Of Horses & Hombres
He’s tall and dark with the Italian features of many of his compatriots, and has deep black eyes like the subject of a European master – the kind that seem to follow you around the room. And, although he’s stuck to the side of a stunning brunette almost bursting from her red dress, those big black eyes have me in a trance.
When I arrived in the boulevard-lined South American capital yesterday, my head was full of a very different idea of Latino machismo – one based on the gauchos of Bruce Chatwin’s classic, In Patagonia. Ever since reading it as a teenager, these South America hombres have remained in my imagination, where freedom and adventure sit side-by-side. Tough men on piebald ponies drinking mate, swathed in ponchos, with long-bladed knives jutting from the folds of their waistbands.
It all started well. Our taxi driver from the airport, Martin, introduced himself with a humble reference to the great South American liberator General San Martin and listed his three greatest loves: “I like football very much,” he said, declaring loyalty to the famous Boca Juniors. “And tango is my passion,” he added, moving his shoulders in a dance. “But women,” he continued, locking eyes with me in an intense stare: “Women I love!”
Twenty-four hours later, bathed in the soft red light of the Rojo Tango show, a five-piece band filling the room with songs of lost love, there are no ponchos and not a long-blade in sight, but it would be a brave gaucho to doubt Carlos’s machismo. The women in the room swoon with his rhythm. When the show ends, white light dissipates the fog of desire and I stumble from the tango restaurant and into a bar next door, my companions teasing me about my first, albeit short-lived, Latino man-crush.
The next day, wandering the gritty, pastel-coloured streets of La Boca, I’m told tango originated as a dance among men in the late 1800s. With thousands of male immigrants pouring into the capital, the city’s bordellos were busy places, where brawls were common. Out of the fights and pent up anger, tango was born, with men dancing together while they waited their turn. The bordello staff joined them and tango evolved into what it is today.
Three days later, despite a night at an estancia in the wild northeast region of Esteros del Ibera, and a brush with a khaki-clad safari ranger who looked like a young Harrison Ford in the jungles around Iguazu Falls, I’m yet to experience the Argentinean machismo I’d expected. But although I only have a few days left in the country, and Patagonia is 2,000 kilometres to the south, there is still hope. Sitting on a plane circling the north-west colonial city of Salta, I notice a map on which the silhouette of a horse-mounted gaucho trots across the Salta and Tucumán plains. Although the region is now famous for its wines, this is also cowboy country.
Nestled hard up against the Andean foothills, Salta has the appearance of a quaint European provincial capital, despite its population of just half-a-million. From the plane window, the landscape is a patchwork of orange-leafed vineyards. To the northwest, one of the world’s highest railways – Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) – climbs 4,220 metres into the grey mountains.
At 1,200 metres above sea level, Salta and the surrounding region is home to some of the highest vineyards on the globe, famous for producing the dry white wine torrontes that we’re chasing on a three-day trip that will take us south from Salta to Tucumán, the home of Argentinean independence.
On the way into town, our guide Noah tells us that Salteños love wine, music and a good time. “The secret is not to get the guitar player drunk or else the music is over very early,” Noah declares with a burst of laughter, as we pass llamas grazing in green paddocks and roadside empanada stalls.
Salta is famous for its empanadas, which Noah assures us are the best in the country. Nearing our hotel, he offers one last note on local culture: “If the waiter takes his time to take your order, it takes even longer for your order to arrive, and even longer to get the bill, then you know you’re in Salta.”
It’s Sunday and the sidewalks are almost empty as I stroll along narrow streets lined with terraced colonial buildings. Old men gather on street corners talking in soft Spanish. In a dusty park, hawkers cluster below tall palm trees and pigeon-soiled statues, flogging the red-and-white tops of the River Plate football team, which is in town for the weekend.
I make my way along a side street and stumble onto Plaza 9 de Julio, the city’s colonial heart. Classical French and Italian architecture lines the square. Passing the pink basilica I cross the sunny plaza to a cafe. Chairs and tables are laid out on the wide footpath, where I order a coffee and sit back to take in the afternoon. A busker plays a violin, teenagers stroll arm in arm and children slurp ice creams under mandarin trees laden with ripe fruit. My coffee never arrives. I mention it to the waiter as I leave. He shrugs as if to say: “What did you expect? You’re in Salta now gringo.”
Having experienced Salta time, I’m keen to taste the Salteños’s other great passions: music and wine. But first we decide to take in some of the town’s bricks-and-mortar attractions. Founded in 1582, the city is known colloquially as ‘Salta La Linda’ – Salta the Beautiful – and is home to some of the country’s finest colonial architecture, which hints at the former wealth of the regional capital.
