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Through the portals of stately ranches.

IT WAS EL DORADO without all the bother of mining the gold. It was Europe with its ideals of beauty; it was America with its vast opportunities. Such was life on the flourishing Argentine ranches from the middle of the nineteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth.

At that time the ranches were efficient meat factories where free-grazing cattle multiplied peacefully. The county prospered as it consumed and exported the products of the estancias. Lands which had been savagely conquered from the Indians were being settled and developed to produce wealth. In return for this effort by the ranchers, the state gave away huge tracts of land and kept taxes low, thus enhancing the cattle industry. Even the luxury of having unlimited acres for each animal was profitable. And cows were not the only livestock growing fat in Argentina's dreamlike countryside: they shared it with thousands of sheep and horses grazing and multiplying on the vast expanses of natural grasslands. The nations of the world contemplating Argentina's livestock-based wealth perceived this country as a vigorous civilization destined to replace those of the Old World.

A privileged group in Argentine society--those who owned livestock or had participated in the campaign to conquer new territories--had become the owners of large landed estates. These families, obligated to the country and to nature for their bounty, were jealous custodians of their properties, generous with their staffs and respectful of the flora and fauna. The families of the peons (gauchos) prospered as well. Since the owners depended on their labor and skills, the peons were well treated. The gauchos, in turn, took pleasure in their own activities: rounding-up cattle, breaking-in horses, and branding.

As the tacit contract between landowners and ranch hands was respected by both sides, the cattlemen could spend long periods in Europe without fundamentally affecting things back home. Argentine oligarchs travelled to the Old World with their families, their servants and, it is said, even a cow so they could have fresh milk daily.

In England they found studs to refine their herds; then, on the continent, especially in France, they refined their taste for beautiful things and the good life. There were also those who had become smitten with Spanish colonial art and systematically did the rounds of antique dealers throughout the Iberian peninsula in search of important pieces. They returned to Argentina with enormous crates of art and craft works, furnishing and luxury articles, as well as an addiction to European social graces. The ranchers were the princes of the pampas, and their eccentricities and extravagances were simply further proof of their quasi-sovereign status.

Finding life as country squires thoroughly congenial, many of them began to invest fortunes in their properties. They built sumptuous villas, surrounded by luxuriant gardens and parks with avenues, marble statutes and alabaster fountains such as they had seen in Europe. Hospitality was intrinsic to their lifestyle, thus they spent lavishly. They also provided appropriate housing, dining halls, and recreation facilities for their mayordomos and servants, as well as schools for their children. Finally, mindful of the origin of their wealth and proud of their magnificent herds they constantly introduced improvements in storehouses, corrals, pens and fencing.

Historical and literary records recount that an atmosphere of exquisite culture and civilization reigned on those estates. For example, it was said of Huetel, at one time the estate of the Unzue-Casares family, that "it was a setting fit for the most demanding of aristocrats." As for the architecture, no shoddiness was tolerated. Huetel rivals any of the great residences built since the Renaissance whose beauty has given them a place in history. The following was written on San Jacinto Palace, erected by Don Angel de Alvear: "The ample lines of the main building dominate the whole and harmonize, like all the other structures, with the hues of the park and the joyousness of the gardens. . . One is impressed by its beauty, art and stateliness." This same observation could be applied to Acelain, the estate designed in the 1920s by Don Enrique Larreta, and to innumerable other estates scattered over the Argentine pampas.

Unfortunately, with the passage of time the ranchers' cultural ideals and artistic preoccupation obscured the economic purpose of the ranches. New generations were less inclided to devote the physical and moral effort required by cattle breeding. That lack of interest in the business aspects of country squiredom became fatal.

In addition, inheritance laws and family disputes which forced property to be divided among heirs caused the estates to grow steadily smaller and therefore less profitable. Traditional Argentine stockbreeding required a great deal of land per animal to make money. With income declining, it became increasingly difficult to pay the large staffs necessary to keep the estates running.

Other factors also contributed to the demise of the great estates: the continued squandering of money in Europe by subsequent generations of ranchers, the import substitution process begun around 1930 which ushered in the Argentine industrial caste, the introduction and growth of taxes, and technological advances in agriculture and animal husbandry. As if that were not enough, labor legislation and wage increases introduced by the Peronists in the 1940s complicated relations between estancieros and peons. The characteristic meat, leather and wool factories, where ranch owners and gauchos celebrated a unique folk tradition and where gracious country living was brought to sublime perfection, ceased to exist.

Many buildings of those old properties still remain, but life there is no longer what it was during the golden age. Of necessity, the nature of the work has also changed: the traditional cattleman has become a dairyman or farmer, or both. The herds of livestock have been relegated to marginal areas and farming has taken over the good land. Furthermore, a large part of the land and facilities still in operations have passed into the hands of corporations. Other families, to keep their properties, have turned them into dude ranches where they conduct barbecues and shows featuring horsemanship and guitar-playing.

