Lions and Gauchos and Pampas-oh my

While I desperately wished to see more of Argentina, our time there was coming to a rapid end. I knew that a trip to the wine growing region of Mendoza or Iguazu Falls was just not an option. However, my friend and I had booked an organized excursion to an estancia, which is a Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese term used to describe a large rural estate. An estancia is comparable to the American ranch or the Latin American style hacienda. However, unlike haciendas which may produce any type of agricultural goods, an estancia has always been a livestock estate (either cattle or sheep).

We had taken previous trips during our time in Buenos Aires (journeying across the Rio de la Plata to neighboring Uruguay and to Tigre, a delta community), but this was the first time we were traveling into the heart of the country, the pampas, southern South America’s grasslands. Seeing nothing but vast open stretches of greenery once we had left behind the frenetic chaos of the capital’s streets and traffic was like breathing in a breath of fresh air after being inside for too long. I know I felt the same when leaving places like Seoul and Mexico City.

Cattle originally roamed free in the pampas of Argentina (men would go on raids to catch and slaughter them), however, in the 19th century stationary ranching ventures began to sprout up in the pampas with permanent buildings and labeled livestock clearly showing ownership. They were given the name of estancias as the term refers to stationary, permanent character.

It was at the estancia where the term gaucho which is often used to describe residents of rural southern South America was born. The gaucho’s principal job at the estancia was herding cattle while on horseback, resulting in the centuries old (and accurate) stereotype of them being excellent horsemen. They’re often equated to the American western style cowboy, although just like the cowboy, the term gaucho is more reminiscent of times past, namely the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Our day at the estancia was ultra touristy but still fun and memorable. The estancia we visited was still a working one, so everything we saw and came into contact still served a purpose even though for us tourists, it was a show. We got to tour some of the estancia’s main house and while homey and nice, it certainly was not grandoise. Its lived in look and feel was a reminder that an estancia, after all, is a working farm and not just a mansion on an elaborate spread of acreage.

Seeing as how we were at an estancia, our visit naturally included horses. Galloping was not an option and the short ride around the horses’ stable was somewhat lackluster especially considering my last horseback experience was a couple mile ride in Costa Rica in which the horses served a purpose getting me from Point A to Point B. It reminded me of the pony fairs for little children. I much preferred seeing a capybara, which is the largest extant rodent in the world. (I had no idea what the tour guide was holding until my friend explained what it was.)  It resembles a guinea pig…an extremely large guinea pig.

The highlight of the day, though, was the lunch we were served with none other than charcoal-grilled Argentine steaks, courtesy of the prime cattle that grazed outside. There are countries known for beef and Argentina is one of them. Our trip to Argentina was more budget oriented than anything else and while we didn’t dine at Cabana Las Lilas, one of the most famous steakhouses in Argentina and also incredibly expensive, our lunch at the estancia seemed a worthy substitute to my semi-ignorant self, at least in the beef world.

Following the meal we were treated to a folkloric dancing/fashion show (the performers changed outfits multiple times to show the history of dress in the pampas over time). While a gentleman in our tour group from Peru imbibed too much wine during the lunch, thus resulting in our delayed return to Buenos Aires as he had gotten sick, it was still a neat day. I wouldn’t say it was unforgettable per se since I’m sure there are regions in Argentina doubly spectacular compared to the estancia, which was only about 70 minutes outside of the city. However, to get a fleeting glimpse into rural Argentina and especially a way of life that like most other things in today’s society is rapidly changing (or has changed), it was worth the pesos we paid.

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