Bringing Pampering To the Pampas
By TAMAR HAHN
January 11, 2004
IN 1940 Magdalena Pe˝a, a young woman from a prominent Buenos Aires family with a reputation for stubbornness, purchased an estancia, as a country estate or a working ranch is known in Argentina, with her husband.
Her search for a suitable property took her to a piece of land in Argentina's pampas grasslands region, 77 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. The estate had 600 acres, much of it prone to flooding, and a decrepit house that had served as a relay stop on the post road from Buenos Aires to Peru in colonial times.
Unsurprisingly, Ms. Pe˝a's family and friends thought that the property was a losing proposition. But she ignored them. Smitten by the majestic lane of sycamore trees that interlock in a thick green arch above the entranceway and the charm of the former inn, she decided to buy the property. Ms. Pe˝a and her husband, Ricardo Aldao, refurbished the old inn, sowed corn and sunflowers in the fields and built a dairy farm. Estancia La Bamba was born.
These days, the estancia (now 370 acres) is still owned by the Aldao family but has largely discontinued farming and opened its doors to tourists. For a flat fee, visitors (who usually come for a day or a long weekend) get the full estancia experience: horseback riding with local gauchos, Argentina's mythological cowboys; fishing and picnicking at the nearby River Areco; bird-watching, or simply lounging around and gazing at the stubbornly horizontal landscape.
Argentines are also among the estancia's guests. They come seeking to escape city life, the disheartening state of the country's economy and the increasing violence that plagues the streets of Buenos Aires.
For me, visiting an estancia was a way to reconnect with a country in which I grew up, but one that is no longer my home. I came with rudimentary notions of Argentine history and faded memories of obligatory school trips to the countryside designed to acquaint us with our cultural heritage. At the time, my classmates and I were much more interested in the latest pop music from the United States (even though we didn't understand the lyrics) than in the riding skills of the gauchos. This time around, I was eager to rediscover the part of Argentina's tradition I had snubbed as a child.
When I visited my family in Argentina last May, I spent a weekend visiting two estancias, La Bamba and El Omb˙ de Areco, with my sister and her boyfriend. The drive northwest from Buenos Aires takes about an hour on a well-maintained highway. The bustling city quickly fades away, and the endless flat fields of the pampas unfold. The last stretch of the drive to La Bamba is on a short dirt road; on the day of our visit, rain had transformed it into a muddy mess. The three of us were picked up by Patricia Foster, the energetic caretaker of La Bamba, in a Soviet-era four-wheel-drive Lada. After skidding and sliding through the mud we arrived at the main house, or casco, a magnificent bright-pink colonial structure.
Stepping inside felt like going back in time. Electricity, running water and a heating system are the only nods to modernity. Everything else, from the wrought-iron beds to the turn-of-the-century bathroom fixtures and the antique furniture, reflects a bygone era. Past generations of the Aldao family in heavy Victorian attire and mounted on thoroughbreds peer down from the stucco walls. Family heirlooms are everywhere: a dresser with a set of silver combs in the master bedroom, a 200-year-old marble fireplace in the living room, and leather-bound French-language editions of Shakespeare from the turn of the century on the bookshelves.
The U-shaped casco surrounds a small patio with a beautifully tiled well. Guests can sleep in one of the seven bedrooms in the main house, or in the nearby grapevine-covered annex or a small cottage. A manicured lawn surrounds the property and there is a swimming pool.
I slept in a large, simply furnished, cozy room with two single wrought-iron beds and large windows overlooking the grounds. The bathroom had black and white tiles and turn-of-the-century white fixtures, which were charming but getting a bit rusty; there was plenty of hot water. The doors to the bedrooms have no keys and, according to the owners, nothing has ever been reported missing. But when my sister and her boyfriend had to go back to the city and I spent the night at La Bamba by myself (there were no other guests), I wished I could lock the door, just in case.
There are no amenities like TV, phones or room service. But I was content to just walk around the property, visiting the horses in the fields and reading by the fireplace. Once I became used to the complete silence, I discovered that I needed nothing more.
EXCEPT for food, that is. Spending some time in the Argentine countryside is as much about good, old-fashioned local food as it is about the setting. A traditional barbecue, or asado, is at the center of the estancia experience, usually served for lunch in the main dining room or, weather permitting, alfresco. My family and I had drinks and empanadas in the porch, but dark clouds kept accumulating on the horizon and we ended up having the main meal at the antique family dining table. A variety of salads were set, buffet style, and the young gaucho who had prepared the asado in the outdoor grill came by at regular intervals with sweetbreads, chorizos, kidneys and three different cuts of beef grilled to perfection. Wine was included with the meals.
After lunch the three of us took a walk around the grounds. But four hours later I was eating again. The merienda, the Argentine version of 5 o'clock tea, is typically an assortment of cakes and homemade jams with the traditional pastelito: small, crispy cakes stuffed with quince jam, fried and sprinkled with sugar. At dinner at 9:30 (served late, Argentine style), I had no problem devouring a salad of fresh spinach, a plate of homemade pasta and even some chocolate mousse.
Estancias can be found throughout Argentina, from the arid lands of Salta in the north to the frigid tundra of Tierra del Fuego. They are the birthplace of the country's myths, largely tailored around the prodigious riches of the land and the history of the pioneers who seized it from the Indians.
Established in the 17th century, the estancias produced the fabulous agricultural wealth that paved the way for Argentina to become one of the most prosperous countries in the world as the 20th century began. Newly well-to-do landowners, or estancieros, transformed themselves from rugged entrepreneurs into refined aristocrats by replacing their rudimentary homes with grandiose Spanish colonial or English Tudor mansions, French chateaus and Italian palazzos. Eager to display their refined European tastes, landowning families wore the latest Paris fashions and had 5 o'clock tea parties on their lawns.
