A lone rider, silhouetted against the bleak expanse of the endless pampas. Night is falling; he works quickly to corral the last cattle inside the estancia’s huge pastures. No division exists between himself and the horse he sits. His only possessions he carries with him: mate gourd, saddle, poncho, ornate silver knife. In the failing light, a pair of wild horses is visible just above the dark rim of the horizon. He squints at them in the distance: infinite freedom, infinite loneliness.
Like the North American cowboy, the Argentine gaucho has walked out of history and into legend, in the process awakening deep mythic longings in just about everyone who knows him. Endlessly celebrated and sentimentalized in movies, poetry, and popular songs, he somehow manages to stand aloof from modern life, emblematic of a freedom and romance now vanished in our frenzied, technological world.
Or almost vanished. Today the gaucho still exists, though he faces an ever-diminishing milieu in which to ply his trade. Nearly all his modern brethren work as employees on estancias, large estates dedicated to the cattle-raising and wheat-growing that are the backbone of Argentina’s economy. There gaucho life is much reduced from the wild freedom of the 19th century, though the great traditions of horsemanship and hospitality remain.
For those desiring a glimpse of the gaucho at work, a visit to an Argentine estancia is a must. These ranches typically date back several hundred years, and the ones open to the public often employ the legendary horsemen as hosts. One of the best is Estancia Santa Susana, a 3,000-acre plantation founded in the 1880s by Francisco Kelly, an Irishman who named the ranch after his wife, Susana Caffrey. Like other estancias, Santa Susana is fully operational today, but unlike its neighbors, it also serves as a repository of Argentine pampas culture, regaling its visitors with daily gaucho shows and danzas folkloricas. This, plus its convenient proximity to the capital, makes it a perfect day trip for tourists with limited time in Buenos Aires.
Here’s a short guide to help you plan your visit to this living piece of Argentine tradition. Porteños are quick to tell visitors that life in the provinces is very different from the urban rat race: here’s your chance to see for yourself. Wear your boots.
Santa Susana lies some 45 miles (70 km) northwest of Buenos Aires, near the town of Campana. Getting there is easy. During the 90-minute ride, the guides will give you abundant background on gaucho culture and its traditions. If you’re lucky, they’ll even pass around some home-brewed mate to warm things up.
No heartier reception exists than a gaucho reception, and Santa Susana’s employees live to make their guests feel at home. It starts the moment you step out of the van, with a fresh-baked empanada and a glass of wine, and continues with a brief tour of the grounds and an oral history of the estate, after which visitors are free to wander through Santa Susana’s carefully preserved buildings. Worth special notice are the chapel, with its hand-carved wooden altar, and the surprisingly elegant salons of the manor house. Be sure to check out the pulpería, an antique general store that doubled as a bar and post office.
Once you’ve had a chance to stroll at your leisure, the activities begin in earnest. If you’re the equestrian sort, you’ll have a chance to indulge your passion here; if not, you’ll have your chance to learn, since the gauchos are patient, skillful teachers of riding during the half-hour jaunt they offer as a means of showing the property. Also available are rides in a hay cart, as well as tours of the massive open-hearth parrilla (grill) in the estancia’s festival hall.
Music and Meat
The main event, of course—this being Argentina—is the asado, a diet-demolishing barbecue featuring every conceivable type of meat, from chicken to pork to sausage to flank steak to the juiciest prime rib ever to graze the pampas. All come from Santa Susana itself, and all are prepared to perfection by the staff, who come around just when you’ve cleared your plate to tempt you with further cuts, should you choose to continue the alimentary assault. The red wine, from Argentina’s Mendoza wine country, is excellent. And of course, the lunch is tenedor libre—Argentines’ term for all you can eat.
Afterwards, you’ll be in no condition for rapid motion, so the hosts take pity and do the moving for you in a show of musica folklorica and danzas tipicas. Tangos, of course, are on the menu, as well as the zamba, a graceful dance of flirtation similar to the Peruvian marinera. But the chief firework in the dancers’ arsenal is the malambo, a virtuosic, manly dance in which the gaucho taps out a tattoo with two swirling wooden balls while synchronizing his footwork to the increasingly complex rhythms. After this sensory overload, the singers’ gentle crooning to soft guitar music comes as a welcome respite.
Lords of the Rings
The visit’s finale brings the guests back outside for the fiesta gaucha, an elegant demonstration of the gauchos’ most prized skill: horsemanship. The high point is sortija, a contest in which the gauchos gallop at full tilt and try to spear small rings hanging from a crossbeam. Brave souls can also ride tandem with them as they canter around the grounds, displaying their customary gallantry.
Santa Susana will delight its equestrian visitors, but even the horse-averse will count the estate among the highlights of their trip to Argentina. Not only the gauchos’ hospitality and humor, but the chance to appreciate a still-living part of Argentina’s estanciero heritage, will stay with you long after the ranch gates recede into the distance.
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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin America Confidential.
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