El Impenetrable National Park – bright future from a dark past
El Impenetrable National Park in the Chaco province of Argentina is a mystical, wonderful place full of secrets revealed to the traveler willing to listen quietly and look with patient eyes. It is also home to the second-largest forested area in South America, second only to the Amazon. This story was awarded a silver medal by the North American Travel Writers Association for travel writing excellence.
The hacienda, built in 1907 and now just inside El Impenetrable National Park in Argentina, is but a shadow of its former self. At once haunting and beautiful, the buildings are being quickly reclaimed by the power of nature. I stood for a moment near the entrance to this former estate, with only the sounds of nesting blue-crowned parakeets and many other birds echoing in the trees around me. Peeking through broken windows, and cautiously stepping inside sagging doorways, I see only pieces of furniture, cracked mirrors, and an old wall calendar with a young girl’s face staring out from its curled and yellowed pages. It is clear the only ones now calling this once grand place home are rodents, snakes, peccaries, and perhaps a few hundred bats.
As I slipped back into the jungle and headed toward a nearby lagoon, the cacophony of birds quieted, and a wind began whispering through the branches above my head. Peering into the dark shadows beside the trail, I wondered what I was not seeing or hearing that caused the birds suddenly to go silent — or perhaps what was seeing or hearing me. One thing I did know for certain — El Impenetrable in the Chaco region is a mystical, wonderful place full of secrets that will be revealed only to the traveler willing to take the time to listen quietly and look around with patient eyes. The place truly earns its other moniker, “Chaco el Secreto de Argentina.”
From death, there is life
Not so long ago, the historic farmhouse was owned by Manuel Roseo, along with the surrounding 615,000-acre La Fidelidad estancia (ranch). Italian-born Roseo had become one of the largest ranchers in the Northern Argentina region, but his vision for the estate did not match up with those who wished to clear-cut the forest and turn it into industrial agricultural land. After rebuffing numerous attempts to purchase his property, Roseo, then 75, and his sister-in-law Nelly Bartolomé, also 75, were discovered on Jan. 13, 2011, in the northern Argentine town of Juan José Castelli with nylon bags tied over their heads, having been badly beaten and then asphyxiated. Though violent and tragic, it was from this death that a permanent life for the land and its people began to take shape. By fall of 2011, the province of Chaco prosecuted Roseo’s murderers and, at the same time, expropriated the land to protect it from those who wished to destroy it. Though not well known outside of Argentina, except by ecologists and scientists, Chaco is home to the second-largest forested area in South America, second only to the Amazon. But when it comes to man-made deforestation, Chaco is first – not a title it is proud of. Suddenly, there was a chance to protect a huge green jewel that had, to this point, survived clear-cutting. The government of Chaco gave groups interested in saving the land two years to raise 60 million pesos to purchase it (at the time approximately $12 million).
It did not take too long, thanks to a sophisticated marketing and public relations blitz, for the idea of creating a new national park from the former La Fidelidad estancia to be embraced by the public as well as key government officials. Argentine and other international conservationists (including the Conservation Land Trust, created by the late Doug Tompkins), ecologists, businesses, legislators, and NGOs worked together to raise the funds and create the plan under which the national park would be formed. In October 2014, the 316,000-acre El Impenetrable National Park was designated. Still, it took three more years before El Impenetrable, now the largest national park in northern Argentina, was officially inaugurated and open to the public. That inauguration took place near the town of La Armonía in Chaco on August 25, 2017.
Wild and diverse environment
It is the diversity of habitat that makes El Impenetrable so spectacular, and an inviting destination for adventure travelers, bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world. Within its borders, El Impenetrable plays host to one of the largest remaining wetlands in the region, wide expanses of grassland, riparian forests, palm forests, Cardón cacti forests and upland woodlands of Quebracho trees.
That habitat provides homes for puma, maned wolf, giant armadillo, tapir, giant anteater, howler monkeys, coatis, and peccaries. It is hoped that jaguars (hunted to extinction in the region) will return to the protected park. There are literally hundreds of exotic bird species too, including crowned eagle, jabiru, blue-fronted amazon, black-bodied woodpecker, Chaco Chachalaca, skimmer and rufous-fronted thorn bird.
El Impenetrable earns its name
“So, you’re not your typical tourist.”
Arriving at the entrance to El Impenetrable National Park is an adventure unto itself. As my taxi driver was taking me to the airport in Buenos Aires in October for my flight to Resistencia, he asked where I was headed. When I told him the Chaco province and El Impenetrable, he turned, stared at me, then stated in a most serious voice, “So, you’re not your typical tourist.” And with that he looked back toward the road, leaving me to ponder his meaning. It is true that for now, and perhaps for a few more years to come, El Impenetrable is not going to be a destination for a tourist bent on amenities and four- to five-star accommodations. It is, however, a playground for those who seek adventure on their travel menu.
Once you arrive in Resistencia, you will travel by car (or chartered plane, if the weather permits, which it did not for one leg of my journey) approximately 275 kilometers (171 miles) on mostly dirt roads to the town of Juan José Castelli. From there, it’s still 103 more kilometers (63 miles) of driving on ever-rougher dirt roads (if it is dry the dust can be blinding) through Miraflores and then on to the park’s main entrance near La Armonía.
For much of the drive to La Armonía, the road cuts through swaths of endless forest – Quebracho, carob tree, and itin. Small communities of adobe brick homes appear here and there, as does the odd ramshackle ranch. It doesn’t take one long to realize Chaco is a very poor province.
