The road to Colonia Carlos Pellegrini is long and dusty. Farmland on either side of the single unpaved lane stretches toward the horizon, stumped only by hardy bushes and the occasional cow. Our destination, a quiet town in Argentina’s Corrientes province, is the sole entry point to the vast Esteros del Iberá, one of the largest wetlands in South America.
The winter sun strikes a dozen cracks scattered across the windshield, making them shine and writhe. It is the coldest week of the year in Argentina, but the sun is surprisingly strong, and our driver insists on keeping the windows open. No air conditioning. The wheels of the ancient minivan spit tangerine dust, and the grit billowing through the open windows settles in my hair, my clothes, the cracks of my teeth. The dust coats my throat, and I finish our liter of water only thirty minutes into a four and a half hour ride.
“I thought this was supposed to be wetlands,” I want to tell Jack, but the steady grumble of the engine doesn’t allow much small talk. I’m wedged between my boyfriend and the driver, corkscrewing my body to avoid bumping my knees against the gearshift sprouting from the floor in front of me. My neck will ache for days.
I wonder, not for the first time, if we should’ve arranged for a 4×4 truck as our hosts suggested. But at a steep 550 pesos (approximately $130) each way, the truck didn’t seem worth it. We’ll do as the locals did, we’d decided.
The featureless expanse outside the dirty window hypnotizes me. As we drive past fields that are numbingly uniform, the limitless landscape turns my mind back on itself.
Jack and I have been dating for less than a year, and this trip feels like a turning point in our relationship. The two-week vacation has been full of questions that we hadn’t faced—and would likely never face—in our workaday lives back home. Which hostel is the safest yet cheapest? Should we make a 16-hour trip by bus, or a 2-hour trip by plane? And why do all the waiters and tour guides look at my boyfriend when they are talking, even when I’m the one who speaks Spanish?
As we have moved through Argentina, I’ve pondered where Jack and I are going in our relationship. We’ve struck an easy balance so far on the trip, but I can’t help but wonder if my past will hold us back.
My family’s not as good as Jack’s—not as stable, not as well-educated, not as well-off. Likewise, my finances are in much worse shape. Jack has mentioned wanting to buy a house more than once, while I congratulate myself every month that I haven’t fallen behind on student loan payments. I can’t keep from tallying the expense of the trip. It’s my first international vacation, and it seems so frivolous to be spending money here while I scrimp and save back home.
Jack has been eagerly awaiting this part of our trip ever since he read about the remote wetlands of Esteros del Iberá, tucked away in an “off the beaten track” sidebar of our guidebook. The wetlands offer hikes through the marshlands, horseback rides through the grasslands, boat rides across a lake filled with floating islands, and walks through the jungle to see monkeys are just a few of the highlights available to travelers. What more could an adventure-loving couple like us ask for?
A shower, for starters. I can’t stop thinking about water. Cool, delicious water…
And as though I’ve summoned it by sheer power of will, we arrive at a bridge crossing the first body of water we’ve seen in Corrientes. A sign to our right says “Laguna Iberá,” and the trees look greener here. A briny smell cuts through my ever-present allergies, an odor of peat and earth and life and decomposition. There’s even a scraggly palm tree leaning in the slight breeze. I sneeze rusty dirt.
José and Estrella Martin, our travel guides, meet us at the airy and empty hostel that they run in addition to their tour services. José Martin was born and raised in the Cambá Trapo marshlands, not far from where we are staying. His wife, Estrella, was born in urban Mendoza and received a bachelor’s degree in tourism in Buenos Aires. An introverted woman with a shy smile, Estrella’s command of English is impressive—and reassuring in such a small town—but she seems content to let her husband do the talking.
They introduce us to our next-door neighbor, a large, gregarious woman who runs a restaurant in her home. There are a handful of other restaurants in Carlos Pellegrini, but after our first delicious and inexpensive meal here, we won’t feel the urge to wander; the food is better than any restaurant in Buenos Aires.
Filling eight square blocks with some 600 residents, a full third of whom are children, Colonia Carlos Pellegrini doesn’t offer much in the way of nightlife. In fact, despite it being our most expensive destination, there’s nary an ATM or credit card machine in the entire town. We carry cash from Mercedes tucked in our shoes.
Back in the hostel, I plop onto the bed with a sigh. It feels like we’ve been traveling for days. The pillow is a square of foam that won’t do much for my stiff neck, but it’s a welcome relief after the jolting car ride.
I wake up early the next morning, bathed in sunlight from the open window next to the bed. Jack is a warm, solid lump beside me. I turn on my side, and my brain begins the calculation that has become familiar since I left college. I add up the various student loans, plus a few credit card balances, and then I divide that amount by my current salary. At this rate, I figure, I’ll be close to debt-free in only five years! If I eat only ramen and saltines, that is.
After the walk in the marshlands where the territorial capybara charges us; after the stroll through the jungle, where our guide jokes about monkeys flinging poo; after the boat ride where we idle close enough to touch a caiman; it feels as though the world has opened up to me.
Not me. Us. I can feel in Jack a new source of strength, a comfortable sense of trust. After days spent in quiet solitude, doing the things we both love as the stress of travel melted away, we became closer than I had imagined was possible. Our pasts may be wildly different, but our futures are looking pretty close.
Melody Wilson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her goal is to travel to all seven continents. Three down, four to go! You can read more of Melody’s work on her blog, Melody & Words.
Travel Tip: When traveling to Argentina’s Esteros del Iberá, or anywhere abroad for that matter, it’s important to plan for unexpected events. Consider international travel insurance for your trip abroad.
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