The bustling city of Buenos Aires might not be a place you’d consider exploring by boat, but the wider province is home to some stunning waterways, perfect for a lazy afternoon outing.
To the north of Argentina’s capital city, a network of waterways surrounding numerous small islands is drawing increasing attention, as both tourists and locals discover the appeal of relaxed river-side life, just a stone’s throw from the big city.
The town of Tigre (‘Tiger’ – named after the jaguars that once roamed the region) is perched on a large island in the Paraná Delta; that is, the delta of the Paraná River.
The 3,032-mile river winds through the Argentine provinces of Entre Ríos and Santa Fe, before arriving in Buenos Aires. In the latter part of its journey, the Paraná splits off into numerous arms and tributaries, creating a network of small islands – with the rivers Lujan, Sarmiento and Tigre all flowing from this maze of waterways into the enormous Rio de la Plata.
Today, Tigre and its surrounding islands have become a popular weekend destination, drawing well-to-do city folk to enjoy watersports, sailing, or a gentle trip down-river by kayak.
Joe and I were set to get an insight into this tranquil lifestyle on an Argentina4u boat tour, travelling all the way down to the magnificent Rio de la Plata and Buenos Aires city.
But our journey was to begin in the Argentine capital, where the bus picked us up from our hotel before setting out on the hour-long journey to the dock – a route that passes through the city’s wealthiest suburbs.
Escaping the downtown traffic, we drove through Los Olivos, where the Presidential house and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reside (for the time being, at least – elections are coming up in October); then it’s on to San Isidro: an old-money neighbourhood full of beautiful houses, large gardens and private security guards.
Our helpful guide shared information on the area as we passed through, painting a picture of rich history, careful preservation and steady growth.
On the edge of San Isidro, we stopped for a brief lunch and a wander around the cobbled, tree-lined streets, with their grand (occasionally crumbling) colonial houses and boutique hotels.
Back on the bus, it was just a short ride to Tigre’s main river station, where we boarded our vessel for the main part of the day’s excursion: a trip down-river, through the network of islands, and out into the Rio de la Plata.
It was the ideal day for a river jaunt, with blue skies and sunshine showcasing the attractive area, with its waterfront homes and wooden docks, in the best possible light.
The Delta area spreads over around 5,400 square miles, housing thousands of local residents know as ‘islanders’.
Traditionally, people here were artisans, living off the bounty of the land: growing plants and flowers to sell, or making traditional handicrafts, sculptures or wooden furniture.
Today the area still has an artisan air, but it's been gentrified - with elegant weekend residences and riverside mansions springing up amongst the more traditional, stilted dwellings.
Although small and divided by ribbons of water, the island community is remarkably self-sufficient, with hotels, schools, recreation centres and shops based on the various islands. There are even specialised boats that go from private pier to pier, delivering particular services – a supermarket boat, a medical boat and a bottled water delivery boat all make regular stops.
There’s also a famed historical site to visit on the riverbank, in the shape of the Sarmiento House Museum. This is the former home of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), an Argentine activist, intellectual, writer, statesman and the country's seventh President.
Sarmiento was active in encouraging people to make their homes in the Delta area, and was a major influencer in the development of this riverside community.
The house was declared a Provincial Historic Landmark in 1989, with the glass casing installed in 1996 to protect the old building. Today, operating as a museum and library, it attracts almost 50,000 visitors each weekend.
Moving into the lower San Fernando section of the Delta, there’s an immediate and obvious focus on watersports, with marinas, rowing clubs and sailing clubs lining the shores. Cheerful residents speed up and down on their launches, whilst holidaymakers whizz past slower craft on jet-skis, cutting silvery paths through the broad, brown river.
Finally, after a very enjoyable hour or so chugging downstream, admiring the scenery as we go, our boat reaches the epic Rio de la Plata basin – where the Paraná and Uruguay Rivers meet.
Named ‘the river of silver’, after the region's lucrative silver mines, the Rio de la Plata is a huge, broad basin that opens out into the Atlantic Ocean. Travelling out of the delta into this wide-open space is an incredible sight – with vast waters stretching up to the bare blue horizon on the left, and the skyline of beautiful Buenos Aires on the right.
There is, however, an uglier side to the area’s history. Coming along the coast into town, we pass the Parque Memoria: a peaceful flowered space conserved in memory of los desparicidos (the disappeared), people who were kidnapped and killed during the terrible years of Argentina’s military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983.
Our tour guide explains that many of the free thinkers who were snatched by secret government operatives during the ‘Dirty War’ were thrown from planes into the river, in what were called los vuelos de la muerte: death flights. For many years, there was an implacable stench over the water, and a considerable number of bodies washed up on riverbanks.
Today, although the past is not forgotten, the city, the river and the Delta waterways are a much happier, more enjoyable place to be.
And really, there are few more pleasant ways to get a different perspective on the Buenos Aires region – and its history – than by taking a sunny afternoon boat-ride from Tigre, out into the start of the brilliant, blue ocean.
This post is in partnership with tour company Argentina4u; find out
more about their range of tours around the country here.