Just a two hour bus ride from Buenos Aires and a few centuries back in time, there is a bona fide gaucho pueblo. San Antonio de Areco, 112 km from the capital city, is by presidential decree a historical town of national interest, and with good reason. Dispersed amongst the beautiful period houses are authentic pulperias, almacénes and the long-established workshops of craftsmen and artisans.
The town dates back to the 1730’s, 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, and in all seriousness, they are not putting on a show for tourists, they are going about their days with pride in 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 day trip to San Antonio de Areco I was lucky enough to arrive on a beautiful autumn day, sunny yet crisp. The tree-lined streets were full of earthly colors and the mosquitoes, which breed on the nearby Areco River, were mostly in hibernation. The town is small and easy enough to navigate without maps, but it is worth stopping off at the tourist information office, a beautiful rustic 2 room wood cabin, on the corner of Zerboni and Arellano. There, the cheerful attendants provide you with maps, restaurant recommendations, museum information and best of all free bikes to cruise around the town.
As an avid bike rider in the city I immediately asked if they also provided free use of bike locks. “No,” the kind man told me, “that’s not a problem here, nobody uses bike locks.” And it was true! I spent an entire day hopping on and off the bike, a nice yet rusty beach cruiser, and it was always exactly where I left it. Only once did I see a bike with a bike lock, and it was so skinny I could have cut through it with large toenail clippers.
Pulperias, old bars, are of such historical significance and I so appreciate the culture of alcohol consumption that for me it was worth visiting a couple. Pulperias are long established bars, which back in the day actually served a multitude of purposes to the community. At the local pulperia one could hear news about distant Buenos Aires, pass the time playing cards with friends, buy provisions for the week and of course have a drink. One of the most popular 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, plenty for 2 to share, and 2 drinks for fewer than 50 pesos.
Bar San Martin, another pulperia, is completely unambitious, in a good way. No frills and bells, just a down to earth bar to play cards and drink wine late into the night. Across the quaint river on the other side of town is another pulperia, the Vuelta de Gato, directly and appropriately in front of the Gaucho Museum away from the town’s center and on a dirt road. From the front porch with a beer in hand one can gaze off into the surrounding estancias imagining that once on this same land roamed jobless, homeless gauchos.
If you want to learn a little more about this multi faceted argentine icon, The Parque Criollo and Museum Gauchesco Ricardo Guiraldes , is right across the street. The plastic dummies in the recreated scenes from the daily lives of gauchos are a little creepy, but the grounds of the museum are beautiful and well worth the 3-peso entrance fee to wander around in. The museums namesake is Ricardo Guiraldes, who wrote the first important novel about gauchos, Don Segundo Sombra. The novel, written and set in San Antonio de Areco, is a huge source of pride and identity for the town.
A goal of mine was to visit the infamous Chocolate Shop, La Olla de Cobre. Since I was wrongly informed on the opposite side of town of the closing time of La Olla de Cobre, (careful with business hours, siesta is taken seriously in small towns and most everything shuts down for a few hours in the afternoon) I raced through the park, over the river, and through the town desperate to try a hot chocolate. But, by the time I arrived I was panting and not in the mood to drink anything hot so the owner whipped me up the best, frothy, cold chocolate milk I have ever had. His chocolates are so rich and creamy that it almost had the consistency of a milkshake. The place was empty, luckily I went to San Antonio de Areco on a Monday, to avoid the crowds, and the owner was eager to share his story about how he started out. The store is actually in the garage of his house but you would never guess it because it is so cutely decorated.
The chocolatier was not the only person kind enough to spend some time talking with me that day. From my arrival at the bus station, to the tourist office, to all the old bars, I only encountered warm-hearted, kind people. Those that walk the cobblestone streets of San Antonio de Areco literally exude niceness. Maybe it’s because of their beautiful surroundings or their small town mentality. Even on the back of the tourist packet they hand out at the office with a list of all the most important things to see and do in the town it says, “if someone says hello to you on the street it’s just because we still maintain our old customs.” That couldn’t be truer.