Getting down with the Gauchos
PUBLISHED: 23:10 13 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:29 20 February 2013
Karen Bowerman headed an hour out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to sample life on a traditional ranch.
Karen Bowerman headed an hour out of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to sample life on a traditional ranch
The journeys an hour, our guide, Ana, said, and I will be talking for 55 minutes of it.
We laughed; but the thing was, she did, non-stop, flitting from Spanish to English and back again, often mid-sentence.
As our coach drew out of the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, and headed for the country, Ana pointed everything out: parks, monuments, statues, even shopping centres
Her voice rose and fell; her sentences, punctuated by rolling rs, slowed down in places for emphasis, but never quite reached that final full stop. And just when I thought there was nothing more she could possibly tell us, she drew our attention to the road we were travelling on: the Pan Am highway, which went all the way to Alaska.
But by then, our 55 minutes were up.
We turned down a gravel driveway, flanked by green, well-kept lawns. Ahead, surrounded by fields, their boundaries marked by wooden fences that seemed to go on for miles, was Estancia Susana, a simple, flat-roofed bungalow with pink walls and a wraparound veranda.
We were spending a day with the gauchos (cowboys) and this was their ranch or estancia.
The glory days for Argentinas estancias were those of the late 19th century when the countrys landowners enjoyed unprecedented wealth. Many spent it turning their workaday homes into lavish country retreats with fanciful houses and landscaped gardens.
Today, a typical visit includes an asado (a traditional Argentine barbecue), a tour of the family home and an encounter with horses. Some ranches also offer fishing, cookery and polo lessons. An overnight stay usually includes meals and most activities, but if time is tight you can opt, as I did, for a dia de campo (a day in the country) that still gives you a good taste of life with the cowboys.
It was mid-morning when my group (of around 12 independent travellers) arrived. We were greeted with empanadas (small pastries) filled with beef and a glass of wine in the orchard.
Just beyond the trees, lunch was already cooking; fat slabs of beef and countless sausages on skewers sizzled over charcoal on a low, ten-foot long grill.
Ana left us to explore. I headed to the corral where thirty or so rather scruffy-looking horses stood quietly in the shade. A gaucho wearing a neck scarf, billowy shirt and a wide belt jangling with coins (a traditional sign of wealth) was organising pony rides.
He heaved a large American lady onto a frisky brown mare and found the largest horse in the stables, a grey, for a Canadian with a cowboy hat. Our ride took us through a neighbouring field into wide, open countryside.
Afterwards, a few of us climbed onto a rickety cart and bumped around the rest of the estate, ducking as we wove through the trees. I jumped off at the family hometo take a look round.
The house, now a museum, depicts life on the ranch in the 1800s. Low-ceilinged rooms display cowboy boots, branding irons, heirlooms and antiques. I wandered up along corridors, past wedding photos and portraits and traced the generations through black and white prints to colour.
Time for lunch
Lunch was served in a large barn. We sat down to a massive mixed grill that included T-bone steaks that were fatty, flavoursome and exceptionally well done exactly how Argentines like them.
They came with chimichurri, a sauce made with olive oil, garlic and parsley, and huge amounts of salad.
As we ate, a man struck up a tune on a bandoneon, a small accordion, and tango dancers swept through the tables onto a small stage. There were toned legs and taught thighs aplenty, but the couple that oozed sensuality were short, stocky and sixty odd!
We rounded off the meal with mate (pronounced mar-tay) - tea made from the leaves of a plant similar to holly. Its served in a gourd and drunk through a bambilla or metal straw with a bulbous bottom to filter out the leaves. I tasted incredibly bitter!
Argentines are obsessed with mate. Stroll through a park or a leafy square and youre bound to see at least two or three of them absorbed in the ritual of tea making. Many carry a thermos and tea leaves wherever they go. . Cafes, hotels and garages top up thermoses for free!
A display of horsemanship
Back at the estancia the gauchos invited us to a display of horsemanship.
Paraded before us were seven sleek beasts with perfectly groomed coats and immaculately clipped tails the prized polo ponies and the real reason for the present day ranch. After spending the day dutifully driving carts and serving steak and salad, the gauchos were about to come alive.
Two men erected a small frame in the centre of the corral. Dangling from its crossbar were three tiny rings, suspended on lengths of string.
Twenty feet away the riders, each holding a large nail as if it were a dart, stood up in their stirrups. Then, one by one, they shot across the paddock, hooking each ring with astounding accuracy then disappearing into clouds of dust.
At the end of the show we were offered one last ride this time on a highly-strung polo pony. I wrapped my arms round a gauchos sweaty back and we cantered through the trees.
The fleeting experience: the warmth of the sun, the rush of the wind and the feel of the horse powering beneath us, was the most exhilarating part of the day.
Twenty minutes later Ana hoarded us back to the minibus. As we turned onto the main road, I spotted, for the first time, the polo stables, hidden behind shrubbery.
A gaucho-cum-polo player was hosing down one of the ponies, spraying water across its lean body and occasionally gulping it himself. Another led a group of horses into a meadow of knee-high grass where he set them loose to graze.
The ranch was quiet again. Everyday life had kicked in, uninterrupted by the click of cameras and the demands of tourists. On the other side of the driveway, in a lawn flooded with light, the pink washed walls of Estancia Susana glowed in the late afternoon sun.
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