Visiting a big city like Buenos Aires can be overwhelming at times: chaotic traffic, noise levels through the roof, swarms of people wherever you go. This didn’t use to bother me when I lived there; on the contrary, I rather enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the big city. I found it exhilarating. It made me feel alive.
Nowadays, however, it’s exactly the opposite. I live in a quiet suburb of Dallas, where life goes by at a more sedate pace and birdsong has replaced car horns. So when I visit my family in Buenos Aires, I need to get away from it all, even a few hours will do nicely. My parents enjoy exploring the countryside and we used to go on day trips as a family. Now, they take my husband and me to visit old haunts and new places for a fun and relaxing day out.
About an hour’s drive away is the town of Luján, Argentina’s biggest pilgrimage center. Its basilica attracts thousands of pilgrims every year, both people on foot and gauchos on horseback. I visited the basilica many times; I still remember how scared I was as a child of the bayonets and crutches that lined the walls, donated by long-ago dead soldiers as tokens of thanks. Fortunately, they were removed when the neogothic basilica was restored and tarted up. Interestingly, the bells were fashioned from melted World War I cannons.
I get my history fix at the Enrique Udaondo museum complex, across the square from the basilica. The old cabildo, where much of the country’s early history took place, houses a fantastic collection of historical objects. The country’s first steam locomotive, the first plane to fly between Spain and Argentina in 1926, and Mancha and Gato, the first horses to join Buenos Aires and New York in 1933 are on display at the Transport Museum, among other historic types of transport.
Not far from Luján is the pretty little town of Carlos Keen. Carlos Keen is a railway town created in 1881 as a water stop for the steam engines. The disused station houses a cultural center now. Every weekend, there’s an arts and crafts fair on the station grounds. I love to browse the stalls and chat with the vendors. The station depot went to wrack and ruin through the decades but it has been restored and is used for art exhibitions and classes.
A leisurely stroll is much needed after a copious lunch. We have been to many of the restaurants in Carlos Keen and could not pick a favourite. However, in the colder months, I would rather eat at any of the restaurants in the town centre. In warm weather, I love the rural establishments where we can sit outside, eat fabulous food surrounded by nature and a flock of ducks or a cow or two. The menu is more or less the same everywhere: a picada de campo, Argentinean-style tapas with locally sourced cold cuts and cheeses and crusty bread, followed by either homemade pasta or asado (meats grilled gaucho-style).
Cheese lovers will love Suipacha and its Ruta del Queso (cheese trail). It is as delicious as it sounds. Although I adore cheese, my favorite place was probably the antiques store located at the town’s entrance, where I bought an English china tea set from the 1940s. Once we got antiquing out of the way, we visited the local boar farm, called La Escuadra. The owner explained everything there is to know about rearing boars and took us on a tour of the premises. We decided to stay for lunch. The star ingredient was boar, of course and they served dishes like boar ravioli or boar stew, using family recipes handed down the generations.
The cheese trail consists of a guided or self-guided visit to local cheese factories. Some charge a small fee and provide a tour of the facilities but some don’t. It’s not all about cheese however; there is a blueberry farm as well as the boar farm. They all sell their products there and then. My dad’s car was considerably heavier on the two-hour drive back home.
Uribelarrea, 80 kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires, is another railway town. Sadly, the town suffered greatly when some of the railway lines were closed. The disused station, red brick and dark green trimmings in the best English fashion, now houses the police station. Tourism has helped revive the town’s economy. Uribelarrea is probably my favorite rural town. Nothing beats the picada and the craft beer from the local microbrewery La Uribeña. The old pulpería, a typical bar and general store from the pampas, is also popular.
On one of our visits, we went to the Escuela Agrotécnia Salesiana Don Bosco, an agricultural school founded in 1894 and run by Salesian priests. Thanks to their hands-on approach, students learn by doing, and then sell their products to the public. We bought the most delicious dulce de leche, which they are famous for, and mandarin marmalade.
On another occasion, we took our young nephews to the local goat farm, called Valle de Goñi. The boys had lots of fun trying to get into the corrals to play with the goats while we had coffee and cake in the garden.
Incidentally, some scenes of the film Evita by Alan Parker were shot inside the church built in 1890.
Capilla del Señor was the first rural town to be declared Town of Historic Interest by Congress. Its Museum of Journalism displays the printing press used to print the first newspaper of the province of Buenos Aires, El Monitor de la Campaña (The Rural Monitor) and is located in the home of the newspaper founder.
The local cemetery, opened in 1838, bears witness to a cholera epidemic unknowingly started by a traveling fruit seller. Visiting a cemetery may sound creepy, but this one is interesting in that some of the older headstones are written in English and in French, not something I would expect to see in the Argentinean pampas. I later learned that the Irish and French communities were very influential here in the 19th century.
The origin of Capilla del Señor goes back to the mid-18th century, when local landowner Casco de Mendoza started selling plots of his land around the church, following the traditional Spanish grid layout. The main buildings (church, town hall, school, and museum) are located around the main square, or plaza. We parked the car on one of its sides and took a stroll around, enjoying the peace and quiet while planning our visit with the help of the brochures form the Tourist Office. We then bought delicious pastries from a bakery and took a leisurely stroll along the river.
These towns are accessible by train and bus from Buenos Aires.