Buenos Aires – green, modern, very Europe meets Latin America…
When I landed in Buenos Aires, I was pretty miserable. I’d endured a 14-hour flight with sinusitis, a dearth of inflight entertainment and zero leg room (I will never fly Alitalia again) followed by a two-hour-long wait in immigration and another hour queuing to obtain pesos.
Not quite how I had hoped to start my Latin escapade.
But as I took a step out of the airport into the warm spring sunshine, I just knew I was going to fall in love with Argentina.
My trip began, as all great adventures should, with a lunchtime glass of vino blanco in my boutique hotel. Staying in the chic suburb of Palermo, I took my tired but excited self out for lunch and then on to Museo Evita (documenting the life of Argentina’s first lady Eva Peron), then for more drinks and finally dinner at a trendy “parrilla” (grill or steakhouse) for some… er, ravioli.
What I loved about BA straight away was how surprisingly modern and green the city was, with its cute roadside cafes offering plenty of veggie options, its eye-catching European-style architecture and spacious tree-lined pavements (don’t ask me what kind of trees they were, I did look out for the famous purple Jacaranda but I don’t think they’d flowered). The streets – playfully named after Latin American countries – felt safe and were easy to navigate. I was never far from a fruit and veg seller, a trendy clothes shop or a park where old men played chess and young people sunbathed.
The next day I took my first yoga class in Spanish after stumbling across a studio just a few minutes away from my hotel (which felt somewhat uncanny). Comprehending only “pies juntos” (feet together) I empathised with the mainland Chinese students who used to attend our English-led classes in Hong Kong. But I also loved having the chance to practice in a new environment. Unfortunately I was feeling like death by the end of the class, having finally been defeated by my sinusitis. I returned to the hotel and took it easy for the next couple of days.
I was feeling marginally better on the last day, and so fled the prison that was my hotel/Palermo for La Boca to see the painted houses on El Caminito (little street). After dodging huge numbers of tourists and walking around streets I probably should have avoided, I took a cab to the city’s historic centre Plaza de Mayo. Here I was deafened by music coming from a giant stage but was simultaneously wowed by the architecture all around, from the national bank to the famous Casa Rosada (the pink house, from which Eva Peron addressed the masses).
Taking shelter from the baking sun in the shadows of the huge and elegant buildings, I then walked to the Obelisco de Buenos Aires, which was as expected – tall, proud and dazzling against the blue sky. I finally stopped for a much-needed lunch near the majestic opera house Teatro Colón, before heading to the much-hyped “Cementerio De La Recoleta”.
I have to admit, I wasn’t initially enthused about a cemetery, but Lonely Planet listed it as a top sight. When I arrived, I could see why. Here, in what apparently used to be a vegetable garden, Argentina’s most noteworthy people rest in an eerie maze of around 5,000 mausoleums, which to me looked more like mini-cathedrals than tombs, made even cooler with the shabby skyscrapers in the distance. On a grey day I can imagine it being especially spooky.
But as impressive as the cemetery was, I’d say my favourite thing about BA was actually its colours. From the rich red and yellow houses in La Boca, to the emerald-green parks and the jaw-dropping, multicoloured street art that adorned countless walls all over the city, it felt vibrant, quirky and fun. Whoever described BA as having a European feel with a Latin twist definitely had it right.
First week at the estancia - my initiation to country living and the craziest football match ever
I left Buenos Aires for Estancia La Margarita not really knowing what to expect, but imagining a quiet life. I could only hope I’d brought all the right clothes and shoes and, sat on the bus for five hours, prayed I was heading to the correct town.
I arrived in the early evening greeted by my lovely co-worker/boss Taylor and three very friendly dogs: Tilly, Catchy and Birdie. Taylor showed me to my room – a small outhouse with a single bed, and initially it all felt very strange. A frog the size of a rabbit was perched on my door and I almost jumped out of my skin when Taylor picked it up with her bare hands and threw it across the lawn. I went to bed feeling anxious about spiders, but exhausted, fell straight to sleep.
I woke the next day having had the best rest since arriving in Argentina. My window looked out onto our lawn, and the birds – the loudest I have ever heard – screamed songs from the top of their lungs as if to welcome me to farm life. That morning, I was introduced to our pig “Peppita”, our horses who I couldn’t tell apart, and of course, I got to have a go at riding one-handed in an Argentine-style saddle, which felt very alien and difficult.
