Ituzaingo Wildlife

Some days, it’s rough to be in rural Argentina. In general, it can be tough to be in a town of 2,000-3,000 people, but it’s even rougher when the nearest city (and, to be honest, next bit of civilization) is an hour away and when you’re still very much considered the “outsiders.”

One of the higher points of living in this area, though, is the wildlife. From huge tegu lizards walking across the beach, geckos walking across the sliding door, and a herd of parrots squawking  in the palm tree–there’s a lot of stuff here that’s different from the US. No one here has ever seen a squirrel, but they don’t blink when a huge tarantula runs across the road. Every morning I get to watch the wild guinea pigs scurry on the side of the road. And then, I get to see the Rodents of Unusual Size…

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Every day we see carpinchos (capybara) on our way to work. Carpincho is the Argentinian word for these hundred pound guinea pigs, whereas Capybara is actually the Brazilian Portuguese term. Traveling in herds of up to dozens of individuals, these semi-aquatic animals are some of the coolest things we get to see here.

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They’re surprisingly fast for a short, squat animal. We’ve stopped multiple times to try and just take a closer look at them, only to have them take off like a shot in the opposite direction.

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I was surprised to learn that carpinchos make a much different noise than guinea pigs. Like guinea pigs, they can make “clucking” and “purring noises” to indicate happiness, but carpinchos can also make almost birdlike “chirps” as well as some crying noises (almost like a bird crying) when they are in distress.

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They are incredibly social, and we’ll often see what we refer to as “daycares” in a certain hollow, where it’s all mothers and dozens of babies. It’s very cute.

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The other animal we get to see every once in a while are marsh deer. Notoriously shy, these animals (very similar to the North American mule deer) are categorized as vulnerable. Where we live, it’s illegal to hunt these deer at all–but it does happen. The area we live and work is has been the site of some particularly interesting environmental impacts, so Ituzaingo and the surrounding marshlands are considered a prime area for marsh deer breeding and reintroduction. We often see a solitary deer peeking out of the bushes sometimes in the mornings. We’re not sure if it’s the same deer every time, but it’s always a treat to spy him.

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Fiesta Nacional de la Yerra y Doma Correntina 2015

Each year, our sleepy little river town comes alive for a weekend full of gaucho culture. The local fairgrounds fill up with horses and cattle for the yearly Fiesta Nacional de la Yerra y Doma. Ostensibly a festival where the guachos bring cattle for branding (which does still happen), it has more a a country-fair-meets-rodeo. A decent number of people live in houses on sprawling ranches outside of town limits, and this is one of their excuses to spend a weekend in town celebrating their way of life with other gaucho families. (An aside: “going into town” in this context sounds very “Little House on the Prairie,” doesn’t it? In this case, it’s really true–a lot of these gauchos see going into town as a rare treat.)

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You may remember we went to the festival last year as well. Whereas last year we saw the Argentinian gaucho equivalent of barrel racing, this year we saw the bucking bronco competition. What seems to happen is that they take a half-broke horse in from the pasture, and then challenge all of the gauchos to see who can ride the bucking horse longest. There’s a lot of horses in the fields that don’t seem to be broken at all, so it doesn’t appear to be hard to find a “wild” horse for this event. T got some incredible pictures.

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One of the advantages of living in rural, rural Argentina is that we see gauchos every day. We pass them riding their horses to the fields every day, and see them in their traditional clothes in the grocery store. Cultural heritage in our area isn’t just something that they engage in on special occasions–this is indeed their lifestyle. It’s been amazing seeing this side of Argentina.

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The gaucho is considered the Argentinian national folk hero and symbol–so much so, that one of the greatest Argentinian literature pieces is the epic gaucho poem Martin Fierro. They’re seen as industrious, feisty, rebellious outsiders–in stark contrast to the corruption and riches of the city. In reality, gauchos don’t just belong to Argentina–the word is used anywhere on the pampas or Gran Chaco, and includes Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and southern Brazil.

Also, if you’re liking the photos, be sure to check out T’s Flickr Page. He’s a great photographer.

Animal Adventures: Green Anaconda and Burrowing Owl

Sometimes, at work, life gets interesting. Our work area borders a nature preserve, so we see lots of carpinchos (capybaras), yacare (crocodiles), and other assorted animals on a regular basis. A few weeks ago, we met two more of the area’s inhabitants.

