“The key to spotting the rarest hummingbirds and manakins is finding their territories,” said Emilio White, as we crouched among sun-specked leaves on the steamy forest floor of Argentina’s northern province of Misiones. “You find where they court, where they dance or come to feed, then you cut trails that almost guarantee sightings.”
We had left the lodge at dawn, venturing from a garden of canna and guadua bamboo into the wildlife-rich forest beyond. Within minutes, we had spotted fresh puma tracks in soggy earth edging the Río Paraná.
Now, a canopy of earpod and tropical cedar trees closed overhead, their dense boughs coated with twisted lianas and clusters of epiphytes. All around, the forest was alive to the buzz of insects and the cackle and caw of subtropical birds.
Signaling for quiet, Emilio pointed dramatically into a clearing: perched on a twig, emitting a distinctive chirrup, sat a black-breasted plovercrest, a spectacular hummingbird topped with a purple crown.
Emilio had spent months studying the 940 acres of forest belonging to Posada Puerto Bemberg, a 14-room guesthouse an hour’s drive south of the Iguazú Falls. With advice from Aves Argentinas, the country’s ornithology body, he had recently cut trails designed to showcase the 312 bird species found on the property.
As we trod on through the undergrowth, he would indicate a clearing: there, perched conveniently on a twig, would be a band-tailed manakin or a rufous-capped motmot — exotic, localized species much coveted by dedicated birders.
So well-planned are his paths, in fact, that Emilio appeared to locate the rarest birds as if on demand. “What, you’ve never seen the spot-billed toucanet?” he asked in mock horror, referring to one of Misiones’ rarer toucans. A smirk played on his lips as he ushered me 150 feet further into the forest and pointed between a cluster of grapia and tropical cedar trees. “Well, there it is!”
The newly cut trails quickly placed Puerto Bemberg on the Argentine birding map, but it is far from the only lodge drawing a new kind of visitor to Misiones. For years, tourists came only for Iguazú Falls, the two-mile-wide cataract that divides Argentina from Brazil. Now, a swath of new, upmarket lodges is focusing attention on the toucan- and butterfly-filled jungle that lies beyond.
Named for mission settlements established during Spanish colonial times by the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order, Misiones juts like a finger far into Brazil and Paraguay. It was once carpeted entirely with dense jungle, the subtropical Paranaense forest, which extended into Paraguay and as far north as Brazil’s state of Bahia.
Guaraní tribes scraped a precarious but traditional life from the land, fishing its streams for surubí and pacú, and hunting for capybara — the world’s largest rodent — and the wild peccary pig.
Today, much of its undulating landscape has been cleared for farming and forestry plantations, but what remains is protected by the Green Corridor, a string of wildlife reserves with beguiling, unfamiliar names like Salto Encantado, Urugua-í and Yabotí.
On arrival, the province can feel like parts of Africa. The nostrils wrinkle at the odor of sun-baked, iron-rich earth, the ears attune quickly to the insects’ buzz and the crackle of a thousand unknown creatures in the undergrowth.
In the forest’s inner reaches, howler and capuchin monkeys cavort in the canopy, yacaré caiman, or South American alligators, sun themselves on river banks, and no fewer than seven feline species — from the tabby-sized Geoffroy’s cat to the mighty jaguar — hunt silently by night.
In the jungle’s dense foliage, however, the chief difficulty lies in spotting them. Far easier to see are the birds: 550 species, more than in all of Europe.
I had landed at Posadas, the province’s capital, and headed east, paralleling the Paraná alongside trucks laden with the trunks of guatambú, petiribí or camboatá trees — native species named by the Guaraní that have yet to earn names in Spanish or English.
At Jardín America, where the road climbs towards Misiones’ central sierras, the vegetation grew denser, the land’s crumpled folds forming delightful compositions of gully and peak that changed at the turn of a steering wheel. Swallow-tailed kites soared by, their tapered tails trailing elegantly in the thermals. From a vantage point, I looked down at the 200-foot Salto Encantado waterfall before edging along four miles of dirt trail to Tacuapí Lodge.
In 2006, local notary Julio Benitez Chapo erected Tacuapí’s seven cabins on a 128-acre bowl of jungle adjoining Salto Encantado provincial park. He chose his spot well: Two years later, Hungarian television chose its darker recesses to film a reality show.
Julio chuckled as he recalled how star model Éva Horváth had lived in a treehouse, challenging a wrestler, a magazine editor and other minor celebrities to feats of jungle derring-do.
