South America special: A short drive from Buenos Aires, pull on your cowboy boots
Ride a horse across the pampas – it’s one of those essential travel experiences. And you don’t need to own an estancia to get in the saddle. There are plenty of farms offering excursions to give you a taste of the wild Argentina style. Chris Moss hits the trail
Published: 26 February 2006
Buenos Aires hides the surrounding pampas, its high-rise towers creating an illusion of urban sophistication. As successful as this fantasy is, sometimes you positively ache to see the horizon. My well-heeled friends own small farms and every few weeks they let out a weary sigh of hedonistic overload and announce: “Me voy al campo.” I’m off to the country. It’s all quite 19th century and very enviable.
For those of us who are not landed, the gaucho way of life can be accessed at dozens of estancias within an hour or two’s drive of the city centre. All offer a Dia de Campo (lunch, horse-riding, use of the gardens and usually a pool) and many do overnight stays as well. I spent a day at La Encantada in the pretty town of Capilla del Señor, about 50 miles from Buenos Aires. The house, built in 1856 and once used for cattle auctions, has a plain, colonial façade and is nothing like as flash as some of the historic estancias. But the manageress Marcela Grinberg and her staff lay on a natty combination of several pampas themes.
The day kicks off with an open-air asado or barbecue, expertly prepared by the resident gauchos. Once the aromas of charred meat begin to rise from the grill, you get into the swing of things. Swing here means: idleness, eating, drinking and lots of bucolic chatter. First, there’s a vermouth or cocktail. Then empanadas and chorizo sausage sandwiches are handed out, along with glasses of oaky Malbec. I sat down to take on the sweetbreads, black puddings, chinchulines (intestines) and massive cuts of beef, with cattle, sheep and horses looking on and hawks wheeling overhead. It feels utterly organic.
Some people went riding before lunch. I went afterwards. Tipsy enough to delude myself that I was a bit of a cowboy, I climbed on to an admittedly mellow little horse. While trotting round the estancia, I kept an eye on the gaucho’s riding style, leaving one arm free, with my back upright, and shouting “dale” and “ugh-ah” sounds.
It’s very macho, but it works. My horse weaved politely through the stands of Alamo and cantered down the dirt roads.
There aren’t many native trees, so eucalyptus trees provide much of the shade. But at La Encantada and its neighbouring estancias, you can see examples of the awesome Ombu. An icon of the Argentine plains, it’s a vast triffid of a bush with impossibly long, tentacular branches that mirror the sprawl of its water-seeking roots. The grassland and lagoons are alive with birds. Until writer and twitcher WH Hudson gave his London lectures in the early 20th century, naturalists thought Latin America was full of squawking parrots. But the pampas are a songbook of ovenbirds, thrushes, chingolo sparrows and great kiskadees.
In the afternoon, I was treated to tea and home-made pastries and jams. Argentines still like to think we ingleses do this every day, but the fact is country folk in the province of Buenos Aires are far more genteel than old-time farmers in Britain. Even the estancias that are close to the city belong to a parallel universe; the rhythm is slower and there’s lots of time for reading, reflection and repose.
All serious gauchos respect the rite of the siesta and when the cicadas begin to shriek like chainsaws, it’s time to grab a hammock or go inside. La Encantada’s main house is decked out in the so-called criollo (as in creole) country style – elegantly rustic, with lots of wood, horseshoes, cowskins and brands. Like most estancias, it was built long before electricity and air-con (some still depend on their own generators), so the small bedrooms are cold, dark and somniferous. By the time I rose again, the sun was low and cooler and it was teatime once more – I joined a round of yerba mate, sipping from the gourd and letting the bitter herb and caffeinated hit gently rouse me.
Ten minutes later, I was told the wind was right for a hot-air balloon ride. As I rose above the house, the light was fading quite fast. I could still make out Argentina’s not very wild beasts dotted on the open plains – Herefords, Anguses, milk-loaded Charolaises, flocks of sheep. The dark green was broken by mirrors of crystalline wetlands where the herons and southern screamers hang out. An impossibly pink roseate spoonbill rose towards the balloon, and when the burner was silenced I thought I could hear the beating of stork wings. The landscape took on a new dimension, with its tidy tapestry of corn and soya fields and dead straight roads that seemed to go on and on for ever. A huge orange sun sunk slowly towards Chile.
Unlike most of Argentina’s tourist draws, the pampas are unspectacular. There’s no jagged glacier, teeming cataract or volcanic cone to photograph, and if you go for two or three days you’ll find there’s really not much to do. That’s the point. The skies are vast, the calm is tangible and substantial, and the planet tilts away whether you are in a balloon or on horseback. In Hudson’s famous phrase, it feels very “far away and long ago”. Yet the estancias are a short hop from the traffic and turmoil of one of the world’s most excitable cities. If peace could be quantified, I suspect they’d all be world heritage sites.