Yacutinga Lodge, Argentina: Hive of good vibes

Jungle life ... Yacutinga Lodge's exuberantly styled foyer.
Jungle life ... Yacutinga Lodge's exuberantly styled foyer. 

Read our writer's views on this property below

Barry Stone helps save the world – or local bees, at least – at an extraordinary lodge deep in the jungle.

In the jungles of Argentina's north-east province of Misiones, rare species of stingless bees toil away in 300-strong communities for a year, just to produce a single litre of honey. Stingless bees are a prudish lot. Living in highly structured social groups and rejecting all attempts at cross-breeding, they never stray far from their hives, made in the cavities of hollow trees.

They cannot, however, survive outside a rainforest environment and, in Argentina, with less than 1 per cent of land now classified as sub-tropical jungle, this makes the bees the entomological equivalent of disenfranchised tenants on very short-term leases. Stingless bees don't have a lot of friends.

That's where Yacutinga Lodge comes in. Set on a finger-like peninsula within Argentina's most biologically diverse region, with Brazil on one side and Paraguay on the other, Yacutinga's 570 hectares of virgin rainforest will teach you about the fragility of the jungle, help you see what is being done to preserve it, and allow you the opportunity to meet Yacutinga's creator, Carlos Sandoval: architect, environmentalist, mountain climber and the visionary driving force behind the Yacutinga Project.

The main lodge is set among a thriving stand of endangered Palmetto palms, its architecture an eclectic mix of curved exteriors, irregular interior spaces, load-bearing tree trunks and coloured glass that echoes the fanciful designs of Antonio Gaudi and the dreamscapes of the painter Salvador Dali. It is an architecture of exuberance, bravado and hope.

Accommodation is provided in independent modules, dispersed far enough from one another to ensure privacy and each only metres from a spookily encroaching wall of jungle. Rooms have porches, simple beds with fine linen and chic bathrooms. Superb meals with locally-sourced ingredients and no sparing the beef, thank you, are prepared in the main lodge and cooked in a traditional stone oven. Getting to Yacutinga Lodge takes effort. From Buenos Aires, you board a flight to Puerto Iguazu, then take an air-conditioned minibus for a 90-minute drive to a remote staging post not far from the Brazilian border, past orchards of mate shrubs and vast tracts of secondary forest.

Finally, an old open truck, with rows of wooden seats bolted to its tray, bounces you the final 10 kilometres into one of the most remote and least understood parcels of land in Argentina.

No more than 12 guests are permitted at the lodge at any one time, an ecologically and socially sound concept. The truck will be back for you in three days, unless it busts an axle. Yacutinga Lodge is akin to a university for grown-ups, a place where you're free to attend as many or as few lectures as you please.

Continuing projects at the lodge include a study on the ecology of the peninsula's hummingbirds, an inventory of its medicinal plants and a reforestation project in which guests plant a tree. Mine was a local hardwood, a Guatambu blanco.

After planting it, I received a certificate entitled Programa de Regeneracion de Selva Misionara. So far, eight hectares of previously degraded jungle have been brought back to life. I had made a difference.

If butterflies are your thing, you'll be in heaven. In 2002, Yacutinga began an inventory of diurnal butterflies and have so far catalogued more than 520 species, including those the local Guarani call the "invisible ones", whose wings are so transparent you can barely see them.

There are upside-down monarchs and rare snout butterflies that lay their eggs on the leaves of hackberry trees. One species attracted entomologists from Germany because they refused to believe its wings could make clicking sounds. It's impossible to ignore the butterflies. They land on your bags, swirl in clouds around your feet, and perch on your shoulders at breakfast.

Activities include taking a canoe ride down the upper Iguazu River with Guarani scouts, where you can go toucan-spotting and see first-hand how logging upstream has resulted in large quantities of silt entering the river – which is why you'll be lucky to see the river's remaining resident giant otters. Back on dry land, you can go on walks to identify and track footprints that may include those of puma and jaguar. Days are not overly structured and if you have an interest in orchids, bromeliads or medicinal plants, guided walks can be arranged.

The jungle here is impenetrable. On one walk, although we heard the unmistakable screech of howler monkeys just metres away, unless one jumped on to your head you wouldn't have a hope of spotting it.

Happily, the lodge itself is the place for howler monkey-spotting, where elevated walkways can put you on an equal footing with these elusive canopy dwellers.

Yacutinga isn't all work and walks, though – some time after midnight one night a heated discussion on Latin American politics around an outdoor fire pit took on a life of its own and, for me, the true spirit of Yacutinga shone through. I mean, let's face it, when was the last time you talked politics until 2am with the owner and chief executive of a prestige retreat, debating the merits of issues such as Venezuela's offer to construct a trans-South American pipeline? Or hearing the owner's theory that Argentina's disparate regions and resultant lack of a national identity were as much to blame as coups and dictatorships for the country's failure to achieve the standard of living its abundant resources suggest it should have?

No one was in a hurry to go to sleep that night. Sandoval was busy rewriting the hospitality handbook, involving himself with his guests, and dismantling the insincere if not trite gestures that too often pass for "guest relations" these days. Oh, how I hoped that old truck would bust an axle.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Aerolineas Argentinas flies from Sydney to Buenos Aires three times a week, priced from $1690, with connecting flights to Puerto Iguazu. See www.aerolineas.com.ar. Yacutinga Lodge's mini-bus leaves from the tourist office at Raices Argentinas, in Puerto Iguazu, every third day at 2pm sharp.

STAYING THERE

Yacutinga Lodge is on the Upper Iguazu River, in Iguazu National Park. Rates from $472 a person, for a two-night package. Children under 10 not permitted. See fallsworld.com/yacutinga_lodge.htm.