Next door, the Museum of High Altitude Archeology houses three child mummies, found in 1999 on the cold slopes of a 6,700 metre volcano. It’s believed the mummies were child sacrifices made to Incan gods.
A couple of doors down is a small bakery, shelves glistening with Salteño treats: melon marmalade wrapped in dry pastry and sprinkled with icing sugar, fig paste wrapped in pastry with sliced walnuts and dulce de leche – caramelised sweetened milk, incased in a hard icing sugar shell.
Already light-headed from our sugar hit, we hit a peña. Local bars where Salteños gather to drink, eat and sing, peñas are the best place to get a real taste of the region’s culture. Noah has assured us this peña, La Casona del Molino, is as local as they come.
It’s 9pm when we arrive and the place is deserted – Salteños are famous for the late hours they keep – so we order wine and empanadas, and wait. A former mansion, La Casona is a jumble of high-ceilinged rooms cluttered with wooden tables. By the time the first musicians shuffle into the place, three empty bottles of Malbec clutter our table. By 11pm the place is full, each room with its own musicians and audience, all drinking, eating and dancing to the acoustic folkloric sounds. It’s 4am when we spill like guitar music onto the street.
The next morning the temperature has dropped and the sky is pewter. I emerge from the hotel wearing a coat and nursing a robust hangover. We’re about to drive through the heart of Argentina’s north-west wine region and the thought of another glass of the stuff gives me shivers. But, with a little machismo of my own, I decide the best defense is to tackle the dilemma head on.
We take the Route 68 south from Salta toward Valles Calchaqui and the northwest wine growing capital of Cafayate. The landscape is a windswept canvas of rugged ochre-coloured mountains and wide flats of low scrub, towering cacti and dry, rockstrewn riverbeds. We taste ruby red Malbec and delightfully dry torrontes wines before visiting the Devil’s Throat, a cylindrical incision in the red valley walls where a pan piper fills the air with haunting notes that seem to hover inside the rock formation. But still, despite the Wild West landscape, there’s not a gaucho in sight.
The following day we continue south toward the town of Tafi del Valle in Tucumán Province. Our new guide, Hugo, assures me this is real gaucho country and that our destination, the 230-year-old Estancia Las Carreras, is a working ranch and brimming with cowboys.
We leave Cafayate and traverse the traditional lands of the indigenous Diaguita people. It’s a harsh country of barren rolling hills. At the pre-Columbian Ruinas de Quilmes we explore the remains of what was once a town of 5,000. Our indigenous guide, Nicolas, explains how the people fought the Spanish with bows and arrows and slingshots, the women fighting beside their men, resisting colonisation for 130 years. When the conquistadors finally won, many Quilmes people killed themselves rather than surrender.
Route 307 takes us out of Valles Calchaqui to the 3,000 metre pass, El Infiernillo. The air is crisp and a flock of llama blocks the road as we crest the pass, a shepherd slowly walking behind. I step from the car to take a photograph. As the shutter clicks, a mob of horses thunders over a nearby ridge, in pursuit are two gauchos riding high and proud in their saddles. I stand and stare. One of the gauchos waves. I nod. Then they’re gone.
That night, huddled around an open fire sipping Malbec, our hosts at Las Carreras inform us they have something special planned: a night ride through the valley with one of their cowboys. An hour later, swathed in a red poncho, I’m riding beside Moreno listening to tales of a life spent in the saddle. We climb to the top of a ridge overlooking the estancia. The homestead lights of Las Carreras twinkle below and I ask Moreno if he knows any gaucho songs.
Moreno leans back in his saddle and begins to sing. It’s a soft, heart-broken ballad of freedom and loss, passed on by his grandfather years ago riding these same hills in search of scattered cattle. The melody rises from Moreno’s throat in puffs of fog, floating on the frigid night air. The horses’ hooves strike a beat on the rocky trail and the ballad echoes across the valley. A full moon throws our shadows forward; two gauchos riding side by side.
It’s taken a week to shake my Carlos man-crush, but finally I’ve found my macho gaucho. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s singing.
Aerolineas Argentinas flies non-stop from Sydney to Buenos Aires.
For something colonial in Salta stay at Legado Mitico.
For a taste of the northwwest wine region stay at Cafayate Wine Resort.
To meet some gauchos in Tucumán province stay at Estancia Las Carreras, near Tafi del Valle.