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.