A Day at M’Bopicuá Nature Park
A visit to M’Bopicuá Nature Park is a journey to both the past and the future, an initiation that combines the weight of history, the call of the wild, and a different way of life.
Entering this Montes del Plata conservation area is a way to travel through time. Once you open the gate and proceed along the entry path, the world you leave behind, a mixture of the noises of the traffic on the road, worries, and the hustle and bustle of modern life, seems to dissolve. It’s as if the Peltophorum dubium flanking the road somehow filter the sounds and put the visitor into a bubble.
That feeling of being in a place without time is accentuated upon arriving at the farmhouse of the historic ranch, the nature park’s center, which has been watching the flow of the Uruguay River for one hundred fifty years. It takes a few minutes to realize what causes that state of calm, that impression of having been transported to a place on the edge of time. It’s not the intense green color, nor the beauty of the native trees, such as the pacara earpod tree, the silk floss tree, the cockspur coral tree, or the pink lapacho, nor the charm of the fairly well-preserved old buildings but the sound of the animals.
It comes from all sides, like a continuous chorus, and very quickly makes it clear who the real owners are. Less than a hundred meters from the ranch, toward the Uruguay River, there’s a true “nature airport.” Hundreds of herons and neotropic cormorants, among other species, soar through the sky and touch down on an island full of vegetation located in a large lagoon.
The lagoon was designed by the head of M’Bopicuá Nature Park, Juan Villalba, who insisted on building an island that would serve as a rest area for birds. Time proved him right. It wasn’t only herons and neotropic cormorants that made it their own and use it as overnight accommodation before resuming flight; southern screamers, ducks, cormorants, coscoroba swans, black-necked swans, and many others did too, making the island full of life and sound. At dusk, the lagoon presents an almost surreal picture, with an arrival of birds so sustained that one would almost expect an air traffic controller to direct them.
The few human beings who live or work at the nature park seem very aware of their place. They conduct themselves very discreetly, blending in and without seeking attention. And so be it; Homo sapiens is the only invasive animal out of all the ones in the nature park, which represents over sixty native species that coexist on the same land. In this sense, it is a time capsule, a small-scale sample of Uruguay’s natural wealth, the one that has already been lost and the one that perseveres.
Observing them and listening to the sounds they make in the same environment is a journey to both the past and a possible future. Among the species that inhabit M’Bopicuá, some are locally extinct (the jaguar) or on the brink of disappearance (the cougar), but others are recovering (the margay, the coati, the yacare caiman, and the tamandua, among others) or have returned from the great hall of local extinction (the peccary) thanks to the breeding and reintroduction work carried out by the nature park.
My Family and Other Animals
As impressive as the aerial display of the birds in the lagoon is, it’s barely the beginning of the adventure at M’Bopicuá, a letter of introduction to the visit. Nearby, there’s another lagoon, also with an island, but whose reality could not be more different. Whereas next door is all hustle and bustle, here, stealth is king. Its inhabitants are more discreet and often remain immobile for long periods of time, to the point that they may go unnoticed despite reaching an imposing length of 2.5 m (8 ft). Sometimes, only their nose and their eyes, which glow like burning coals if you shine a flashlight at them at night, reveal their presence. They are yacare caimans, comfortably thriving in a lagoon exclusively for them, having already been reintroduced to other Montes del Plata conservation areas.
The yacare caiman may leave an impression thanks to its similarities with its more famous cousin, the crocodile, but it cannot compete with the attention that other two species that inhabit this area of the nature park attract. Opposite the yacare caiman lagoon is an individual belonging to the only species at M’Bopicuá that is extinct in Uruguay. It is the apex predator in South America and the cat with the most powerful bite in the world adjusted for body size: the jaguar. It lives in a large enclosure that seems to spring up from the vegetarian and where it has trees, platforms of various heights, and a pond in which it bathes and catches fish. Its roar on the banks of the Uruguay River also transports the visitor to another time, a time in which the jaguar still had enough habitat to thrive in these lands and invoke a shudder in those who heard it.
Nearby, another two large enclosures house the second-largest cat on the continent. It still prowls our mountains, more inconspicuously than its relative, although almost indetectable and in very few numbers. It is the cougar, represented at M’Bopicuá by two individuals. Like the jaguar, the species is not bred to reintroduce it to the wild, since our country lacks a habitat large enough to avoid conflicts with humans. M’Bopicuá provides a unique opportunity to see them up close, crouched among the trees and forest vegetation, like they could have been over a hundred years ago.
From the yacare caiman lagoon, visitors can walk along the Uruguay River on an interpretive trail that enters the riparian forest, at the end of which awaits a surprise.
It had been hidden by vegetation for a long time, despite its imposing size and the fact that it once housed hundreds of workers. Its swift disappearance inspired all kinds of legends, which are repeated by older visitors today.
It’s the ruins of the M’Bopicuá meat establishment, which operated between 1875 and 1878, when Fray Bentos began to be known as “the kitchen of the world.” Today, enormous fig trees embrace history and cover the bricks, which resist oblivion. It is a symbol of M’Bopicuá: nature, history, and the passing of time existing in the same place.
