Argentina is a fantastic place to go wild.
No – I’m not talking about dancing at the boliches (night clubs) until dawn. Nor do I mean getting blasted on Fernet (a bitter herbal liquor) and soda at a friend’s asado (barbecue).
What I’m talking about here is exploring the extensive nature lands of this incredible country. Stretching about 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) from north to south, Argentina has a variety of ecosystems ranging from desert and jungle in the north to windswept Patagonian plains and cold-water coastline in the south. In this expanse covering almost 3 million square kilometers (1,158,306 square miles), you can encounter 985 species of birds, 345 of mammals, 248 of reptiles, 145 of amphibians, as well as multitudes of fish, insects and other fauna.
Argentina has 46 nationally protected areas which include national parks and reserves. Add on to that even more provincial parks and private reserves. Some are near human populations. Others are further afield and you will need to go on tour – but it’ll be worth the extra cost. If your goal is to see lots of wildlife as well as breathtaking natural landscapes, the best places to go are the Northeastern provinces and the Atlantic coast of the Patagonia.
Oh, the variety of wildlife you will see! In the northern jungles are jaguars, maned wolves, coati, toucans … and along the Southern Atlantic coast, rhea, penguins, elephant seals and whales. Come, get your hiking boots on and your camera ready as we get wild in Argentina!
And yes – you can get there by bus!
The northeastern corner of Argentina includes the provinces of Formosa, Chaco, Missiones, Corrientes and Entre Ríos. They border Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay. This region is also called Mesopotamia, alluding to its hot, humid climate. Two mighty rivers cut through this landscape – the Paraná and the Uruguay – creating several vast wetlands.
The best times for wildlife viewing in the Gran Chaco (Formosa and Chaco) are fall and early winter (March-June), as the summers are so hot (up to 50ºC / 122ºF) that even the animals take cover! Another good time is the austral spring (October-November). Its ecosystems are called the Dry Chaco (mostly in Chaco Province, nicknamed El Impenetrable for its dense forests of hatchet-breaking woods) and the Wet Chaco (in Formosa Province), which includes Bañado de Etrella and Parque Nacional Río Pilcomayo.
Misiones, Corrientes and Entre Ríos provinces have a tropical climate year-round. Any time is a good time to come (though do expect it to be warmer in summer). The ecosystems in this region are the Paranaense and Yungas forests – more like true jungles. Among its protected areas are the world-renowned Iguazú Falls, as well as Esteros del Iberá and Parque Nacional Pre-Delta.
In Northeastern Argentina, you’ll find the world’s largest roedor (the capybara), the country’s largest amphibian (cucurú toad); the largest South American deer (pampas deer), largest canid (maned wolf) and largest feline (jaguar); and the loudest animal (black howler monkey).
These are just a handful of the national and provincial parks and reserves in the region.
Parque Nacional Río Pilcomayo
In the northeast corner of Formosa Province, on the border with Paraguay, is this gem of a national park. Comprised of 51,889 hectares (128,220 acres) of Humid Chaco forest in the Río Pilcomayo river basin, it has a bit of everything for you. Three estuaries wend through the park, giving home to waterlily fields, caimans, waterfowl and fish (including piranha). In the surrounding forests and savannahs, you’ll find black howler monkeys (watch your food if you’re camping!), giant anteaters and five types of cats. In all, this national park has registered 324 bird species (25% of which are waterfowl), 85 species of mammal, 42 of reptiles and over 30 of amphibians. There are hiking trails, boardwalks and lookout towers. The most easily accessible sector is Laguna Blanca.
Closest town: Laguna Blanca (town; 20 kilometers / 12 miles south)
How to get there: local bus
Wildlife to see: black howler and other monkeys, jaguar, tapir, capybara, crab-eating fox, caiman; cormorants, toucans, storks
Best season: all year, though austral spring and fall are best; summer (December-February) is the rainy season
Lodging: small hotels (Laguna Blanca town), camping (in the national park)
Bañado de Estrella
Another reserve for the more adventurous is the Bañado de Estrella in Formosa Province, although it is not a formal reserve nor protected area. During the rainy season, this humedal formed by the Río Pilcomayo can extend over 1 million acres, making it the third largest wetlands in southern South America. Several small Pilagá indigenous villages are entry points into the Bañado: El Vertedero (45 kilometers / 28 miles north of Las Lomitas) is best for birdwatching; and from Fortín Soledad (70 kilometers / 43.5 miles northwest of Las Lomitas) you can explore the wetlands in canoe and visit Pilagá communities. The entire Bañado is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Sunsets and sunrises in Bañado de Estella are stunning.
