‘Even getting the bus is fun in Tigre’, I thought to myself as we hopped aboard the Collectiva Interisleña. This isn’t just because, essentially, all the roads are waterways and all the cars are boats in the delta, but also because of the special atmosphere.
Taking in the bizarre world of this watery community passing by outside the window: ‘supermarket boats’ trundling down the labyrinthine tributaries, several large derelict vessels abandoned in the reeds and rows of seemingly normal houses with their gardens and space for a car (boat here) out front, it’s hard to believe how such a functional society had grown in such unusual circumstances.
Although Delta~Unplugged might, to some, sound like the name of a big machine-like tour company, churning out daytrips for the masses, nothing could be further from the truth. Arriving at the home of our hosts for the day, Argentine Ana Laura Espinosa and Swiss-German Ralph Meier, the warm reception of hugs and kisses, not to mention a near-flattening welcome from Ra and Morro, their Belgian Shepard and American Labrador (who more resemble friendly black Shetland ponies than dogs), tells you that the day’s experience is going to be a hugely friendly and personal one.
We were quickly taken on a tour of Ana and Ralph’s wonderful life. Having built the cabin they live in and growing an array of fruit and vegetables in the garden, you see why an American film crew came to make a documentary about green tourism there last year. Showing off their impressive guest rooms, Ana revealed the Delta~Unplugged ethic: “It’s very laid back, this isn’t a hotel, you’re not guests, you’re part of our home – if you want a beer or some food, go and grab it, if you want to do something, do it. Feel at home.”
Hungry from the early start and slightly saliva-legged from Ra and Morro’s unwavering love, we sat down for breakfast under a festooned canopy. Home-made bread was accompanied by local jams, marmalade, dulce de leche and we were soon off to the lancha to begin our voyage.
We set off from the Arroyo Espera (their address – ‘Waiting Stream’ so-called because it was the place where bigger boats used to have to wait for the tide to come in), winding our way through the Delta on our way to the Río Paraná de las Palmas and beyond. En route, Ana filled us in on the history of the Delta.
A hundred years ago the area had been home to a booming fruit production trade and 20,000 residents, including former president Domingo Sarmiento. An influx of salt water in the 1950s severely tarnished the land’s ability to grow fruit and, consequently, the population has sunk to just 5,000.
Today 90% of the homes in the delta are owned by tourists or weekenders and the Tres Bocas region has become synonymous with an artificial tourist experience: concrete, flashy speedboats and overpricing. This is the sort of experience that Delta~Unplugged tries to avoid, as Ana tells me: “Boat trips to Tres Bocas and $50 milanesas are what everyone else is selling but that is not what we want to sell. We want to show people the most beautiful parts in the delta’s segunda sección and treat them to top quality home-made food without ripping them off.”
Buenos Aires seemed a million miles away as we crossed the intermittent traffic of the Paraná de las Palmas, dodging a metal freighter and reaching blissful isolation. For a large part of the afternoon, our sole neighbours were woodpeckers and carapindas as we drifted through serene wildlife.
Stopping for lunch at a secluded spot, Ralph erected an awning to guard against the scorching heat of the sun. An incredible smorgasbord of delicacies was served up on the boat: empanadas, pâté, chicken salad, vegetables, potato rosti and even some delectable tenderloin slices cooked up by Ralph on a tiny hob at the back of the boat. Ralph, a former chef, insists on only using top quality produce for the excursions.
At some point in the afternoon, a few beers in the system, drifting through the sub-tropical, jungle-esque tributaries of the delta in sweltering heat to the sound of Ralph’s yodelling and Los Chalcheros CDs blurting out of the boat, it dawned quite how surreally brilliant the trip was. A sort of hazy calm lingered in the warm air as siesta time settled in for some. Locals say the abundance of willow trees in the delta is what generates this inclination to relax to the point of laziness there.
We passed quaint beaches adorned with straw umbrellas on the Paraná de las Palmas heading for the sole loo break of the day. The trees were sprouting delicate red ceibos, the national flower of Argentina. Encountering more of these derelict, pseudo-shipwrecks, Ana told us that they had all been abandoned in the wake of the most recent financial crisis and were now being inhabited by squatters – a sort of ‘barca tomada’ if you like.
Back at the cabin, and feeling sunned, we were treated to home-made ice cream, tea and cake as we looked over Ana and Ralph’s photos of their home before they had started work on it and, such was our rapport by this stage in the day, even their wedding photos too! This is what makes the day with Delta~Unplugged so special – the incredibly personal and friendly experience you have, as fellow daytrippers Corina Steinmann and Annika Helmaers remarked: “[Ana and Ralph] show so much emotion, heart and energy – this is the only way to experience Tigre.”
I can’t recommend Delta~Unplugged enough. Ana and Ralph are superb in their ‘green’ way of presenting the most special parts of the delta, their DIY approach to providing a decadently delicious banquet and in their remarkably welcoming hospitality. All this good onda doubtless emanates from the pleasure they take in their lifestyle, as Ralph said: “We do the trips because we love doing them. Even if we had all the money in the world, we would still be doing this everyday. We love having people along with us.”