Estancia la margarita – Tapalque

I had 2 wonderful weeks on an estancia a few hours outside of Buenos Aires. An estancia is basically a ranch and there are lots of them in a region called las pampas, which seems to be the bread basket of Argentina. It is incredibly green and lush which actually made me feel very much at home, however it is fairly monotonous as there are no hills or defining landscape features, just lots of grassland, the odd tree and the odd house!
I arrived on the estancia and on leaving the small town where the bus dropped me off all signs off tarmac roads disappeared. There are only earth tracks, which work fine in the dry season but when the rain comes apparently they are impassable. Driving down the road to the house for the first time is very impressive. The house is not very big but it is set in this garden that is like a mini parkland. The veranda around the house has been very well thought through and has honeysuckle, jasmine and wisteria all around so smells amazing!
The estancia is a working estancia with around 320 hectares of land which is all grassland with virtually only cows, predominantly for beef. The estancia is set up as fairly self sufficient with a few pigs, chickens, sheep and a vegetable garden. This all seems really great to start with until I realised that everything is done on the site, including killing and butchering the animals. In my 2 weeks a bullock and a pig were killed and butchered, which is actually really unpleasant however this was soon forgotten when we tasted the meat the next day on the asado (Argentine barbecue)!
There were 2 gauchos working on the estancia, who are essentially Argentine versions of cowboys. They do all off the work outside and are incredible horseman. Their version of breaking a horse in (which I witnessed) is to get on said horse and to wait until it gets used to you being on it. Bizarrely this seems to be an effective method of working! The horses are all criollo mixes and are incredibly hardy by nature. They live outside all year around and never eat anything other than grass. They live in a herd of 15 horses, which is really interesting to see how they interact and the complex hierarchy of the herd mentality!
When there were no guests staying at the estancia an average day would start with a long ride on one of the horses. The other volunteer on site was a German girl called Milly and I was basically her assistant for the 2 weeks I was there. Milly and I would go for a 2 to 3 hour ride which would include walking and cantering only. With the Argentinian style saddles, which are little more than a pad the style of riding is very different to home. You ride with one hand, the horses do not understand it when you try to ride with both hands, and you are supposed to lean back as if sitting in a comfortable armchair! This proved a very alien concept to begin with but by the end I got very used to it, to such an extent that one of the gauchos told me a was a ‘china’ which is a female gaucho!
After riding we would tidy up outside, which included doing a bit of gardening, cleaning the pool, sweeping up. Then after lunch everyone would have a siesta so as not to work in the heat of the day. I am not a big day time sleeper, so used this time very productively sunbathing and swimming in the pool. Around 5pm work would start again and we worked for a couple of hours before helping to cook dinner. Food was great home cooked stuff and there was lots of it. The gauchos ate a huge amount and continually told Milly and I to eat more. I’m pretty sure I have never been told to eat more before! Dinner was, of course, late. If we ate before 10pm it was a good day, something I struggled with!
When we had guests on site the day was fairly similar except that we would spend time entertaining the guests and we would eat some meals with them. There were a lot of English speaking guests, which was a delight for me since it was basically Spanish only between the staff. I thought that my Spanish skills really had improved throughout my trip, but I found understanding the gauchos virtually impossible to begin with. They found me hard to understand and after a number of attempts gave up on my name altogether instead calling me ‘chica’ (girl) or ‘Inglesa’ (English). I learnt to respond to both of these alternative names well!
One of the trips many guests enjoy is a trip to the Pulperia, which is an old fashioned traditional gaucho shop. Nothing had prepared me for the amazing place that it was! 2 brothers, who are in their 80s, run the shop. It has no electricity and the place is lot by gas lamps. There is a counter where you order what you want and you can even by drinks whilst you are deciding! As soon as we arrived I likened it to the shop in Harry Potter where they by their wands from, Ollivanders?! I think! I told one of the gauchos this, he didn’t even grace my comment with a reply!
Nearly everyday we had beautiful weather which always helps and on the 2 days when the weather was bad we spent a lot of time drinking coffee and watching films which was actually a treat in itself! Most evenings we would drink lots of wine and relax together, however on my last night a few of us went into town for dinner. There was live music in the restaurant who found out somehow that there was a German and English in the room so we were continually being name checked throughout the gig. Drinks seemed to appear from nowhere and Milly and I felt like we were minor celebrities by the end of the night. This lead to some hangovers on Saturday morning unfortunately!


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