But Argentina's wealth would eventually run out. By the time of the country's economic collapse in 2001 the golden days of the estancias were mostly a thing of the past. In 1986, Ricardo Aldao, Magdalena Pe˝a's son, realized that agriculture alone would not be enough to keep La Bamba going. Determined to keep the property in the family, he took what was then a radical step and opened the house to visitors.
''At that time tourism was anathema to the refined image and genteel ways associated with the estanciero life, and many of our neighbors looked down on my father,'' says Isabel Aldao, Ricardo's daughter and the estancia's manager and co-owner. ''But he knew that it was the only way we could keep the estancia.''
Throughout the years, many other financially strapped estanciero families followed the Aldaos. Today, an estimated 500 estancias offer accommodations for groups and individuals and are host to weddings and business meetings.
''European and North American tourists are our bread and butter,'' Ms. Aldao says. ''They come to Argentina looking for two things: tango and gauchos. In the city they have the former. We provide the latter.''
After my stay at La Bamba, I visited another estancia, El Omb˙ de Areco, about a mile away. The intricate wrought-iron gate at the entrance of the 740-acre property hints at the lavishness of its main building, a vine-covered Italian palazzo, with high ceilings, a marble staircase and a wide porch lined with antique tile floors.
The estancia's namesake, the omb˙, presides over the gardens. A large evergreen shrub often mistaken for a tree because of its immense umbrella-like canopy and massive trunk, the omb˙ is native to the pampas. At the estancia, it provides ample shade for outdoor asados and for the gaucho shows, which consist of folk dance troupes, local musicians and the stunning displays of equestrian skills such as horseback sprints, lassoing and hog-tying.
El Omb˙ de Areco was built in 1880 by Gen. Pablo Riccheri, who later became the Argentine minister of defense. In 1934 a first-generation German immigrant named Enrique Boelcke bought the property, which is now owned and managed by his granddaughter, Eva Boelcke. Like La Bamba, El Omb˙ was a working ranch until it fell on hard times in the 1980's and Ms. Boelcke also decided to go the tourist route.
''My brothers and sisters have all left Argentina for Europe and Kenya, but I could never live anywhere else,'' says Ms. Boelcke, a trim blond woman with a passion for horses and country life.
I found El Omb˙'s bedrooms a little dark and impersonal. The bathroom was large and equipped with antique fixtures, including a clawfoot tub. The spacious common room, with wood paneling, an oversize fireplace and French windows overlooking the gardens, is filled with equestrian artifacts and feels cozy. The estancia seems less like someone's home and more like an inn. The dÚcor is less personal but the facilities -- the two swimming pools, the larger grounds, and the dining room were appropriate for larger groups.
And El Omb˙ offered a more hands-on estancia experience. Cattle are still raised and guests can try their hand at milking, driving cattle to harness, ear-tagging, dehorning and branding. I was eager to go riding on one of the 40 well-groomed horses, but it rained. The weather did not prevent me from enjoying an asado, though, one that was as delicious as at La Bamba. ''Some of the European and American tourists that come here are not used to eating so much meat,'' Ms. Boelcke says. ''So we make sure that there are also chicken dishes and vegetarian alternatives.''
After a couple of days at the estancias, even the most tightly wound city slicker will be lulled into the quiet pace and endless beauty of the pampas. Ms. Aldao and Ms. Boelcke are happy to change meal times and arrange riding outings or trips to the nearby village of San Antonio de Areco. They each greet visitors personally and make sure everything is satisfactory, although I didn't have any meals with either of them. The weather limited me to walks, lounging around and enjoying some great meals. But there is plenty to do for both children and adults.
At the end of my weekend as I was driving through the short stretch of country road that connects La Bamba and El Omb˙ to the highway, out of nowhere, a gaucho on horseback appeared. With a wide hat resting just above his eyes, his black bombacha pants, and a sash over his shoulder he looked every bit the part. He smiled and touched the rim of his hat in salute. I waved and headed for the city.
Way out West, in South America
From Buenos Aires, drive along the Panamericana Route following the Acceso Norte, which becomes National Route No. 8. Continue on Route 8, past the tollbooth until the distance indicator for Kilometer 110. Turn right at the police station onto State Route 41 (paved) for another three miles up to the intersection with State Route 31. Turn right at the airport and continue for four miles; the estancia El Omb˙ de Areco will be on the right. For La Bamba, continue along the same road for a mile and you will see the bright-pink house on the right.
Both El Omb˙ and La Bamba offer car services from Buenos Aires for about $40 each way.
For reservations at La Bamba, contact Isabel Aldao, (54) 2326-456293 or (54-11) 4732 1269, www.la-bamba.com.ar . Rooms range from $180 for a large bedroom with queen bed and private bath to $120 for a single room with bath. A night at the cottage, which accommodates four, costs $240.
For reservations at El Omb˙ de Areco, contact Eva Boelcke, (54-11) 4710 2795 or (54) 2326-492080, www.estanciaelombu.com . A room for two is $75 a person and a single room is $100.
At both estancias, the price of an overnight stay includes all meals (breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, wine and soft drinks) and such activities as horseback riding, fishing and bird-watching. Folkloric shows featuring singing and dancing troupes and gaucho skills can be arranged; a gaucho show costs $150 and a folkloric show is $140.
Guests can visit for the day; it costs $35 at La Bamba and $30 at El Omb˙, and includes lunch and tea and all the free activities described above. Children under 12 pay half.
The town of San Antonio de Areco, about 20 minutes away to the south, is worth a visit for its colonial buildings, gaucho museum and many artisan shops. The estancias can provide car transportation and a guide.