It’s easy enough to escape the bustle of Buenos Aires by air, but one need not go far afield to enjoy the pleasures of the Argentine countryside. The city stands at the edge of the Pampas, a vast sweep of grasslands now mostly converted into estancias and rich farmland. Fluffy tufts of pampas grass still punctuate the wilder patches. Although the land is essentially flat, it has great beauty. As in certain other fortunate parts of the world such as Greece and Provence, the quality of the light here can be extraordinary, casting a golden glow around the native ombu trees.
This is the home of the Argentine cowboy, the gaucho, and the area around San Antonio de Areco in particular maintains strong ties to its gaucho heritage. Each November, the town hosts the Fiesta de la Tradición, when gauchos from across the region gather for a rodeo-style festival. The countryside near Buenos Aires is also home to some of the world’s most famous polo teams.
Numerous estancias accept guests, and we tried two of those that looked most promising. First we stayed at the Estancia Villa María, an 11-room hotel in a Tudor-style mansion dating from 1920, set at the center of a polo estate and upscale resort-style housing development, 30 minutes from Ezeiza International Airport. The rambling mansion has beautiful period details, including gothic arches, stained-glass windows and wood-beamed ceilings. We booked the Master Suite, which came with two separate living rooms, each with its own balcony. Alas, one of the closets had water damage and peeling paint, and the bath was a time capsule of 1920s design. The musty smell of a century-old unrenovated house pervaded the space. The staff was friendly but befuddled by requests as simple as mailing postcards. I loved the expansive grounds, graced with specimen pines, palms and plane trees. With investment, this could be a hideaway of the first order. But, first, renovations and staff training are required.
The wonderful grounds filled with mature specimen trees; the well-preserved period details of the mansion.
The unappealing wall coverings in our suite; our 1920s time-capsule of a bath; the water damage and peeling paint in one of our closets; the slow Wi-Fi; the sometimes unhelpful staff.
Groups sometimes use the hotel for meetings; during our stay, a group of 10 or 12 people took over certain public spaces.
Our room at La Bamba de Areco, 90 minutes northwest of Buenos Aires, was much smaller than our suite at the Estancia Villa María, but it was also much smarter. After about 15 minutes on a bumpy dirt road, we turned down an allée to the hotel entrance, where the staff stood in a line to receive us. After a quick check-in, we were left to settle into our room, “Mariposa,” in the original pomegranate-hued 1830s estate house. It had high ceilings, hardwood floors and dark-wood furnishings, including an elaborately carved four-poster king bed, a wardrobe emblazoned with sunbursts, a chest of drawers and a small armchair. The bath felt very European, with a double vanity, a bidet and a tub with a hand-held shower, all standing on a checkerboard terrazzo-tile floor. Next door, “Lalabai” has a similar layout with twin beds. The relatively small accommodations weren’t as much of a drawback as I would have expected. The public spaces were so inviting that guests tended to spend relatively little time in their rooms.
Owner and polo enthusiast Jean-François Decaux initially intended to restore the estancia as a private home, but fortunately he changed his mind, opening it as an 11-room hotel. His wife, Pascale, an interior designer, did a magnificent job with the décor, giving La Bamba a chic sense of place. In the original house, guests congregate for pre-dinner cocktails in the main lounge, a cream and chocolate-brown space containing polo-themed paintings and sculptures, local textiles, numerous art and photography books, and an impressive trophy, the Cowdray Park Gold Cup, earned by La Bamba’s polo team at the British Open Polo Championship. Upstairs in the tower is an airy and secluded library lounge, ideal for a quiet afternoon with a novel. Another lounge contains a large flat-screen television and billiard table, but my favorite was the Pulpería, a former gaucho tavern with exposed brick walls, inviting sofas, a giant fireplace with a lintel of cactus wood and, of course, a bar.
We breakfasted each morning in the Pulpería at a large table facing a crackling fire, feasting on fruit and fresh-baked pain au chocolat, as well as eggs and sausages cooked to order. Lunches and dinners are communal affairs, giving a stay at La Bamba de Areco the feel of a house party. Weather permitting, the staff host delicious leisurely asado (barbecue) lunches at a beautifully set table on the lawn in front of the house. I still pine for the dulce de leche-filled crêpes served for dessert. Afterward, a gaucho treated us to a display of horsemanship unlike any I’ve ever seen. Dinners consist of more composed dishes such as prosciutto-wrapped chicken with mustard sauce, and beef tenderloin with roasted seasonal vegetables. Early in our stay, I mentioned to the manager, Guillermo, that wine was a passion of mine. Each night in the dining room, instead of serving the house wine, he opened a special bottle from the cellar that he selected to pair with the food.
Aside from eating excellent meals, guests occupy themselves with gaucho-led horseback rides, carriage rides and excursions to San Antonio de Areco. A few also take advantage of the massage treatment room and, in the summer, the unheated swimming pool. But I most appreciated the wonderfully relaxing atmosphere, fostered as much by the unfailingly warm and professional staff as by the idyllic grounds and superlative interior design.
The gracious, friendly and professional service; the beautifully decorated lounges; the tranquil grounds; the fine food; the relaxed house-party atmosphere.
The small rooms; the hand-held showers; the slow Wi-Fi.
The property has a boutique selling exquisite examples of local crafts, but the prices in shops in San Antonio de Areco tend to be lower.