Mounted on a beautiful Palomino mare, Oscar cuts a fine figure in his bolero hat, red neck-scarf, baggy bombachos trousers, brown leather boots and shiny brass buckle belt. I’m in the saddle next to him, feeling a little awkward atop my sturdy ranch horse, watching the two teenagers gallop towards the cattle in the distance. The boys, who are holidaying at the estancia with their parents, are showing off their newly acquired gaucho skills by attempting to muster the herd on their own alongside the gauchos in Argentina.
I tighten my grip on the reins, afraid that my horse might bolt.
Riding off into the pampas beside a gaucho might sound romantic but this is only my fifth time on a horse and the best I can manage is a bit of a trot. Nevertheless, I’m pleased at my progress as before arriving at Estancia El Ombu – which sits at the edge of the pampas about 110km from Buenos Aires – I had minimal riding experience.
Oscar, who doesn’t speak any English, has been teaching me to ride by using a combination of Spanish words, sounds and sign language.
As soon as I’m shown my horse, I realise that this isn’t going to be a typical resort trail ride. My first task at the stables is to saddle my horse by copying one of the other gauchos. The gaucho saddles are different to Australian saddles and consist of layers of sheepskin, leather and saddle cloth.
Then I’m shown how to hold the reins gaucho style (very loosely in one hand). I’m a slower learner than my horse, who already knows that the clicking sound Oscar makes with his tongue is a signal to speed up.
The language, saddles and riding styles aren’t the only things that are different about riding in Argentina. Here, there are few rules and you’re free to do whatever you want at your own risk. The system works well for groups and allows experienced riders the opportunity to canter ahead on their own, as long as they stay within eyesight of the gauchos.
We ride three times a day, often accompanying the gauchos on their daily rounds through the paddocks as they check on cattle.
An Argentinean icon as famous as the tango and Evita, gauchos have roamed the countryside since the 1700s, toiling on estancias, serenading women and inspiring folk legends about their footloose wanderings. Descended from Spanish colonists and indigenous Indians, the mixed-race outcasts played Spanish guitars and wore ponchos, smoked tobacco and drank mate tea.
They made their home on the plains, herding cattle for wealthy landowners, or estancieros, who hired armies of gauchos to tend to stock and protect the land.
The estancieros built majestic mansions, which were flamboyant displays of wealth and status. There were Spanish colonial and English Tudor styles, French chateaus and Italian palazzos. Most had manicured gardens where women flounced around in the latest Paris fashions hosting afternoon tea parties.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last and by the mid 20th century, financially strapped estanciero families were forced to turn their homes into guest houses, which now dot Argentina’s countryside all the way from the arid lands of Salta in the north to the frosty tundra of Tierra del Fuego in the south.
The days of raiding neighbouring estancias are long gone and gauchos like Oscar are multi-skilled. Besides excellent riding skills and well-honed abilities around stock, the gauchos also help at the estancias by serving meals and entertaining guests with their music.
The General’s mansion
Estancia El Ombu is a vine-covered colonial mansion of faded grandeur with high ceilings, a marble staircase and a verandah lined with antique floor tiles. Built in 1880 by Lieutenant General Pablo Riccheri (who later became Argentina’s Minister of Defence), its historic appeal brings bus loads of day trippers from Buenos Aires but for an authentic experience, it’s best to book a room at the estancia for a couple of nights.
Guest rooms are simply furnished with period furniture. There’s a common room with a billiards table and an old television set for rainy days.
Lunch is usually an asado – a barbecue of free-range Argentinean beef, chorizos and ribs washed down with the estancia’s private label wine – held on the verandah or beneath the sweeping canopy of an ombu plant (Phytolacca dioca). Gauchos have been hitching their horses to this ombu, which is an icon of the pampas, for over a hundred years.
Time in between meals is spent horse riding (there’s a horse-drawn carriage for those who prefer not to ride), walking or relaxing in the gardens and by the pool.
There are seasonal opportunities to participate in stock-rearing activities such as milking, rounding-up cattle, ear-tagging, de-horning and branding of the estancia’s 500 head of Hereford and Aberdeen Angus cattle.
Each evening, the gauchos entertain guests by playing the guitar and singing soulful ballads.
It’s a getaway that gets me into the slow and relaxing rhythm of the pampas.
A 20-minute taxi ride from the estancia takes me past grain silos and horses grazing along the roadside to San Antonio de Areco, which is a main hub for gaucho traditions.
The town was the home of Argentinean writer Ricardo Guiraldes, who wrote the gaucho classic Don Segundo Sombra, and is a picture of 18th-century rural Argentina with colonial buildings that house shops and museums.
There’s a sleepy atmosphere and few people around aside from a group of young men sporting traditional gaucho berets, smoking and drinking tea in an outdoor cafe.
Smells of hay, horse droppings and leather fill the air as I wander in and out of shops admiring hand-woven belts, bags and ponchos. There are silversmiths, woodworking shops and two museums, Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Guiraldes, which displays gaucho paraphenelia, and Museo y Taller Draghi, which has a beautiful collection of silver facones (gaucho knives), and is also a workshop that sells silver work and saddles.
For more action, time your visit to coincide with Fiesta de la Tradición in November each year, when gauchos flock here from all over the country to strut their stuff on horseback.
Even in its sleepy state, the town, the estancia and the pampas has cast its spell over me and I hope to return one day to canter alongside the gauchos in Argentina.