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.Read More
- San Antonio de Areco
Birthplace of Argentina’s top two tennis players, Juan Martín del Potro and Juan Mónaco, the attractive town of TANDIL, many of whose streets are cobbled with stones quarried from nearby, is set among the central section of the Sistema de Tandilia, a long range of granite hills. Beginning around 150km northwest of the town and running across the province to Mar del Plata, they seldom rise above 200m; close to Tandil, however, there are craggy peaks of up to 504m. Although this is not wild trekking country, the sierras are ideal for horseriding and mountain biking. The town itself is well geared for the holiday-makers who come all year on weekend breaks, with some excellent accommodation plus enticing delicatessens and restaurants and a lively, bustling feel in the evening. Tandil is particularly popular during Holy Week, when the Vía Crucis (Stations of the Cross) processions take place; they end at Monte Calvario, a small hillock topped by a giant cross, to the east of the town centre.
The pampas, the vast expanse of flat grassland that radiates out from Buenos Aires, forms one of the country’s most famous features. Similarly, the gaucho, who once roamed them on horseback, facón (knife) clenched between his teeth, leaving a trail of broken hearts and gnawed steak bones behind him, is as important a part of the collective romantic imagination of Argentina as the Wild West cowboy is in the US. The popular depiction of this splendid, freedom-loving figure – whose real life must actually have been rather lonely and extremely brutal – was crystallized in José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro, from which just about every Argentine can quote (they learn it by heart at school). It’s a way of life whose time has passed, but the gaucho’s legacy remains. You’re unlikely to witness knife fights over a woman, but you can still visit well-preserved pulperías (traditional bars), stay at estancias and watch weather-beaten old paisanos (countrymen) playing cards and chuckling behind their huge handlebar moustaches. The term “gaucho” is still a compliment while gaucho garb – beret or sombrero, knotted scarf, checked shirt, ornate belt (tirador), baggy trousers (bombachas), boots or espadrilles (alpargatas) and a poncho – is considered almost chic. A gauchada means a good deed or an act of macho heroism, altruistic courage or, at least, heartfelt generosity. Shrines of red flags dedicated to the semi-mythical Gauchito Gil, one of the most famous gauchos of all, are often seen by the roadside throughout the country.