Argentina's estancias, or working ranches, welcome visitors, who can partake in the properties' activities and enjoy such natural attractions as Lake San Martin.
Argentina's estancias, or working ranches, welcome visitors, who can partake in the properties' activities and enjoy such natural attractions as Lake San Martin.
Joanne Omang

In Argentina, Home on the Ranch

Experience real ranch life at Estancia La Maipu, one of 500-plus rustic properties in Argentina.
Experience real ranch life at Estancia La Maipu, one of 500-plus rustic properties in Argentina. (By Luis Franke)
By Joanne Omang
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Some tourists want merely to See the Sights; others want to Get to Know the Place. As a recovering journalist and confirmed GKP-type, I counsel foreigners visiting America, for example, that New York, Washington and San Francisco are not enough. They must venture to Omaha or Des Moines or Sioux Falls if they want to GKP.

The same is true in spades, or in beef, for Argentina. With all of Buenos Aires's chic shops and tango parlors and late-night steakhouses, a city visit is not enough to grasp this country, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. For that, one must head to the pampas, the flat prairie of fertile topsoil 12 feet deep that stretches west without a hill to the base of the Andes, and to Patagonia, the windblown sheep country to the south. Fortunately, more than 500 estancias -- large traditional working ranches -- have opened their doors to tourists nationwide for this very purpose.

Most estancias convey some of Argentina's cultural essence -- rustic pioneer or gaucho (classic Argentine cowboy) history and food, with horseback riding, hiking, swimming, fishing, bird-watching and the chance to watch or help out in cattle or sheep-herding work (roundups, branding, shearing, calf-roping). Some make it easy to see why "rich as an Argentine" used to be a common phrase: They specialize in breeding polo ponies or Arabian horses for racing. Other estancias in Patagonia have become full-service ski resorts or base camps for mountaineers planning climbs of famous Andean peaks.

My husband wanted to ride horses and hike, and I wanted to relive a magical pampas memory of three decades past: sunset from the porch of a big house, an endless red horizon flat in every direction, the only visible tree shimmering with thousands of fireflies.

Unable to choose between the pampas and Patagonia, we opted for an estancia in each.

Estancia El Ombu de Areco

We went first to Estancia El Ombu de Areco, about a two-hour drive northwest of Buenos Aires into the pampas and only a mile of dirt road off the highway. In the heart of gaucho country, it was exclusively a working ranch for a century before changing economic reality made tourism a profitable addition to beef.

We felt pampered as soon as we saw the ornate wrought-iron gate, the manicured gardens, the two pools and the porticoed Italianate palazzo . If the original estancieros were hard-bitten rancher-businessmen who generated vast wealth for Argentina from the 1700s onward, they were also fond of creature comforts.

The current experience is more resort than dude ranch. Our large room, one of 20 along tiled outdoor corridors, featured imported marble and faded antique European furniture as well as a private bathroom with a claw-foot tub. What it lacked in air conditioning, television, phones and other modernities it made up for in atmosphere. I wished I had brought a long lace gown in which to sweep gracefully over the lawn.

Instead, we lounged with pre-lunch drinks and excellent empanadas (included in the daily rate) under one of the place's namesake ombus, the only treelike plant native to the pampas. These multi-trunked bushes are 20 feet high with huge umbrella-like canopies, but they're softwood and useless even for burning, offering only shade from January's 90-degree sun. (The seasons, of course, are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.) Lunch in the white-tablecloth dining room with its gaucho motif was the classic Argentine parrillada, a mixed-grill bacchanal for carnivores.

I knew what was in store, but my husband overloaded on the sausages that came first, was surprised when the lamb chops followed, and then was amazed by the beef ribs, stunned by the pork chops and all but overcome by the final steaks. Plus two salads and dessert, washed down with fine Argentine malbec wine from the now-trendy Mendoza region. Argentines' legendary beef consumption is, of course, a defining cultural marker. Our heroic efforts to keep up led directly to a two-hour nap.

