Pampering in Las Pampas
La Bamba de Areco is a slice of Argentine countryside heaven. It’s empanadas and asado. Malbec on tap, horse riding and gauchos steeped in tradition. Relaxation and luxury, family and friends. It’s a unique experience and one of the highlights of our Argentina trip across Buenos Aires and Mendoza.
Journey to La Bamba
Instead of turning right onto a wide and muddy dirt road that went straight on as far as the eye could see, our driver pulled over onto the main asphalt road and paused. “La Bamba es por ai.” He said, squinting his brow as he examined the set of crisscrossing tire tracks that disappeared under flooded sections of the road. “7.5 km por alli.” But surely we could still get through, I thought. “Talvez a la esquierda es mejor?” I said, pointing towards the smoothest part of the road, suggesting he could make it if he stuck to the left. Hesitantly, he restarted the engine and slowly turned onto the road.
A loud truck horn sounded, our driver stopped. Confused by the sound, he started the engine back up, and the truck horn went off again. We looked around and noticed a van and a pick-up truck on the other side of the asphalt before the turn. Finally we got the message, and drove over to meet them.
A man clad in gaucho gear, a loose white shirt, beige pants with a traditional embroidered belt, riding boots and beret hopped out of the van and said “La Bamba?” He was waiting for us. As he transferred our bags from the taxi to the pick-up truck, our taxi driver drove off without saying a word.
There had been several storms over the past few nights and the road towards La Bamba was now inaccessible by regular cars. The curvature of the road made it difficult to drive, impossible without a large four by four. I felt bad for having asked our driver to even try, but what do I know about cars.
Several deep tire tracks snaked across the road, disappearing in sections where the road had flooded. The gaucho kept within the tracks as we bumped up and down the path. Why not drive more to the right, where the road looks smooth? George asked, I translated. The gaucho explained that if he did that, we would skid and slide straight into the ditch. Better not then! At one point we started to slip and skid but quickly he corrected the wheels, and we started to understand just how precarious this journey was.
It took anywhere between half an hour to an hour to drive the 7.5 km to La Bamba. The road was really bad and took all my focus, as if somehow my concentration would help us get there safely. My real concern was less about our safety, which was not really at risk, but more about falling into the ditch and getting stuck (because I was really very hungry!)
Day One: Arriving at La Bamba
Finally we reached the Relais & Chataux hotel of La Bamba de Areco. The staff came out to give us the royal welcome, lined up at one side of the old colonial house. We shook hands with each member before receiving a hot towel.
Victoria, our host, said we were just in time for lunch and would take care of check-in and the tour of the grounds after. Our bags were whisked away as we followed Victoria into the Pulperia, where the rest of the guests were waiting.
It was Christmas Day, and most guests were already in good spirits. “Oooh new people!” One woman exclaimed before introducing herself. Jennie from London, with her husband and teenage son. We met an American-French family and another one from Switzerland. There was also an elderly retired couple, a pair of 21-year-old girls doing a University exchange in Buenos Aires, both here with the parents and grandparents of one of the girls. Victoria and some other staff members joined us at the table, as is custom with all newly arrived guests.
The atmosphere was incredibly warm and welcoming. We introduced ourselves to the group, sharing stories about where we had been in Argentina so far. The waiters came around with fresh salads and bread, roast potatoes, grilled sausages and meats, as we helped ourselves to yet another serving. Beef fillet, ribs, chicken, pork and other cuts fresh off the coals, blistered and glistening with juices. The wine kept coming too, as did the conversation.
We had got up that morning at 4.30 am to catch an early flight from Mendoza to Buenos Aires. From there it was just under a two-hour taxi ride to the dirt road at La Bamba. Add on roughly three-quarters of an hour for the 7.5km journey to La Bamba, we made it just in time for lunch at 1.30pm.
Needless to say, after all the delicious food and wine, we were ready to sleep. After lunch, we were shown around and taken to our room. Each room is named after a champion horse, ours was called the Inglesa.
We were informed that drinks, charcuterie and cheese would be served after 8 pm, with dinner at 9 pm. We were the first to arrive in the main house, a beautiful 100-year-old colonial building painted in bright fuchsia, and took a moment to appreciate the beautiful interior of the room.
Like all the rooms at La Bamba, the living room is magnificent. The gaucho and countryside theme blends beautifully with old and contemporary pieces of furniture and lighting, each piece contributing something special to the overall impression. The dining room sits just off the living room, with a large dining table in the centre of the room, surrounded by intriguing lifelike paintings of natives with face paint and on horseback.