Closest town: Las Lomitas (45 kilometers / 28 miles south)
How to get there: tour
Wildlife to see: giant anteaters, capybara, maned wolf, jaguar, caiman, anaconda; plus over 100 species of bird, including jabiru, black-faced ibis and roseate spoonbill
Best season: April-October
Lodging: Basic hotels and camping in Las Lomitas
Parque Nacional Iguazú
In the northeast corner of Missiones Province, like a finger pointing to Brazil and Paraguay, lays Iguazú, one of the planet's most famous national parks. Still, this vast reserve (measuring 67,620 hectare / 167,093 acres) is much more than thundering waterfalls. As you’re walking the trails from one part of the falls to another, you have the chance to spot the park’s numerous reptile species, 80 types of mammals, more than 430 bird species – and over 500 species of butterfly! There are macaws, parrots, toucans and hummingbirds, black and white tegu lizards and caimans, and several species of large cats.
The park has six hiking trails. The 1.1 kilometer (0.7 mile) boardwalk out to the Garganta del Diablo (the top of Iguazú Falls) gives sight to numerous bird and reptile species (including caiman lurking in the waters!). The Circuito Inferior (1.4 kilometers / 0.9 mile) and Paseo Superior (1.9 kilometers / 1.2 miles) trails lead to different viewpoints of the cascades. Be sure to hike the little-visited Macuco Trail to get away from the crowds and closer to wildlife.
Beware that mischievous coatis hang out where the tourists are!
Closest town: Puerto Iguazú (18 kilometers / 11 miles north)
How to get there: local bus
Wildlife to see: coati, caiman, black capuchin monkeys, toucan, macaw
Best season: all year long
Lodging: hostels to five-star hotels, and camping (Puerto Iguazú), luxury hotel (national park)
Esteros del Iberá
Esteros del Iberá, the second largest wetlands in southern South America, began its life as a provincial reserve. With the donation of a large expanse of land, it is now in the process of becoming one of Argentina’s newest national parks: Parque Nacional Iberá. The main access point to Iberá is Colonia Carlos Pellegrini where the main ranger station and several hiking trails are, and boat tours into the waterways may be arranged.
Even at close range, a variety of wildlife may be seen, including howler monkeys, capybara and caimans. Floating through the estuaries will give you the opportunity to see marsh deer, caiman and many waterfowl that live on the islands. In total, Esteros del Iberá has over 40 species of amphibians (including the cucurú toad), 53 reptiles, and numerous mammals, including pampas deer, maned wolf and black howler monkey. As well, over 400 species of birds have been recorded. Sunsets and sunrises here are magical.
Closest town: Mercedes (Corrientes Province) (120 kilometers / 72 miles southwest)
How to get there: local bus
Wildlife to see: capybara, marsh deer, black howler monkey, caiman (two species); birds include jabirú and wattled jacana
Best season: year-round, though June-September is more pleasant; October for prime birdwatching
Lodging: The full gamut, from ecolodges to small hotels (Colonia Pellegrini and various estancias); also camping (Colonia Pellegrini)
Parque Nacional Pre-Delta
Before you see the wild life in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, make a stop at Parque Nacional Pre-Delta in western Entre Ríos Province. As the name implies, this 2,608-hectare (6,444-acre) park preserves the natural habitat of the islands in the pre-delta region of the Río Paraná before the river fans into the broad Río de la Plata upon which shores Buenos Aires lies. Here, the Chaco and Paranense ecosystems meet, giving you a taste of each one’s wildlife, especially birds. The entry at La Jaula has the best opportunities for wildlife seekers: boat tours, camping and hiking trails.
