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An hour before sunset, the Iberá Wetlands rustle to life as if cued by a conductor. Capybaras – large anvil-headed rodents – snuffle through the grass, raucous lapwings crisscross the sky, and three tawny, web-footed marsh deer wade along the edge of the swamp, which only two decades earlier had been a lifeless cattle watering hole.
As I amble by on horseback, our guide, Mingo Gonzalez, who names a few of Iberá’s 370 bird species along the path – tiger heron, bare-faced ibis, strange-tailed tyrant – admits he wasn’t all that well-versed in wildlife as a gaucho who grew up in the nearby village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. Back then, nature wasn’t so much revered as ignored – or feared. Previous generations used to hunt jaguars to protect their cattle, selling the skins to fur traders. Although the big cat symbolised strength among the Indigenous Guarani of Corrientes province, the last one was seen here in the 1950s.
We dismount in a savanna, where we find that staff at our lodge, Rincón del Socorro, have set a table with bottles of Argentine Malbec and a platter of local meats and cheeses. With the cracked yolk of the sun trickling behind a skeletal acacia tree, you could swear you were on safari in Africa – a resemblance that may be more than a wine-fuelled illusion, given the Pangaea theory that South America and Africa once formed a supercontinent that broke apart more than 200 million years ago. From the small plane we flew in on from Posadas, we watched the landscape tip over from cattle ranches to a flat mosaic of floating grass islands that look strikingly like Botswana’s Okavango Delta, though at 1.8 million acres, the Iberá Wetlands are only about half the size. More recently, Africa has inspired the most wide-reaching conservation effort ever in Argentina, a country notorious for the ravages of its beef industry. This has led to the restoration of massive swathes of land into flourishing, biodiverse ecosystems, sustained by income generated by tourism. This model – in which new wildernesses are secured with the creation of local jobs in ecotourism – is being adapted in South America on a huge scale by the foundations Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile, heirs to the legacy of Tompkins Conservation. Starting in the 1990s, American husband-and-wife activists Doug and Kris Tompkins, a cofounder of The North Face and Patagonia’s former CEO, respectively, started buying up strategic tracts of land to protect across the two countries; the NGOs spun off in 2015, after Doug was killed in a kayaking accident.
Between them, the two organisations are responsible for 15 million protected acres, which are now being donated in stages to the public as national parks. Meanwhile, the foundations are putting lodges and visitors centres in place, training rangers and guides, and reintroducing or stabilising keystone species. Here in Argentina, where nature tourism is still in its infancy, Rewilding’s long-term vision is to create a circuit of parks, from the Amazon-like El Impenetrable and Iberá Wetlands in the far north, where I’ve started my trip, to high-plateau Parque Patagonia, more than 1,000 miles south, where I’ll head in a few days’ time.