Much of Argentina’s national mythology is symbolized by the gaucho, or cowboy, of the vast and windswept pampas. Famed for their rugged commitment to freedom, excellent horsemanship and unqualified bravery (not to mention their general lawlessness), the gaucho represents the epitome of the rural Argentine spirit. Gauchos are also very real people, who still work on the magnificent pampas, though their circumstances are a bit less wild and free than they used to be.
The best way to get in touch with this almost lost world of cattle drives, horseback rides, sunset barbecues and endless amounts of mate, is to visit an Argentine estancia, or rural estate. Very similar to ranches, estancias almost always have herds of cattle or sheep roaming their expansive acreage, and have traditionally offered guests the opportunity to ride their finest horses and roam the estancia grounds.
The highlight of any visit to an estancia is a classic gaucho asado, or barbecue. Gauchos, who would once spend weeks with the herd, traversing the pampas and Patagonia, often ate little more than good beef washed down with mate, a nutritious (and highly caffeinated) herbal tea. Today, estancias recreate a ‘fiesta gaucha’ (gaucho party) for guests, passing around classic carved gourd that used to drink mate. (Vegetarians eager to enjoy an estancia should let their hosts know, before booking, about their dietary needs; most can accommodate you, with warning.)
Today estancias are still family owned, and offer guests the fine horses and enormous asados that people have come to expect in the gaucho realm. Now, however, they also offer an amazing range of amenities, such as wildlife preserves, golf courses, tennis courts, wineries, polo clubs, spas, fine dining and much more. While some estancias have stayed fairly rustic, others now boast quite luxurious accommodations, for guests who pay several hundred dollars a night for a package stay.
Visitors to Argentina almost invariably think such a stay is well worth the expense. The tranquility of the stunning setting, the traditions of Argentine estancia life and the comfort offered on many of these ranches all help to create an unforgettable vacation. Horse lovers in particular enjoy days in the saddle, exploring the rivers, plains, peaks and forests that Argentina’s estancias have to offer.
Shoestring travelers, however, who can’t always afford to stay overnight, can still visit on one of the several gaucho day trips from Buenos Aires. These usually include horseback tours of the ranch, a traditionally meaty meal, plenty of mate and perhaps a rodeo-style show displaying the gauchos’ skill on horseback.
No matter what you do, don’t miss a gaucho-style adventure in rural Argentina; it’s worth the extra time and expense. Several websites offer detailed listings of various estancias, including the one that’s perfect for you.