Closest town: Diamante (4.5 kilometers / 3 miles north of La Jaula entry)
How to get there: taxi or remis (collective taxi)
Wildlife to see: abundant birdlife, including tanagers, ducks, storks and herons; caiman, capybara, nutria, Geoffrey’s cat
Best season: austral spring (October-November) and fall (March-May); can be quite cold in winter
Lodging: hotels (Diamante), camping (La Jaula entry to national park)
Three of Argentina’s four Patagonian provinces – Río Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz (Neuquén, the fourth, is in the Andes) – stretch from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. The nature preserves on the Andean side are full of breathtaking landscapes with wildlife. But if you really want to see a wide variety of fauna, both land and marine, then travel down the coast on Ruta 3.
On the wind-swept Patagonian plains, you’ll see a whole menagerie of mammals and birds, including guanacos, maras (similar to hares), deer, rheas (an ostrich relative) and flamingos. In the frigid sea are whales, elephant seals, fur seals, sea lions, penguins, dolphins, cormorants, petrels and much more.
The best seasons to come are spring through fall (September to May). Be forewarned, though: the Patagonia is a super-popular destination for Argentinians during summer … and winters are absolutely frigid (though mostly dry).
The entire South Atlantic Coast is strung with national parks and reserves – too numerous to detail here. If time and money is not an object, then definitely check out the extensive Parque Interjurisdiccional Marino Costero Patagonia Austral (https://www.parquesnacionales.gob.ar/areas-protegidas/region-patagonia/pim-costero-patagonia-austral) between Camarones and Comodor Rivadavia. (Camarones and Bahía Bustamante are the main access points.)
Now – for some of my favorite nature reserves along Argentina’s South Atlantic Coast. If you really want to connect with nature, you can camp. You’ll be guaranteed mind-blowing walks on the wild side!
Las Grutas is a quaint, Mediterranean-style village in northern Río Negro Province. It, along with San Antonio del Oeste, is part of the Área Natural Protegida Provincial Bahía de San Antonio. From the cliffs below the village fly flocks of colorful burrowing parrots. In the spring and fall, you will see migrating whales and dolphins. In summer, sea lions loll on the long beaches.
Hike along the strands to fantastic, deserted areas like Piedras Coloradas (4 kilometers / 2.4 miles south), El Buque (7 kilometers / 4.3 miles south), El Sótano (12 kilometers / 7.2 miles from) and Cañadón de las Ostras (2 kilometers / 1.2 miles beyond El Sótano). Excursions into the hinterlands take you to the Salinas de Gualicho saltflats and the fabled Fuerte Argentino.
The waters along this coast are the warmest you’ll find in Argentina, and are great for snorkeling to discovery the underwater fauna. Wait until low tide when pools (restingas) form in the rock bed, and soak in the warmish waters (18-22ºC / 64-72ºF in summer).
Unless you wish to study the wild life of "Homo sapiens turensis argentinensis" (tourists ;)) on summer vacation (when up to a million per month arrive), it is bet to avoid the high season.
Closest town: Las Grutas
How to get there: bus
Wildlife to see: burrowing parrots, migratory shorebirds; sea lions (year-round), whales (August-October), dolphins (year-round, peak: September-November)
Best season: spring or fall (super crowded in summer; super cold in winter with few services)
Lodging: Hotels, hostels, apartments, camping
Puerto Madryn & Peninsula Valdés
The main reason people come to Puerto Madryn in Chubut Province is to see the Southern Right Whales. Because of Golfo Nuevo’s calm waters, mother whales come here to birth and nurse their young. In Puerto Madryn itself, you can witness this touching act of nature at Playa El Doradillo. Most folks, though, take a boat tour into the bay (which depart from Puerto Pirámides on the peninsula).
Península Valdés, a World Heritage Site, holds many other wildlife sighting opportunities than just whales. As your tour cuts across the steppes, you’ll see grey fox, guanaco, Patagonian mara, puma, rhea and prairie birds. The coast is home to rookeries of Magellanic penguins, elephant seals and sea lions, as well as nesting colonies of gulls, cormorants, ducks, herons and oystercatchers. Off-shore swim migrating orcas, whales and dolphins. Tours onto the peninsula visit various sites: Punta Delgada, Punta Cántor, Caleta Valdés and perhaps Punta Norte.
