Buenos Aires has the bright lights, Patagonia has the show-stopping scenery, Mendoza has the food and wine, but if it’s the beating heart of rural Argentina you’re longing for, you’ll find it on the country’s estancias. Scattered across the landscape from the plains of Corrientes to the scrubland of Patagonia, these cattle stations are the stomping ground of the gaucho (the Argentinian cowboy), as well as next week’s bife. However, in recent years, the estancias have been corralling a new, more exotic herd: tourists.
Estancia holidays deliver a bite-size slice of Argentinian country life: chasing the horizon on horseback, mountainous asados in the shade of the ombús, folk songs with the gauchos, not caring about the crusty cow pat in your hair. How it is served comes down to your choice of estancia. Spanish hacienda? Claro que sí. French chateau? Mais oui. At the top end of the spectrum, they function more as luxury hotels, such as Relais & Chateaux’s El Colibri in the sierras around Córdoba or the Tudor-style Villa Maria near Buenos Aires. Out-and-out rustic might tick the budget box, while there are plenty, such as La Portenia and Buena Vista, in between the two, combining a welcoming homestay feel with comfortable accommodation. And if you have designs on Argentina’s most glamorous country pursuit, there are polo estancias where wannabe polistas can learn to swing a mallet with the requisite panache.
However, it’s easy to forget that, more often than not, this country idyll is also a working farm. Your own glossy vision of la vida rural might need to be swiftly revised to include football-sized toads, eyeball-searing heat and a horse with a wind problem. That’s part of the glorious unpredictability of it all. But in true Argentinian fashion, your hosts will do all they can to make you feel as welcome and comfortable as possible. The more you return the favour with, say, a few words of Spanish, mucking in with the farmwork, getting stuck into the riding, the more fun you’ll have.
Here’s the other good news for aspiring gauchos. The wilderness of the campo might feel a long way from colectivo-clogged Buenos Aires, but some of Argentina’s top estancias are less than two hours away, in the gaucho meccas of San Antonio de Areco and Chascomús. So if you don’t want to commit yourself to a three-day stint, the ‘dia del campo’, a single-day taster of estancia life, is a popular option at the likes of El Ombú and La Cina Cina. For around £50, you’ll ride ‘til you can’t feel your legs and eat asado ‘til you burst, enjoy a gaucho serenade and collapse under a tree (or by the pool) for a siesta before teatime. If you want to explore the area on longer rides and fall asleep to the cicada chorus, an overnight stay is usually only around £30 more and includes dinner and breakfast. Just make sure you’ve packed a hearty appetite.
Estancia: Know Before You Go
- Booking an all-inclusive package will make you feel more at home, with no awkward ‘is this included?’ conversations.
- Take mosquito repellent – those guys have teeth.
- Check for air-conditioning or at least a fan (ventilador) if you’re going between December and March, especially anywhere north.
- Don’t eat for 3-4 days before arriving. We thought the pile of empanadas we were greeted with was lunch (it was the starter).
- Don’t assume that you’ll be given a schedule of activities – you’re often left to your own devices so ask if you want to ride.
- English can be limited, especially among the gauchos – bear this in mind if you have beginners who want to ride and book somewhere with Anglophone staff (such as Estancia Los Potreros).
- Take a pack of cards and a good book for down time.
- Don’t dismiss an estancia holiday if you don’t fancy riding – guests who aren’t keen can opt for a Sulky (carriage ride), which is (almost) as fun.
- Start your estancia shopping with this excellent directory from Welcome Argentina.
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