This is a green anaconda. And this is the baby.

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It was about seven feet long, and they can allegedly grow up to 29 feet and weigh up to 550 lbs (thanks, wikipedia).In reality, they’re the biggest snakes on the planet by weight.

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They’re constrictors, so they choke their food to death and swallow them whole.. A group of anacondas, which is what we have somewhere on our island, is referred to as a “bed” or “knot”.  We saw this guy crossing the road, and T stopped to grab a few pictures. They’re pretty slow on land, but incredibly fast in water.

We also have a  family of burrowing owls on site. They’re adorable little owls that often steal ground squirrel nests to make their homes.

IMG_0932Since rattlesnakes also tend to steal ground squirrel nests (ground squirrels must spend a lot of time making holes…), the owls have learned to make rattling and hissing sounds to scare away predators like our friend the anaconda.

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You’ve probably seen burrowing owls in the movies before–they were the Mariachi owls in “Rango,” Digger in the insufferable-but-beautiful “Owls of Ga’Hoole,” and one appears in Pixar’s short “Boundin’.” We’re hoping that since we’re  moving into spring, we’ll be able to see some owelets at some point! They aren’t terribly scared of humans, and tend to congregate near roads, so whenever we drive by, we see little owl heads peeking out burrows.

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Iguazu Falls, Argentina–Lower Circuit and Boat Ride

After our four hour drive from Ituzaingo to Iguazu, we settled into the Sheraton and decided to tackle a part of the lower trail. However, there was a fine but steady rain throughout the entire hike–so we didn’t get many usable pictures. We decided to try it again on the second day, after the Sendero Macuco Trail.

Argentina’s lower circuit is a nice hike, with well-kept wood-slat walkways and stairs. It offers fantastic opportunities to see the falls up close and personal–and we definitely got up close!

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A lot of people asked us if we had the opportunity to see the Garganta del Diablo–Devil’s Throat. We didn’t–earlier in the year, there was some serious flooding in this area, and it wiped out the entire viewing trail for Garganta del Diablo. We did, however, see some of the wreckage on riverbanks while hiking.

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Also, due to high water levels, we couldn’t go to the island in the middle of the falls–Isla de San Martin. However–I don’t think we missed much! The views were fantastic, and several times we had to just stop and pinch ourselves that they were real.

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One thing that is a “don’t miss” activity on the Argentinian side is the Iguazu Jungle boat ride. You strap into a life jacket, head onto a boat, put all of your belongings in a watertight bag, and then prepare to get wet. After a cruise to both sets of waterfalls for photo purposes, the boat takes you back around and absolutely drenches everyone by essentially parking underneath a waterfall. We’re glad we did this as our last activity on the trail! By the time we got off the boat, my sneakers were filled with water.  Pro Tip: The Sheraton offers a drying only laundry service, and it’s 20% the cost of a normal laundry service. Unfortunately, they don’t do shoes. So bring several pairs if you’re planning on doing the boat ride.

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We also saw some fun animals along the way–lizards, birds, and of course, more coati. The coati aren’t afraid of humans at all, and in some cases will try to steal the food right out of your hand! Don’t try to pet them, though–they are still wild animals, and there are some pretty graphic signs around the park showing what a coati can do to someone’s hand.

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Iguazu Falls, ARG: Guira Oga

T and I spent the weekend celebrating our second (!!) wedding anniversary at Iguazu Falls. I know most reviews tend to focus on the falls at first–but I decided to work in reverse chronological order and get to the falls next.

On our final day in Igauzu, we decided to go to Guira Oga.  Guira Oga is a wildlife refuge right on the outskirts of Puerto Iguazu proper. It’s easy to see the huge sign from the road. It’s 85 pesos to get in, and they only accept cash (efectivo)–something we totally forgot and had to make a quick Macro Bank run into town!

