Traveling by boat through Argentina’s Paraná Delta.
28 kms north of Buenos Aires city, my English friend and I arrived at the Tigre River boat dock for our ‘one hour, five river’ boat trip through the lower section of the world’s fifth largest delta – the huge forested marshland that is the Paraná Delta. Despite being early, we are the last to arrive as the boat is beginning to pull away from the dock.
This however, turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Hastily hopping on board, with ten or so others enjoying the warm winter sun in the back, into open aired section of the motor boat we are forced to sit in the cabin. Right next to us was our captain Ricardo, who contextualizes our whole journey while we enjoy uninterrupted views of the idyllic delta from our own personal windows.
Dire Straits ‘Money for Nothing’ accompanies the commencement of our journey along the hyper gleaming brown waters of the Tigre River as we make our way into the delta of the Paraná.
The Paraná River is second in length only to the Amazon among South American rivers. It is formed at the confluence of the Paranaiba and Grande rivers in southern Brazil and runs through Paraguay and Argentina for some 4,880 kilometres, before depositing itself and 160 million tonnes of suspended sediment into the Rio de la Plata, the estuary on the border between Argentina and Uruguay which opens into the South Atlantic Ocean.Because of the sediment carried downstream, the Paraná Delta is continuing to expand into the Rio de la Plata at a rate of roughly 100 metres per year through the continued build-up of silt and the stabilizing effect of colonizing plants such as juncal, ceibo, and reeds.
Back on the Tigre River, we slowly reach cruising speed, passing the docked vintage mahogany commuter launches, motorboats, catamarans, and beached rowing boats, while watching others in operation hurl or chug past. Moving through the final outskirts of the resort town of Tigre we pass by rows of half asleep palm trees which add to the illusion of a summer’s day. We then turn left on to the Luján River whose superior width allows for the presence of larger naval monstrosities.
“This is the art museum, the Museo de Arte Tigre. It used to be a casino, the Tigre Club” says Ricardo, as the European-inspired Tigre Museum of Fine Arts looms into view on the Lujan River. It sits standoffish on the river bank with its Carrara marble staircase, Slovenian oak floors, Venetian mirrors, bronze railings, crystal chandeliers and gazebo overlooking the river which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1979.
With another turn from Ricardo we are swallowed up on all sides by the green, marshy, tropical and placid surroundings of the Lower Delta. In their denser clusters the leaves of the sauce crillo trees cascade like a human pyramid of metal head bangers, heads obligatorily down. The foreign pine, poplar, and casuarina trees are a constant, guard like presence, upright and frequent on the river banks. The blush of the manacá-da-serra catches the eye, the less loud privet trees play hide and seek, while the ceibo, hyacinths, water poppies, European flag irises, and some other forlorn collections of bare branches are still preparing themselves to greet the spring.
In equal measures derelict, sleepy, middle class, and regal, this lower section of the delta has an area of roughly 220 sq kilometers and numerous rivers, streams, and canals.
To contextualize further, the entire Paraná Delta has an overall basin area of 14,000 sq kilometers, and runs for 320 km between the cities of Santa Fe and Rosario and Tigre, where the river splits into several arms, creating a network of islands and wetlands, whose reedy, leafy banks we continue to move through.
It is within this dreamy labyrinth that Ricardo points out a dormant “supermercado mobile” – a mobile supermarket; which carries goods to areas difficult or impossible to access by land. ‘Costerita’, a smallish white and green vessel with its hung tires kissing the surface of the river, lies still in the waters of the slow day, loaded with beer, soft drink, gas, and empty wooden boxes.
“How long have these mobile supermarkets existed in the Tigre Delta?” I ask.
“80 years. There used to be 40 boats but now there are around 20-30. Some sell meat, some sell vegetables, some sell other things”, says Ricardo.
“Who owns them?”
“The people who run the boats are the individual owners of what they sell.”
“Are the mobile supermarkets more expensive than the normal supermarkets?”
