Stretching for a couple of hundred kilometres west and northwest of Buenos Aires city, the Pampa Húmeda (“wet pampa”) is the country’s most fertile and valuable land. It is dotted with several sites of interest, including Luján, at the very beginning of the RN-5, less than 70km west of the federal capital. This is Argentina’s leading religious site, thanks to its vast basilica, purpose-built to house an image of the country’s patron saint, the Virgin of Luján. Further along the RN-5, Mercedes stands out for its authentic pulpería largely untouched since the nineteenth century. Pulperías, essentially provisions stores with a bar attached, performed an important social role in rural Argentina (rather like Wild West saloons or British village pubs) and enjoy an almost mythical status in gaucho folklore.
The small town of Lobos, to the capital’s southwest, is another popular weekend destination for Porteños, primarily for its lakeside setting. The most notable destination hereabouts, though, is San Antonio de Areco, a charming market town to the capital’s northwest, along the RN-8. Known colloquially as Areco, it has retained a remarkably authentic feel despite its popularity with tourists; if you visit only one pampas town during your stay in Argentina, this is the one to head for. As the recognized centre of pampas tradition, Areco puts on a popular gaucho festival in November and has some highly respected artisans and an extremely attractive and unusually well preserved historic centre. Like other destinations in the Pampa Húmeda, it is close to Buenos Aires and a potential day-trip from the capital, but spending a night – especially at an estancia – will give you a better feel for the much slower pace of life in the interior. Areco and its neighbours are also useful stopping-off points on the way to the Litoral, Córdoba or the Northwest. Further afield and better suited for a longer stay (or a stopover on the way to Patagonia), Tandil is an appealing town of cobbled streets with its own tradition of pampas culture. The main attraction is the nearby mountain scenery, perfect for riding and long rambles.