Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Argentine President's Getaway

Many hotels claim, at least figuratively, to treat you like a king. Only one, to my knowledge, can legitimately claim to treat you like a president - Estancia La Paz near the village of Ascochinga, about 45 minutes north of the Argentine provincial capital of Córdoba.

In Argentina and Uruguay, and to a lesser degree in Chile, estancias are large landholdings - often measured in hundreds or even thousands of square miles - linked to a traditional “oligarchy.” In most of Argentina, they are cattle ranches, though in the southerly Patagonian provinces they are usually sheep ranches. Over the past couple decades, as livestock raising has proved less profitable than in the past, many of them have opened their doors to paying guests, just as dude ranches did in the United States from the late 19th century.

Estancia La Paz, where I spent a recent weekend, once belonged to Julio Argentino Roca, the military man responsible for the so-called Conquista del Desierto (“Conquest of the Desert”) that drove the native population of southern Buenos Aires province into Patagonia in the late 19th century. Roca also served two terms as Argentina’s president, and Estancia La Paz was where he went to get away from it all.

Today, no longer in the Roca family, the former casco (big house, dating from 1830) is a 20-room hotel on sprawling grounds that include an artificial lake (which attracts many birds), polo grounds, a stable (for non-polo riders as well), a spa, and a fine restaurant that’s open to non-guests by reservation. In 1994, the Alvears, descendents of the Rocas, sold it to Italian interests who neglected the casco and sold off many of the original furnishings. The Scarafia family of Córdoba, who purchased it in 1998, have managed to assemble a credible collection of antique furnishings that at least recreate the feeling of Roca’s heyday.

In addition to the estancia, local attractions include the Sierras de Córdoba, where hiking and other outdoor activities are possible, and the Jesuit monuments near the town of Jesús María (which is home to January’s Festival de Doma y Folklore, a nationally televised festival where gauchos engage in bronco-busting and the country’s top folk musicians play).

For all this, Estancia La Paz is surprising affordable at about US$130 per person for bed and breakfast, with lunch or dinner for about US$20 (with a sophisticated menu that changes daily). Roca’s “Camp David” comes cheap, at least for anyone with frustrated presidential ambitions.

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