Gauchos and Romantic Notions

Argentina is slowly opening the doors to travelers, reminding me of my unforgettable Journey years ago. Many of our clients followed our trail to Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Salta and the extraordinary countryside. Our winter is their summer, if you need enticement.

Discovering a story during my Journeys is an essential characteristic of my travel. One of my Argentine ambitions was to meet a Gaucho. There are few people in Argentina as romanticized as the Gaucho. The nomadic and colorful horseman and cowhand of the Argentine and Uruguayan Pampas who flourished from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century and has remained a folk hero similar to the cowboy in western North America. We stopped many times to catch the attention of a Gaucho galloping along the side of the road, they seemed intent on their Journey and ignored our greetings!

The Gaucho in some respects, resembled members of other nineteenth century pastoral, horse-based cultures. Among them, the Peruvian chalan or morochuco, the North American cowboy, vaquero in Spanish, the Chilean huaso, the Venezuelan or Colombian llanero, the Mexican charro or the Portuguese campino. Folk heroes and outlaws.

The Gaucho first began to appear during the War of Independence. Argentine patriot forces were constantly clashing with the Spanish in the country’s pastoral ranges, often outnumbered and outgunned. Like the cowboy, Gauchos were and remain proud masterful horse riders. Typically, a Gaucho’s horse constituted most of what he owned in the world. During the wars of the 19th century in the Southern Cone, the cavalries on all sides were composed almost entirely of Gauchos. In Argentina, Gaucho armies such as that of Martín Miguel de Güemes, slowed Spanish advances. Moreover, many caudillos relied on Gaucho armies to control the Argentine provinces.

Gauchos played a fundamental role in the war, which ended in 1818, and it was around that time that legend and lore of the Gaucho came to be a part of Argentine history and literature. After the war, they drifted to Argentina’s fertile lowland Pampas which would become their new working home. It was during this time that their distinct culture emerged. They found work marshaling cattle and accomplishing ranch tasks for the owners of prosperous Estancias. Gauchos are still prevalent in the pampas, herding cattle and employed by local Estancias, where travelers may stay.

In Salta, a Gaucho is traditionally dressed in a bright red cape, knee high black boots and loose fitting black trousers or bombachas, for horse riding, a poncho, which doubles as a saddle blanket and as sleeping gear, belted with a piece of cloth known as a tirador. Their large knife hangs from the trousers, Gaucho attire is topped off with a traditional broad rimmed leather hat. Gauchos dress quite distinctly from North American cowboys and used bolas or boleadoras – (three leather bound rocks tied together with approximately three feet long leather straps) in addition to the familiar North American lariat or riata.

One may first notice the distinctive hat from a distance as they trot along farmland roads. They still roam the countryside on horseback and many were in the avenues of Salta as well; mystery still travels with the gauchos. Similar to the lore of Western cowboys, Gauchos enjoy a reputation as silent and strong, honest and hardworking; however, certainly when provoked, capable of fierceness.

Classic Gaucho’s more likely benefit from romantic notions and idyllic prose than our Western cowboys, their myth and history is celebrated yearly and honored through the countryside. To woo the fairer sex, they composed a dance called Malambo, festivals are held every summer showcasing the dance which is incredibly fast and has complex footwork.

In Mendoza, Cecilia Diaz Chuit, the owner of Cavas Wine Lodge, introduced me to several local artists and I returned home with a treasured painting of the dancing Gauchos!

Nomadic in nature, they traveled for work from estancia to estancia. A simple diet of beef, which is plentiful in Argentina, red wine and the ubiquitous mate – a caffeine-packed beverage. Gaucho culture declined in the end of the 19th century, the rugged lifestyle was viewed as uncivilized and they were dismissed by the masses. Many continued their tradition of wandering and are employed as handymen, sheep shearers, or as I discovered in Colome, as ranch managers who ride with guests.

Gaucho Folklore is still prevalent and in Salta you will see the legendary Gauchos riding their steeds through the countryside. Hundreds of roadside shrines to Gaucho Gil are visible for miles, the red flags fluttering in a breeze. Gaucho Antonio Gil or El Gauchito who lived in the 19th century, deserted the Army; while evading capture, he robbed the rich and shared with the poor. Eventually he was captured and strung up by his feet in order to be beheaded. Gaucho Gil prophesied to his executioner: “When you return home you’ll discover that I have actually been pardoned and you’ll find your son gravely ill”. He pleaded to be properly buried, which was unusual in those days for a hoodlum, in exchange for which he would assure the recovery of the executioner’s mortally ill son. But his pleas didn’t work and Gaucho Gil was beheaded. When the executioner came home he found both prophecies to be true, he hastened to return to the execution place, in order to properly bury Gaucho Gil. Soon the executioner’s son recovered – a miracle had occurred, and a legend was born. Word spread, and the shrines were built and are still maintained; gifts are left at the roadside shrines in an offering of devotion and gratitude. The red scarves and flags characteristically waving in the breeze are thought to represent Gaucho Gil’s neck scarf soaked in his blood.