Nevertheless, there is still abundance, beauty and tradition in the Argentine countryside. Stockbreeding continues to be a gratifying and lucrative occupation requiring vision and perseverance, just as it was at the start of the country's ranching history in the sixteenth century when wandering herds grazed and bred freely.


The word estancia first appeared in Spanish in 1514 and was used in reference to a "stay," in the sense of a certain amount of time spent in a given place. In Argentine usage it came to signify a tract of land devoted to animal husbandry. Nowadays, it is difficult to think of an Argentine ranch without evoking the magnificence and extraordinary wealth which the estancias attained in the period accurately dubbed "the years of the fat cows".

In fact by the early sixteench century the cows of the Rio de la Plata were already quite fat. The livestock brought to the Rio de la Plata by the Spanish conquistadors multiplied prodigiously thanks to the favorable climate and endless grasslands with plenty of water. These nomadic herds formed an inexhaustible supply of meat and leather (which was smuggled by the Portuguese and Dutch). Indians and Europeans alike engaged in the deplorable practice of killing animals to utilize a tiny part--sometimes just the tongue of a cow--and then abandon the rest. Both the lawmakers and propagators of the faith tried to put an end to this state of affairs. Thanks to them, two types of ranches, the colonial and the Jesuit, sprang up almost simultaneously towards the end of the sixteenth century.

In 1589 the first ordinance of the Buenos Aires city council or cabildo introduced the branding of livestock. That inaugurated the "colonial" ranch. Each owner, upon registering his brand, acquired the title of hacendado or "rancher" along with a number of rights and prerogatives. As the livestock multiplied, new hacendados registered their brands. Although the nomadic grazing system remained common until after 1700, the roundup--in which animals were identified and counted--was established as an effective way of keeping livestock branded and of breaking them in. In time, dividing the lands on which the roundups took place became an important concern.

In those days, ranching was considered a practical and above all, profitable trade. Although no prestige was as yet attached to it, it was acknowledged that its practitioners must be very determined and courageous. The rancher followed his herd on horseback, carried arms, acquired new herds in daring forays and often kept himself fed by slaughtering lassoed wild cattle. His life was on the line daily: he had to defend himself and his property against attacks by Indians and Christian neighbors who, like himself, were trying to augment their holdings.

At first, few ranchers had domesticated livestock, while those with wild herds were legion. The wild livestock, therefore, declined in number and moved steadily away from Buenos Aires. In 1636 the authorities, wishing to protect sheep and horses (and to curtail destructive practices) decreed the death penalty for the destruction and theft of livestock. However, the situation did not improve. Taking advantage of the isolation of the ranchers, raiding Indians and bandits, robbers and cattle rustlers continued to infest the regions where the ranchers were attempting to establish their claims.

Nor was it easy to acquire lands for ranching. The less wealthy ranchers eventually gave up their attempts to secure title, frustrated by the expenses involved and the interminable red tape. At the turn of the nineteenth century only some six latinfundistas (owners of large tracts) had titles to property, whereas by 1840 there were some 160 ranches in the province of Buenos Aires. In many cases, the solution had been simply to take possession of land, avoiding formalities that cost more than the property itself.

Jesuit ranches, on the other hand, seem inspired by works like Utopia or Arcadia. They were communal, vertical organizations which provided generous amounts of meat until the expulsion of the Jesuit order in 1767. In these field units, of an architecture very different from that of the Jesuit missions, Negroes and Indians worked under a benign regime that included religious instruction, reading and writing, and vocational training.

One such ranch, Santa Catalina, located in the province of Cordoba, remains as perhaps the most remarkable example of colonial Baroque architecture. It includes a group of buildings used as workshops, schoolhouses and warehouses, to which are joined a church and the cloister. Remarkably conserved after almost four centuries (it was built by the Jesuits in 1622), it is currently being put to a rather odd mixed use as a place of worship and summer resort.

Don Francisco Diaz bought Santa Catalina in 1774 and completed the construction begun by the Jesuits. However, Diaz did not keep all the grounds of the establishment, nor did he stick to its purpose. The names of other famous ranchers became associated with the locale. It is recounted that General Julio Argentino Roca decided to become a rancher when he married Clara Funes, who had inherited a part of what had been given to the Jesuits for their private use at Santa Catalina. This smaller ranch, La Paz, good only for raising rustic livestock, was General Roca's favorite spot for rest and relaxation. When he was President of Argentina he never failed to spend the three summer months there.

