Monday, February 25, 2008

The Mississippi of the Megalopolis

Last Friday morning I took a train north to the town of Tigre and, with my friend Cristián Soler (whom I met ten years ago in Tierra del Fuego), we took his father's boat to explore the channels of the Paraná delta. Tigre, in its early 20th century heyday, was the place where Buenos Aires's elite hung out and was home to numerous rowing clubs; Cristián's father's boat is a rowing scull damaged in an accident and then modified to support an outboard motor. Because of its shallow draft, it's ideal for exploring the delta's smallest channels, but when it goes out onto the Paraná de las Palmas and big freighters pass, the waves make me a little anxious.

The Paraná, which with the Río Uruguay forms the Río de la Plata (River Plate), is one of the world's great river systems. Winding nearly 4,000 km from its source in Brazil, it's longer than the Mississippi, which is probably its best analogue. Imagine the Mississippi delta and its bayous within 30 minutes of New York City, and you get some idea of the economic significance of the Paraná, and the recreational resources it provides, in proximity to Buenos Aires.

In a long day, leaving Tigre around 10 a.m., we spent about eight hours exploring the delta's smaller arroyos in what is called the Primera Sección, a relatively accessible part where many Porteños have summer homes but isleños (as the permanent residents are called) have more rustic residences on palafitos (pilings or stilts). The difference between the two is not always clear--in the place in the photograph to your right, for instance, a once handsome house has gone to seed and the soil it stands on may soon wash away. In all likelihood, some isleños will stay there until it slides into the river. Meanwhile, they'll eke out a living growing fruit, cutting timber, and producing crafts for the Mercado de Frutos in Tigre.

The delta is full of wildlife--plenty of birds, plus capybaras (Rottweiler-sized rodents) and even otters, but the bigger animals are in remote areas and harder to spot. The most abundant wildlife, at times at least, are the mosquitos that attack anyone who steps on land, so carry repellent. It's also full of accommodations, ranging from a modestly priced but excellent hostel Marcopolo Inn Náutico to the luxury La Becasina lodge. On the weekends, the delta's packed with people who come to spend a day at riverside beaches and enjoy a barbecue at its campgrounds or restaurants, but the rest of the time it's as if there's hardly anyone around.

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