For our second week in Argentina, we headed south west of Buenos Aires to volunteer on an Estancia (Argentinian ranch) set in the remote, flat, endless pampas. With my wife being the world’s biggest horse fan it was an opportunity for her to see how horses live in this gaucho (cowboy) culture. For me, the challenge would be to live like a Gaucho for a week.
The life of an Argentinian Gaucho is a hard one: they only get 1 day off in 15, and the other 14 are spent tending to the land, cattle and horses of the estancia. As we had found when we visited an estancia in Bolivia (where Gauchos are known as Ganaderos), cowboy life in much of Latin America seems to have remained relatively unchanged by the advances of the modern world. Plenty of estancias survive in near-isolation without mains electricity or running water, much of the work continues to be conducted on horseback, and here in Argentina most Gauchos still don the floppy berets, baggy trousers and canvas shoes which is their traditional dress.
Obviously such an authentically agricultural lifestyle has attracted a burgeoning tourist market, and many estancias have diverted to fulfil this need. The estancia on which we stayed, La Margarita, now caters for tourists, with the old farm house converted into cosy rooms with roaring fires, and the estancia’s herd of horses on hand so you can explore the countryside from the comfort of your gaucho saddle.
It would, perhaps, have been lovely to spend a few days lounging in the rustic comforts afforded to guests at La Margarita, but our budget demanded a more economical experience, and happily La Margarita offers a volunteering programme, for which the shortest stay is just 1 week. So, despite the English owner David’s protestations that there wouldn’t be a massive amount for us to do in the September low season, we signed up and took a 5 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to the rural town of Tapalque, then a short ride in David’s car along a dusty track which brought us to Estancia La Margarita.
Arriving at the estancia at dusk, we descended on the toasty farmhouse kitchen where we met the strong, quiet gauchos (both decked in traditional unifoms) and the bubbly ladies who look after the large old estancia house. Like any farm, life revolves around the kitchen, and it seemed like someone was cooking, eating or chatting around the range in there at most times of day and night.
The following day we were able to see the surrounding grounds, with cattle grazing (La Margarita has a small herd, mainly for milk), horses mooching, pigs scratching and chickens ambling it had the feel of a classic small holding. When we arrived there were few guests around so the gauchos tended to the grounds and rotated the animals between pastures, before a large lunch complete with wine. After lunch, as with most of Argentina, everyone disappears for a (minimum) 2 hour siesta, before the estancia comes to life with wood collection and chopping in the afternoon. We also spent time eating, riding, and hanging out with guests who’d come from as close as Buenos Aires and as far afield as Australia. Everyone was here in relaxed moods, ready to soak up the tranquility and their slice of gaucho life, which invariably involves eating lots of meat, riding, hanging out with the friendly dogs and even learning to milk a cow (to my surprise, I was an utter natural, and best-in-class!).
Each estancia is encased in its own little woodlands in order to shelter from the weather which sweeps in across the flat, exposed pampas. The woods also serve to feed the estancia’s fires, and La Margarita has plenty of burnable fuel thanks to a hurricane which swept through last year, leaving fallen trees and chaos in it’s wake. As the owner, David showed us around the grounds, he pointed at the woods “You can do some work tidying up in there” he said.
Manual labour where have you been all my life?
Not since our week of turtle conservation work in Costa Rica had my wife and I experienced the demands of daily physical labour, but each day as I toiled alone, collecting fallen branches and bagging strewn rubbish in La Margarita’s hurricane damaged woods, I felt an immense satisfaction in completing tasks which expended lots of energy yet required little brain space. When we weren’t tidying, we were collecting eggs (from the extremely free range chickens) and picking fruit/making juice for breakfast. Amidst La Margarita’s tranquil pace, these tasks felt like the perfect occupation.
Live like a gaucho? Try understanding one first…
Since commencing Spanish lessons at the beginning of My Year In Flux, I’d become pretty confident with the basics of the language, and able to hold conversations with hosts and new friends we’d met along our American journey. It had actually become a badge of honour to be able to learn this language completely from scratch, to understand, to be understood. But everything changed when we arrived in Argentina, when we realised they spoke a very different form of the language. They don’t even call it Spanish, but instead refer to their language as ‘Castellano’. My language woes deepened during gaucho week at La Margarita. The gauchos spoke so quickly and in such an accent that I could understand almost nothing. When you’re volunteering, communication is pretty essential, and when you are keen to learn more about someone’s way of life, language is a must. Despite being anxious about this before we arrived, the knot of stress was quickly released when I realised just how far I had to go with my Spanish/Castellano. I accepted failure and regressed to odd words, hand signals and laughter.
Ride like a gaucho
Unable to communicate well, one skill I knew I did have was horse riding, which is obviously a big part of the gaucho life. Although I only overcame a fear of horses and learned to ride 5 years ago, I’d grown in confidence steadily and really taken to the more relaxed (and comfortable) Western style riding which predominates in the Americas. In fact we’d just enjoyed lots of riding in Bolivia, where I’d conquered my final fears of galloping!
So as we took to the saddle here and loped off after our (now mostly silent, thanks to my language barrier) gaucho guides, I began to feel more at home. And then we began trotting, and boy can these horses trot. And man is it uncomfortable. As I urged my horse on towards a canter, he reared his head and stoutly refused. When we did finally get into a canter, I found the saddle uncomfortable and unbalanced. It felt like I was having as harder time being understood by the horses as by the gauchos.
One day when we had no guests on the estancia, the gauchos took us out for a 3-4 hour ride across the spectacularly flat but nevertheless interesting countryside, which teemed with life in the form of hawks, hares, snakes and – of course – cattle. I continued to have my horse-language difficulties, despite having changed horses and saddles, and spent the final hour of the ride in the lower reaches of control over my horse. As I dismounted, my wife read my scowl and reminded me just how far I’d come in five years of riding.
With riding then, like the Spanish language, I’d assumed my knowledge level to be higher than, in reality, it was. I felt like I was turning out to be a rubbish gaucho!
Conclusions: novelty bites back
My week as a gaucho was a constant flux between enjoyment and anxiety. The enjoyment was all in relation to the fabulous setting, hospitality and tranquility of Estancia La Margarita, and the anxiety completely down to a realisation of a few of my own shortcomings.
Thanks to My Year In Flux, I’ve managed to spend 6 months ducking such problems by continually embracing novelty, perpetually moving on to the next thing at such a dizzying rate that I’d almost completely forgotten about the more challenging second and third stages of learning something new: for after initial toe-dipping excitement, it is concentration, frustration, occasional despair and (eventually, sometimes) grim determination and hard-earned satisfaction which follow. These secondary stages are where I found myself with horse riding and Spanish speaking during Gaucho week.
I had imagined coming away from Gaucho Week on Estancia La Margarita caked in lasso dust and steak fat, but like so many other experiences this year, the reality bore different – and arguably more productive – fruit. Though I’d scratched the surface on how gauchos live, I’d also been faced with the anxiety and frustration of my own shortcomings. It was a reminder that, beyond the novelties and idealism of this year, I will have to face the reality that some of my new skills, ideas and experiences must at some stage be converted into mastery, and that journey brings less instant gratification.
Thank you to Estancia La Margarita for having us. For more information about the estancia, including their volunteer programme, visit their website.
Gaucho Week was a weekly challenge, and I’m undertaking a new one every week for an entire year. That’s 52 new skills and experiences in just 12 months. If you’ve got a suggestion for a future weekly challenge, please contact me or leave a comment, to find out what I’m up to this week, visit the Facebook page.