Feel like getting your Wild West on? You’ve come to the right country. Argentina’s answer to the North American Midwest, the Pampas, is a vast plain that stretches to the south and west of Buenos Aires and covers some 800,000 square miles. It’s one of the largest fertile plains in the entire world. And as far as the culture goes, switch ranch for estancia and cowboy for gaucho and you’re already a long way to understanding this region. Maybe that’s because cattle and sheep are cattle and sheep no matter where you are in the world…
History of the gauchos
Cows were first introduced to Argentina in 1538, and soon began to flourish on the Pampas. Gauchos first appeared during the 1600s, though they weren’t called that until many years later. They would wander the Pampas living off the land and sometimes working in the massive estancias. Gauchos were a tough, nomadic group who were excellent horsemen, had their own code of conduct and generally shunned social interactions with non-gauchos.
During the 1700s, cattle in Argentina were slaughtered for their leather rather than their meat, and so the gauchos took to cooking the unwanted remains over an open fire. In time this custom of barbecuing meat turned into a national obsession, the asado.
Gauchos had a distinctive outfit. They wore a round wide-brimmed hat, a poncho (which doubles as a blanket for sleeping) and a loose pair of trousers called bombachas, which were either belted or worn with something called a chiripá, which is a piece of clothed tied like a diaper. They famously carried a long knife called a facón at the small of the back; it was used for eating and for self-defense. For hunting they used boleodores – essentially three rocks tied to long leather straps and joined at a common point—which were thrown at the legs of running animals.
Today gauchos still exist, though they’re just as likely to wear overalls as traditional dress. They work on estancias and display their skills at horse shows called bordilleros. Like mate and tango, gauchos are an important national symbol for Argentina and are revered and celebrated just like the North American cowboy.
Estancias to visit
Many estancias offer accommodation for tourists who want some time away from it all. Here are some good ones:
This beautiful estancia is about 2 hours from Buenos Aires. The hosts speak English and are very welcoming. The house was built in the 1890s and is gorgeous (check out the photos on the website). There’s not much to do except swim in the freshwater pool, ride, read and relax, but then that’s par for the course with estancias. All food is included and it’s very good: excellent meat; delicious puddings, and lots of wine. There’s also a maid service, so you shouldn’t have to lift a finger.
La Margarita is distinguished by the fact that it has the option of staying in a self-catered apartment as opposed to the main house. That cuts the price down significantly, and you can still order an asado if you don’t feel like cooking (it costs extra but is inexpensive). The self-catered apartments have the full complement of appliances: cooker; fridge, and microwave. La Margarita dates from 1870, but it’s currently owned and operated by an Englishman, David Cummings. It has a swimming pool, bikes, two friendly dogs, ping pong and foosball tables, horses to ride (of course) and the freedom to wander wherever you like. Overall, it’s tranquil and serene experience.
This estancia is located close to the town of San Antonio de Areco. It offers riding and polo lessons, has a swimming pool, beautiful grounds and warm and friendly staff. There are 16 bedrooms along with a living room and verandah (perfect for doing nothing on!). You can do trips into town to check out the museums, the historic church and local artisans like silversmiths. The colonial style main house was built in 1892 and is atmospheric but comfortable.