Gaucho life at El Ombu De Areco, Argentina
By Kate McWilliams
“¿Cuanto cuesta un I-phone en Inglaterra?” – “How much does an I-phone costs in England?” asks Pablo, as he pushes the gate closed to prevent the cattle from crossing into the wrong field, his black beret casting a shadow over his eyes and his red neckerchief in a loose knot around his neck. “Around £400, or 2400 pesos”, I reply, my vision of gaucho life ruined forever. “Que barato” – “’That’s cheap”, replies Pablo as he glides towards the next gate, one hand loosely clutching his reins and the other in his pocket in typical gaucho style.
I’m just a few kilometres from San Antonio de Areco, the birthplace of Gaucho (cowboy) tradition in the heart of the Argentinean Pampas. We’re staying at El Ombu de Areco, a working ranch just over an hour’s drive west from Buenos Aires. I had arrived in Argentina just a few days before, eager to experience not just the capital city of Buenos Aires but also a taste of gaucho life in the Pampas, the sparsely populated province of Argentina, known for its spectacular scenery and gaucho history.
We arrive to lunch at El Ombu, served on the lawn in front of the mansion house. We join a table of guests and enjoy salads, freshly baked empanadas (typical stuffed pastries filled with meat) and a delicious asado (BBQ), all washed down with an Argentinean Malbec. The food just keeps on coming.
As we sip strong coffee, trying to wake ourselves up after the meat feast, we meet Oscar, who we’re told is one of the most respected gauchos in the area, hailing from a well-known gaucho family. So much so, that his father, Segundo Ramirez, was immortalised in the famous 1926 gaucho novel Don Segundo Sombra by Ricardo Güiraldes.
Oscar strums ‘milongas’ on his guitar, typical gaucho songs of love and loss that he learnt as a young man when he set off on horseback for days on end. We listen in awe, knowing that in just a few hours, we would be clumsily following his hoofprints around the surroundings.
After lunch, we are invited to watch Pablo, a 28 year old gaucho who has worked at the ranch since the age of 12, demonstrate his horsemanship skills. Covering his horses’ eyes and calmly instructing him to the ground, Pablo confidently clambers over his horse’s hypnotised body, crawling between his legs and tucking himself tightly against the torso. They lie together still. We clap cautiously, not wanting to disturb the horse.
Two group horse rides depart each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. It’s my first ride in years and I’m nervous. There are no helmets and no instructions and as Oscar guides me to an enormous horse that he has picked for me, I realise there is no place for nerves.
It’s humid and my horse Chispa seems knowing of my lack of horse riding skills. As the other horses set off, I pull at my reins and tap my feet against Chispa’s belly, urging her to walk on. Chispa hangs back determined to show me up. Pablo trots back over, clicks his teeth and Chispa walks on.
Chispa – meaning ‘spark’ follows Pablo obediently, ducking her head every few minutes to graze, then picking up to an awkward trot. I bounce up and down in my saddle, desperately trying to replicate the stand-up-sit-down technique that I remembered from riding school, when I was about nine years old.
There are about fifteen people in the group, all with different horse-riding abilities. Although it’s almost 6pm, the sun is still strong and the grass is tinged with autumnal yellows and golds. We walk through the grasslands, crossing the marshy terrain. It doesn’t take long to find a rhythm and start enjoying the surroundings. The elevated position highlights the immensity of the Pampas and as we return to the ranch, I am already thinking about the next ride.
The accommodation at El Ombu is simple and unpretentious. The mansion has just nine rooms, each offering the feel of an expensive girl’s boarding school from the early 20th century with pretty period furniture, old gas lamps, floral bedspreads and whirring fans.
The mansion was built in 1880 and today is owned by Eva Boelcke, whose grandfather purchased the property in 1934. Today Eva, a (glamorous) trained agronomist, splits her time between Buenos Aires and El Ombu.
Over the next few days, we enjoy twice-daily horse rides and help out in the stables. El Ombu de Areco allows you to get as much or as little involved with the horses as you like and as well as horse riding, the estancia has bikes for guests to borrow as well as binoculars and bird guides. The ranch also has two small swimming pools, a pool table and a cosy living area.
On the last day, Eva suggests I get up early and help herd the cattle with Pablo. Feeling slightly unsure of my herding capabilities, but encouraged by the opportunity to practice my Spanish skills, Pablo and I head off into the plains, passing through miles of flat grassland and natural lagoons. I follow Pablo through the herds of cattle, knowing that in just a few days I would be leaving Argentina to return to London.
Pablo talks of leaving Las Pampas, of moving abroad to work as a polo hand. He is eager to learn English and experience a new life. I imagine Pablo walking through immigration at London Heathrow, buying an Oyster card and sitting silently on the tube playing on his I-phone, a million miles away from his horse and the calm of San Antonio de Areco.
I am glad to ride Chispa again. She is confident and enthusiastic. After just a few minutes we are deep in the Pampas. Chispa picks up the pace and breaks from a trot into a gallop – I am galloping alongside Pablo. He looks over and smiles. Momentarily I feel like the heroine of an Old Western movie. I am impressed that in just a few days I have smugly mastered all the skills needed to be a gaucho; the walk, the trot and the gallop.
As we return to the ranch, a new influx of guests pulls up in a swish 4×4. My lift back to Buenos Aires has arrived. I’m sad to leave the calm of El Ombu de Areco and just as I’m about to get in the car Pablo comes over and asks; “Cuanto cuesta un Apple Mac en Inglaterra?” – “How much does an Apple Mac cost in England?” ….. “Muy muy caro” – “Very very expensive”, I reply.
Kuoni (01306 747008) offers 7 nights in Argentina, staying 2 nights at the Hotel Madero, Buenos Aires in a superior room, 2 nights at the Estancia El Ombu De Areco in a standard room and 2 nights at the Hotel Emperador, Buenos Aires in a deluxe room, including flights with KLM from London Heathrow (via Amsterdam) and transfers in resort. Prices for June 2012 start from £1,890 per person, based on two people sharing.