Monday, December 21, 2009

Argentina's Worst Road? Into the Iberá Marshes

One of Argentina’s greatest underrated and underappreciated sights is the Esteros del Iberá, a slow-flowing river of wildlife-rich floating islands in the northeastern province of Corrientes. It’s the place to see capybaras - rodents the size of a Rottweiler - and caimans, marsh deer and hundreds of bird species, up close and personal.

The problem is getting there. To the village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, where services into the these marshes are best, the easiest access point is the west-side town of Mercedes, 120 km from Pellegrini, but Mercedes itself is 230 km from the nearest airport, or an overnight bus ride from Buenos Aires. The Misiones province capital of Posadas, to the northeast, is closer, but the eastern segment of provincial Ruta 40 from the town of Gobernador Virasoro is virtually impassable during or after a rain.

Yesterday I was driving from the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, near the famous Iguazú falls. I would pass near Posadas and, because circling the Esteros to Mercedes would have added an extra 320 km to a 550-km drive, I decided to brave Ruta 40. Taken in Colonia Pellegrini, the photograph here marks the end of the story, but my mud-splattered truck - note the chunks of mud on the roof - doesn’t tell everything.

At the junction with national Ruta 14, the well-traveled paved highway to Buenos Aires, a sign warns prospective drivers that Ruta 40 is closed in wet weather. Ever since I left Puerto Iguazú there had been high clouds, but darker, lower ones were forming to the west toward the Esteros. A hotel owner in Puerto Iguazú told me the route had been good, except for one sandy 23-km stretch, when he had driven it a few months earlier.

At the beginning, the route was smooth, supporting speeds up to 80 km per hour, and I was somewhat confident that, even if it began to rain, it would take some time to make the route impassable. After about 20 km, though, lightning flashes appeared to the west and, before too long it was a hard rain, if not quite a downpour. The surprise was that even this brief rain turned the road to a brown slush and, in no time, chunks of mud were flying onto the hood and even the roof of the truck. I engaged my 4WD immediately.

Mud was also accumulating on the underside of the chassis as I slipped and slid on tracks left by previous vehicles - the least uncertain means of continuing. By the time those tracks disappeared, there was no turning back, and I took to driving with one set of wheels on the mostly grassy shoulder - but perilously close to water-filled drainage ditches. My speed dropped to about 20 km and, on more than one occasion, I was advancing diagonally along the edge of the road.

Two or three times, I was so stuck in the mud that I had to rock back and forth between first gear and reverse to get out of a wallow that, it seemed, would have held a hippopotamus. Fortunately, the rain stopped and the conditions never got any worse, though I did pass through areas approaching Colonia Pellegrini where it might have rained harder, and one long but slight uphill stretch was particularly difficult.

After about four hours, mentally exhausted, I had covered the 120 km to Colonia Pellegrini and taken a room at Rancho Ypa Sapukai, a comfortable, moderately priced guesthouse that also offers excursions into the marshes.. In reality, I was never in any particular danger - sooner or later a tractor from a neighboring farm would have pulled me out of the muck - but I had no desire to spend a hungry night sleeping inside the truck.

And at least I learned that the eastern segment of Ruta 40 is impossible for an ordinary passenger car, and difficult enough even with 4WD. Nevertheless, owner Pedro Noailles of Ypa Sapukai is taking two passengers to Posadas today over the road - a transfer that now costs from 700 pesos (nearly US$200) for up to four passengers. Considering the route’s difficulty, rising fuel prices, and the distance to Posadas, this is not an unreasonable cost, especially considering that the driver and vehicle have to return.

For my part, after a wildlife-watching excursion today, I’ll be heading west tomorrow toward Mercedes on the all-weather access segment of Ruta 40. I’m not sorry I drove the eastern segment yesterday, but I’ll likely never do it again - unless the weather is perfect or the province paves the road.

1 comment:

Wayne Bernhardson said...

Thank you for writing, Harry. You can count on the firm packed road from Mercedes in anything other than a deluge, but I haven't been on the other roads lately. A couple after I drove Ruta 40, my daughter traveled that route in a hired vehicle with driver. I would not recommend it without asking for local info first; if you're planning to cycle, though, the worst that could happen would probably be pushing your bike through the mud - for who knows how long.

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