The church of Santa Catalina has been declared a Monument of Municipal Interest, but part of the former reduccion, or area set aside for Christianized Indians, is a country retreat used by the many descendants of Don Francisco Diaz. La Paz, with a renovated mansion and its delightful park designed by the architect Thais, is still owned by the descendants of General Roca.


The advent of independence and the creation of the Argentine nation set the stage for what became known as the creole ranch. On June 15, 1810, the colonial law governing land acquisition was abolished, which suddenly simplified the settlement of ranches. The government favored the ranchers and protected stockbreeding with several measures. For example, any herd of livestock without a certificate was considered stolen and those in possession of it were arrested and prosecuted. The slaughter of animals less than three years old was prohibited, and to export leather it was necessary to inform the authorities. Those years saw the beginning of experiments with new ways of preserving meat for export purposes. Realizing that the successful marketing of their products abroad depended on the quality of their livestock, the ranchers turned enthusiastically to the task of refining it. The epoca culta or cultured era of stockbreeding had begun.

Two figures representative of this period were Bernardino Rivadavia, an estanciero and president in 1826, and Juan Manuel de Rosas, Captain-General of the Province of Buenos Aires, which at that time reigned supreme over the interior provinces of the country. Rosas began as his father's range boss in 1811 (when he was only 18 years old) and became the best rancher of his time, renowned for his efficiency. In 1813 he wrote his Instrucciones a los mayordomos de estancia (Instructions to ranch supervisors), a comprehensive manual on the management of a creole ranch. In this work, Rosas dispensed a wealth of historical and practical knowledge interspersed with orders to his subordinates and hands.

At this juncture, ranching began to acquire prestige as an occupation. It was considered an honor for an hacendado to accept a public appointment, and indeed ranchers began to make their weight felt politically. It is interesting to observe that all the powerful men who emerged from this period--Facundo Quiroga, Rosas and Justo Jose de Urquiza--either were themselves gaucho horsemen or had adapted themselves to the ethos, skills and image of the gaucho: skilled in the use of lasso and bolas, stoic, and possessed with a ferocious sense of indepencence. That legendary figure, the gaucho, as immortalized in Argentine literature, has left momentos of great value, including the elegant outfits set off by characteristic knives, belts, spurs and other silver ornaments.

In 1852, General Urquiza defeated Rosas in an historic battle and went on to become president of the nation in 1854. If Rosas was considered Argentina's leading estanciero, then Urquiza was its second. The exquisite Palacio San Jose, built in the Province of Entre Rios in 1848, is one of his many still intact estancias.


The modern ranch came into being toward the mid-nineteenth century. Ranches fitting this description already had fences and large wooeded areas. They were equipped to handle specific tasks, with enclosed pastures and padlocks at the most advanced ones, abundant watering places, excellent housing for personnel, recreation facilities and mansions for the owners.

With pedigree studs imported from England, Argentine herds were beginning to rank among the world's best. However, the approach to ranching was still somewhat primitive. Neither milk nor manure were marketed. Only fat, part of the meat and hides were utilized.

The government continued to foster stockbreeding, and after 1866, when the Sociedad Rural Argentina was founded, the ranchers had an organization that represented their interests. The port of Buenos Aires had reopened, and with that the flow of external trade intensified. Refrigeration, which replaced the salting of meats, appeared in the 1880s and great advances were made in transportation, especially when the rail lines were extended.

After 1879, the year of General Julio Argentino Roca's campaign in the interior, the danger of cattle thieving and Indian raids disappeared for good. The civil wars, when armies of both sides razed everything, were over. The country was at peace and its cattle was its most precious resonance. At the turn of the century Argentina's estates rivaled the chateaux de la Loire of France and a popular saying in Paris was that few could be as rich as an Argentine rancher.


A journey to the fabulous lands where the ranch houses still stand will reveal to the thoughtful visitor that the present peacefulness of these parks and palaces eclipse a past fraught with struggles and pleasures. The significance of the marble reflected in the lakes, the gardens surrounded by woods and the fine art in the salons is not difficult to grasp.

However, to visit the "enchanted land of the ranches" the traveler needs a great deal of time in view of the enormous distances separating the estancias, as well as the large areas each one covers. In addition, only a few of the estates have been converted into hotels or tourist attractions. In most cases, the visitor needs a better reason than mere curiosity to convince the ranch owners to divulge their complex histories. It seems that the families of the men who created the opulent ranches of another era want to guard the secrets of their labors and traditions. Now that the golden age of the Argentine estates remain only in memory, their legacy is veiled in darkest mystery.

Martha Gil-Montero was born in Cordoba, Argentina and has lived in the United States since 1979. Her works have been published in Argentina, the United States and Brazil.
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Title Annotation:Argentina's stately ranches
Author:Gil-Montero, Martha
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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