Closest town: Puerto Madryn (94 kilometers / 51 miles from Puerto Pirámides)
How to get there: local bus (Puerto Pirámides), tour (Península Valdés)
Wildlife to see: Southern right whales (June-December), land mammals (July-October), elephant seals (August-November), coastal birds (September-January), Magellanic Penguins (November-February), sea lions (December-March), orca (February-April)
Best season: June-February
Lodging: full gamut of lodging options, from camping and hostels to five-star hostels (Puerto Madryn); hotels, camping (Puerto Pirámides); estancias (Península Valdés)
Want to visit the largest Magellanic Penguin colony outside of Antarctica? Then go out to Punta Tombo, in Chubut Province, within the Welsh Heartland of Argentina’s Patagonia. (In fact, it is said the word “penguin” comes from the Welsh pen gwyn, meaning “white head.”) Here you can walk amongst the penguins (please, no touching!). The males arrive in September, to prepare the nests for their mates’ arrivals (and careful inspection) the following month. In November, the chicks hatch. The penguin families stick around for a few more months before heading back to sea.
Closest town: Trelew and Rawson (110 kilometers / 66 miles north)
How to get there: tour from Trelew or Rawson (even though tours are also offered from Puerto Madryn – 160 kilometers / 100 miles north – it makes for a very long day)
Wildlife to see: Magellanic penguins
Best season: September-mid-march; chicks hatch in November
Lodging: Hotels, hostels (Trelew, Rawson), camping (Playa Unión, 5 kilometers / 3 miles from Rawson); there are no lodging options at Punta Tombo
Puerto Deseado & Reserva Natural Ría Deseado
Puerto Deseado and its Reserva Natural Ría Deseado are hidden treasures in Argentina’s Santa Cruz Province. This geological quirk on the South Atlantic provides habitat to the greatest biodiversity along this coast. Over 40 kilometers (24 miles) of waterways covering 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) await your exploration.
Ría Deseado is an important nesting and resting ground for dozens of migratory marine birds. Walking along the coastal road into the reserve, you arrive at La Olla, Caleta Zar, La Trampa, La Mina and Cuevas de Picinini where crested duck, Magellan Goose, Crested Tinamou, flamingos, Patagonian mara and guanaco can be observed. On tour you can get to a variety of islands each with its resident wildlife – Chaffer (Magellanic penguin), Barranca de los Cormoranes (cormorants and shags), Larga (sea lions and various marine aves), Quinta, Quiroga (Magellanic penguins, gulls, shags), and Isla de los Pájaros (Magellanic Penguins, oystercatchers, cormorants).
At the inland end of the reserve is Miradores de Darwin, a natural phenomenon of giant, water-polished rocks strewn across a barren landscape that astounded naturalist Charles Darwin. Another great adventure is to go to Parque Interjurisdiccional Marino Isla Pingüino, lying offshore, which is home to South America’s largest colony of Rockhopper Penguin. Puerto Deseado’s and the Ría’s waters are also home to sea lions, fur seals, several types of dolphins and Southern right whales.
Closest town: Puerto Deseado
How to get there: bus; walking to reserve or tours (boating, kayaking, horseback riding) to the farthest reaches
Wildlife to see: cormorants (five species), Magellanic and Rockhopper penguins, dolphins, whales (late winter-early spring)
Best season: September-April
Website: https://turismo.deseado.gob.ar, https://www.parquesnacionales.gob.ar/areas-protegidas/region-patagonia-austral/pim-isla-pinguino (Parque Interjurisdiccional Marino Isla Pingüino)
Lodging: Hotels, cabañas, camping (Puerto Deseado); on the road into the reserve are Camping Vial Cañadón Giménez and Camping Paraguayito; no wild camping allowed in the reserve
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet and translator. She has authored ten guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 150 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa; 18 anthologies and eleven chapbooks – including the collections of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017). For more than a decade, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at: www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.