Some travelers who make their way to the Iberá wetlands in Argentina’s flat northeastern province of Corrientes seek the thrill of looking a South American cousin of an alligator in the eye as it suns itself less than two meters from their boat. Others come to add a battle with a scrappy dorado river salmon or a huge surubí catfish to their sport fishing experiences. Still others are bewitched by the possibility of shooting, within the space of a few minutes, hundreds of ducks that are considered pests by rice farmers.
Corrientes is traditionally a cattle ranching province, and as the wetlands occupy 15 percent of its area, correntino gauchos are accustomed to living with and working in the water.
These gauchos, many of them descendants of the Guarani Indians who roamed the land before the arrival of the Spaniards, excel at horse training and are, along with colleagues from Salta in the Northwest, Argentina’s most colorful cowpokes. They are in the water so much of the time that those who use spurs strap them to cloth slippers that dry quickly in the torrid temperatures of the region. Others just go barefoot. And when they have to move a herd from one island to another, they unsaddle their horse, strip down, grab onto its mane, and let it pull them through the water after it, while in their wake a colleague punts a canoe laden with their clothes and saddles.
The La Rosita ranch near Esquina was the first to offer programmed “Drovers’ Rides” through the Corrientes backcountry, which always has extensive areas under shallow water. Riders do a lot of galloping, herd horses for the fun of it, and eat and sleep well at a different elegant ranch house every night. But they stay on land.
And now, US eco-entrepreneur Douglas Tompkins’ El Tránsito ranch near Concepción has taken the water thing a step further as a cultural experience. Gauchos and paying riders swim with their horses from island to island on their way to Tompkins’ San Alonso spread in the heart of the wetlands. You can fly there in a few minutes, but people who did it say that it is more fun to spend more than an hour swimming from island to island.
PHOTO CREDITS: Dorado fisherman (Estancia Buena Vista). "Drovers' ride" (Estancia La Rosita). Swimming to Estancia San Alonso (Photo courtesy of Francisco Didio).