Horse power: Iberá Wetlands

Trekking Argentina's Iberá Wetlands on horseback promises untouched landscape… and meat, a lot of it

Travel 5 Mar 2018

Gauchos lead a group through the Iberá marshes
A horse-swim to the finish

With its stifling summer humidity, tangled waterways and piranha, anaconda and crocodile-like caiman, the Esteros del Iberá is no country for old men. Or shrinking violets. ‘Around here,’ growls the swarthy gaucho Omar Rojas, cradling his foot-long machete, ‘a man without a knife is like a policeman without a gun’.

The magnificent splatter of wet wilderness is no country for vegetarians, either. Supper – a rack of lamb, leg of pork and tyre of chorizo – is followed, 11 hours later, by breakfast – a rack of lamb, leg of pork and tyre of chorizo – all smeared with salt for extra hypertension: the full Gaucho.

Iberá is, however, perfect for a horseback adventure. Northeast Argentina’s 20,000 square kilometres of lakes, lagoons and marshes, weaved with floating islands, ochre savannah and verdant forest, host an Attenborough-esque riot of animals, birds and aquatic critters.

To explore the heart of wetlands the size of Wales, I’m going local. Very local. I’m in the gnarled hands of indigenous Guarani gauchos from three different paraje (hamlets). I’ll be passed from one to the next like a human relay baton, joining the Argentinian cowboys in the saddle, canoe and, during the trip’s climax, the dazzlingly clear Iberá water for a feral swim alongside a snorting chestnut horse.

Flying up from Buenos Aires, it appears I’m heading into an abstract masterpiece. At 39,000 feet, the sun alchemises the Esteros into a series of manic silver brush strokes, gleaming on a canvas of deep viridian. It’s equally colourful at ground level. En route from tiny Concepcion – a nascent eco-tourism hotspot close to Iberá’s western rim – I spot several lurid scarlet flags, all marking shrines to the folk hero, Gauchito Gil.

They’re merely an amuse bouche. For mains there’s the intoxicating plumage of local birds including the great kiskadee’s yellow chest, Brazilian teal’s emerald wings and ringed kingfisher’s Prussian blue head; along with orange monarch butterflies flitting over purple camelote water flowers draped in pink snails’ eggs, and skittish golden marsh deer erupting from aquamarine shallows.

Sharing the marshes are capybara and caiman

Yet it’s not just the palette that makes the Esteros other-worldy. Led at a relaxed passo pace by Carlito Leiva from Yahaveré paraje – reins held in one hand, western style – we cross private ranches where cattle mingle with ostrich-like giant rhea and sheep-sized capybara, the world’s largest rodents; a mix suggesting a crazed genetic farming experiment. Add in vast red-necked jabiru storks and snoozing caiman that force our horses into sudden swerves, and we’re now immersed in a beautiful but alien land.

After two hours, having entered the protected Carambola reserve, Carlito’s brother, Rodolfo, takes over the reins. And the pole. While we suck yerba mate tea, he punts our hollowed-out timbo tree down a snaking channel into a dense curtain of reeds haunted by blizzards of dragonflies. It’s thrillingly remote.

Al fresco lunch on a shady island allows the delivery of fresh horses before Omar Rojas from the second paraje, Ñu Puy, assumes control. As we cross flat terrain laced with tall wax palms, serenaded by the metronomic splash of hooves in water, my mind wanders several thousand miles away to the British high street. Without Esprit and North Face I wouldn’t be here. The brands fuelled the fortune of late environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins, allowing his dynamic Conservation Land Trust (CLT) to buy pristine slices of Argentinian and Chilean wilderness, four of which are in Iberá.

After restoring the land to its natural state, reintroducing wildlife decimated by hunting and funding local conservation initiatives, the trust is gradually handing back the reserves as national parks. My ride is one of several green sustainable seeds planted by the CLT.

Tompkins must have adored a man of the land like Omar with his neckerchief, bombachas breeches and expert barefoot horsemanship. The gaucho navigates us to tonight’s accommodation: a mud-floored, reed-walled thatched hut. It comes with a camp bed, shower sprayed from a perforated bucket and molten gold sunset. In the wild, luxury is a relative thing.

I look down to see four equine legs taking part in a perfectly coordinated sub-aqua spin class

Next morning, Omar hands me his freshly sharpened machete, muttering, ‘a knife is all a man needs to eat breakfast.’ I’m not arguing. I slice off a wedge of hypertension. High-quality protein for my impending horse swim – the traditional method of driving groups of cattle through deeper water.

A two-hour ride and three-kilometre punt takes us to the launch point. Cue a rookie mistake. I devour Mby Py, a tasty sludge of flour, meat, fat and spice cooked by the third paraje, Carambola – an act of buoyancy sabotage akin to wearing a belt of lead weights. Thankfully, the swimming technique is near foolproof. Hold on until your bareback mount is out of its depth then slide off, one hand gripping a mane left long at the base – while the other hand paddles furiously. My mare provides a muscular pull but the image of lurking caiman, anaconda and piranha should be sufficient motivation to keep anyone afloat.

The wilderness may be pristine but it’s far from serene. The constant grunting sounds coming from my horse are like my 1962 Fiat 500 before it failed its MOT. It’s more graceful underwater. I look down to see four sleek equine legs taking part in a perfectly coordinated sub-aqua spin class: the calm beneath the storm.

One kilometre and 20 minutes later, we reach the shallows. Watched by wheeling turkey vultures, I slide back on-board, riding out into a layered Rothko artwork of honey-hued piri-piri reeds, creamy ortiga-del-agua blooms and glistening turquoise water: an exquisite sight eclipsed just hours later by the pyrotechnics of several thousand fireflies. Iberá’s theatrics are a 24-hour performance.

It leaves a second wild sleep and lazy final morning, where a horse provides a traditional canoa cinchada tow to the finishing line. We’re greeted by an array of surveyor’s pegs, betraying discreet plans for the first hotel to overlook the western edge of the wetlands: a country for new tourists rather than old men.

The Gaucho adventure, plus two nights in CLT’s luxury Iberá lodge and two at Belmond’s Iguazu Falls hotel from £4,425pp including flights,