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Time out in Tigre
Time out in Tigre

Argentina’s capital is big. Between 13 and 16 million people, depending on one’s reference, live in greater Buenos Aires. The few barrios (neighbourhoods) surrounding central Plaza Mayo that most visitors see, have a population density of 1500 people per square kilometre — one of the highest in the world. I know this; not because of the statistics but the manic manoeuvring it takes to leave my apartment block and enter people-polluted Barrio Norte’s Avenida Santa Fe.

So Tigre comes as a surprise.

Tigre is a coastal town just 30km north of Buenos Aires on the southern edge of the unique Delta de Parana, where the Rio Parana settles its muddy, coffee-coloured waters over 1400sqkm of wetlands crisscrossed with waterways and islands. After thousands of kilometres tumbling over Brazil’s spectacular Foz do Iguacu and gouging out jungle soil, the river ends its journey marking out a gigantic plume in another river, the mighty Rio de la Plata (River Plate). Tigre is the starting point to explore this vast watery wilderness.

My arrival is the first surprise. The lumbering 1970s bus takes me through so many outer suburbs, possibly former market towns, that my posterior numbness becomes cerebral.

With no fanfare, the bus stops at its terminus at the end of a main street. I alight to an equally different sight: a large manicured roundabout of lawn and shaped shrubs bordered by a small river. I pan around and catch the surreal sight of Estacion Tigre, the train station, seemingly made with wooden blocks from toy town.

To get my bearings I stride away from the main street and pass the decaying ruins of what were stately town mansions. Along the willow-lined Lavalle River I find a ticket box advertising river cruises but no seller on this overcast Tuesday morning. Luckily Gaetano is on board his boat and tells me the tour starts in 10 minutes. His family has been plying this river for 40 years.

Half an hour later and Gaetano informs our little huddle of six passengers that we’re waiting for a held-up tourist bus due in 15 minutes. Ah, 42 extra passengers; well worth his wait.

The lack of commentary is welcome (whatever the language it’s always intrusive and sounds forced) as we leave the Lavalle River for a tributary, then another and another. From now on for as far as one can go in this delta the only access is by boat and, as all these waterways look the same, with good local knowledge.

We pass the large weekend mansions of the well-to-do — some in Tudor livery not out of place on the Thames. Tigre is a favourite weekend wilderness retreat for jaded Portenos (port residents) from Argentina’s crowded capital. Those without mansions can rent a tent in a camping ground, and a boat for 15 pesos ($4.30) an hour.

Now here’s a 7-Eleven store cum petrol station on stilts dispensing bread, eggs and petrol to the gentry in their carriage of convenience, the vintage mahogany motor launch — and the occasional tinny.
On the right bank is a cut-out next to a sign saying swimming pool. We top it up with our 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 19th century Club de Regatas la Marina, resplendent with turret and cupola. Its multistorey grey bulk, set against a jungle backdrop, looks like something from the Addams Family. 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 inhabitants and their habitat. They include marsh deer, otter and capybara (huge rodent), but the yaguarete (jaguar), that gives the town its name, has long gone.

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, a favourite craft and fruit market for local and visitor alike. Alas, it is open on weekends only — note to self: “read fine print in guidebook.” Still it gives me the chance to see the casino and the little two-station rail line to San Isidro, Tren de la Costa, formerly the coastal train route, now a tourist enterprise.

It’s clear rowing is a big deal here as I walk pass the soaring 100-year-old Rowing Club of Buenos Aires building on expensive real estate that looks like an Oxbridge college. It suggests Argentine establishment and their love affair with British gentry — and sports such as polo. It and the rowing club and the 130-year-old Regatas la Marina were all founded during Argentina’s zenith in the late 19th century.

Tigre is not all swimming and volleyball. It has several museums: Naval de Nacion (navy), MAT (Tigre art), Reconquista (history of the reconquest of Buenos Aires), and galleries dedicated to artists and architects such as Xul Solar and Miguel D’Arienso and to Argentina’s philosopher king, Domingo Sarmiento; sadly, too widely dispersed for my short stay.

Naturally for 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 “Noddy’s” train station and buy my 80¢ ticket only to find I have a 45-minute wait; one I enjoy at a nearby cafe carved out of the space between four buildings and with a three-storey high tarpaulin roof. As the only customer I glean from posters there’s a buzzing nightlife in Tigre when this cafe 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 subte (metro system), this train is comfortably 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 well received by my fellow travellers.
As I reach BA’s Retiro station (pickpocket central, I am warned) I reflect just what a satisfying day trip this has been.

When you are next in Buenos Aires enjoy all its many attractions but if you need a quiet and tranquil change of pace with a holiday atmosphere, surprise yourself and visit Tigre. And don’t worry, there are no tigers.