This legacy of a troubled history, which was declared a cultural-historical monument in 2009, is kept hidden by carobs, Vachellia caven, and spiny hackberry. The whimsical shapes of the trees on the stone, the undertaking’s halo of misfortune, and a long tunnel through which you can still walk worked together to weave several fantastic stories. It has been said that no one survives a night among the ruins of the saladero (although Villalba can attest that this is not the case, thanks to his work surveying bats), that noises from its previous inhabitants can still be heard, or even that the tunnel contains treasure from Argentina. It is not strange that there are so many stories: Drifting above the ancient roots and among the ruins left by humans is the air of a fairy tale, of unexpected beauty, which certainly stirs the imagination.
The Miracle of Birth
If the visitor were to retrace their steps, passing by the ranch’s farmhouse and crossing to the opposite end, they would travel from the past to the future, in a way. The breeding station is located here, and it is where most of the species in the nature park live and where the future of several generations of animals that are threatened in the country is at stake.
The breeding station’s enclosures seem to emerge from the middle of the vegetation, with nature spilling over the roofs and gaining ground on the fabric. Beyond the charismatic presence of the toucan or buff-necked ibis, which are at the beginning of the path, the first animal to get the visitor’s attention will likely be a coati perched on top of a battered carob, which served as Villalba’s guiding lighthouse among the wild and disorganized vegetation in his first days at the nature park. The coati, like a pirate captain acting as a lookout for his shipmates, is among the first to notice the arrival of strangers, watching curiously from the freedom offered by height. It was among the first species released by M’Bopicuá Nature Park and as a result, now inhabits areas of nature where it hadn’t been seen in decades.
Not far off, another, somewhat shier mammal has luxurious facilities with a swimming pool, a palm tree, and a small bamboo forest. It’s the neotropical otter, an experienced diver that spends hours enjoying the circular pond in which it lives, the focal point of the wildlife breeding station.
Nearby, birds and mammals share the space in environments that were specially designed to guarantee the most natural experience possible. A black eagle watches with the serious air of a dignified and ancient knight. A group of yellow cardinals sings with a natural talent for melody, one of the reasons they have become victims of being captured and sold as pets. The Brazilian porcupine rests calmly on a branch, with a harmless appearance that can be very misleading for those who do not know the fearsome weapon evolution gave it: spines instead of hair. The ferret comes out to see the impertinent visitor peering into its home. The white storks stand on one leg with honor and discreetly watch the busybody with suspicion. The list of tenants in the busiest area of the nature park is long: South American great horned owls, green-winged saltators, agoutis, red-legged seriemas, big hairy armadillos, greater naked-tailed armadillos, roseate spoonbills, maroon-bellied parakeets, Chaco chachalacas, and many others.
The most jealous and temperamental guardian of the nature park is not the jaguar, the cougar, or the yacare caiman. It is the rufescent tiger heron, which indignantly puffs up its feathers, assumes a defensive position, and makes an intimidating tac-tac-tac with its thin, long bill upon sighting an intruder. The word “tiger” is in its name for a reason.
The end of the breeding station farthest from the ranch is guarded by three species of cats. In one of the enclosures, several beautiful margays, a success for the nature park in terms of reproduction, are hidden among the trees, on which they climb up and down with the agility of a squirrel. The Pampas cat, on the other hand, tends to camouflage itself among the grass, whereas the wildcat walks around uneasily in the presence of humans. If curiosity kills the cat (which explains the shyness of some of these felines) it seems to be very healthy for the crab-eating raccoon. This cousin of the raccoon, with agile hands, long fingers, and a mask like that of a cartoon thief, has an inquisitive look that seems to question the occasional visitor.
Of course, some animals have their own private lodging, a bit farther from the hustle and bustle of the main area of the breeding station. Those who take the tamandua path in the evening may come across a dozen small anteaters perched in the trees in all their tranquility. If they aren’t above, they’re likely going around sticking their nose where it belongs, which is a termite mound or a rotting log. During the day, they retire to their “hotel” rooms, comfortably kept above 20 °C (68 °F).
Even farther, nervously trotting across a vast, tree-lined terrain, are the peccaries. This is the species’ cradle in the country, to which they returned after having been absent for over a hundred years.
The Pampas deer, grazing in a green field not far from the peccaries, was also on the brink of disappearance. The country’s two surviving subspecies are both represented in the nature park, along with the other native deer: the gray brocket.
After spending an afternoon at M’Bopicuá, completing the tour brings about a certain sadness, like when you know a trip is about to end and you do everything possible to stretch the minutes, to no avail. Darkness spreads over the nature park, affecting the animals too. Some rest; others are energized. The murmur of the birds becomes less intense, and a feeling of peace gains ground like a wave.
A visit to M’Bopicuá Nature Park is also an initiation. For those who are not aware of the reality of wildlife in the country, it’s an experience that helps them return to the outside world—the same as the traffic on the road and the hustle and bustle of modern life—with a fresh outlook. For those who are, it is a moment of communion and reflection, of contact with the pace of natural life, lost in the immediacy of the everyday rush. Like any moving experience, it always leaves its mark, pronounced or formant: You do not leave M’Bopicuá the same person you were when you arrived.