by Tim Dawe
Argentina’s capital is big; approximately 16 million people reside in greater Buenos Aires, depending on who’s counting. And it’s crowded. At 1500 per square kilometre its downtown population density is one of the highest in the world. So discovering the “outer suburb” of Tigre comes as a bit of a surprise.
Tigre is a town 30km north of Buenos Aires sitting on the southern edge of the unique, 1400sqkm Delta del Paraná, where the Río Paraná settles its muddy waters over wetlands of veiny waterways and pockmarks of islands. After thousands of kilometres tumbling over the spectacular Iguaçu Falls, and gouging out jungle soil, this mighty river ends its journey staining a gigantic yellow plume in an even mightier river: Río de la Plata, or River Plate. Tigre is the starting point to explore this wetland wilderness.
It’s high on my list of day trips here. I plum for the number 60 bus – cheap but a bit of a stop-start mistake getting out of spread-out city. My posterior numbs. I decide to return by train.
We lumber through former market towns until, suddenly, with a jolting sharp right turn we’re in a quiet residential street. Here are suburban bungalows on single blocks, some even with a car in a driveway – so different from my 14th floor apartment in a concrete canyon pulsating with a never-ceasing flow of vehicles and people.
The journey ends at the end of the main street lined with one-storey shops. I alight to a surreal landscape: the train station, Estación Tigre, is seemingly made of wooden blocks from toy town. It faces a roundabout of manicured lawn and willows edging a small river. It may be only 30km from downtown Buenos Aires but it’s a million miles from the “Paris of the South” and its ornate 19th century architecture.
Getting my bearings I amble over a bridge passing the crumbling ruins of what were stately town mansions. The rain holds off but the sky remains defiantly grey. Along the Lavalle River I find a ticket box advertising a river cruise in 10 minutes, but no seller. Luckily skipper Gaetano is on board and tells me his family has been plying this river for forty years. After waiting 30 minutes with five others Gaetano announces he has a delayed tourist bus arriving in 15 minutes. Ah, 42 extra passengers; well worth his wait!
The lack of commentary is welcome as we leave the Lavalle River for a tributary, then another and another, just going with the flow. These waterways are the only roads and go for hundreds of kilometres. Our return is dependent on Gaetano’s experienced local knowledge.
We pass the large weekend mansions of the wealthy, some with Tudor livery not out of place on the Thames. Tigre is a favourite weekend wilderness retreat for jaded Porteños from Buenos Aires. Those without mansions can rent a tent in a camping ground, and a boat for 15 pesos an hour and still enjoy Tigre’s holiday atmosphere.
A convenience store-cum-petrol station on stilts dispenses bread, eggs and petrol to the gentry in their carriage of choice: the vintage mahogany motor launch. On the right bank a swimming pool has been created by digging out a rectangular patch. We top it up with our latte-coloured wash. Canals replace streets and footpaths, prompting the thought: “Venice of the South”. Naturally, boating and water sports predominate and there is evidence of an established rowing fraternity.
At each turn of the wheel we see something unexpected. The imposing 130-year-old Club de Regatas la Marina is resplendent with turret and cupola. Its multistorey grey bulk, set against a jungle backdrop, looks more mysterious than exclusive. There’s a rusting wreck, possibly a long-distance ferry, set at a sharp angle in the mangroves. And everywhere our motorised noise goes a multitude of birds reach for the sky. Who knows what water-loving animals lurk beyond – South American “tigers” perhaps?
For the nature lover there are boardwalks through the jungle with well-designed information displays informing of the wildlife and their habitat. Animals include marsh deer, otter and capybara, a huge rodent. But the hunted-out yaguarete (jaguar), mistakenly “tiger”, that gives the town its name, has long gone, prompting the thought: “shot through”.
Returning to port it’s time for lunch and a walk to see Tigre’s big drawcard, Puerto de Frutos (fruit port) on the Lujan River. Formerly a mainstay export it’s now a favourite craft and fruit market for local and visitor alike. There’s also an old casino and the little two-station rail line to San Isidro, once the coastal train route, now a touristic enterprise.
Rowing is a big deal here judging by the soaring Rowing Club of Buenos Aires. It looks like an Oxbridge college and exemplifies the Argentine establishment’s love affair with British gentry – and sports such as polo. These up-market sporting establishments were founded by the rich and idle during Argentina’s zenith in the late 19th century before fashions turned to beaches.
Tigre is not all swimming and volleyball. It has several museums: the eye-popping Museo de Arte Tigre, Naval de Nación (navy), Reconquista (history of the reconquest of Buenos Aires), and galleries dedicated to artists and architects such as Xul Solar, Miguel D’Arienso and Argentina’s “philosopher king”, Domingo Sarmiento. Naturally, being Argentina, there is considerable choice in dining, with many elegant restaurants in close proximity to water, some set over the river.
In the late afternoon I return to “toy town’s” train station to purchase the 95ȼ ticket and find I have a forty-five minute wait; one I enjoy at a nearby café formed out of the informal space between four buildings covered by a three-storey high tarpaulin roof. As the only customer I glean from posters there’s a buzzing nightlife in Tigre when this café transforms itself into a jazz club. I guess I need to come back on a summer weekend and stay longer. But I am happy with today’s peace and quiet.
Unlike BA’s metro system, this train on the Mitre Line is uncrowded and speeds past the leafy outer suburbs where people can afford to live in a house with a garden. It’s an entertaining journey as hawkers join my carriage along the way and spruik their wares. A strange man gets on and starts to recite poetry (I think). I haven’t a clue but he is applauded by my fellow commuters as we return to Retiro station.
The tiny town of Tigre is a delightful and restorative day-trip. If you plan to visit boisterous Buenos Aires and need a tranquil change of pace, surprise yourself, and visit Tigre. Don’t worry, there’re no tigers!