Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tigre River Delta, December 23, 2008

Once you’ve seen the major sites in Buenos Aires, the oppressive heat, noise and pollution of the big city can start to get to you. If so, it might be time to head out into the country for some fresh air and relaxation.

The Tigre Delta on the Parana River is the ideal place. Just 20 km and a one-hour slow train ride away, this idyllic network of rivers and jungle is the exact opposite of Buenos Aires’ hustle and bustle. The delta’s maze of water channels and lush islands provides a tranquil, clean and cool oasis of calm far from the Tango nightclubs and racing black and yellow taxis.

In fact, there are no cars in the Delta, all transportation is by boat. Close to 4,000 people inhabit the first section of the Delta, made up of traditional houses on stilts and summer residences for wealthy residents of Buenos Aires, called Portenos. Gas stations, schools and hospitals are accessible only by boat. Children are picked up for school in long launches and residents are provided medical and dental services on a floating hospital.

A little further on, the Delta opens up into the wide Rio Parana and just beyond this the jungle closes in. It feels like you’re in the Amazon surrounded by sweet-smelling subtropical flowering trees and water hyacinths. Sadly, what you won’t likely see here are animals and snakes as you would in the Amazon. At one time, Jaguars – which gave the Delta its name Tigre – roamed freely here, but they’re long gone, as are most of the red deer and wild Capybara (a large rodent the size of a hog).

Many companies can provide boat tours of the Delta, but at the Tigre train station we met up with Fernando and Laura, owners of Safari Delta, at their small kiosk on the platform. This young couple organizes private small group or individual tours in a Zodiac, which allows them to go into smaller tributaries where the bigger boats can’t go.

Three tours of varying lengths are available: a short visit of the populated part of the Delta for 1.5 to 2 hours, a medium tour of the latter, plus part of the wild jungle north of the Parana River for 3 to 4 hours, or these two plus a ride out into the wide mouth of the Delta where you can see the Buenos Aires skyline in the distance. But the tours are actually longer and you can spend almost as much time as you want, especially if you stop for lunch at the owners’ cabin in the Delta.

After a short discussion of the options, we decided to take the medium length ride to see the wilder part of the jungle. In all, we spent close to six hours touring the many streams and tributaries, marvelling at how our guide Guilli managed to find his way through the confusing labyrinth of rivers and islands.

At first, the Delta reminded us of Toronto’s Islands dotted with quaint summer homes, blue flowering Hydrangeas and graceful weeping willows. But the scale (14,000 sq km) and the presence of grocery boats, restaurants and summer resorts quickly changed our minds. And for the more active, opportunities abound for kayaking and wake-boarding.

It was only on the quiet, side tributaries or north of the Rio Parana in the protected Unesco biosphere reserve that we really started to unwind and relax. The air smelled so pure and the lush green jungle was so soothing that we soon forgot about the traffic and chaos of Buenos Aires.

At one point, Guilli suddenly cut the engine and let us drift so that we could fully appreciate the peacefulness of the isolated jungle, only the sound of birds breaking the silence. Doffing his shirt, he slipped over the side of the Zodiac and towed it through the water to extend our commune with nature.

When we finally stopped for lunch at Fernando’s cabin on a secluded stream, we were greeted by the family’s pet “Otter” that rolled over on its back to have its belly stroked just like a dog. The “Otter” was actually a Nutria or river rat, similar to our Muskrat, but actually a distinct species prized for its fur. They weren’t about to skin Lulu, however, she was now part of the family.

Our home-cooked lunch included a delicious bife de chorizo (sirloin steak), baked sweet potato, salad, a nice bottle of Argentinean Malbec wine, and for dessert, “panqueque con dulce de leche”, a pancake with sweet caramel made from milk and a favourite of Argentines everywhere.

The highlight of the tour, however, had to be the side trip out to the mouth of the Delta where the Rio Parana and the Rio de la Plata meet and spill out towards the distant ocean.

As we left the narrow jungle streams and slipped into the wider river, the sides were lined with sailboats and large cabin cruisers, the floating retreat of some of the wealthy Portenos. Guilli told us that on a weekend there would be a hundred times that many clogging the river. We followed the channel markers into the middle of the river, dodging some of the larger boats hauling lumber out of the jungle, and then stopped just to the side of the main channel.

Guilli cut the engine again and invited us to join him in the water. We thought he meant to take another swim, but when he jumped overboard he was standing in six inches of water. It was as if he were walking on water. We quickly joined him and wiggled our toes in the smooth, sandy bottom in lukewarm water. Two feet on the other side was a 50-foot drop-off for the dredged boat channel.

In fact, Guilli explained that we could walk from here all the way to Uruguay, even though the mouth of the Delta constitutes the widest river in the world. Every year, silt from the upper reaches of the rivers in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay washes down and is deposited in the Delta, creating new islands and sand bars. Only constant dredging keeps the channels open. It is estimated that by the year 2200, the sand will reach Buenos Aires.

In the distance, we could see the skyline of Buenos Aires. Even closer, the sky was dotted with the brightly coloured sails of 50 or more parasailers and surfboarders from marinas in San Isidro and Tigre. We basked in the sun for a while, but this was the end of our tour and we reluctantly climbed back on board the Zodiac for the return trip to Tigre and the train back to the chaos of Buenos Aires.

To get to Tigre Delta, hop on the train that departs regularly from Retiro Station in downtown Buenos Aires. The cost is only 1.1 pesos (roughly .39) for the one-hour ride through Buenos Aires’s northern suburbs ending at the small town of Tigre. A second train called the coastal ride (Tren de la Costa) supposedly provides a more scenic tour, but we found you only get to see the coast for about three minutes. You also have the inconvenience of changing trains part way and at more than ten times the price it just isn’t worth it.

1 comment:

Don said...

I enjoyed this post. Do you recall how much the guided tour cost you?