Approaching the rural hostel
When I heard there was a rural Hostelling International hostel (part of an international chain) in the heart of the pampas, the legendary home of the gaucho, I knew I could get a taste of gaucho culture there. So off I went.
A two-hour bus ride northwest from hyper-active Buenos Aires brought me to another world. The pampas was a place of seemingly endless fertile grassland. From the charming pueblo of Capitan Sarmiento a subsequent taxi ride left me standing at the end of a dirt road facing a chained gate. The only sounds I heard from within were of barking dogs; they were getting louder by the second as they came bounding towards me. Saved! A hostel employee who had crossed the turf on a bike now welcome me in. We passed grazing horses on the way to the main house.
My greeting on arrival at the hostel
And thus my adventure began. During my visit I rode a horse, drank from the well water pumped up by wind power before it emptied into the swimming pool, rented a bike for a couple of hours to explore the nearby pueblo, and dined with a gaucho. The heat during the day was oppressive but it cooled off under a stunning night sky.
Fredrico, our gaucho guest at dinner that evening, has 300 cattle and 15 horses. He rents land for them to graze on.
Bringing my saddle from the hostel
The building of the La Maria Paloma Hostel, which sits on several acres of land, was purposefully built as a hostel 15 years ago. It had high ceilings, rustic wood finish inside, and a huge common room with sweeping ceiling fans. Horse paraphernalia was scattered about. Outside horses grazed and friendly dogs roamed. All added to the ambience.
And life in the pampas continues as it has for centuries. It is where all that juicy beef comes from. Judging from my observations while exploring the far reaches of Argentina the past couple of months, the Argentines are not likely anytime soon to stop enjoying their parillas (mixed grill).
Cruising around hostel grounds
Sometimes in my travels it is the place that I least expect it that makes such a significant impact on me that I extend my stay much longer than planned. Such was the case with the lovely city of Rosario which lies along the riverbank of the great Rio Parana. This broad river, which is the continent’s second longest, joins another just above Buenos Aires. The grandness of it, along with its swift earthen-color waters, reminded me of the mighty Mississippi.
Rosario, an important river port, is arguably the second largest city in Argentina. Stunning early 20th century buildings are interspersed with modern high-rise buildings. Long stretches of the city’s extensive riverfront, which had been taken over by the now mostly-defunct Argentine railroad system, have recently been reclaimed for use by the city’s residents.
When I think back on what made this place so special to me, I recall the stunning colonial architecture, the great seafood fresh from the river, the beautiful sunsets set against the backdrop of bustling waterfront outdoor cafés. But what really won me over was the diverse street music that prevailed on weekdays along Rosario’s peatonales (pedestrian streets). Each performer was hoping to collect a few coins from passers-by or to sell some of their CD’s. My hostel was on the main artery so I had every excuse to walk this walkway frequently, not that I needed an excuse.
On a peatonal one day a group with an outstanding saxophone player stopped the crowds in their tracks. Down the way a bit the amplified melody of a solo harpist commanded one street corner. But what took my breath away were some of the sweetest, most romantic tango melodies I had ever heard. Two young ladies, one playing a violin and the other a bandoneon (small type of accordion used for tango music), were responsible for this affect on me. They were, no doubt, tango dancers in their own right – tall and slender with a refined attitude.
I spent a Sunday cruising up and down the river with the locals who were out in full force enjoying a summer day on their beloved waterfront.
If Buenos Aires is the heart of Tango, then La Boca is the soul. La Boca is the old working class waterfront neighborhood of Buenos Aires where tango has its roots. It is a place where tango reigns supreme over other traditional forms of Argentine dancing which seem to dominate the countryside.
On weekends tourists flock to the historic, rather run-down, colorful port, as they did last weekend. They sat in outdoor cafes and restaurants while watching dancers perform; had their pictures taken with cardboard cutouts of tango dancers posed in dramatic positions typical of this dance form; and shopped in the local market for tourist trinkets and Argentina’s famous leather goods.
The dance was sensuous and fluid. The dress of the female dancers were slit high on one side. The women’s high heel open shoes added to the drama as partners performed fancy footwork together.
I took in all of the above for a couple of hours then wandered through a few back streets. A casual outside restaurant (there was no “inside“) serving up Argentina’s famous parrilla (mixed grilled meat) on a rustic grill caught my attention. I ate one of their delicious meat empanadas as the parrilla was meant for two or more persons.
Boca – beautiful dancing, beautiful music, beautiful people, fascinating setting. A place not to be missed.
Argentina has an uncanny way of falling asleep when the clock strikes 2pm, reawaking about 6pm with a buzz of activity, and then falling asleep again long after the wee hours of the night have long passed. Such was an extreme case in point in the picturesque mountain town of Capilla del Monte in the Central Sierras where I spent one night recently.
Capilla del Monte is known for its great restaurants and UFO sightings – a unique combination which appears to have the effect of bringing tourists and talented artists together.
A rather drab, dusty main square in Capilla, whose only saving grace, as far as I was concerned, was a merry-go-round, came alive after the sun set. Artisans plied their crafts in booths lit with bare light bulbs. Customers browsed. Children riding on the merry-go-round squealed in delight.
Impressed by the diversity and talent of the artists, I asked one local person what they thought inspired them. He said it must be “the spirit“ (the same that attracts UFO’s). In one booth the music of an indigenous musician pierced the clear mountain air as he played various traditional instruments along with the CD’s of Andean music he was trying to sell. The sound of drums and other traditional instruments came from several directions as craftspeople demonstrated their wares. A gentle night breeze moved some dangling ceramic gnomes in one booth as if to beacon me to stop and say hello.
A couple of blocks away the outdoor seats of a string of restaurants and cafes, which earlier in the day had been relatively unoccupied, were packed full of people enjoying a late night meal, music and dancing. This long street had been closed off earlier in the evening and had become a pedestrian street filled with couples gyrating to Latin rhythms which were performed by a singer situated above them on a platform. Small children danced with their parents; some were cradled in their arms.
And me? I sat in the outdoor seating of a nearby ice cream parlor reveling in the transformation of the town from nearly a ghost town that afternoon to a hub of activity that night.
I have observed similar transformations in cities and towns throughout my Argentine journey. This change continues to be unique, entertaining, and ALWAYS an adventure of discovery