Afterward, David went riding, choosing one of 40 complacent ponies waiting under an ombu and jogging into the fields with other guests and a black-hatted gaucho as a guide. I cooled off in the smaller of the swimming pools. The late afternoon light was long and golden, and when David returned, sweaty and grinning, we watched the gauchos unsaddle the horses and drive them to their corral. My scarlet sunset spread as if by command over the distant sky.

The next day the hotel arranged a visit for us to the nearby movie-set town of San Antonio de Areco and its Gaucho Museum, where in the 1920s Ricardo Güiraldes wrote the novel "Don Segundo Sombra," an Argentine classic about an ill-fated gaucho. Back at the hotel, the gaucho grandson of the real-life model for Don Segundo was the star of a spectacular exhibition of horsemanship by the hotel employees. A wiry 63 year old, he seemed like part of his horse.

Fireflies were out of season, but the visit had let us glimpse part of the gaucho myth that underlies Argentina's self-image.

Estancia La Maipu

For the grittier Patagonian version -- and, we hoped, some hiking -- we flew four hours south to El Calafate, the raw and Wild-Westish gateway to the region.

Tax incentives and subsidies have recently more than doubled the population of this sandblasted town. "Nobody here is under 40," said Rolando Leserovich, the driver who met us at the airport. "Everybody's from somewhere else, and we're all working in tourism."

It was easy to see why during the 4 1/2 hours on a dirt road that followed. We gaped at the snow-tipped peaks along this tail of the Andes, which cradle countless glaciers, valleys and lakes full of the cloudy turquoise water known as glacier milk. Small herds of guanaco (a smaller version of the llama) and ostrichlike rheas browsed the scrub along the road, loping off as we drove past.

We passed several other estancias en route, but the grueling trip to Estancia La Maipu was worth the effort. This 61,000-acre sheep ranch perches on bluffs amid the condors high above Lago San Martín, among the area's most breathtaking sights. Its isolation means all amenities and many necessities must still be trucked in, so the rooms are more Spartan than spa, and the house itself was prefabricated in Britain. But sisters and co-owners Maria Inés and Susana de Leyenda, descendants of pioneers here, have filled the garden with flowers and the common rooms with scrapbooks so that the atmosphere is as warm and welcoming as the fireplace that wards off the mountain chill.

We had hoped to see some sheep-shearing, lambing or dipping, but alas, the estancia's 5,000 sheep were away in their high summer pasture during our visit. We went hiking instead. With all four of the other guests -- an Argentine businessman, his wife and two young Scottish women backpacking through Patagonia -- David one day set out to climb a steep 4,100-foot bluff called La Condorera, the Condors' Nest.

I didn't dare risk my knees on such a grade and took a shorter but still spectacular solitary climb to a lower bluff. I stopped often to brace against the wind and marvel at the view, listen to the raucous birds and pick burrs out of my socks. The huge lake spread out below, changing color constantly under the scudding clouds, while pairs of the rare and protected condors floated by high above me on 10-foot wingspans. Several times enormous hares leaped away from bushes nearly under my feet; it was hard to say who was more startled. Afterward I curled up by the fire with a warm cat, a book and hot chocolate to wait for the others.

It was a long wait. They had been gone nearly eight hours when Maria Inés confessed she was worried. The mountain path gives way to slippery gravel and stones, she told me, but most people made the round trip to the summit in less than seven hours. Just as we were about to set out on a search, the climbers returned, exhausted but triumphant. They had looked down on the condors I'd admired from below, and had photos to prove it.

David's legs were quivering, but Maria Inés congratulated him: At 73, he was the oldest person ever to have reached the top.

To celebrate, we indulged in an extra glass of fine Argentina malbec that night and forged new friendships with the other guests and the Leyenda family during tales of other adventures. In the remaining days, we breezed through other hikes that might have seemed difficult before.

That's the kind of thing that happens when you venture off the main trails in order to GKP -- in finding more of the real Argentina, we also found out more about ourselves.

Joanne Omang last wrote for Travel about a train ride in India.

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