Thanks to a tip from a tour operator in San Ignacio, our next Argentinian stop was the sleepy remote town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini in the marshlands of Ibera. We heard that Ibera would be a good alternative to the Brazilian Pantanal, which we had decided to avoid after hearing that it was especially swampy at this time of year.

From San Ignacio, the only way of reaching the town is to take a bus to Virasoro and then a 3 hour 4X4 ride to Pellegrini. This was arranged for us by the nice fellow in San Ignacio. We waited in the bus station at Virasoro for our 4X4, getting a little nervous about the state of the roads. There had been heavy rains in the area over the last few days and we were told that the unpaved roads were especially “feo” (ugly).

The 4X4 finally arrived and our drive began, quite smoothly at first. For the most part, the road was flat and straight; although at times we were driving through deep brown puddles that would splatter the windshield as we passed. All in all, it wasn’t that bad, our driver was very skilled at navigating the slippery roads.

We arrived at Ranchero Ibera, a cute little hostel with incredibly nice staff and tons of interesting tours. We arrived  and immediately got ready for our boat ride through the marshlands. Together with a nice Hollandaise couple, and our tour guide Victor, we piled into a motor boat and started out into the marsh.

As we got father from town and deeper into the marsh, you could feel nature taking over. Victor cut the boat’s motor and we glided through tall reeds, our eyes peeled for wildlife. It didn’t take long before we saw a caiman peeking out of the water, its bulging eyes staring straight at us.

We also spotted a capybara happily munching grass, a marsh deer, snow herons, and a pack of screeching birds that were protecting their babies.

Perhaps the highlight of this boat ride was the magnificent sunset that projected candy-floss colours across the sky. Victor told us that it’s easier to find wildlife here than in the Brazilian Pantanal because the area is heavily protected against poachers.

The next day, we went on a morning hike with Victor and saw even more wildlife – monkeys, another marsh deer that came right up to us and an owl. For most of the walk, we were accompanied by a small wild cat that was once someone’s pet and had been reintegrated into the wild. Victor said that the cat knew his voice and would often come greet him during his tours. This cat is quite famous in town; as a pet, it devoured several chicks and even attacked a snake.

In the afternoon, Dan and I ventured out with Gaucho Jose and his two lovely horses. This was my first horseback riding experience. There aren’t many opportunities in Toronto to ride horses except at the school fun fair, and then the pony is going in circles on a rope. I was surprised to find how comfortable I felt on the horse, she was very well behaved and very responsive to my commands.

As we rode through a marshy palm forest,  Gaucho Jose regaled us with stories and jokes of rural Argentinian cowboy life. He let us in on a secret – the central plaza in town is almost always empty of locals. It’s there for tourists. When you see a local sitting in the plaza, he’s probably having problems with his wife! He also mentioned that he didn’t drink, which he said was strange for a cowboy. His father had been an alcoholic and had developed a painful ulcer as a result. The doctor was able to get him to stop drinking by telling him that the only alternative cure for the ulcer was a excruciating stomach operation. Gauchos are terribly afraid of doctors, and this simple threat was enough to convince two generations of cowboys to give up the drink.

He told us that it was common for indigenous Guarani men to have several wives, but that the women were powerless to leave their husbands who were their sole providers. The wives’ increased involvement in the tourism industry had empowered them to become independent and leave their unfaithful husbands.

The staff  at Rancho Ibera were extremely nice, the accommodations quaint and clean and their tours well-run and fascinating. One of our favourite memories of the trip was of Doña Rosa, the ad0rable old lady who washed our clothes for us. She was talking up a storm while passing us our clean laundry when all of a sudden she got really quiet. She motioned for me to lean in closer. I leaned towards her and, in a faint whisper, she said two words that have become a running joke on our trip… “ropa interior”, she hushed, covertly passing me my ‘intimate’ clothing. We both cracked up laughing. Dan turned around and stood guard, shielding this delicate transaction from the prying eyes of strangers.

Our departure from town was just as challenging as our arrival. There is only one bus out of town and it departs at 4 in the morning to Mercedes. Our visit to Colonol Carlos Pellegrini taught us a valuable lesson: the harder a place is to get to, the more rewarding it is when you arrive.