Isla Martín García
Almost within swimming distance of Carmelo (Uruguay), the Precambrian bedrock island of Martín García boasts a fascinating history, lush woodlands, and an almost unmatchable tranquility as a retreat from the frenzy of the federal capital and even provincial suburbs.
Only 3.5 kilometers off the Uruguayan coast but 33.5 kilometers from Tigre, 168-hectare Martín García rises 27 meters above sea level. Its native vegetation is dense gallery forest; part of it is a zona intangible provincial forest reserve.
Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís was the first European to see the island, naming it for one of his crewmen who died there in 1516. In colonial times it often changed hands before coming under firm Spanish control in 1777; in 1814 Guillermo Brown, the Argentine navy’s Irish founder, captured it for the United Provinces of the River Plate. For a time, mainlanders quarried its granite bedrock for building materials.
For a century (1870–1970) the navy controlled the island, and it served as a political prison and a regular penal colony; it was also a quarantine base for European immigrants. While serving as Colombia’s consul in Buenos Aires, Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (1867–1916) lived here briefly.
Political detainees have included presidents Marcelo T. de Alvear (in 1932, after his presidency), Hipólito Yrigoyen (twice in the 1930s), Juan Domingo Perón (1945, before his election), and Arturo Frondizi (1962–1963). In World War II’s early months, Argentina briefly incarcerated German crewmen from the battleship Graf Spee, scuttled off Montevideo in December 1939.
While the island passed to the United Provinces at independence, it was not explicitly Argentine until a 1973 agreement with Uruguay (one of the United Provinces). After the navy departed, the Buenos Aires provincial Servicio Penitenciario used it as a halfway house for ordinary convicts, but it was also a detention and torture site during the 1976–1983 dictatorship.
Uphill from the muelle pasajero (passenger pier), opposite the meticulously landscaped Plaza Guillermo Brown, the island’s Oficina de Informes was, until recently, the Servicio Penitenciario’s headquarters. It now houses provincial park rangers. Several antique baterías (gun emplacements) line the south shore.
At the plaza’s upper end stand ruins of the onetime Cuartel (military barracks), which later became jail cells. Clustered together nearby are the Cine-Teatro, the former theater, with its gold-tinted rococo details; the Museo de la Isla (Island Museum); and the former Casa Médicos de Lazareto, the quarantine center that is now the Centro de Interpretación Ecológica (Environmental Interpretation Center).
Opposite the Cuartel, the Panadería Rocío (1913) is a bakery that makes celebrated fruitcakes; farther inland, the now-unused faro (lighthouse, 1881) rises above the trees. To the north, the graves of conscripts who died in an early-20th-century epidemic dot the isolated cementerio (cemetery).
At the island’s northwest end, trees and vines grow among the crumbling structures of the so-called Barrio Chino (Chinatown), marking the Puerto Viejo, the sediment-clogged former port. Across the island, beyond the airstrip, similar vegetation grows in the Zona Intangible, which is closed to the public.
Though the island offers outstanding walking and bird-watching, the river is not suitable for swimming. The restaurant Comedor El Solís, though, has a swimming pool open to the public.
Accommodations and Food
Crowded in summer and on weekends, Camping Martín García (tel. 011/4728-1808) charges US$3 pp for tent campers, with discounts for two or more nights; reservations are advisable for hostel bunks with shared bath (US$5 pp) or with private bath (US$7 pp).
Cacciola’s Hostería Martín García charges US$85 pp for full-board packages that include transportation from Tigre. Each additional night costs US$44 pp.
Cacciola’s restaurant Fragata Hércules is decent enough, but Comedor El Solís is at least as good and a bit cheaper; in winter, however, the Solís may be closed. Panadería Rocío is known for its fruitcakes.
Getting to Isla Martín García
On the Río Tigre’s west bank, Cacciola (Lavalle 520, tel. 011/4749-0329, www.cacciolaviajes.com) offers day trips Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 9 a.m., but passengers should get there half an hour earlier. Arriving around noon, the tour includes an aperitif on arrival, a guided visit, and lunch at Cacciola’s Fragata Hércules. It returns to Tigre around 5 p.m., but again, get to the dock early. There is ample time for just roaming around.
Cacciola also has a Microcentro office (Florida 520, 1st floor, Oficina 113, tel. 011/4393-6100). Fares for a full-day excursion are US$37 for adults, US$28 for children ages 3–9, including port charges. Transportation alone costs US$20 per adult, US$19 per child.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition