Sunday dawned in the capital of the last province of northeast Argentina, Posadas.
The day was not exactly a rest day. It wasn't yet eight in the morning when we left town driven by Sancho, a talkative young driver and a lover of Latin pop music.
Half an hour after departure, we realized, in part, because he had caught us in a pickup with a rural look, aged and dusty.
The asphalt is finished. We went to a straight line of beaten red earth, lost in the flat immensity of the high pampa, which seemed to be more than 100 km long and that only the successive highs, lows and holes and the chat continuous made it less monotonous.
It was midsummer in the southern hemisphere.
This region, sandwiched between the extreme south of Brazil and the mysterious Paraguay, was warming before our eyes. "Do you think it's hot now?" the boy behind the wheel warned us almost indignantly. “This is nothing. In these parts, in December and January, the temperature rises to 50º”.
When we reached Colonia Pellegrini, shortly after midday, we had already crossed from the Misiones lands to the less green ones of Corrientes.
The heat continued to build. In such a way that we perceived the strong radiation rising into the air and the lethargy to which that oven voted the few residents as we passed.
Check in at Colonia Pellegrini and at the Beira dos Esteros del Iberá
This was not the case for porteña Doña Elsa, owner of the Posada de La Laguna, which oscillated between a curious but effusive welcome and the effort required by the various tasks of her establishment planted on the edge of the Iberá lagoon.
The usual introductions and explanations having been completed, we installed ourselves in a room almost on top of the fresh water. A bell that rang from the main house fulfilled the long-awaited communal signal for lunch.
We had planned to work on the computers after the meal but the summer intensity of those breaks took its toll.
It forced us to take a long recovery nap.
By five-forty in the afternoon, the brazier had died down. A five-foot-tall maid with a freckled face who reminded us of one of the eccentric characters in “black cat, white cat” knocked on the door.
Announced in soft Hispanic:
“Mr Maximo is waiting for you to go out to the lagoon. But first, go through the villa. They have a snack there.”
Enthusiastic about the pioneering incursion into the lacustrine domain that had attracted us from so far away, we dispatched the teas and the slices of cake and headed for the jetty from which we were supposed to set sail.
First Incursion into the Pantanal dos Esteros
Maximo was already back from the engine.
Contrary to what we expected, I had company. Another couple of even more anxious guests had dispensed with the snack but not the front of the vessel. It was Fred and Lena. He is Austrian, group travel guide and nature photographer, she Russian, model.
When we got settled in, it didn't take long for us to realize the inflated amount of photographic equipment that, together, we were carrying on board.
The chubby Máximo took the opportunity to break the ice of the first moments: “with what they bring there, I won't even ask you about expectations. I imagine if we don't see the best of everything, they'll throw me to the alligators.”
It was soon confirmed that it would not be necessary. The vastness of swamps, bogs, lagoons, stagnant lakes and riverbeds we were sailing on extends for 20.000 km2, 13.000 of which (14% of the area of the province of Corrientes) are part of the Iberá Nature Reserve.
Esteros del Iberá, the Great Pantanal of Argentina
It is the largest protected area in Argentina and one of the most important freshwater reservoirs in South America.
Now all this water flanked by land, by comparison, elevated on the banks of the Paraná (west) and Uruguay (to the east) is life.
Lots of life.
As we moved into the greater Iberá, the scenery dotted with plants and aquatic herbs – in some cases, veritable floating islands of reeds, hyacinths and water lilies – proved to be sumptuous.
They sheltered deer from the pampas, flocks of capybaras and otters, these controlled and chased by alligators, caimans and furtive anaconda.
We also saw herons, colonies of loons drying in the sun and other birds of prey, countless fish and amphibians, among so many different species of that prodigious lacustrine ecosystem.
Such biodiversity attracts and loves biologists and photographers from around the world who return year after year. This was the case with Fred who, like us, frantically aimed his telephoto lenses at the specimens that most inspired him to record.
This hyperactivity contrasted with the relaxed and elegant contemplation of Lena, the Lolita blonde escort of the rude, almost brutish, Austrian, she who dazzled us with an unexpected confession: “I was born in Kamchatka, I don't know if you know?
Almost Night Return to Posada de la Laguna
It's on the other side of the Russia. "
Knowing until we knew, but just seeing and reading, we had never been there. Like any traveler who is always dissatisfied with the places he has visited, we dreamed of exploring it as soon as possible, or it was not one of the volcanic regions most remote, untamed and majestic to the face of the earth.
We returned to the Posada Laguna pier over sunset. The sky above the Iberá was burning.
The water was tinged a warm blue, here and there, dotted with the restless shapes of hundreds of cormorants afloat, startled by the vessel's late, shrill intrusion.
An hour after disembarking, we were reunited with Fred, Lena and other guests around a dinner that Doña Elsa had ordered prepared in the gastronomic style that the Chef son of a renowned restaurant in Buenos Aires had created for the family's inn.
Today, Laguna is one of a few businesses located on the vast banks of the Esteros del Iberá, largely around the hamlet that looks like a caravan park in Colonia Pellegrini.
Guarani Conquerors, Missionaries and Indigenous People: the Diffuse History of Esteros del Iberá
The region was not always barren. Upon the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, in the XNUMXth century, various Guarani or “Guaranized” sub-ethnicities populated these areas by force after overwhelming attacks that ended with frightening cannibal rituals.
As the elders of Mercedes and Colónia Pellegrini recount, until shortly after the turn to the XNUMXth century, screams were heard coming from the most remote areas and yet to be discovered by the white settlers of the lagoon. It was assumed, then, that they were still inhabited by descendants of these natives.
In any case, due to the inaccessibility of the Esteros del Iberá region, few villages settled there. The Jesuit missions came to dominate and operate in territories with close limits, but the flooded area was for a long time considered uninhabitable.
In it fugitives took refuge. From it lived hunters and fishermen without other resources.
We continued on the trail of expressions and images of that impressive amphibian nature.
The Early Bird Incursion to the Esteros del Iberá
The next day, we woke up for a new route embarked in the lagoon, in search of more and more of the species that continued to proliferate there, without great hope of finding any of the resident anteaters and jaguars who, in addition to being scarce and elusive, were nocturnal.
We reached areas of large dry land islands filled with dense palm groves where howler monkeys jumped and hooted, agitated by the unexpected visit of a solitary pampas deer.
Palm trees had little to do with the ones we used to see when in Portugal.
They were buritis, jataí and others as or more exotic as Indaiá.
Some of the highest ones served as observation points for several tachãs, birds endemic to these parts of Argentina and southern Brazil.
On our return from the last incursion, Doña Elsa rewards us for the enthusiasm we put into the work. Offer us an extra night at the inn.
We took the opportunity to investigate other even more distant corners of the lagoon, we went back to peek at the strange Pellegrini Colony and accompanied a veterinarian and a team of gauchos during a long vaccination at a cattle ranch called Swiss Agro.
However, we left that Argentine wetland. We traveled further south into the endless pampa.