Guira Oga started as a veterinary sanctuary and park for birds, but has since expanded to include all sorts of animals. Although there are apparently guides available in English, there weren’t any there on our Sunday trip, so we took the normal Spanish tour. You can only take the guided tours–there are no self-guided options, mainly for the benefits of the animals. Thankfully, although my technical Spanish is lacking, my “animal” Spanish is pretty good. We took a tractor and wagon ride about 1.5km into the woods (which felt kind of like a jungle hayride) to the first stop, and hiked the rest of it with the group. We had a small group of Argentinians–a family and a couple from Buenos Aires, and then us.

We started our hike with a quick intro into the Guira Oga philosophy. They tend to get a lot of animals from the nearby Igauzu National Park who are injured, as well as a number of animals that were either kept as illegal pets or confiscated at the border as part of the black market animal business. They try to rehabilitate and re-release as many of the animals as possible, and those that would not survive in the wild are used for either educational purposes or are put into a breeding program.

DSC_7317 Since their original focus was the hundreds of bird species native to Misiones province, birds were well-represented at Guira Oga. Lots of beautifully colored parrots and toucans squawked and flew around airy enclosures.

DSC_7323 DSC_7336 DSC_7339 DSC_7347 DSC_7348Also, they had an enclosure full of capuchin monkeys. These are the monkeys in “Night at the Museum,” among other movies. They are native to this area and were absolutely adorable, hamming it up for our cameras.

DSC_7371 DSC_7386 DSC_7390 DSC_7398 DSC_7399Along the trail, much to T’s simultaneous fascination and dismay, there were lots of HUGE spiders. The guide was explaining to us about one species that was as big as a man’s palm that the US Army uses its web to spin textiles from.

DSC_7407We saw lots of coati (similar to raccoons) at Iguazu National Park, and one of the more common animals that Guira Oga treats is the coatis that run out into the road and get hit. This guy was just hanging out and watching us.

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We saw several wild cats at Guira Oga. Since they’re normally so shy in nature, this is probably the closest we’ll ever get to seeing them in the wild. There was a beautiful leopard, as well as a jagaurundi. The jaguarundi (which I can’t remember ever seeing before!) looks like a house cat on steroids. Low to the ground, gray in color, and not that much larger than a housecat, it ripples with obviously strong muscles.

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After we passed through the nursery area where they were hatching some owlets, we went into the reptile section. There, we saw an armadillo, some turtles, a yacare (crocodile), an iguana, and tortoises.

DSC_7428 DSC_7448 DSC_7451 DSC_7465 DSC_7472Also, Guira Oga had some large birds of prey outside. It’s one thing to see them flying in the sky–and an entirely different thing to realize how absolutely huge their wingspan is when they’re ten feet away!

DSC_7484 DSC_7481After checking out a wild pig and a much larger yacare…

DSC_7489 DSC_7491We saw the sanctuary’s herd of howler monkeys. Able to make a call that can be herd up to 5km away, the males have black fur while the females have brown fur. The guide told us that this group was being kept as pets in Buenos Aires… until the owners realized what a bad situation they had gotten themselves into!

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As usual, one of my favorite animals at the sanctuary was the carpincho, or capybara, as they are more commonly known in the States. Although this poor guy didn’t have a mate, he did have a ducky friend and was happily posing for us. I wish we had gotten a photo of him showing his teeth–they are not to be messed with!

DSC_7550 DSC_7547I highly recommend checking out Guira Oga if you’re in Iguazu Falls. It’s not a long trip–only about two hours from start to finish, but definitely worth your while to see lots of animals up close, and to contribute to a very worthy cause. These pictures don’t even include all of the animals on the tour–we just couldn’t get all the great shots we wanted.

Buenos Aires–Bioparque Temaiken

T and I just made it to a big work milestone, so we decided to take a few vacation days and continue our exploration of all of the sights of Buenos Aires!

One of the first items on our list was Bioparque Temaiken. It’s about 40 minutes outside of Buenos Aires (although a little longer for us, since our taxi got stuck in major traffic due to some sort of political demonstration). All in all, it’s about 50 km outside of the city in Belen de Escobar, which is a suburb of the city very reminiscent of a US suburb. It cost us about AR$170 (or approximately $14USD) each to get in. If you take a taxi, make sure they are willing to wait for you! There’s virtually no taxis in this area. Ours cost AR$1500 ($125) which included the ride there and back, plus four hours of waiting. There are buses that go there (see Viator for the most up-to-date offers) for about $50 per person, including admission and a private guide–but we figured that out after the fact.