“Yes, they are a little but more expensive than the supermarkets in the city,” says Ricardo.
Deeper into the watery network we go, dominated on either side by both majestic and sunken houses, whose architecture fuses colonial and art deco influences on their own patch of nigh mossy green lawn. We see boat dock-sheds and typical houses on stilts, overland roadways of bridges, a timber yard, as well as all types of watercrafts and the people of the Tigre who handle them.
The European influence on the city of Buenos Aires is well known, therefore the presence of European style architecture in the Paraná Delta is probably due to the many wealthy families from the nearby city who followed Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Argentina’s seventh president (1868-1874), to help “civilize” these islands.
“This is the seventh President’s house,” says Ricardo, pointing out an odd glass encased house sitting like an enshrined alien ship on the bank of the Sarmiento River, where we currently find ourselves. Sarmiento’s house is now a museum and library devoted to the man himself and a National Historical Monument.
Known as the “Father of the Classroom” in Argentina, Sarmiento saw great value in the geography, agriculture, and people of the Paraná Delta. He encouraged settlement in the islands, insisted on favorable development possibilities and fought for settlers’ rights to own the land they worked.
With The Lower Delta being the site of the first modern settlements in the Paraná-Plata basin it is today densely populated by some 9,000 inhabitants and is the agricultural and industrial core of Argentina and host to several major ports. The Delta is very popular for fishing, as well as day proposals such as picnicking, barbecues, and restaurants. We boat past one such restaurant near Sarmiento’s house, which, on this Friday, is empty.
“This place is busy on weekends,” Ricardo assures us.
Also on the banks of the Sarmiento River is the Parque LyFE camp ground, which offers four acres of wooded park, numerous recreational possibilities, and is the ideal location for hobbits or likeminded folk chasing warmer climes. As if placing the proverbial cherry on this big, rich slice of delta, Ricardo alerts us to the temporary presence of an ice cream vendor, as another example of a mobile supermarket flies by.
“This is the fruit dock,” says Ricardo as he returns us to the Lujan River.
Puerto de Frutos, founded in 1938, is a small jetty on the banks of the Luján River next to which stands the fruit market. While the delta’s fruit production has declined, the name is derived from the fact that, until the mid-twentieth century, the fruit of the Paraná Delta landed here before being sold in the city of Buenos Aires. The delta has long been an area of traditional orchards where the islanders grow fruit trees, especially oranges, lemons, and kumquats, as the grasses that resist the periodic flooding do not encourage cattle farming.
However, as reported in the Gulf Times; farmers and animal breeders are encroaching upon the delta islands, bringing with them agricultural methods used on the mainland, bringing many animals, and carrying out construction projects to dry out the wetlands. Cattle are also trampling and destroying native vegetation and that contributes to the arrival of other species. The drying out of the wetlands is also being caused by urbanized areas springing up on islands and coastal sections, changing the geophysical nature of the delta.
Currently the only products of the islands that are sold in the fruit market next to the Puerto de Frutos on the Luján River are crafts of wicker and rattan furniture, pine, honey, and a variety of foods. Boats leaving the island to sell merchandise dock at the Puertos de Frutos too.
On the final stretch of the Luján River before we turn left onto the Tigre we are visually assaulted by the gaudy 35 acre stretch of the Parque de la Costa, with its overspilling roller-coaster, ferris wheel, and other rides creating a bizarre juxtaposition with the more naturally eclectic beauty of the delta. Established in 1997 with an investment of nearly US$400 million, the park has a somewhat checkered history, massively failing to meet its initial visitor projections and accumulating debt, as well as an incident in 1999 in which two rollercoaster passengers entered into a coma or died, allegedly due to the ride’s excessive speed.
We leave the Parque de la Costa in its own impressively manufactured context and slide back onto the Tigre River, staring at rowers practicing in the shadow of the docked naval beasts further down the Luján River where we begun our journey an hour ago.