I soon realised, however, that I had no time to worry about anything. That first week, contrary to my expectations, was nothing short of crazy, with Taylor and I embarking on a string of mini-adventures. From riding out to settle a cow dispute with the neighbours, to herding and branding cattle, to dressing up as “gauchos” (local cowboys) in a town parade (along with real gauchos and horse trainers), I was constantly occupied, and had more fun than I’d had in ages.
One of the highlights was parade day. There were, admittedly, a few nervous moments when I was positioned between the trainers’ stallions, and also when Taylor’s horse decided she didn’t like crowds and almost took off, but overall my little mare “Picara” (pronounced “Pee-cara”) was an absolute dream to ride. Walking through the town waving at the public, I felt rather like the queen.
After the parade we naturally had an “asado” or barbeque, where I switched meat for cheese and bread much to the shock of the gauchos, attempted to converse using my very limited Spanish and showed the boys a few yoga poses (which was hilarious). Promised a lift home, we drank “muchas cerveza” and sang around the fire for hours.
By 2am I realised we were probably not getting a lift home. Not wanting to sleep in another strange bed (and remembering we had to get up at 6am) I suggested to Taylor we forget the boys and saddle up. And so, we did the long ride back together in the dark, cantering beneath the stars (more than I have ever seen before in my life). Unable to make out the ground as we raced along the stony paths, I had a brief moment of panic before deciding to forget my nerves and have faith in my horse. It was one of my best rides I've ever done.
The fun continued into the weekend when my boss, the owner of the estancia Jane, arrived back from the UK and took us to Buenos Aires to watch the derby between the famous Boca Juniors football team and their rivals River Plate, (which was apparently pretty important – and according to the internet one of the fiercest derbies in the world). We’d arranged to be chaperoned by a local guy as well as Jane’s local boyfriend Pablo; Boca being a bit dodgy and football hooliganism around the world being what it is.
I was initially surprised to hear that only Boca Juniors fans were allowed in the stadium and that alcohol was strictly prohibited, but when we entered it all became clear. The whole place was absolutely packed with die-hard fans, and there was not a hint of crowd control. There were moments when I thought we might get crushed just trying to find seats. I was surprised to hear our babysitter say “women coming through” in Spanish as a way to get people to move out of the way, but was simultaneously relieved.
Much to our disappointment, the game was actually called off that day due to the torrential rain, which we had braved for hours, almost to the point of trench foot. Jane very kindly took us to the luxury Sheraton, where I relished the opportunity to be warm and dry once more.
When we returned to the stadium the following day I initially felt relaxed, only to realise that Saturday had been a mere taster of what was to come. It no longer mattered that we were women; everyone was pushing, pulling and squashing to find a spot to stand in. Taylor and I felt particularly visible, noticing only two other girls in the stands and no other foreigners. Occasionally someone would trip, sending the crowd rushing forward and I would scream in panic. When Boca Juniors scored, the stadium exploded – arms and fists flailing in excitement, men jumping up and down as if they’d just won the lottery. I felt like I needed a crash helmet. It was…. an eye-opening experience.
Settling into ranch life: pig, duck, horses, yoga
Since returning to the estancia, we have been busy preparing for our first guests and I have changed rooms to a bigger bedroom in the main house. Storms have come and gone, leaving muddy swamps in their wake and I have done a lot of wading through deep puddles. The vegetables we planted seem reluctant to grow, but Peppita has gotten fatter and we now have a duck called Francisco (though none of us really know what the duck is eating).
I’ve got to know the horses pretty well now, and seem to have relaxed into riding Argentine style. I’ve also learnt how to catch the horses after some training from Taylor. My favourites so far are probably Picara and a white horse called Nieve (which means “snow” in Spanish) who I ride bareback in the mornings to bring the rest of the herd in the from the field (which is just fabulous). If they are close by, I can just about herd the horses into the arena on foot alone, but it’s tricky. This week was the first time I did it by myself, and I’m pretty sure the horses knew because they were very naughty.
I’m gradually learning Spanish, picking up more as the days go on. Argentine people, meanwhile, are hard not to love. Everyone I’ve met so far has been warm, laid back, extremely generous and eager to help me learn. The men can be flirty… but nothing I can’t handle. ;)
Basically I’d say I’ve settled well into my new life. I absolutely love the animals, while jobs like gardening, cleaning and cooking are therapeutic and mean I’m active all day long. Riding every day is a dream, and in a bid to combine my two great loves I’ve also renovated the fitness room above the barn into a fully-fledged yoga studio where Taylor and I now practice daily. I’m actually teaching my first class this Friday (our incoming group of guests).
In a nutshell: I'm happier than I have been in a long time.
More to come...