South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
THE stunning belle-époque building that houses the Museo de Arte Tigre in the Tigre Delta of Argentina opened as a social club a century ago, when rich bohemians would visit the region to give themselves a respite from Buenos Aires. The building eventually fell into disuse before reopening as a museum in 2006, newly refurbished with marble, bronze and stained glass as part of a municipal improvement project.
Its fortunes in many ways mirror those of the delta, 45 minutes by train from Buenos Aires. The area has been rediscovered by the leisure class that abandoned it for beachier getaways, leaving behind their imprint in the paintings they created that hang in the museum.
“There are three places in Buenos Aires which are changing, which everyone is talking about,” said Diana Saiegh, the director of the Museo de Arte Tigre. “San Telmo, Palermo Viejo, and now, Tigre. The most rich people of Buenos Aires have come here.”
The renaissance comes after a long decline during which down-market tourists began traveling to Tigre, oftentimes without staying overnight, and it slowly developed a honky-tonk, rundown feel. Recently however, the municipality of Tigre has spearheaded renovations like improving the waterfront walkways along the Río Luján and renovating the shopping and information arcades near the main train station. Developers have also become attracted to Tigre, building homes andspason its remote islands, aiming once again at the very wealthy.
The region is vast. At 5,405 square miles, the Tigre Delta is among the world’s largest, and it is the only major delta not emptying into a sea or ocean. It flows instead into the Río de la Plata, which separates Argentina and Uruguay, after the Río Paraná splits into several smaller rivers and forms a multitude of sedimentary islands covered in forest and grasslands. With its islands and canals, Tigre is what Venice might have looked like before development.
Tigre is named for the jaguars — which were called tigers — that once roamed here, before the islands became important agriculturally for wicker and fruit in the mid-1800s; the British built trains bringing these products to market. After an 1877 yellow fever epidemic in Buenos Aires, Tigre was seen as a healthful retreat.
British character pervades Tigre, with Victorians and half-timbered mock Tudors. Many of those structures and the museum are on what locals call “continente,” the mainland. This center sits on the Río Luján tributary and is a launching pad from which boats travel from the Estación Fluvial terminal to venture to the islands scattered in the delta. The center has no shortage of draws. In addition to the museum, there is an amusement park and a market where handmade reed furniture, leather, artisanal food and other products are sold.
Tigre still attracts artists, like Sebastián Páez Vilaró, son of the Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró. His atelier, where he makes bronze and copper repousséart, is a miniature of his father’s amorphous Casa Pueblo in Punta Del Este. Mr. Páez Vilaró, 25, said he finds Tigre inspiring “because I can enjoy nature and the land and still be close to Buenos Aires.”
But it is the delta’s remote, carefree islands that provide a greater reprieve from urban life. A number of spa resorts and gated communities — called “countries” after American country clubs — have opened on the islands, once known only for rugged day trips. For example, there is Bonanza, an island where the Bonanza Deltaventura company offers horseback riding,kayaking,bird-watching and tramping through forests, where botanists point out plant species. Some new developments attempt to bridge the two worlds.
One of them, the Isla el Descanso, is a small island occupied by a retreat that highlights its natural attributes: lagoons, channels andgardens. The owner, Claudio Stomato, created the retreat when he converted his weekend home into a retreat with sculptures by Alberto Bastón Díaz, an Argentine artist. Its most famous visitor was Madonna, who came in 2008 with her children and bodyguards in tow.
Other developments are more ambitious. Delta Eco Spa, on an island near Bonanza, is a sprawling resort that opened in November 2009, six years after construction began. Building is continuing, according to the hotel’s commercial director, Marcelo Israel, with much of the material coming laboriously by boat. “Constructing in the water is not the same as constructing on solid ground,” he said.
Though its physical structure is not finished, the spa’s vision seems complete. It is meant for romance: Children under 10 are not permitted, and rooms feature showers for two; each room comes with a sprawling patio deck. Private vacation bungalows are being developed on the island to offer guests even more privacy.
The precursor to Delta Eco and the wave of other spa resorts that have been built is Rumbo 90, which opened in 2005. It’s intimate, with only seven guest rooms and a rustic-romantic candlelit dining area whose menu emphasizes river fish and other local products. It’s possible to visit for half days or just for lunch, but Paula Gezzi, an owner, said that day-trippers are limited to maintain the sense of solitude. The resort fronts Canal del Este, which Ms. Gezzi described as “upscale.” Across the water, a neighboring island has large, expensive homes.
Ms. Gezzi, 32, vacationed as a child in Tigre. “Twenty years ago,” she said, “the only thing to do was have some fun in the day and then return to the city, but now people choose to stay on the islands.” She added, “you are only half an hour from land, but you feel very far away.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Norma Effrón of Buenos Aires, who was celebrating her 54th birthday at Rumbo 90 and was staying there overnight for the first time. “I love the vegetation,” she said. “I love the water. There was a time when I used to come very often, but it was only to stay for the day.”
This time, she said, she found that “Tigre is a way to refresh the head.”
Susana Neira, 53, a Buenos Aires-based tour guide, finds the mainland just as restorative. Ms. Neira is a member of the Buenos Aires Rowing Club, located between Tigre’s train station and the Estación Fluvial. She calls the club’s baronial British structure a “Harry Potterplace,” but it also looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad location, with its ivy-covered crew-boat storage areas. Among Ms. Neira’s favorite pastimes is rowing along the Tigre waterfront.
As she paddled there on a recent trip, people waved from the Puerto de Frutos, the tourist market. At water level, the intimacy is astounding: kayakers stop one another for directions, and one can hear the conversations emanating from the docks of island houses built on stilts.
The crew boat returned to Tigre as the sun set, casting a golden glow over the lapping water, silhouetting the Parque de la Costa amusement park.
Ms. Neira stopped rowing, taking in the view. “I spend all my free time here in Tigre,” she said.
From Buenos Aires, a 45-minute train goes from Retiro Station in Buenos Aires to Tigre, and it runs about three times an hour. The cost is a mere 1.70 Argentine pesos, or 45 cents at 3.9 Argentine pesos to the dollar. Taxis from Buenos Aires to Tigre run about 120 pesos (about $31).
A scenic Sturla ferry boat connects Puerto Madero (54-11-4731-1300;www.sturlaviajes.com.ar) in Buenos Aires to Estacion Fluvial in Tigre. It costs 75 pesos. Private water taxis can run as much as five times that, but many resorts are also on the Interisleñas boat bus routes, which cost 19 pesos. Transit can be confusing and is best coordinated with the resort or travel agent.
Boat transfers to the islands from downtown Tigre are often included with the cost of a resort room.
WHERE TO STAY
Most resorts are all-inclusives, with excursions andspatreatments extra.
Delta Eco Spa(54-11-5236-0553;deltaecospa.com) is on the western delta’s Río Carapachay.Standardrates from 330 pesos per person per night to 570 pesos for bungalows.
Rumbo 90(54-9-11-5843-9454;rumbo90.com.ar) is on Canal del Este, in the eastern delta. Standards from 440 pesos per person per night to 739 pesos for Jacuzzi suites.
Bonanza Deltaventura(54-11-4728-1674;deltaventura.com) is in an 1898 villa on a former Río Carapachay fruit plantation, ideal for the eco-conscious. From 172 pesos for day trips, 560 pesos for two--night stays.
GUIDES AND TOURS
Say Hueque Tours(54-11-5199-2517;sayhueque.com) runs reasonably priced adventure delta excursions.
Borello Travel(800-405-3072 or 54-11-5031-1988;borellotravel.com) runs luxury spa and art tours.