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Bob in South America. Part 6 – Estancias and Gauchos
With Patagonia firmly behind me, the next chapter of my trip begins, with a stay on an Estancia out in the pampas, three hours south of Buenos Aires.
Well three hours in theory. The journey by hire car actually ended up taking me nearly seven hours thanks to breaking down ten minutes into my journey and two wrong turns. Add in the complete lack of road signs in Argentina and I am surprised I arrived at all. Although I think that the estancia staff were even more surprised when I drove down the long drive just after 11.30pm at night. Fashionably late for a 9pm dinner, although to be honest I was embarrassed as hell.
The place I had chosen to stay at was Estancia La Margarita, short listed from many throughout the North East of Argentina. My boss had actually stayed there and his recommendation swung it for me. It’s owned by an English guy David Cummings, who has transformed himself into the ‘English Gaucho’ after arriving in Argentina a number f years ago. The estancia has been restored and opened up to guests to stay in this wonderful property, parts of which date back to 1870. I wanted to avoid the showy estancias near to the capital and those that looked a bit too much like a theme park out at San Antonio de Areco, the accepted centre of Gaucho culture.
But what is an estancia? Effectively it is what we would know as a ranch or a farm and is the farmers house, usually set in manicured grounds and dating back to when the land was transformed by the original landowners and Gauchos or cowboys into prime farming country in the last century. The Gauchos are an essential part of Argentine culture, routed deep in the soul of the country and summing up the macho elements of this nation. They are supreme horsemen, have distinct clothing and traditions and are still an active part of everyday life in the pampas.
Today Estancia La Margarita has over one hundred and fifty cattle, a flock of sheep, chickens, turkeys and horses. They have their own kitchen garden and much of the produce prepared for meals on the estancia is either from the farm itself or from local sources. You can even milk the cows, ( I was not very good at that to be fair, but instead proved very good at drinking the fresh milk, something I have never had the opportunity to try in the UK. Milk comes pasteurised from supermarkets eh!). But it is horses and tourism that is now the driving force of the enterprise.
My late arrival prompted worried Raquel, the estancia cook and Susana, the General Manager to rustle up a late night supper with wine. The gringo arrives at some ungodly hour after expecting me all day. I was left to eat in the comfort of a huge lounge/diner with a roaring fire. All the other guests had gone to bed save for Luciano, an young Argentinean lawyer from Mar del Plata, the largest resort in the country. We chatted, his English far superior to my schoolboy Spanish and it was not long before sleep beckoned.
The next two days were spent relaxing in the sun, being waited on hand and foot by the discreet and helpful staff and enjoying the excellent home cooked food. Asado (the traditional grilled meats), salads, pasta dishes, scrummy deserts, afternoon tea with cakes and the freshest and tastiest eggs I have ever enjoyed. All food is part of the deal along with house wine.
And of course the horse riding. You can ride alone or be taken out in small groups. I rode out with Luciano and his girlfriend Samantha and our guide Jonny, a fourteen year old Gaucho in training. You get to cover miles and miles of the estancia’s grounds, playing at herding the cattle and horses and marvelling at the horse riding skills of our guide.
OK, so I came off my horse on the first ride out. The poor thing stumbled in the entry hole to one of many warrens dug by the wild hares and down she went. I like to think that I rolled gracefully onto the ground, however for a moment the location of my travel insurance documents flashed before me as thoughts of casualty and air ambulances raced through my head. But I just got up, shaked myself down and got back on. No drama at all. Very disappointing for those who know me well.
I even rediscovered my abilities, or lack of them, for table tennis as well as a few short walks in the woods.
So here I was enjoying the fresh air, blue skies and release from everyday life when it was mentioned we would pop into Taplaque, the local town. There was a little fair on. What I did not realise was that this was the annual fair of the local Gauchos.
The previous day there had been a parade and Jonny had found himself with a starring role, dressed up in his glad rags to ride through the town and carry the name of the Estancia:
On the day we visited, the Gauchos were taking part in competitions to stay on wild horses, showing off how good they would be at controlling the horse and staying on for the allotted time to great cheers and applause. All around the arena were families clearly camped out for the day, supping at mate, the Argentinean herb based infusion and rapt with attention on the goings on within the arena whilst talking ten to the dozen with friends around. The men were generally dressed in Gaucho wear, some in more ceremonial styles showing off their silver decorated belts and gaucho knives.
The atmosphere was absolutely electric and was a fascinating experience, totally unexpected and really letting you see how the locals go about celebrating then Gaucho life.
The following evening I wandered about the small town on what was a national holiday and soaked up the feeling of being out in the sticks away from the big city life.
Another reminder of how remote we were was a visit one late afternoon to the Pulperia. These general stores exist in a number of places on the pampas and the local one to the estancia is a gem, being one of the few that are working shops, not tourist traps. Luciano and Samantha, now good companions on my stay, whisked me there in their car for a beer and to shoot the breeze with the store owners, two elderly brothers. The shop is just how it was years ago with iron bars between the goods and the customers (gauchos used to fight), no electric light and products stacked neatly on shelves behind. It was all quite quaint, even if a little reminiscent of less salubrious parts of the UK when you go to the off licence late at night!
We watched a few customers come and go, being served with everything from cheese, cooked meats, coffee and a failed sale on a pair of reins for a horse. One gaucho in full shoes, beret and trousers told of how he had won a car at a gaucho fair a few weeks ago for his horseman skills. But he had no need for it as he had horses, so had sold it. The whole experience was very surreal and wonderful all at the same time. Like stepping back in time or being within a film.
After too short a time, my time on the Estancia came to an end. It really had been a wonderful time away from my everyday existence. Clean, fresh air, tasty home cooked food, a feeling of real freedom, the crackle of log fires (there was even a roaring fire each evening in my bedroom) and friendly chat with Luciano and Samantha and the owner David and manager Susana.
If you want to getaway from life and enjoy the pleasures of the Argentinean pampas, then go stay at this Estancia, you need to book direct, however you can choose from the traditional house itself or one of the new self catering cottages with produce fresh from the farm. It is completely safe, no roaring tractors and machinery, a world away from everyday life and is great for families with children. There were even honeymooners staying, a young English couple. It is inexpensive and a world away from the heavily advertised big estancias near the capital. And most importantly it is good for the soul.
The journey out of Buenos Aires is well worth the effort.