Cowboy culture: staying on estancias in Argentina

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Where have all the cowboys gone? You might find a gaucho getting rowdy in one of Buenos Airespeñas (music clubs), but if you want to see some real silver spurs and leather chaps you’ll have to head for wide open spaces. The flat, rolling countryside surrounding the capital is dotted with ranches where you can encounter cowboy culture and gallop into the sunset astride an Argentine thoroughbred.

Dozens of estancias, or rural estates that were once the private getaways of wealthy families have opened their picket fences to the public. Many of these country hotels offer a día de campo (country day) that’s ideal for day-trippers. One of the friendliest and most authentic options within easy reach of Buenos Aires is Estancia Los Dos Hermanos in Zarate.

You’ll roll up to the farm for a country breakfast before mounting a horse and following the estancia’s resident gaucho into the fields for a morning ride. Then it’s back to the farmhouse for an alfresco asado (barbecue) and a quick hammock siesta before you hit the trails again for a few whiplash-inducing hours on horseback.

Rather hang your hat near the stables than race back to the city? Estancia accommodations range from luxurious suites with private fireplaces to rustic rooms with hardwood floors. Do your homework – some estancias are just private homes that begrudgingly rent rooms for profit, others are campy circuses that bring in buses of camera-snapping tourists – but don’t miss a chance to live out your cowboy dreams in the Argentine pampas.

You can also join in the lively festival and market that is held every weekend (except during the summer) in Mataderos, the western Buenos Aires suburb named for the cattle slaughterhouses established there in 1899. Follow the sound of folk music emanating from the outdoor stage to see local couples take to the streets to perform the traditional chacarera and chamamé folk dances. Food stalls dish out hearty country dishes like locro (a meaty stew from northwest Argentina), deep-fried empanadas, and humitas (lightly sweetened corn meal wrapped in corn husks), all washed down with sweet patero wine – this is La Feria de Mataderos, an authentic celebration of Argentine country traditions.

While the stage features children twirling in vibrantly coloured skirts and adolescent boys performing gallant folk dances in traditional boots and bombachas (loose-fitting gaucho-style trousers), the most exciting spectacle of the day is the sortija. In full gaucho regalia, horsemen stand on their saddles and ride at full speed to spear a tiny ring dangling from a ribbon.

After you’ve marvelled at the horses and gorged yourself on country cuisine, stroll through the market for bargain-priced leather goods, ponchos and silver jewellery. A row of gourmet food stands offer samples of homemade cheeses and decadent dulce de leche liqueur.

This article was originally published in September 2010. This article was refreshed in August 2012.