The Gaucho Gil shrines are a still tended to; he was a colorful figure admired and revered, a folk hero, inspiring music and fables, a mystical symbol of bravery in his native Argentina.

At Colome, I rode twice with my Gaucho, Ruben Belazquez, an afternoon ride across sweeping grasslands and an early sunrise trek up and down steep ravines. We traversed the pampas, negotiating streams and climbed a gigantic boulder on the gentle natured Peruvian Paso ponies – Ruben who didn’t speak much English, he carefully watched to ascertain my comfort and riding proficiency – and pronounced me to be: es muy bueno! I confidently navigated a few challenging bluffs – with a nudge and a command to my pony, I galloped upstream past Ruben, fluttering pampas grass swatting my chaps. It was a magnificent Gaucho morning! Es muy Bueno!

Gauchos are indeed a reality, whether they be on an estancia or tearing through the rugged hills on a country road. My Argentine Journey was a masterful success in so many ways and in particular, my jaunts with Ruben allowed me to say I had met a Gaucho. I trailed a couple of finely dressed Gauchos in Salta but didn’t have the courage to ask for a photo. Or, as I’ve oft mentioned, sometimes mystery is better than reality; don’t you sometimes find that to be true about people you meet?

“Challenging to find guides that appeal to three generations: teens, parents, grandparents; yet you did it, Gwen! Thanks. Buenos Aires with your guides was spectacular.”  Reed Hastings and Patty Quillin (Clients for over 18 years)

Southern Hemishphere Biking – It’s Warm!

Dying to escape the frosty frigid weather and enjoy a few days of winter exercise in the warm sunshine? We’ve organized a selection of exclusive private bike adventures in the Southern Hemisphere. A trifecta of superb options. Start off in Chile’s rugged Northern Patagonia, where you will bike near lakes, at the base of conical volcanoes and past rural farmland. Next up are two Chilean vineyard areas. Over the past few years, Chile has made significant strides developing its high-end tourism, including numerous new hotels, vineyards and newly paved roads. The fascinating city of Valparaiso is close to the small Casablanca vineyards, while further south lie the sprawling Colchagua vineyards and Pacific beaches. Olé!

Northern Patagonia, Chile Puerto Montt is the gateway to the beauty of Northern Patagonia—the land of lakes and snow-capped dormant volcanoes. Nearby Puerto Varras is a small touristy town that hugs the shoreline of the Llanquihue Lake, one of the largest in South America. Cafés and shops offer views of the perfectly conical Osorno volcano. Germans settled this area in the late 1800’s, as evidenced by the wood-shingled architecture, orderly planning and delicious cakes. The Cliffs Preserve is an hour outside town on a six-mile-long stretch of Pacific coastline that is home to sea lions, otters, and two species of penguins. There’s a small main lodge with restaurant, bar and spa, along with six very spacious and well-appointed villas, each with multiple bedrooms, fireplaces and wood-burning hot tubs overlooking the ocean. Bike rides pass through local farming villages, along the lakes, and towards the scenic Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.

Chile_Outside Valparaiso Valparaíso & Casablanca Wine Valley, Chile Valparaíso’s golden era was in the late 1800’s, when it was a common stop for trips between the Atlantic and Pacific (before the Panama Canal was built in 1914). Immigration from Italy, Germany and England saw each group building up its own hillside district. In 2003, Valparaíso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its history, fragile beauty and unique architecture. Built on cliffs, the city features a unique, functioning collection of 16 funicular elevators built in late 1800’s that link the port to the higher-up living area. It’s fun to walk the labyrinth of colorful streets from the base of Casa Higueres, a beautifully renovated 1920’s mansion with 20 rooms, pool, spa and stunning views of the old city and port. Just outside town lie the beautiful and scenic wine valleys. Enjoy the meandering vineyard roads of the small Casablanca wine region.

In Valpariso, and open to visitors, is La Sebastiana one of three homes of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, diplomat and politician.

Chil Osorno VolcanoColchagua Wine Valley, Chile South of Santiago, the Colchagua Wine Valley has thrived in recent years. In fact, it’s virtually unrecognizable from five years ago. High-end wineries rival those of California—so much so that the region has been dubbed “the next Napa”, with newly paved roads to match the spiffy tasting rooms. The Colchagua Valley is not only the best-known wine valley in Chile; it’s also home to the Huaso Chilean cowboy culture, with estancias dotted throughout the area. Close to the wine country capital of Santa Cruz, lays the beautiful, and intimate 4 rooms Clos Apalta hotel on the grounds of the Lapostolle vineyard, all owned by the Grand Marnier dynasty. Soon to open will be the new Vina Vik lodge – another fabulous option.

THE BIKING – The biking will average 30 – 40 miles per day on paved roads. There will be transfers to the start and finish of rides on many of the days. Fully supported with mechanics, guides, bikes and sag wagon.

DAILY TEMPERATURES – The weather will range from approximately 44F to 80F.


