Without a doubt, the Esteros of Iberá are some of the most important natural protected areas of South America, covering some 13,000 km2 (which is 65 times the size of the Buenos Aires metropolitan area), and which in great part is covered by water, forming lagoons, streams, and marshes. It also features highlands where forests and savannahs abound.
This marvelous place would not have come to us if the Paraná River had not decided to swing its course northward thousands of years ago, abandoning the center of the province of Corrientes. The abandoned riverbed was transformed into lagoons, canals, marshes, and floating islands, which absorbed the rains, acting as an enormous, efficient, natural dam. Only a small percentage of its water flows toward the present day Paraná in the southeast, via the Corriente River.
A unique characteristic of Iberá is its embalsados, or floating islands, composed of organic soils which float due to their light weight. Aquatic vegetation accumulates on them as time passes, and they form cushions of 1 to 3 meters in depth. Thus, they are able to support certain trees and animals such as yacaré (caiman), capybara, and marsh deer, which as the largest inhabitant of the marshes can weigh more than 130 kg. Occasionally, some pieces of the floating shores that surround the lagoons break free, creating islands that float according to the water´s whim, carrying animals with them. When these embalsados again make contact with land, the animals walk ashore anew.
It is possible that there exists no better site in the north of Argentina for the observation of wildlife. In this respect, not only are the animals abundant, but a great part of them are threatened or in danger of extinction on the international level. The fauna also can be seen to have lost the fear of human contact, which allows one to approach them surprisingly close up, ideal in order to observe their behavior and to take photographs. The list is quite large, but we could put on it the YACARÉ NEGRO and YACARÉ OVERO, the capybara, marsh deer, pampas deer, neotropical river otter, foxes, howler monkeys, and an immense number of birds.
The flora is equally or even more important, and its vital role in the foundation of the ecosystem sustains all life. The variety of species is truly amazing: more than 1,500 species have been observed, and that number is growing. Subtropical forests, grasslands, MONTES ESPINOSOS, and marshes are some of the environments to be found in Iberá, each with its own characteristics and inhabitants. For this reason, the region is a veritable paradise for nature-lovers.
The Iberá Wetlands Provincial Nature Reserve was created in 1983, through the initiative of the residents of Pellegrini and Mercedes, with the objective of preserving and recuperating the flora and fauna, which at that time was in a critical state due to intensive hunting. Furthermore, entirely uncontrolled agricultural activities were threatening the function of the whole ecosystem. The mariscadores, or hunters and trappers, captured animals to sell their pelts or feathers, and to consume their meat. Meanwhile, the advance of rice plantations not only modified the natural grasslands, but also indiscriminately used pesticides and other chemical products, which found their way into the wetlands. It is to be noted that the first corps of park rangers was formed of a group of local mariscadores. Their experience and knowledge of Iberá not only served to put a halt to hunting activities, but would also be key to forming future generations with knowledge of the vital importance of conserving this beautiful place. The first years were difficult, as the fauna was scarce and frightful of all contact with humans. The lack of interest on the part of some of the local population, and the lack of investment and advertisement of the park, made the job of the first park rangers a challenging one.
At the beginning of the ´90s, the only campsite was one next to the Iberá Visitor´s Center, along the coast of Colonia Pellegrini, and the town remained relatively indifferent to visitors. Today we can say that Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, one of the villages on the shores of the Iberá Wetlands, is the informal capital of the Esteros. It has a population of approximately 1000 inhabitants, a good part of which make their living from tourism. The end of the 1:1 relationship between the Argentina Peso and the US Dollar at the end of 2001 not only made the area more accessible for visitors from abroad, but it also aroused an interest in Argentineans to better know their own country, and inspired more than an 85% increase in domestic tourism. Gradually, the number of tourists increases year by year, created a healthy challenge for Carlos Pellegrini to harmonize its urban development with its surroundings, in synchronicity with the eco-touristic movement that makes up its character.