“All the neighbors got something out of the shoot, from hotel bookings to manual labor,” laughed Julio. “Helga, an old German neighbor, even got a hundred pesos for her ox. She was delighted: the contestants were asked to wash it, so the animal even came back clean.”
That night, I settled into one of the lodge’s cozy wooden cabins. It was stuffed with forest oddments: a soap dish carved from a branch; a basin from a trunk. I fell asleep to the cackle and caw of subtropical birds and woke early to the sound of munching. It was nothing more impressive than a squirrel, perched high in a nearby pindó palm, interrupting its morning feed only to screech occasionally at passing kites.
In the end, I was glad of the intrusion: As dawn broke, a parade of puffbirds and parrots, cuckoos and caciques alighted on a nearby branch, each newcomer more colorful and exotic than the last.
After breakfast, Fidel Ramírez, the lodge’s guide, led me down narrow forest trails to show me more of Misiones’ birdlife. Scanning the twigs and rotting trunks, he began to imitate the caburé, a pygmy-owl whose call is thought to attract birds of many species.
“Scientists say the other birds come to mob the caburé and drive him off, but the Guaraní believe the owl has the gift of hypnotism,” Fidel whispered to me. “He seems to mesmerize birds of all sizes.”
I was doubting Fidel’s tactics when a tanager hopped into view, followed seconds later by a swallow-tailed manakin, which began the distinctive dance it performs to attract a mate.
Fidel pointed upward: he’d spotted a real caburé, flicking its tail in indignation at what it thought a territorial threat. Quickly, he changed his whistle and a black-throated trogon, a striking yet shy bird, alighted on a branch 10 feet away. For five minutes, I listened entranced as Fidel exchanged avian chitter-chat with the trogon.
After leaving Tacuapí, I had planned to visit a cataract on the Río Uruguay called Moconá Falls. A geological oddity, the waterfall slices lengthways up the river, reaching the Brazilian bank two miles to the north. Paradoxically, the falls are more impressive in times of drought, when they can reach nearly 70 feet in height.
I was out of luck: heavy rain had swollen the river and rendered the cataract invisible. I took a bumpy, 15-mile trail instead, pulling up at Don Enrique Lodge, where three impeccably decorated cabins overlook a gurgling forest brook and the dense foliage of Yabotí Biosphere Reserve on the far bank.
Eliseo Lemos, the lodge’s guide, rowed me across the stream in the fading afternoon light, recounting anecdotes and tidbits on jungle survival as we walked through the forest’s pristine core.
In the 1920s, Eliseo’s great-grandfather had received 125 acres from the Argentine government in return for settling near the country’s frontier. “It was a different era back then,” he told me. “They gave him a medal for shooting 68 jaguars and built him an access road for felling 50 trees.”
Yet the early settlers also learned less destructive techniques from the Guaraní, trapping tapirs by luring them with fermented sap from the pindó palm and fishing streams with a liana whose sap paralyzes fish gills. “The liana contains a chemical so strong that you can just scoop the fish out by hand,” he said.
From Don Enrique Lodge, a little-traveled road heads north, rising and falling with the sierras’ forested gullies. Human population is scant. I spotted a few lonely pioneers eking out a living in clearings hacked from the jungle before navigating a treacherous, 35-mile mud trail that led to Yacutinga Lodge.
Sitting on a 1,400-acre tract of jungle reserve, east of Iguazú national park, Yacutinga is widely considered by serious nature buffs as Misiones’ most authoritative hotel. Its 20 rustic cabins, assembled on frames of natural-fall trunks, are half-hidden by a cascading mass of lianas and palm fronds.
Every step through the reserve’s pristine heart, too inaccessible to have ever been logged, seems to reveal some fascinating plant or creature: the gossamer of a garden spider, so resilient that two or three entwined strands provide a sturdy fishing line; giant bromeliad stems that collect rainwater; and the yacarati-á tree, whose edible pulp is rich in proteins.
Yacutinga’s great strength is the up-close contact it provides with nature: biologists working at its research station have discovered several species of butterfly new to science; even paying guests devote multi-day stays to the study of birds, butterflies, orchids or medicinal plants.
Yet the lodge’s most beguiling delight — The Insect Show — is perhaps its simplest. By day, the white fabric screen, suspended among the trees, attracts curious, uncomprehending glances from first-time guests. Spotlit by night, however, it writhes with a slithering morass of beetles, moths and bugs.
In Misiones, binoculars are indispensible; a magnifying glass, it turns out, is not.