Its been a few days since we left El Ombu, the Estancia that we spent a few days on just out of Buenos Aires when we arrived here. It has been a highlight of our trip so far, and for all you horsey chicks out there – if you ever get here it is a must visit.
As you drive up it is exactly as you would imagine it to be . Tree lined driveways leading to a grand old lady of a homestead, surrounded by a huge expanse of lawns and specimen trees. The beautiful old home was built back in 1880 on what was a blank canvas of pampas grass. My how things have changed since then, the but charm of the place as it has established will have only grown. The Ombu trees (that the Estancia is named after) dotted about the place have all been planted by man with the oldest one in the grounds dating back to 1802. We did pass one out riding one day that was huge and apparently has been growing in the same spot since the late 1700’s. The stuff legends are made of in Gaucho country. The Estanscia has been in the Boelcke family for four generations and is currently owned by Eva Boelcke whose grandfather brought the property back in 1934. She runs the property as a working farm and tourism venture with the help of her two adult sons who are both in their thirties and reside in Buenos Aires, commuting up for 5 days at a time taking turns to run the property ensuring that there is a family member on site at all times. Eva herself has a house in Buenos Aires she returns to when the boys are at the property to take a break from an industry that can be demanding even on a good day.
At 67 years of age she doesn’t seem to have any desire to slow down. She is a stunning looking woman full of poise and grace, obviously refined and a very attentive host who has an absolute passion for the business and farm she has run on her own for many years following a marriage break up. She raised the two boys, Pablo and Diego on her own while establishing El Ombu.
Don’t let all that fool you though. She is clearly a force to be reckoned with and I expect has had her fair share of battles over the years usurping herself as a new age independent woman. The gaucho attitude to a woman in such a position caused much resistance in the early days if I am to read between the lines in our conversations. Taking orders from a woman is not the way in Argentina and I guess it would have been much worse a couple of decades ago.
As a child, she spent the first five years of her life living on El Ombu before moving to Chile after her parents divorced. She returned much later to Argentina again with her father who owned a dairy farm. Because of the social reform that has undertaken the country since the days of Peron, subsidies for agriculture and farming are nil. Milk must be sold at a cheap rate in the supermarkets for public consumption, so dairy farmers have left the industry in droves over recent years. Low returns and changing weather patterns have forced many to rethink their career options.
I asked about the soy and sorghum crops that were growing in the fields. These are not high yielding crops financially here, but on El Ombu are more perhaps part of a re-grassing scheme to keep renewing pastures for the Angus beef cattle that are produced here. In its heyday, growing the soybean in particular was lucrative option for the farmers, but Eva explained that the government of the day saw an opportunity to tax exporters such as the crop growers heavily and collect revenue for the government coffers. Despite the fact the returns from crops like soy and wheat have diminished over the years, farmers have no control over collecting the proceeds from goods sold directly for exports. A 70/30 split on the gross proceeds of an export sale in the form of a levy collection is compulsory and the 70% that is left for the farmer is before any operational expenses have been calculated and so from that money, labour and production costs need to be removed before you reach the thin bottom line. Not too different to how some primary producing industries in NZ have been crippled with compliance costs and levies some might say? Ouch.
It may be a generalisation of sorts, but she spoke of a welfare dependent state that has only intensified over the last 3 generations. About 25% of the tax collected funds the lifestyles of the many people don’t work and young girls who are spitting out babies left right and centre. She spoke of a staff situation where the grandmother of an extended family she knows back in the city is the only working member of her family. Her children have now had children of their own and continue to be supported by the state.
The public schooling system is free, presumably another benefit of the high taxation rates that are paid here by the Argentinean taxpayer. Tax rates are as high as 50% for the wage earner and I never got the chance to ask what they were for primary producers or self-employed people. The education standard in public school is reputed to be poor with teachers striking a lot and education in some areas of society remaining down the priority list.
Eva explained that education is important to her and when she first started the Estanscia and needed to rely on locals to help staff it , she set an education pathway in place for many of the staff to attend by going to night school as we know it. Of the 11 staff that started, only one completed the programme.
The place was humming, the staff were busy with each having a a number of roles about the place. The Gauchos, became waiters at lunchtime, the kitchen hands part of the demonstration of Spanish dancing and more. There are tourist guides bringing tour groups up from the city for horse rides and lunches on the homestead porch as well as a number of guest units on the property available for hire for extended stays such as the one we had.
You can come and go as you please about the place taking advantage of the two open air swimming pools and the loungers and seats dotted about the place. Guests get to ride out at 9.30am in the morning and then again at 1730 in the afternoon. The horses are so sensible and lovely types, mostly hardy, sturdy animals happy to be going about their business – all 70 of them.
There’s always a show on the front lawn in the afternoon where the legendary gauchos put on a display of dancing to lure the beautiful Spanish women in their traditional dress. They are accompanied by a real live musician on an acoustic guitar making wonderful music. I think he has an understudy in the making working alongside him. A cute wee dude who must have been only about 3 was playing his ukulele beside him and entertaining the crowd with his own display of dancing,
The wine flowed freely with all the meals as part of our package and I have to confess to developing a taste for the Malbec that is adorned with the private label of the ranch and managed to shift quite a few bottles over the time I was there. Lunch was always on the tiled veranda and the food never seemed to end. The lunchtime spread was a carnivores dream with huge platters of all sorts of beef, chicken and small goods being delivered to the waiting diners.
The evening meals were more of an intimate affair and once the dinner gong rang at 8pm, the resident guests were summoned to the outdoor courtyard to enjoy their meal. It was truly magical sitting under the stars surrounded by dozens of twinkling fairy lights and being waited on hand and foot.
It was a slick operation and I can see Eva has her finger firmly on the pulse. She has great staff who all seem to adore their jobs and her alike. Ramon, her leading Gaucho has been there many years and is firmly entrenched in the folklore of the place. I expect the staff retention is fairly stable and while the domestic staff don’t generally speak English, there is a couple of key member gems there who do.
We were thoroughly looked after there and were sad to leave the place. Perhaps that’s why I accidentally left my wallet and a heap of US Dollars in the room when I left. I want an excuse to go back! We weren’t gone long before I got a message from Johanna, the gaucha we had made friends with to say it had been found. True to form Eva contacted me directly not long after and said she would bring it to Buenos Aires and leave it somewhere for me to collect (a near 2 hr drive). We were already boarding a plane for the north at that stage but I know without a doubt every effort will be made to have it in my hot hand before I fly out of BA home.
There were some really special folk out there and over the next couple of days I will share what I learned about them but in the meantime, I have a bus to catch back to Salta so watch this space.