Adventure tourism seen as economic lifeline
The grandiose vision for the Gran Chaco region, which includes the park, is to establish a world-renown ecotourism destination that mirrors the Pantanal in Brazil and various national parks in Africa. The goal is to attract adventure travelers from all over the globe to come experience not only the natural beauty and wildlife, but also the ancestral wisdom and cultures of the Qom, Wichi and Criollos people. El Impenetrable is seen as the crown jewel in this master plan with the hope it will help create an economic engine powerful enough to support one of Argentina’s poorest regions.
I visited two communities – Misión Nueva Pompeya and Fortin Lavalle – to learn how the local people were already working to welcome adventure travelers and share their artisan culture. The creation of these artisan centers, coupled with the selling of handicraft items, has already become a primary source of income and pride for each community – not to mention a connection to the outside world via the Internet (Matriarca is a collective that sells their wares internationally). Each of the small artisan centers also serves to teach others (including younger members of their own community) about how the textiles and handicrafts are created and thus keep ancient traditions and the languages alive. These artisan centers clearly provide hope and opportunity in the face of an ongoing struggle with poverty, allowing the people to hold on to their cultural identity as they share that with travelers.
When our group arrived at the Artesania Wichi, located in the village of Misión Nueva Pompeya, we were greeted warmly, Argentine style, with a light embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Then the elder woman began to demonstrate (with our translator, Juan, explaining in English) how the women turn chaguar leaves into the fibers they weave into colorful bags, belts and mats. First, the leaves are soaked overnight. Then, with the leaves separated into bundles, the women beat the bundles with an iron bar or wooden mallet and separate the fibers from the pulp with their hands. The fibers are then dried in the sun and either left in their natural state – a slightly off-white color – or dipped into cans or other containers full of dye. Each dye is itself created from bark, roots, leaves or seeds, also collected from the trees and land around them.
To begin weaving, the elder woman took two strands of fiber, placed them in an overlapping stagger and then rolled the fibers rapidly back and forth between her thigh and the palm of her hand, joining the fibers together. She kept adding strands as she worked to create one long thread.
Depending on what is being woven, the women use either a traditional loom or the back of a chair with a thread of chaguar tied horizontally between the supports on the chair’s back. A long cactus spine is used to measure and work with the loops. Most of the patterns I saw were derived from the natural world around the village – owls, iguana, vicuña, etc.
Children crowded shyly around the window at another stop in Fortin Lavalle, peeking in as our group entered the Qom adobe brick handcraft center there – QomlashepiOnataxanaxaipi. The translation of that amazingly long word means, simply, “Qom women workers.”
We had just finished walking for several hours in the forest with several of the woman from the center. On the walk, they showed us the connection each of them has to the land and its plants — for medicine, for food, for clothing, for baskets. It was not until quite recently that the women used machetes to help them cut the saw-tooth leaves needed for weaving. Before the machete, they employed a dangerous technique of tearing off the leaves, which could leave painful tears and permanent scars on the hands.
Back at the center, we are shown how the women shred the palm leaves with tree thorns and then weave the various baskets from the dried fibers. Laughter ensued as a number of us tried, with varying degrees of success, to weave our own creations under careful and most patient tutelage.
Into the “impenetrable”
We drove into the park from La Armonía via the Urunday bridge, the only bridge for vehicles that crosses the Bermejito River. It is here you find the main entrance to El Impenetrable National Park, including ranger accommodations and a headquarters building. Beyond the entrance though, it is as yet mostly untamed land. Yes, there are nice wooden signs, and dirt roads that have been constructed, but make no mistake, this is place for high-clearance trucks – 4WD even better. Our intrepid group of four trucks managed to get stuck in the mud once, resulting in an hour-long adventure of digging, pushing, tugging and, eventually, once unstuck, a high-speed slip and slide race through additional mud to prevent further entrapment.
The main route, which we drove a number of times as we explored various parts of the park, wasn’t so muddy, and passes by very scenic open grasslands, the Laguna del Suri, and Pozo de los Yacarés (a lagoon near the old farm house).
Though we spent three days in the park itself, including one motoring up the Rio Bermejo Tueco to an overnight camping spot, wildlife of the larger mammal variety was proving particularly shy. Bird sightings, though, were out of this world – jabiru, cocoi heron, blue-crowned parakeets, charata, crested paroara, black jacarini, and many more.
Only when we left the vehicles on the last day to walk up a forested road did we encounter a red brocket deer and a family of peccaries. Part of the current challenge for wildlife viewing is that until very recently, the wildlife within the park has been hunted so the wildlife is, understandably, very timid. Additionally, the vegetation is very dense (impenetrable, right?), making it hard to see more than a few feet beyond any road or trail edges. There are currently plans to construct up to six “ecolodges” within the park that will be solar-powered and collect rainwater for any drinking and bathing. Each lodge will house up to 16 people, dormitory style, and include catering services, wildlife viewing opportunities and local craft shops. Perhaps most importantly, by providing a fixed location where wildlife can become accustomed to people, the opportunity to view wildlife more frequently and up close will be enhanced.
On our last night the park, I had the opportunity to speak with a staff member at an established research camp within El Impenetrable. She told me of regular tapir and giant armadillo sightings, including one armadillo that was setting up a den right near the camp. Demonstrating that once wildlife becomes accustomed to people, they will show themselves. The lodges are slated for completion toward the end of 2018 and into the first part of 2019. It is expected that this will serve to open the doors to ecotourism and adventure travel on a much larger scale.
There are more secrets to be told
As our single-engine plane banked over the forest below, I stared deep into the green blanket with a thick blue ribbon of water running through it. Beneath me, I could make out the roof of the farmhouse, a place where I had been standing only days before. The plane’s shadow skipped over the treetops of El Impenetrable National Park, and I wondered … how many more secrets are waiting for me down there when I next return?