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We loved Temaiken. Their focus is on preserving wildlife, rehabilitating animals caught in the illegal exotics trade, and protecting wildlife native to Argentina. All of the enclosures were clean, airy, and bright, and you could get so close to all of the animals. We have never been to a zoo where the animals were so active and looked so happy. Although there are no guide books in English, it’s pretty easy to figure out which animal is which. They do have a 360 degree theatre, which offers one show a day in English. We missed that, though, because we were too busy watching all of the animals! We remarked several times that Temaiken felt like one of the most “American” things we’ve done down here–in that it was clean, modern, well-organized, and everything seemed to happen on schedule. They had several very cute playgrounds for kids, which were well maintained and the kids seemed to really be enjoying! Lots of shade, lots of places to stop and rest.

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Another great kid activity? The farm animal/petting zoo area. It was filled with cows, chickens, sheep, and goats. Also–the lushest vegetable garden (or huerta) we have seen yet. We were definitely salivating as we looked at the huge vegetables, and plotting how to make our own huerta look half as good!

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Bioparque Temaiken is just one portion of the Fundación Temaiken’s mission. Up in our neighboring province, Missiones, they have a full rehabilitation center. They also have a full breeding center outside of Buenos Aires (for those Smithsonian Zoo buffs, it works pretty much exactly like Front Royal). They attract a lot of school groups, and focus their efforts on educating kids to respect the environment, not keep exotics as pets, and teach them about their country.The main attraction was the monkeys, and they had cute little signs all around the park that said things like “Monkeys don’t wear deodorant,” “Monkeys don’t use WiFi,” and “Monkeys don’t use mattresses.”  Very cute.

_DSC0202 There was an on-site animal hospital showing some of the current animals that are receiving rehabilitation. There was an adorable baby aardvark there (did you know they cling to their mother’s back for the first nine months of their lives?), plus some snakes and lizards. In an outdoor pen, they had a sloth that had been hit by a car in Corrientes province (where we are) and received care, and a monkey that had been found in the black market.

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The variety of animals was kind of astonishing–beautiful bright pink flamingos, various varieties of antelope, peacocks, yacares (crocodiles), and much more!

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I think this is one of the only zoos I know of that has a bat (murcielago) exhibit–and you could even go into the enclosure on this one. These were vampire bats, and they were HUGE.

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Our most exciting portion of the day was in the large bird area. T is apparently very popular with birds. We went up to an observation deck in the African bird area, and when we went down the stairs, a bird decided that a step belonged to him, and attacked T’s shoelaces. We had a small crowd watching as the bird pecked feverishly at T’s feet for a while. (No worries–he was wearing steel toe shoes, and we ended up going down the other set of stairs and retracing our steps.)

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Later on, in the parrot area (which was awesome–you can get so close to such beautiful birds) there were two blue parrots that were not happy about life. They were cackling at people and being fairly aggressive. Unfortunately, they were also right next to the exit door. At one point, the birds flew at a little boy! Again, it was T to the rescue–he let the parrots attack his steel toes while I and some other zoo patrons made it through the door.

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The were biting at the cage bars after we left the enclosure!

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Just a few parrots strolling through the underbrush.

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They may look calm here–but these are the two infamous blue parrots.

_DSC0543 _DSC0549 The rest of the bird area was great–again, very active animals and lots of great photo opportunities!

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Temaiken even has an aquarium, complete with some great exhibitions on both local and more exotic fish. There’s a huge tank of rays (which are native to here–we see one near the dam at work all of the time), and there was a really impressive tank filled with giant rays, sharks, and some of the bigger fish. We couldn’t get great photos of that–too dark, but got some other good ones!

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This is a piranha. They are deceptively pretty, with gold sparkles.

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There was a part of the park more dedicated to local fauna–such as the rhea (sort of like a slightly smaller ostrich that’s brown), and maras (which are pretty much what you would get if you crossed a capybara/carpincho with a rabbit).  Maras are one of the national animals of Argentina–and you’ll hear more about them in a later blog post!

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All in all, we had a great time and highly recommend Temaiken to anyone who is visiting Buenos Aires and has a spare day to get out of the city center!

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