Crossing Borders – Tigre to Carmelo

27 Mar

Mention the words ‘South American’ and ‘border crossing’ in the same sentence and travelers will often take a sharp intake of breath.  They can be places of frustration and nervousness, with ramshackle government buildings, long queues, stern faces, bag searches and occasionally demands for bribes.  In contrast to this image, one of our most pleasurable border crossings in all of South America was from Tigre in Argentina to Carmelo in Uruguay by small passenger ferry through the beautiful Parana River Delta.  This crossing is not only simple and straight forward but also offers gorgeous scenery, a chance to experience local life and a taste of adventure.

18 miles north of central Buenos Aires, Tigre is where porteños (Buenos Aires locals) come to unwind and reconnect with nature.  From downtown Retiro railway station it’s a 45 minute journey and trains run roughly three times an hour.

The area’s name originally came from the “tigres”, known as jaguars these days, which were hunted there.  Early European settlers cultivated the lush area for fruit and timber and a large port developed for exports.

Tigre boomed in the early-20th-century as an upmarket tourist destination, before its decline as Argentinians turned their attentions to beach resorts on the Atlantic coast. Nowadays, Tigre is on the rise once again and a lovely place to spend the day.

Newly built walkways follow the curving Río Luján and weeping willow branches gently stir the surface of coffee coloured water.  Green parks with tall palm trees and neatly manicured gardens offer families a space to picnic and play football. Restoration projects have brought crumbling belle-époque buildings back to their former glory and the half-timbered mock Tudor buildings reminded us of many parts of the UK. Several of these buildings now house impressive galleries and museums such as the Tigre Art Museum, based in the beautifully renovated former casino.

The lively Puerto de Frutos market, similar to the popular San Telmo market, had a bohemian vibe with live music and street performers, selling a great range of locally produced artisanal crafts and food. Rowing and boating clubs lining the riverside had also being converted into antique shops and funky cafes where we were pleased to linger during a warm afternoon.

The ‘launchas colectivas’ or small boats, departing for Uruguay, leave from the Fluvial Terminal located on the riverbank next to Avenida Mitre.  Two boats depart daily (early morning and late afternoon) and tickets can be purchased over the counter or booked online.  The boats are very comfortable and fitted with lounge seats, TV’s and a small café to purchase snacks and drinks so all you have to do it sit back and relax. Prior to embarking, it’s necessary to exit through Argentinian Immigration at the terminal and then enter Uruguay through Immigration when arriving in Carmelo.

The journey to Carmelo takes passengers through a section of the Parana Delta, a vast wetland region covering 5,405 square miles.  The delta is one of the largest on the planet and second only to the Amazon.  Its network of crisscrossing tributaries stretches from central Argentina to the wide mouth of the River Plate, which separates Argentina and Uruguay.

We were excited to see this truly unique landscape dotted with hundreds of sedimentary islands covered in lush green land and forests.

As our boat weaved its way out of Tigre we waved at people as we passed under low bridges.  Further out of town the river traffic became quieter and shiny wooden boats ferried locals to stilted wooden houses dotting the banks.  Colourful tropical birds squawked as they flew overhead in one of the World’s great bird watching spots. Everything was “Tranquilla”.

The backwaters around Tigre are home to a thriving community of around 4,000 residents and there are many more on summer weekends.  The romance of the area is very seductive and draws artists, writers and creative types looking to get away from it all.  For those looking for adventure, activities such as horseback riding, fishing, kayaking, yoga and walking can also be arranged locally.

As our boat cruised along the river, we peered into grassy back gardens and decided which house we’d pick as our own.  We watched entrepreneurial boats kitted out as floating supermarkets as they flitted between islands.  What a complete escape from the mainland!  We smelt delicious aromas of asados (meat barbecues) as families prepared dinner on rickety jetties.

As we reached open water, the islands we encountered were mostly uninhabited. Further up-stream, people still work on the land, there is no electricity and little has changed there in years. In contrast, looking back toward Buenos Aires, the pace of progress and modernisation is apparent, with the tall city skyline floating on the horizon.

The sun was setting as we approached sleepy Carmelo. The surrounding countryside was filled with woodlands and vineyards (some of Uruguay’s best they like to boast).  We disembarked onto a wooden pier where smaller boats bobbed and creaked.  Further around the bay, the sandy Playa Sere, backed by tall green trees, was bathed in a golden glow.  We had arrived rather effortlessly in Uruguay.

We threw on our backpacks and walked along the central promenade, past whitewashed churches and pastel coloured villas leading to the main square. The small town had a relaxed vibe. There were very few tourists and the locals resembled cowboys. It felt like we’d stepped back in time. There were plenty of accommodation options from budget hostels to boutique hotels but as we were just staying for one night, we simply switched on our detective skills to track down Carmelo’s best steak restaurant.

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