As I ride horseback, thigh-deep through the marshy waters of Esteros del Iberá I become startled by the sight of an 8-foot long caiman swimming too fast for comfort, straight toward me and my trusty mount. I am quickly reassured by my Argentine guide’s raising of a wooden bat that the menacing reptile poses no serious threat to me or to my horse. The Black Caiman slowly and quietly retreats. He swims back to his group, circling in the near distance. I was happy to learn later that the caiman is not carnivorous. Ahhhh, relief!
I am in northern Argentina riding horseback on a cattle drive with two Guarani’ Indian gauchos and my Argentinian guide, miles away from my temporary “home base”, Estancia San Gará. The Guarani’s are native indigenous people of northern Argentina. Many sought out work on Estancias (ranches/farms) and became Gauchos due to their independent spirit and somewhat nomadic nature, much like the early cowboys of our American west.
San Gará is one of the oldest traditional Estancias in northern Argentina. The ranch dates back to the early 1800s. San Gará is a family-owned working cattle and guest ranch. It offers a variety of authentic gaucho experiences for its visitors. Luxurious vegetation, the extensive marshlands of the Esteros and an abundance of exotic wildlife throughout the property would offer any photographer a visual extravaganza not easily forgotten.
The seldom-visited nature preserve, Esteros del Iberá, represents one of the most critical biological areas in Argentina. Iberá is an extensive freshwater system of lakes and rivers that are extremely vital to the environmental balance of South America. These are the second largest wetlands in the world, just after Brazil’s Pantanal.
On my third day during a weeklong visit to the Estancia I was invited on a daylong horseback ride with the Gauchos and one of the ranches’ Argentine guides out to gather a herd of cattle that grazed Monkey Island. The island is a patch of lush vegetation surrounded by marshlands as far as the eye can see. As we navigated our way through a network of deep water trails marked on either side by tall grasses, we passed through some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen anywhere. The purple, pink and green hues of the exotic flora were exquisite.
Along the route we experienced visits from wild caiman (blunt-nosed alligators), capybaras or “carpinchos” (the world’s largest rodents), marsh deer, hefty armadillos, and many of the more than 350 species of birds that live in the area, which included colorful ducks, graceful herons and the endearing chaja, similar to giant flying chickens!
Once on Monkey Island we had the pleasure of being greeted by its namesake, a large family of black howler monkeys. With a lifespan of up to 15 years the wild monkeys are at home in their subtropical forest habitat. They have long prehensile tails acting like a fifth limb which allows them to grasp and even hold onto objects. But this limb structure also makes it quite difficult for them to move along on the ground. So they spend most of their time high up in the trees, coming down for water only during the very driest seasons. Most of the time they can get water by wetting their palms with the droplets that form on the large tree leaves and then licking off the water.
After we located our herd, it was time for work. The cattle were rounded up and driven into wooden holding pens where they were vaccinated and branded. I’ve been on a number of roundups on large ranches back home in Arizona and I must say, our American cowboy’s Argentine counterparts, the Gaucho, work in very similar ways. That is, I thought so up until it was time for lunch, which was entirely different than the “chuck wagon” style cowboy meals of home. Our meal here consisted of very fresh asado! (typical Argentine beef). A fresh slab of beef was skewered onto a cut tree branch and then stuck in the ground while being cooked over open flames. Fallen tree trunks served as sturdy chairs to sit on while we ate. The barbecued beef was sliced by the Gauchos’ handmade knife, the facon, which is always kept sharp and handy. Our meal was supplemented by yerba maté, a tea made from the leaves of the yerba tree. Yerba maté is the traditional Gaucho beverage poured into cups made of gourds and drunk through a straw.
Aside from photographing the abundance and variety of wildlife on this trip I thoroughly enjoyed photographing the Gaucho himself in his traditional garb of bombachas (loose baggy pants), wide-brimmed hats, alpargatas (rubber soled cloth shoes when they weren’t riding barefoot!), and the faja, a wide band worn around the waist which held knives and other tools. I was also intrigued by the gear that they carried for their work, including bolas or boleadoras (stones bound in leather strips used to trip animals by looping it around their legs), traditional lariats, hand carved wooden bats and long sharp knives, as well as the bridles on the horses, saddles donning thick sheep skin pads, and of course, as an equine photographer, the horses themselves.
Called the Criollo, the native horse of Argentina descends from the horses of the Iberian conquest. They resemble the ancient Sorraia wild horse of Portugal and Spain. Carrying a straight head and a convex neck the Criollo’s have strong, short backs and very sound feet. The herds of Criollos that live at San Gará are light caramel colored with thick black manes and tails and a dorsal stripe down their backs. They are strong, hardworking, intelligent, willing and sensible equines, and small to average in height. All of these qualities are important when having to endure the long hard days on the vast Estancias of Argentina.
Estancia San Gará is located in the National Route nº 12, Kilometer 1237, 18 Kilometers from Ituzaingó, Province of Corrientes. It stretches from the Paraná River to the marshy lands of Iberá. You can reach Estancia San Gará at their page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/estancia.sangara
It may take some creative planning in order to get to Esteros del Iberá as it is a bit off the beaten tourist path, but I have found it to be well worth the effort. A visit there is a chance to experience one of the last great ecosystems on earth, virtually untouched by man, offering astounding beauty, lots of elbow room, an abundance of wildlife to study and photograph and friendly people who care about their environment.
Most of the Gauchos rode without boots or shoes.
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