Desperately seeking gauchos

Not having seen the famous gaucho display at the Feria de los Mataderos, I thought I couldn’t fail to spot some in San Antonio de Areco, a tiny town 120km north west of Buenos Aires which prides itself on being the capital of the gaucho tradition. So I went to the bus station. Like bus stations the world over, it managed to be set in an anonymous muddy field, despite being on the fringes of some of the most upmarket areas of the city. It was heralded by flotillas of stalls selling socks, pirate DVDs and general tat and by barracks of cheap cafes selling smoking sausage meat sandwiches (the ubiquiitous choripan). After navigating the 100+ different bus companies – this is a civilised country, there’s no one screaming out destinations and trying to entice you into their office, as there would be if you were in Guatemala or India – I found myself on an unexpectedly comfotable Pullman bus pulling out of gate 42.

Once out of the snarled-up streets of the city, we hit RN 8 and I grew impatient to see the open expanse of the pampa. Maybe you have to get further into it to properly appreciate it, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I thought it would be an endless vista of grass. And there was plenty of grass, glowing green like an English landscape doused in summer rain. It was the trees that surprised me. They could be seen not just in solitary windbreaks hovering protectively over remote estancias, but in great clumps and veritable woods. There was no mistaking the source of money out here: all the roadside billboards were for horse medicine or cattle insemination or livestock feed.

San Antonio itself is a sweet, clearly prosperous little place with clean wide streets smelling of jasmine. Even on a bank holiday Sunday when the fast-talking, scrawl-writing woman at the tourist office smugly assured me that all the rooms in the town – and indeed in all the surrounding villages – were full, it oozed a lazy languor. I left the main square with its low-slung buildings crouched round a tree-filled oasis in the centre and headed down a dusty track to the Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Guiraldes. A bird of prey (who knows what kind: I’m no ornithologist) wheeled overhead. I think it might’ve been a young one practicing low-flying manoeuvres, because as it whooshed over a power line its feet brushed the cable.

The museum is in the former estancia of Ricardo Guiraldes, an Argentinian author inspired by the gaucho way of life to write a novel, Don Segundo Sombra, about these hardy denizens of the pampa which is described by Wikipedia as one of the epic works of Argentinian literature. After being thoroughly convinced of the benefits of life on a bucolic estancia, I decided to track down the other unmissable museum the woman at the tourist office had marked on my map. I couldn’t remember what it was, its location didn’t correspond to anything in my guidebook and I couldn’t read her writing, but I thought I’d give it a go. While I pondered the map I met a middle-aged couple from Buenos Aires who had the same map, with the same ‘x marks the spot’ from the same scribbling woman – the difference being they knew what they were looking for. She smiled encouragingly, he pointed out the orange trees in the street (my heart always does a tropical filip when I see oranges growing wild in a town) and said my English-accented Spanish was ‘charming’ and we found the museum together.

It turned out to be a new gallery (just 4 months old, the security guard told me), the Museo Las Lilas, displaying a collection of the whimscial, cartoon-like works of the artist Florencio Molina Campos, who depicted the folk traditions of the pampas and the gaucho, painting pictures sponsored by the espadrille manufacturer Aspargatos as well as independent works. He also collaborated with Walt Disney in the creation of characters for Bambi. His horses are wide-eyed, his gauchos wear surprised expressions and have ruddy cheeks, suggesting the wind biting their face as they canter across the grasslands. The museum also serves great coffee, with mini medialunas (croissant)s.

I wanted to try the local boliches, traditional corner shop/bar combos much vaunted by the guidebooks. I tried two, the first, Los Principios, an authentic relic smelling of dust and stocking an odd range of chiclet (chewing gum), cinzano and unidentifiable tins and packets whose sell-by dates were surely way back in the ‘50s. Encouraged by a man in a red jacket, who was propping up the bar and drinking a Fernet Branca (suprisingly popular here) and soda, I perched on a chair and rested my beer on a cardboard box (there were no tables), displacing the white-haired owner, who when he wasn’t tending to his small coterie of customers, was using the box as a desk on which to do his accounts. He moved to a chair on the other side, popped on his round, metal-framed glasses and scribbled some numbers on two scraps of squared paper. On the far side of the bar, a couple of local guys who sounded as though they’d been in there for quite a while, discussed the price of beer at length. An old man wearing faded blue canvas shoes came in and sat on a chair. He didn’t buy anything. Some tourists wandered in, gawped around a bit, and left.

When I reached my next boliche, I found out where they’d gone. Puesto La Lechuza is more a tourist reconstruction, less authentic, certainly, but it has tables. And when I visited, it had a gaucho! Leaning against the bar, drinking red wine and chatting with his friend was a chunky man wearing a wide belt, boots and an unmistakeable gaucho hat. Granted, there was no sign of his horse, but I downed my beer and left to catch my bus with a distinct sense of satisfaction.

If you like this, you might also enjoy:

And some of my other posts about Argentina

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