A gaucho for the weekend: life on the estancia in Argentina

His name was Listadore and he had dutifully plodded, trotted and cantered around Estancia Huechahue, in northern Patagonia, Argentina. My trusty steed was strong and resilient while I was, well, not particularly either of those things.
After a gentle day marveling at the vast expanses where the untouched hills seem to roll on to eternity, punctuated by the odd volcano or two, the thought of dismounting had never once crossed my mind.

But when I swung gracefully - in my mind, anyway - from the saddle, my legs jolted in shock as my feet hit solid ground. I tried not to visibly wince, embarrassed to admit the pain was a reflection of my usual lazy attitude towards exercise. ‘That’ll hurt tomorrow,’ I thought to myself. 
It didn’t, actually. Unlike their staunch leather European counterparts, the South American saddles consist of thick sheepskin layers. The extra padding meant my legs recovered overnight, and by morning I was ready for another full day’s ride. If an oversized bike seat were fashioned from a bean bag, I think it might feel like these saddles. 


In April, the nights are dark and bitterly cold, while the sun warms the days akin to the temperatures of a good British summer. We rested our weary muscles on the terrace, a glass of malbec in hand, watching the setting sun gently painting the estancia hills first golden, then dark orange. The evening chill was soon forgotten when the call came for dinner. The ‘dining room’ includes a sunken region of the floor that houses a huge indoor barbecue, on which an entire half-cow was sizzling. As we sat to eat, said hunk of meat was carved into individual-sized steaks and the mouthwatering slices were passed around on a thick, wooden slab. 

Estancia Huechahue welcomes guests (and caters to them perfectly) but also remains very much a working farm. All electricity is provided by on-site generators and vegetable patches fuel the kitchen. Amongst the extensive rides, birding and fishing on offer, you're encouraged to muck in and help out. You’re thrust into an authentic ranch experience and can gather genuine insight into the traditions of gaucho life, without compromising on comfort. Twin and double rooms are available in the main house, and in the separate bungalow with an open fire to take the edge off in the winter evenings. 


'The cows need moving to their winter fields tomorrow morning. Confident riders can help out after breakfast.' Jane, owner and all-round estancia boss, announced across the table. I had spared a rare moment when my mouth wasn't occupied with steak or Malbec to volunteer my services. Usually Jane accompanies rides, but during my visit she was recovering from breaking her leg: a ski accident left her striding determinedly around the ranch on crutches. 

Jane herself is an inspiring woman to meet. Originally from the UK, she met her husband, whose family owned Estancia Huechahue, at university in Bristol and moved to Argentina to run the estate with him. On the surface she's an intimidating character; the strong and silent type, firm and resilient but fair. Soon she warmed to us - perhaps the Malbec helped - and her eyes glinted as we coax a few prized stories out of her. She personally led some of the first ever cross-country rides, travelling with a small group across Chile and Argentina from coast to coast on horseback. 


'The cows need moving: confident riders can help out after breakfast.' 

The following morning, an early breakfast readied the group for our first attempts at helping out the professional gauchos. As I climbed into the saddle - my legs blissfully un-aching - I was excited about the challenges the day would bring, though slightly concerned that I could be a hindrance rather than a help. We rode through the farm to reach the cattle.

First Domingo, with the content smile and weathered face of someone who has spent their life in the open air, entered the cow pen. Within minutes, working as one unit with his horse, he had expertly separated the bulls from the rest of the herd.


'Take Listadore to stand by the gate here' points Ollie, a young gaucho who grew up riding on the estancia with Jane's two sons. ‘Amelia and Domingo will push the cattle out through this gate and we will guide them straight across the road. Your job is to stop them from turning left instead.' 
Feeling important, I trotted Listadore into position and readied myself as shouts from the field announced the beginning of the move. A hundred pairs of hooves approached the gate at speed and before the dust even had the chance to rise the herd bolted to the left, completely unfazed by myself, leaving Ollie to charge after them and set them back on course. 'I put you there because I thought you rode well!' He teased on his return, politely masking his frustration. Far more skill is required than just the ability to ride a horse.

Thankfully by lunchtime our novice gaucho antics - shouting, cracking small leather whips and rounding up stubborn individuals that had a tendency to bolt - paid off and the cows were safely shut into their new paddock.
That afternoon we took on another side of life as a gaucho: surveying the estate. Amelia, Huechahue’s resident lady gaucho showed us around. Open plateaus became exhilarating race tracks in the as our horses thundered across the flat land, vying neck and neck to be the leader of the pack. We climbed rugged ridges that gave way to staggering vistas and sat back in the saddle, enjoying the silence as condors rested on warm air vents in the distance. As the light began to fade we made our way back to the main house and, after helping Amelia store away the saddles, made haste once more to the dining room. I could certainly get used to gaucho life. 


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