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My horse has stopped to take a well-earned drink from a patch of rainwater down below. As I survey the surroundings I see the chilly Atlantic coast to my right, ebbing gently onto the wetlands, and to the left an intimidating patchwork of forest that we just scuffled through. Up ahead of us three gauchos, one of whom is a real-life horse whisperer, tend to our group in perfect Spanglish and search intently for quirky creatures in the undergrowth below. Wild, untamed horses of all colours and sizes run amok amongst hefty cows in every direction. The sun is setting now and a roaring barbeque with the world’s best steaks is waiting for us back at the house. This may sound like some Robert Redford idyll, but luckily for me this rural paradise exists, and last July I was privileged enough to have a sample.
I`m staying at Estancia Juan Geronimo, near the town of Veronica two hours from Buenos Aires in the `La Pampa` region of Argentina. It`s a vast rural playground that embodies much of what Argentina stands for: endless cattle, endless space and the gaucho, the introspective “cowboy” of South America`s Wild West. “Estancia”, in tourist terms, is a sort of ranch, usually complete with animals and a spattering of crops. They vary enormously in size, quality and attitude. This particular gem is one of the largest and best protected this side of BA. It`s a UNESCO World Heritage site for a start; a working ranch with four thousand hectares and four thousand cows (one cow per hectare of land is the Argentine farming standard), over one hundred horses and six skilful gauchos who live on site with their families and look after the animals and the occasional tourist. As with most other estancias in this area, the land is not rich enough for agriculture or the prized soya bean that brings in more money than meat, so income is subsidized by letting intrepid gringos and wealthy tourists from the city through the gates for a few days.
A day before our costal exploration I had arrived at the main house in the black of night and was met by Florencia, the charming owner, and her chief gaucho, a sort of rural butler without the dinner jacket. The main room of the imposing house was in keeping with the style of centuries past; much of the original building remained untouched since the time of Florencia´s grandparents who were prominent members of Argentine high society. High ornate ceilings loomed from above and the smell of wood was everywhere: the huge darkened oak table set elaborately for meals, the smart antiques and the open fire that bathed the entire area in a warm glow as it crackled in the background. Tributes to the family’s equestrian background were easy to spot - they have a history of successful riders and Florencia`s own husband was in the Argentine Olympic team, she informs me.
I was introduced to the only other guests staying with me, a chirpy American-Argentine family complete with grandma, mother and two young kids. They were all born in Buenos Aires but the mother (Jenny) had met an American husband and they had all emigrated to Haiwaii some years back. They had returned to re-live some of their traditional roots (all had grown up on horses) and who could blame them. I was particularly happy to have some company as well as being able to rely on a translator in the mother for my somewhat mediocre Spanish.
Before bed I reached for a night-cap at the small self-service bar near the fire (all included). The family recommended a local drink: Gancia Limon, a bitter but pleasant concoction that reminded me again of Argentina’s European ties. Gancia, along with the country’s other favourite tipple, Fernet, both emanated from Italy. We exchanged backgrounds as we sipped.
Soon I was led to my room, a cozy carbon-copy of the living room with a large springy double bed, pleasant trimmings and more than ample space for a solo traveller. Florencia explained the `stressful` program for the next two days: four home-cooked meals per day interspersed with two horse rides, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Activities were flexible to the guest’s tastes of course, but this was July, and thus getting on for the Argentine winter, so fishing and sailing were sadly off limits. I drifted off slowly to images of juicy steaks and splashings of red wine.
As the sun burst through my window in the morning, the farm really began to come to life. I looked out to the front lawn and everywhere was teeming with wildlife. Five Labradors, all different shades of chocolate, were playing amidst a group of South American baby ostriches. In the distance Florencia was tending gently to a Capybara (the world’s largest rodent) with a plate of milk. Jenny’s kids frolicked amongst the madness, with smiles from ear to ear. It was a child`s dream – but this was no zoo. Everything was wild and precious to the estate; even the dogs lived outside.
We sat for a delicious lazy breakfast of “media lunas” (croissants), home-made jams, scrambled eggs, fresh orange juice and strong black coffee. In the morning light, to the back of the house, now appeared a huge, glistening lake as far as the eye could see. The water was high and it spilled over to the surrounding trees. Gangly birds stalked across its surface. We donned our gear and headed to the horses.
I had heard that Juan Geronimo had a reputation for well trained horses. This certainly proved to be an understatement. The way in which Florencia and her gauchos handled the horses was captivating. This is a part of Argentina where the term “horse whisperer” is not a gimmick; Florencia informed me that some of the horses we rode had been trained from wild by the gauchos, over many years. It was evident in their `handling` - every touch of the reins, every deft movement was translated into an instantaneous response in the animal. Some were simply lean, mean racing machines: Jenny’s horse would speed up to a gallop with the tiniest raise of the leather. Comparing this to a previous horse ride I completed in Salta, a popular mountain town in North Argentina, where tourists were herded onto horses hour by hour (my particular horse was pregnant and ignored everything I did), was like comparing a Ferrari to a Morris Minor.
Setting off it soon became clear why the estate was coined a “mini town” by guests. We passed schools and churches, over twenty buildings in all. It was clear that many people depended on this Estancia for their way of life. We rode slowly and steadily until lunch to get acquainted with our new companions, a stroke of genius as it turned out, as I hadn’t been in a saddle for six years and my back-side was proving it. Food was a tender meat stew with home-made noodles (a nice touch) followed by Tiramisu. The afternoon ride took us to the top of a steep, stony hill to allow magical views over the expansive estate. Back again for afternoon tea, we munched on home-made scones, biscuits, tea and coffee. We whiled away the time until dinner with a good book in front of the fire, generously sprinkled with logs by attending gauchos.
As if we hadn’t been suitably impressed with the fare already, dinner was the top trump of the Estancia´s culinary firepower. A buffet of roast potatoes and fresh crunchy salad was laid out, complete with good local red wine, another of Argentina’s famous exports. Out the back of house, the chief gaucho manned an industrial sized barbeque rack as we were treated to a classic staple of Argentina cuisine, an “asado”, all-you-can-eat style. I returned the favour by chomping through most cuts of the cow: “lomo” (fillet), “bife de chorizo” (rump) and the rarer pieces. Dinner chit-chat was as interesting as the food. Florencia, a font of all things horsey, talked vividly through her family history and recommended some more challenging horse “treks” for me up North. We discussed Argentine politics (never boring given South America`s penchant for scandal) and talk quickly moved to the subject of Evita, Argentina’s former “First Lady”. Jenny’s mother, with a not so privileged background, was a fan. Florencia wasn’t – a common dichotomy given Evita’s `Robin Hood` tendencies. When Florencia left the table Jenny explained to me that Evita had taken much land and wealth from estancia owners to fund her social programs for the poor. As with other parts of Argentina, I found that yet again there was more to this place than met the eye.
My two days and two nights on the Estancia had been a delight. Sure, it’s not cheap by backpacker standards, but it certainly is by any other measure. What’s more, travelling always seems to ask the question: how can you find a truly authentic experience? Whether its Amazonian tribes in Peru or Samba schools in Rio, everything is usually tainted with a slight tourist gloss of some sort, whatever way you flip it. Not so at Juan Geronimo. Here, on the shores of the Mar Del Plata, they get it just right.
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