Saturday, September 11, 2010

Socorro Means "Help" - for Argentina's Iberá Marshes

After posting recently about Chile’s proposed Parque Nacional Patagonia and the new lodge there, I realized that, on this blog at least, I had never written about environmental philanthropist Douglas Tompkins’s projects in Argentina but, in 2004, Tompkins and his wife, Kris McDivitt, donated parts of the former Estancia Monte León, in Santa Cruz Province, to Argentina’s national park service through the Patagonia Land Trust. That’s noteworthy in its own right, and I’ll write about it sometime soon, but this post will be dedicated to the Esteros del Iberá, the northeastern wetlands where he has purchased several estancias open to the public and begun to reintroduce the giant anteater. He now spends the southern winter at Estancia Rincón del Socorro, a prime property on the south side of the marshes that’s become a destination for environmentally oriented tourists.

Rincón del Socorro and the surrounding marshes have just about everything, including innumerable birds, caimans (pictured below), capybaras, howler monkeys, marsh deer and rarely seen maned wolves (which are few and nocturnal). In late 2006, though, Tompkins’s efforts earned unwanted publicity when piquetero demagogue Luis D’Elía - then a federal government official - falsely claimed that Tompkins had blocked a public road through Estancia El Tránsito, in another part of the marshes. In a blatant publicity stunt, D’Elía staged an invasion of Tompkins’s property with ostensible campesinos in support.

D’Elía and a handful of congressional xenophobes called for expropriation, but he badly misjudged his own position. Tompkins’s donation of Monte León had benefited then President Néstor Kirchner’s home province of Santa Cruz and, combined with the fact that other Corrientes landowners united behind Tompkins, D’Elía soon found himself jobless.

That’s not been Tompkins’s only challenge, though. The latest villain is Forestal Andina, a timber company that’s built unauthorized earthworks to drain parts of the marshes for cattle grazing. Such a project would disrupt water flow elsewhere, with unpredictable but almost certainly negative consequences.

Meanwhile, the capybaras - Rottweiler-sized rodents (pictured above) - and rheas still stroll the lawns at Tompkins’s Hostería Rincón del Socorro. Managed by Anglo-Argentine Leslie Cook and his wife, Valeria Verdaguer, it has six impeccably decorated guest rooms with high ceilings and fans, plus three separate bungalows, along with a restaurant open to nonguests by reservation only. Much of the food, including spectacular tomatoes, comes from their own organic gardens. Additional amenities include a quincho for barbecues, a game room with a DVD player (though the guest rooms are TV-free), a library, and even satellite WiFi.

Besides accommodations, Rincón del Socorro organizes boat excursions into the marshes from Colonia Pellegrini, 35 kilometers east, plus horseback rides and catch-and-release fly-fishing (at certain seasons). Guests also have access to mountain bikes.

In addition to Rincón del Socorro, there are also accommodations at Estancia San Alonso, reached only by private plane. Because of Socorro’s isolation, some guests arrive by plane; there is a one-kilometer airstrip 800 meters from the hostería. For those who can’t afford to stay at either, there is a greater diversity of accommodations, along with moderately priced tours, at Colonia Pellegrini.

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