San Antonio de Areco: partying with the gauchos

(written at bar Marimba Loca, El Calafate, Argentina, after Perito Moreno tour. Mar 31, 2010)
After the bustle and the hussle of BsAs I headed to sleepy San Antonio. I checked into a lovely but expensive hostel where I was one of two guests and headed to the nearby tourist info office for some ideas. Who knew there was so much to do in such a small town! After a short trip to the local bank and a delicious burger lunch at the only café that was open (siesta time is religiously obeyed in all of Argentina), I hit the surrounding countryside. I rented a funny looking and worse PINK bike but what better way to explore nature on a sunny afternoon! After only an hour or so it was time to head to a local ranch for my horse riding session. I left the paved road and hit the gravel. I was in such a rush that I even managed to dislocate the chain. Not a problem, although a bit of a bad timing. I spent my childhood cycling on the streets of my village, optimizing bikes (read removing everything that was not essential, leaving a bit more than a frame) and fixing chains and flat tires was an everyday task. I was back up and running in no time.
I made it to the ranch (Bamba Chica) and soon the manager led me to the stables. Antonio, the resident caretaker, turned off the leaf blower and we all exchanged a few polite words and smiles. He led me to the horses, we got up and left. There was not a single word of explanation or safety tips. He didn’t know if I had done it before or not and he didn’t ask. Luckily they all seem to handle them the same way in Latin America and I didn’t have any trouble with it. There was no non-sense, just riding. The first thing I noticed was his missing front tooth and then his costume. As soon as we left the stable I asked Antonio about his clothes.
– Do you normally dress like this or you just put on a show for the tourists? – I inquired.
– Oh, this is nothing – he smiled shyly. I wear much nicer clothes for the tourists.
He wore an everyday gaucho outfit (a knitted berretta, tilted to one side, the customary red scarf, typical trousers tucked into leather riding boots), he wasn’t putting on a show and I was ecstatic. I was lucky to be part of his daily routine.
He didn’t speak much but there was something about his air that commanded respect. I was impressed. We walked on the extensive ranch grounds, enjoying the sun while Antonio talked about the ranch (not before I asked though). He took me to a field where he proudly demonstrated his horses and explained what each one was good for. It was funny observing him. He was so proud and happy. We then galloped back to the farm but not until we herded some ponies back into the stable. As we rode many thoughts went through my mind, but mainly the overpowering satisfaction and peace coming from within. There is nothing like galloping through the vast pampa, feeling all the majesty and power of nature, its perfection. You sit there looking at it, being so grateful for being able to be part of it. I felt very emotional, as I experienced the happiness we all dream of achieving. I was happy that it existed, and that all the struggles were worth it, leading to this one moment.
As we were parting he asked whether I was going back to San Antonio.
– I don’t know – I replied. Maybe.
– If you do we could go for an asado – he offered. Did he just ask me out?!
I thanked him and slowly cycled back to the hostel where I dropped off the bike and went out on town. There was a small homemade chocolate shop that I wanted to visit. I found it on a small backstreet and settled for a cup of cold chocolate. I thought it would be interesting to try. A bit different than the usual hot chocolate. I sat at my doll-size table, my butt barely fitting in the tiny chair and watched the men prepare various chocolates in the factory behind the counter while the ladies wrapped hundreds of Easter Eggs in pretty paper and colorful ribbons. I learned how they make the chocolate shapes, the cookies, the bonbons. While I was tasting some of them I wondered whether chocolate made as art was healthier that mainstream chocolate. I left the Alice like shop and headed to the center.
I saw a gaucho in all his splendid attire (incl. a knife tucked at the back of his elaborate belt) get off a 21st century jeep and casually walking down the street. I coolly nodded at him while he smiled back but on the inside I was screaming ‘How cool is that!!!’. I had to turn around secretly and have another look at him. Then I came to a traditional local bar and was amazed to see an older gaucho sharing a table with family members. He enjoyed his drink while an younger man worked on his laptop. Talk about different generations!
After a while I felt pretty tired and headed back to the hostel for a steaming hot shower and a warm bed. I had an important day the next day.
I woke up, well rested and eager to leave. I had to be at La Cinacina ranch at 11am for a gaucho fiesta. I was one of the first to arrive (!) and was warmly welcomed by Carlos, an elderly and very kind gaucho boasting his party clothes. And for a reason! They started me off with some homemade empanadas and wine. I walked around the grounds munching on my snack, enjoying the sun, the peace, the fresh air. Big smile on my face, feeling as free as a bird. I was fascinated by the huge grills (parilla) and the amount of meat sizzling on them (later to become our lunch). There was a separate room for the grills (3 in total) only, each about 3m long.
The other guests slowly arrived and we headed to the stables. Most visitors settled for a carriage ride and I went riding with another young gaucho (a rather cute one if I may add!). My horse was beautiful, much larger and fatter than the one from the previous day but rather unruly. I had some trouble getting it to go but once we were on the road it went well. The gaucho got me galloping in no time. Again, a very no non-sense approach. He saw me holding the saddle for support and made me let go of it. I did and I was ecstatic. He gave me some tips and soon I felt pretty comfortable. I was galloping without holding for support. Yhaaa!!! The ultimate sense of freedom and power.
At some point my horse wouldn’t listen to me again and refused to follow the gaucho. Every time I pulled the leads to the left it went right. We ended up being a 100m away from each other. I eventually made it back to him without any help. I appreciated that he didn’t run to my rescue and let me handle it alone. Again we spent most of the ride (except the occasional eager shout from me) in silence. I was amazed by how relaxed he was on his horse. We crossed a lagoon, horses in water almost up to the saddle, the gaucho herded some horses with great skill while I was watching openmouthed. We then galloped back to the stable in what I thought was a more relaxed posture on my behalf.
I then met an American couple, spending winter in warm BsAs. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and I also joined them for lunch. We had a delicious meal, accompanied by traditional music and dance. They sang songs from different regions but they all sounded more or less the same. The dances looked very similar as well. The girl playing with her dark braids, swirling in her long skirt, shyly looking at the gaucho, skillfully avoiding his aggressive advances. I clearly remember the solo male dance that resembled an elaborate stunt. Very impressive! I even got to dance with a gaucho although it wasn’t the one I liked. Dancing was a lot harder than it looked but memorable.
After lunch it was time for the gaucho show. I was impatient to leave the dining hall and see them race. I was pressed for time but I had to see them. We watched them trying to catch a small ring hung from a post while galloping at the speed of light. All that while standing! Very, very impressive! I was amazed by their skills and no non-sense approach. It made me want to learn a few tricks myself. But that’s another story…

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