A bona fide gaucho pueblo exists just a two-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires but a few centuries back in time. San Antonio de Areco, 112 km (70 miles) from the capital city, is, by presidential decree, a historic town of national interest. Dispersed among the period houses are authentic pulperias, or old bars, groceries and long-established workshops of various craftsmen and artisans.
The town dates to the 1730s. The first chapel was built in 1728 and epitomizes 18th- and 19th-century rural Argentina. Traditional gaucho berets still adorn the heads of many older gentlemen in the town. They are not putting on a show for tourists, but are going about their days with pride of their ancestral past. The doors to the workshops of silversmiths and rope makers are left open, inviting people to peek in and witness the beauty of these time-honored trades. On my first trip to San Antonio de Areco I am lucky enough to arrive on a beautiful autumn day, sunny yet crisp. The tree-lined streets are full of earthy colors and the mosquitoes, which breed on the nearby Areco River, are mostly in hibernation.
While the town is small and easy enough to navigate without maps, it is worth stopping off at the tourist information office.
In a beautiful, rustic two-room wood cabin on the corner of Zerboni and Arellano, the cheerful attendants provide visitors with maps, restaurant recommendations, museum information and, best of all, free bikes to cruise around town. The city bike rider in me immediately asks if they also provide free use of bike locks. “No,” the kind man tells me, “that’s not a problem here, nobody uses bike locks.”
And it is true. I spend an entire day hopping on and off the bike, a comfortable yet rusty beach cruiser, and it is always exactly where I leave it. Only once do I see a bike lock used, and it is so skinny it could probably be cut through with large nail clippers.
Since pulperias are of such historical significance and I do have a weak spot for beers in the afternoon, I stop in at a couple. Back in the day, these establishments served a multitude of purposes to the community. At the local pulperia one could hear news from distant Buenos Aires, pass time playing cards with friends, buy provisions for the week and, of course, have a drink.
One of the most popular local pulperias is La Esquina de Merti, on the corner of Arellano and Segundo Sombra. The restored, historic bar serves up an amazing platter of homemade sausages and artisan cheeses, the picada, plenty for two to share, for under 50 pesos (approximately US $16).
Bar San Martin is a less ambitious pulperia in town. With no frills and bells, it’s a down-to-earth bar great for playing cards and drinking wine late into the night. Across the quaint river on the other side of town is yet another pulperia, the Vuelta de Gato, directly and appropriately in front of the Gaucho Museum.
It’s away from the town’s center and is on a dirt road. From the front porch, with a beer in hand, one can gaze off into the surrounding estancias, or cattle ranches, imagining that once on this same land roamed the nomadic wanderers, or gauchos, that are now important cultural icons.
The history of the gaucho and how he transformed to the societal status he has today is explained across the street at The Parque Criollo and Museum Gauchesco Ricardo Guiraldes. The plastic dummies in the re-created scenes of the daily lives of these Argentinean cowboys are a little unnerving, but the grounds are beautiful and well worth the small entrance fee.
The museum’s namesake, Ricardo Guiraldes, wrote Don Segundo Sombra, the first well-known novel about gauchos. Written and set in San Antonio de Areco, the novel is a huge source of pride and identity for the town.
My next stop is the Chocolate Shop, La Olla de Cobre. Unfortunately, it is nearing siesta, the time midday when shop owners close their doors to allow for rest or meals. Siesta is taken very seriously, so I race on my now creaking bike across the park, over the river, and through the town desperate to try a hot chocolate.
However, by the time I arrive I am panting and a hot drink doesn’t sound appealing, so the owner whips up the best, frothy, cold chocolate milk I have ever had. His chocolates are so rich and creamy that it almost has the consistency of a milkshake. The shop, which is in the garage of the chocolatier’s house, is empty and he is eager to chat with me for a while.
The chocolatier is not the only local kind enough to spend time talking with me. Throughout the day I encounter only warm-hearted, friendly people. Those that walk the cobblestone streets of San Antonio de Areco seem to exude geniality.
Maybe it’s because of their beautiful surroundings or the small-town mentality. Even printed on the back of the welcome packet handed out at the tourist office is the statement, “If someone says hello to you on the street it’s just because we still maintain our old customs.”
If You Go
Sanra Ritten graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in Bilingual Environmental and Urban Photojournalism in 2006. She now works at an English language newspaper in Buenos Aires that promotes responsible and ecological tourism.
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