Spanish inexplicably call these great, tawny-maned, pugnacious animals. The colony I watched was not on a beach vulnerable to the attacks of killer whales but on a rocky ledge about 12 feet above the sea. Instead of being at the mercy of orcas, here the sea-lion pups were at risk of falling off the shelf and not being able to clamber back to their mothers. Several struggled at the water’s edge bleating helplessly like small lambs and repeatedly trying to climb the almost sheer rock walls.

Looking down from a special platform a sensible distance above the sea-lions, it was clear that this was nature red in tooth and claw. I watched a mother give birth while elsewhere a frustrated sub-adult male took out his annoyance on another baby by holding it by the head and repeatedly shaking it until it went limp. Sensible youngsters made themselves scarce by joining small creches some distance from the main collection of animals as powerful dominant males, belling like stags, ploughed through the colony, regardless of what was in their way, in search of females with which to mate.

On the way back to Puerto Madryn, I watched a family of grey foxes stop briefly in the road to lap rain water from a puddle. The water on the peninsula is mostly brackish and the chance to drink some fresh must have been a real bonus. I was to see a fox again later, a Fuegan fox much further south near Ushuaia. This the the southern-most city in the world and just about as far south as it is possible to go in Argentina. It lies on Tierra Del Fuego, a large island off the coast named by passing sailors after they had seen the fires of the original Indian inhabitants. It is the jumping off point for the Antarctic and the port is used by Antarctic cruise ships to embark and disembark passengers.

Tierra Del Fuego National Park is a short distance to the east of the town. The rocky landscape with its picturesque lakes is covered with southern beech forest festooned with luxuriant lichens. Introduced beavers live in some of the rivers which they have dammed to create suitable conditions for their lodges while anglers fish for trout on the faster streams. At the campsite I drank hot chocolate at the most southerly coffee shop in the world and then visited the end of Route 3, the trans-America highway and 11,000 miles from its starting point in Alaska. The end is marked with a large pole festooned with pictures and messages from those who have made the entire journey.

Further along the coast in the other direction is Estancia Haberton. I drove there through fairy-tale pointed mountains and beech forests, first along a surfaced highway and then on a track which gradually deteriorated the closer I got to the estancia. The farm lies on the sea, in a spot reminiscent of the west coast of Scotland with its clear water and rocky inlets. For almost a century it was accessible only by boat and then the owners built an airstrip. Road access is comparatively recent.

Haberton is the oldest estancia on the island and has been in the same family since it was originally established by Thomas Bridges. Bridges was an orphan discovered in Bristol under a bridge wearing a shirt decorated with an embroidered ‘T’. He became involved with missionaries and travelled to Ushuaia in 1863. After various adventures he was given 50,000 acres of land on Tierra Del Fuego by the country’s president. By now married to a girl from Devon, his boat builder father-in-law made the couple a prefabricated house which was dismantled piece by piece, numbered and shipped to Ushuaia. During the voyage the plans of the house were lost and so the place was constructed using guess work. Nevertheless it is still standing today, inhabited by Bridges’ grandson and his wife.

At the top of a hill close to the house is the family graveyard situated in a tiny remnant of the original woodland which has been protected from grazing sheep almost from day one. It is a magical spot with an array of native trees and full of birdsong. Just enough is left to give a picture of the sort of countryside which existed here before Thomas Bridges arrived.

The Bridges are used to fending for themselves and traditionally kept in stock two years’ worth of supplies just in case they were cut off for a long time. Even today the tradition is not lost and in the shearing shed I found the carcass of an old bull, jointed and hanging up to dry. In fact dead bodies are part of life here for Natalie Goodall, the current owner’s wife, is an expert on sea mammals of the Southern Ocean. Throughout the year she collects stranded animals from the coasts of islands and the mainland and stores them until the summer university vacation when zoology students come from Buenos Aires to boil the carcasses and extract the bones in order to reconstruct the skeletons.

'The Bone House'

At Natalie Goodall’s invitation I walked down to ‘The Bone House’ which is some distance from the main buildings, for reasons of both hygiene and smell, to talk to the three students crouched on the beach outside the large shed scraping away at boiled whale bones like the three witches from Macbeth. In a fenced enclosure to keep out errant sheep, half a dozen skeletons of orcas, dolphins, crabeater seals and others lay among the daisies while in the shed itself were row upon row of neatly labelled and filed boxes containing the bones of sea mammals. Over a period of 18 years, Natalie Goodall has built up a remarkable collection and with it a significant amount of data relating to mammal life in the Southern Ocean.

The Devon house stands just above the shore in a typically English country garden. Lupins were growing in profusion and the back doorway was festooned with aromatic honeysuckle. Even the whalebone arch above the gate could have been part of the 19th century British fad for such things. I talked to Natalie Goodall here as she dead-headed flowers and trimmed back shrubs while her grand-daughter played on the lawn. In time she will occupy the house built by her great great great grandfather. It was a familiar scene of peace and tranquillity and a far cry from the Iberá wetland with its piranha-infested and perilous waters.

Micheal Woods specialises in writing about wildlife and remote places

When to go: The climate ranges from sub-tropical in the North to cold temperate in the South. Summer runs from mid December to the end of February. The winter months are June, July and August. The temperature does not drop drastically but Corrientes and Misiones provinces are wet in August and September. The skiing season runs from June to early October.

Health: Generally a healthy country, Argentina requires no vaccinations but if you intend to visit the low-lying tropical areas it is advisable to take precautions against malaria. Cholera is a problem in the sub-tropical north, especially Salta, Jujury and the Chaco.

Food: The Argentinians are great meat (beef) eaters with parrillada, a mixed grill, being the national dish but there is a wide variety of other dishes available – a mixture of Basque, Spanish and Italian. Restaurants are good value and there are no licensing laws.

Wildlife: South America has many species which are limited to that continent or to the New World as a whole. In particular it has a range of ancient, guinea-pig-like, rodents in various sizes which occupy different habitats. It also has llamas and several similar mammals from the same family. While some birds are like those found elsewhere, many others are endemic to the continent. The wildlife in Argentina is very varied and remarkably easy to see. Generally speaking reserves are well controlled and wardened and there is even a good bird reserve in Buenos Aires itself. Take binoculars; a camera with even a medium-focus lens should give useful shots.

Buenos Aires: Situated on the edge of the great pampas, Buenos Aires has a surprisingly European feel. Sometimes known as the ‘Paris of the South’, with its cafe society, theatres, range of restaurants and sophisticated nightlife, as well as plenty of ‘sites’, there is much to keep you busy for days, if not weeks. There are a number of places to watch or try the tango, and polo is one of the spectator sports on offer.

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