So I was really hoping that my tour today was an improvement on the disappointment of Wednesday. Fortunately, the tour was a home run. My driver, Martin, (not the same Martin as yesterday) arrived at 8:15 a.m. to take me to San Antonio de Areco about 115 km (70 miles) from Buenos Aires located in the heart of pampas country. Now what is pampas you ask? Pampas is the grasslands in central Argentina and all of Uruguay that are dotted with ranches known as estancias where gauchos still ride their horses tending the cattle. And not only was I going to visit San Antonio de Areco, but I was going to visit Estancia El Ombu de Areco, a working estancia that also doubles as a hotel offering tourists the opportunity to learn about a working ranch and the gaucho life. I was not staying at the hotel, but would spend the afternoon at the estancia and have an authentic assado (barbecue) lunch.
Now, unfortunately, Martin did not speak much English, and my Spanish is horrible so most of the two hour trip north to San Antonio de Areco on the very busy freeway was in silence. Fortunately, Martin liked good music so we were able to enjoy some tunes on the trip.
Once we reached the tiny town of San Antonio de Areco, I met the fabulous Laura McGuire (her name is Irish, but she is as Hispanic as they come) who would be my tour guide for the day. We began the tour of San Antonio de Areco with a bit of a history lesson. Laura told me that the town was founded in 1730 and was a critical stop for people who were doing a “camino”, a long walk from town to town in honor of Christ. The only buildings in the town: the church and a multi-purpose building used as a store, hotel and hangout for the gauchos. Today, the town is billed as one of the prettiest towns in the Pampas region with colonial buildings and cobblestone streets. The town also maintains artisan traditions associated with the gaucho culture, including silversmiths, saddlery and leather work.
Laura took me on a walk around the little town first visiting the old hotel, fronted by a comical gaucho statue and filled with local shops. We then walked down the street and met an artist named Miguel Ángel Gasparini. Mr. Gasparini is the most well known painter of gauchos in all of Argentina. The town was filled with his art. Yet here he was sitting in his little studio surrounded by gorgeous paintings and drawings taking the time to first talk to me and then paint a picture for me. I was absolutely thrilled. And he did not want to take any money for the picture so I made a “donation” to him in a little box he had at the front door. Great guy!
Next up was a trip across the street past the oldest building in San Antonio de Areco and to a building housing a leather craftsman. This man is an award winning artisan and crafts many of the saddles, horses reigns, stirrups and whips all using a very unique braiding technique. And his store was a museum to the gaucho accessories of the past.
Then it was back up the street towards the square where we took in the church and the lovely park filed with palm trees unique to this area. The palm trees grow a new ring for every year the tree is alive and these trees were mammoth with dozens and dozens of rings. An absolutely lovely square.
We then went to another craftsman’s shop, this one specializing in making matte cups with hand pounded silver designs attached to the little gourd cups. Now I am not a fan of matte so I was not at all interested in this place, but I had to admit the silver designs were gorgeous.
We then crossed the square again in what was now blazing heat, walked past a wall of modern gaucho art and then into a little museum featuring a variety of gaucho themed hand made crafts including ponchos, saddles, stirrups, belts and clothing. After the museum, Laura took me to a number of silversmith shops where I was able to see the silversmiths working their craft. Incredible artisans.
Our final stop of the day was my favourite (aside from meeting Mr. Gasparini) … La Olla de Cabre Chocolateria. This place featured hand made chocolates and after one taste I was hooked. (Of course I am known to have a rather substantial sweet tooth, but these chocolates were amazing.) I ended up buying a variety of white, light and dark chocolates some filled with dulce du leche, others containing nuts and Rice Krispies (maybe my favourite).
By now it was well after noon and we were due at the estancia so Martin picked us up at the chocolate shop, made one more stop so that I could go back and purchase a necklace I had liked, but did not buy at the time, before we set off for the estancia about 15 minutes away. The ride turned out to be rather bumpy as the pavement gave way to a rather rough gravel road that saw some damage done during the heavy rains from the prior Saturday. In fact, the rain damage was so bad they used a vehicle similar to a tank to pick up tourists and bring them to the estancia on Monday. Fortunately, two days of high heat had dried up the road.
Now Estancia El Ombu de Areco has been in the same family for over one hundred years with the main building dating to 1880. The estancia is now owned by two sisters from the family, but with upkeep for the ranch continuing to escalate, the women decided to open up the main building (the hacienda) as a hotel and then to allow tourists to visit the estancia to learn about the gaucho life. The rest of the ranch continues as a regular working ranch with chickens, cows, horses, and pampas fields.
When we arrived, there was already a number of tourists on horseback going out to see some of the cattle and the backside of the ranch. I opted to hang out and drink some wine, wander about the grounds and then take a carriage ride.
The grounds were absolutely beautiful with horses and cows grazing in the pastures, parrots flying about the trees and best of all …. meat cooking in the grill house. You could smell the meat all over the place and it smelled wonderful.
Laura showed me some of the main sites at the ranch including a huge collection of old horse and buggies, a bush known as an Ombu bush, which dated to 1806, the lovely vegetable gardens and some of the antiques in the house. Now the strange thing about the Ombu bush (which really looked like a tree) is that the majority of what appeared to be the trunk is actually roots, while the wood of the tree is incredibly soft almost spongy like. Weird.
Anyway, after the tour of the house and the grounds, it was time to go for a carriage ride. I hopped into the carriage beside the driver and three folks from France climbed in the back and off we set. The horse took us down the tree lined lane and then we veered to the right going past a huge cow pasture where the occasional horse was grazing. Then it we road past huge pampas grass fields before we reached the end of the property line. At that point, we turned around and road back to the main house.
By now it was closing in on 1:30 and it was time to eat. We sat down at various tables and were served chorizo and blood sausage, salads and of course, the ever present Malbec wine. Then it was a parade of meats: chicken, beef ribs, sirloin, and a variety of other cuts of beef. At one point, I was convinced I would go into a meat coma. I may never eat beef again after this trip.
However, I cannot argue that the beef was utterly fantastic. Nice charred flavour and incredibly tender. They do not generally marinate the beef (but do marinate the chicken). The only spices put on the beef are salt and pepper and, of course, the chimi churi sauce which I spread liberally all over my meat.
And after the food was done it was time for some music. The estancia’s staff put on an exhibition showing us the types of traditional music and dance that gauchos have performed for decades. And while the show was interesting, the clear star of the show was the little 2 ½ year old son of the guitar player and one of the dancers. He is already a better dancer than me and most of the folks who watched the exhibition.
The final event was an exhibition of horse skills by one of the staff members. This fellow was amazing having the horse lie down, then lying on top of the horse, then having the horse slowly stand where the fellow finally stood on the back of the horse while the horse remained motionless. It was quite the level of skill between rider and horse. And this was all done to show the types of skills the gauchos had with their horses.
By now it was after 4:00 p.m. and it was time to head back to San Antonio de Areco to drop off Laura who had been simply fabulous company all day. Then Martin began the arduous drive through rush hour traffic back to Buenos Aires. I arrived back to my hotel around 6:30 p.m. and began the challenging task of packing up. My sabbatical is over tomorrow so it is almost time to go home. (Almost, but not quite as I still had a tour of Boca tomorrow before my flight at 9:00 p.m. I have to squeeze out that last little bit before this adventure really ends.)