We ate a delicious three-course meal, enjoying a fantastic steak cooked the only way Argentine meat should be cooked “jugoso” (rare), with limoncello served after dessert. As many guests retired to their rooms to rest up for an early start, we cracked open a game of poker. There was only three of us, George, myself and a very interesting young man in his first year of work.
We took our breakfast outside the Pulperia, arriving five minutes before it was supposed to end, although guests continued to arrive until well after, with no word said by the staff. After a full breakfast of croissants, or medialunas as they are called there, eggs, fruit, orange juice and coffee, we made our way over to the spectacular swimming pool.
It’s a short walk across the grass from the house, but far enough that it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. The feeling of the green grasslands stretching on and on all around you and the tall trees casting their shadows as the earth turns under the sun is liberating. You feel a lift of pressure, of weight, from the absence of buildings, people, and other obstructions and distractions. Like how I imagine the feeling of relief would be for a claustrophobic person kept in a box and then suddenly let out. The pool is large, its colour deep and inviting. I set my towel down and slid my sunglasses back over my nose, taking in the fresh air, feeling my skin prickle under the warm sun and thinking to myself that this is definitely “pampering in Las Pampas.”
Las Pampas is the name given to the expanse of grassy flatlands that surround Buenos Aires and go up towards Uruguay, home to the gauchos that ride the horses and herd the cattle that make up a large portion of Argentina’s beef production. The style of the gaucho, from his dress to his horse taming abilities, is a unique and highly respected Argentine tradition.
Guests ride for free at La Bamba, and there is a special horse show every day after lunch. No previous riding experience – or equipment – is necessary. In dry weather, the gauchos ride in their espadrilles, and a pair is provided for each guest in his room.
I enjoyed my first and last horse ride that day. My horse, Mariposa, was only a little thing, but she took to direction well, a tug on the reins to stop, left to go left, right to go right, purse your lips to make kissing noises to start going. I’ve always been allergic to animals, horses included, and even in the wide open air, my allergies got the better of me, ending my ride after 45 minutes.
Fortunately, I was well prepared and had all the medicines I needed to nurse myself back to health. Although I did require my second ice pack of the trip to soothe a rash that developed across my neck. The first was for a black eye I caught while river rafting in Mendoza. I bring this up whenever I can. George went back out for a second time with a group from England that were very experienced, and he took to the riding like a natural. Having ridden only a few times, he was proudly and confidently trotting and cantering with the rest of them.
While the second day was mostly dry, it rained heavily on both of our first two nights, with a spectacular display of thunder and lightening. The windows of the old house shook as strong gusts of wind made their way up and down the halls and through the walls like powerful ghosts. The rain brought out the frogs, big ones, little ones, lot’s of green frogs jumping around the paths, being careful not to step on them. We stayed in that night and watched a movie, the Notebook, which I enjoyed, opening the door every now and then to let out a frog that had got himself stuck inside.
By our final day, having now seen many couples and families come and go, we felt like the original crew there, teaming up with the other group from London that had arrived before our stay. Like in high school, if you were new, we were the people to meet, and it was up to us whether we wanted to let you in. No, I’m only joking. Although there was a small element of that with the day trippers. Some people come to La Bamba as a day trip from Buenos Aires. They join for lunch, ride the horses and relax for a bit by the pool. But they are gone before dinner.
The people that come to La Bamba, as with any shared dining or hotel experience, are an essential element in making the stay memorable. La Bamba is a pricey place, recently having joined Relais & Chateaux, its price very clearly reflected in the type of people that can afford to come. Some ultra conservatives, some super shy types, that one awkward man, both old and new money types… For us, we enjoyed the more laid back attitude of our fashion industry compatriots, who also happen to live just a few streets away from us back home, to remind us yet again that it’s a small world after all.
Day Three followed the same routine. Breakfast, pool or horse riding, BBQ lunch, horse show, pool or horse riding, dinner, games or a movie. You really can’t complain. It was the hottest day of the three, the stormy weather now behind us, so we spent some extra time by the pool, and enjoyed a game of croquet with the London family before dinner.
It felt like the perfect length of stay. Not short enough to feel rushed, not long enough to get bored. On the morning of our departure, the road had significantly dried up under the hot sun, making the return trip much easier and quicker. The massive flooded sections transformed into mere puddles.
The whole experience was indeed first class. From the polite and friendly service, to the stunning grounds, the plentiful food, and the guests that came and went. There was also no wifi during most of the stay. Wifi was “available” in a few of the common rooms, but never seemed to work, at least I struggled to get through and lacked the patience to wait 10 minutes for a single page refresh. Nobody seemed bothered. We were all there to get away from it all, and didn’t need our phones pulling us back into the world before we were ready to go.
For more on luxury travel, read: My Top Ten Luxury Travel Experiences