Jose Ignacio, Uruguay Uruguay’s economy depends on the fertile pampas fields and their white sand beaches, the most famous being the world-renowned and stylish Punta del Este. Just north of Punta del Este lays the more low-key Jose Ignacio area, also famous for beaches and farming. Inland lies the new Estancia Vik, which sits on 4000 acres of rolling countryside. This expansive 12-room retreat appears as a traditional Spanish colonial-style building with multiple courtyards, gardens and patios. The Estancia is also an art gallery, displaying Uruguayan contemporary art commissioned and collected by the owner and bike enthusiast Alex Vik. Bike through farmland, around inland lakes, and along the beach-lined coast. In the afternoon, there’s time for the pool, beach or even a polo lesson.

This area is also a great ending to a vigorous bike trip, the beaches are marvelous, Playa Vik, the celebrated hotel hosts our clients on a regular basis. A remarkable private retreat on the beach in the village of José Ignacio, Playa Vik along with sister property, Estancia Vik, has secured José Ignacio’s reputation as Uruguay’s premier international destination. José Ignacio is renowned for its pristine beaches, rugged landscape, exceptional sunsets and relaxed, luxurious bohemian style. The hotel faces west with sweeping views across the Southern Atlantic Ocean and Playa Mansa, also known as the “calm beach” and features 19 suites all uniquely decorated with contemporary Uruguayan and international art.

Dining is magical at Marisimo at Jose Ignacio under a canopy of a black sky filled with millions of stars and candlelight. When you visit Playa Vik in Uruguay there are a few enchanting dining options. Drive down a long dirt and gravel road just past the town of Jose Ignacio to reach one of the trendiest dining spots in this area. Sit at the tiki bar for an icy cocktail and then mosey to your rustic table. Do note that January and February are standing room only on the deep sandy floor. Upscale with a rustic touch. Highly recommend the slow cooked meats, brilliantly grilled over glowing coals, the traditional method of flame cooking in this southern hemisphere.

Salta & Cafayate, Argentina Arrive at Salta International airport, elevation 3,780 feet. The House of Jasmines, in the outskirts of Salta, is a mere 10-minute drive from the airport. This former tobacco plantation and residence of Robert Duvall has been tastefully renovated and expanded by hotelier Stephanie Fenestraz, owner of El Colibrí (near Córdoba). There are 14 rooms spread across three buildings. Dinner at the new “La Table” restaurant, right in the hotel.

Argentine Cloud ForestThe next day, you will be driven one hour to the nearby cloud forest for a familiar 30-mile ride along a well-paved, quiet road. After lunch at Estancia Los Lapachos, head back to House of Jasmines. There will be time to drive the half-hour into Salta for a walk about the impressive “Ninth of July” town square. Salta has grown to a bustling and somewhat congested town of a half-million people. Visit the MAM, Museo de Alta Montana or High Mountain Museum, which houses the famed “Children of Llullaillaco”—three 500-year-old mummies sacrificed by the Inca. Stay in town for dinner and visit one of the excellent restaurants offering traditional empanadas composed of vegetables, or cheese and meat fillings. Argentina is renowned for their organic beef, cooked the traditional Asado method over high heat wood coals, and served atop crispy Pommes Souffles.

Packing up, we’ll drive 1¼ hour from Salta and start biking just past the Restaurant Posta de las Cabras. It’s a 40-mile mostly flat ride through the red rock Quebrada de las Conchas canyon on a newly paved road to Cafayate (elevation 5,522 feet). This formerly sleepy town is now a vibrant center of tourism and wine production. We’ll stay at the Patios de Cafayate Hotel and Spa, nestled among the vines of the El Esteco vineyard. This traditional 19th century hacienda is designed like a traditional Spanish villa, with shady courtyards, antiques, and art. The pool is divine.

Many of the roads are decorated with small shrines devoted to the Argentine gaucho, who still rides the paths today employed to herd wandering cattle. Look for the ubiquitous lone rider garbed in a traditional poncho, cowboy hat and high boots galloping on dusty roads on his Peruvian Paso Pony.

The deserted and wild terrain yields expansive broad horizons, the roads dotted with not much other than signs warning of Llama crossings. The next day, ride south of town through the vineyards and small villages, and then back to Cafayate for a total of 40 miles.

Golfers will enjoy the new Estancia de Cafayate Golf Course designed by Bob Cupp, a former course designer for Jack Nicklaus. Tonight, you can head into town for a walk around the square and dinner at Terruño restaurant. Save room for dessert at the Mirador, or Alien ice cream parlor.

The following morning, ride north of town to San Carlos and back for a total of 24 miles. Stop for lunch just outside Cafayate at the famous San Pedro de Yacochuya vineyard or at the charming Finca las Nubes. More ice cream, golf, spa, and pool time is on offer in the afternoon.

Leave the hotel on bikes to ride 45 miles along the Quebrada de las Conchas canyon in the other direction, before transferring the rest of the way to Salta. The deep canyon is framed by walls of impressive rocks in a multitude of striking colors, a surreal landscape of ocher and red, rivaling the Grand Canyon.