The vast expanse of flat pampas grassland that radiates out from Buenos Aires is one of the country’s most famous features, just as the gaucho who once roamed on horseback, knife clenched between teeth, leaving a trail of broken hearts and gnawed steak bones behind him, is as important a part of the collective romantic imagination 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 brutal – was crystallized in José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro, from which just about every Argentine can quote. It’s a way of life whose time has passed, but the gaucho’s legacy remains. You’re not likely 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. Shrines to the semi-mythical Gauchito Gil, one of the most famous gauchos of all, are often seen by the roadside in the Pampas.
The best area for this kind of visit is the Eastern Pampas, in a radius of a couple of hundred kilometres around Buenos Aires city. This is where you’ll find the pampa húmeda (wet pampa), land that is the country’s most fertile – and most valuable. The closest places are potential day-trips from the capital, although spending a night – perhaps at a nearby estancia – will give you a better feel for the much slower pace of life in the interior. Others are useful as stopping-off points. The charming town of San Antonio de Areco is the main site of interest to the capital’s northwest, on the RN-8; if you visit only one pampas town during your stay in Argentina, this is the one to head for. The recognized centre of pampas tradition, San Antonio puts on a popular gaucho festival in November and has some highly respected artisans and an extremely attractive and unusually well-preserved town centre. At the very beginning of the RN-5, Luján, 61km west of the capital, is Argentina’s most important religious site, thanks to its vast basilica, built to house the country’s patron saint, the Virgin of Luján. Further along the RN-5, Mercedes stands out thanks to its authentic pulpería, largely untouched since the nineteenth century, and the small town of Lobos, to the capital’s southwest, is a popular weekend destination for Porteños, primarily for its lakeside setting. Tandil is also an appealing town of cobbled streets and traditional pampas culture.Read More
- San Antonio de Areco
Tranquil and cultured MERCEDES, 37km southwest of Luján along the RN-5, was founded in 1752 as a fortress to protect that city from Indian attacks. It’s a well-preserved provincial town and easy to find your way around – the main drag is Avenida 29, which crosses central Plaza San Martín. The plaza houses the grand Italianate Palacio Municipal and large Gothic Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de Mercedes and is a real hub of activity – especially in the evening, when locals fill the tables that spill out of its various inviting confiterías.
Mercedes’ main draw is its unmissable pulpería, over twenty blocks north of Plaza San Martín, at the end of Avenida 29. Pulperías, essentially provisions stores with a bar attached, performed an important social role in rural Argentina and enjoy an almost mythical status in gaucho folklore. The sign outside Mercedes’ pulpería, known locally as “lo de Cacho” (Cacho’s place), claims it to be the last pulpería, run, until his death in 2009, by the last pulpero, Cacho Di Catarina. The gloomy interior, which has hardly changed since it opened its doors in 1850, harbours a collection of dusty bottles, handwritten notices – included an original wanted poster for the biggest gaucho outlaw of them all, Juan Moreira – and gaucho paraphernalia: it doesn’t require much imagination to conjure up visions of the knife fights that Cacho claimed to have witnessed in his youth. His family still runs the bar in his name and musicians frequently drop in for a glass of Vasco Viejo and impromptu singing and guitar playing, much of it dedicated to the sorely missed Cacho. To get to the pulpería, best visited in the evening for a beer and a picada featuring some of the renowned local salami, take the local bus that runs towards the park from Avenida 29. A couple of blocks beyond the last stop, the road becomes unsealed and on the left-hand corner you’ll see the simple white building, a sign saying “pulpería” painted on its side.
Tandil and around
Tandil and around
TANDIL, 70km southeast of Azul, is set among the central section of the range of hills known as the Sistema de Tandilia. The range begins around 150km northwest of Tandil, running across the province to Mar del Plata, on the coast, and only rarely rising above 200m. Around Tandil, however, there are peaks of up to 500m. This is not wild trekking country, but Tandil’s hills are good for horse-riding and mountain-biking. The town itself is well geared for the holidaymakers that come all year on weekend breaks, with some very good delicatessens and restaurants and a lively, bustling feel in the evening. Tandil is particularly popular during Holy Week, when the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) processions take place, which end at Monte Calvario, a small hillock topped by a giant cross to the east of the town centre.