5 day trips from Buenos Aires

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.

The Basilica's nave - Luján
The Basilica’s nave – Luján

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.

View of the basilica's towers in the twilight
View of the basilica’s towers in the twilight

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).

The disused train station now houses an arts and crafts market every weekend
The disused train station now houses an arts and crafts market every weekend –  Carlos Keen

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.

Microbrewery La Uribeña  -Uribelarrea
Microbrewery La Uribeña -Uribelarrea

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.

Serene countryside
Serene countryside

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.

Off-the-beaten path day trip from Buenos Aires: Capilla del Señor

Every now and then, it is refreshing to get away from the hectic life of a big city and find that inner peace that keeps you going. Lately, I find myself more attracted to rural settings rather than busy urban areas. So when my parents suggested we visit the town of Capilla de Señor during one of my visits to Argentina, I leapt at the chance of spending quality time with them and escaping the madness of Buenos Aires.

Capilla de Señor is a quiet rural town located about 50 miles from the capital city of Argentina. It was the first town to be declared “Bien de Interés Histórico Nacional,” a protected historic town of national interest.

A typical rural construction
A typical rural construction

In the 1720s, Francisco Casco de Mendoza owned vast tracts of land in this area. He built a small chapel for his family in 1727. His son, Mayoriano Casco, built a bigger church to serve the people who lived in neighboring estancias. He also divided the surrounding land into plots and sold them. He followed the traditional Spanish grid layout.

The town grew organically around the church. As it was never officially founded, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date. It is believed the origins of the town date back to between 1755 and 1758. Interestingly, although it was still a hamlet in 1768, it already had three pulperías, a cross between bar and general store. The 1869 census shows a population of 1116.

As evidence to the town’s importance, Mr. Manuel Cruz founded the first newspaper of the province of Buenos Aires, El Monitor de la Campaña (The Rural Monitor,) in 1871.

We parked the car on one of the sides of the town square, plaza San Martin, and headed to the Tourist Office, where we got some brochures. The plaza is a lovely place for a leisurely stroll along its many paths. Or sit under the shade of its many trees and plan your visit, maybe even watch a gaucho on horseback trot by. Or bicker, like my parents did until they agreed on a course of action.

I wasn't kidding about the gauchos
I wasn’t kidding about the gauchos

We started with the church. The architects Hunt and Sherarder designed and built the current building in 1866. Eclectic in style, the church has one nave, vaulted ceilings and a beautiful gold leaf altar with a colonial altarpiece. There are tons of natural light that bounces off the white walls and highlights the gold leaf. Two Irish priests are interred in the church. It speaks volumes of how influential the Irish community was in the area in the 19th century.

The house where Mr. Manuel Cruz lived now houses the Museo del Periodismo Bonaerense, the Buenos Aires Journalism Museum. The house is a typical adobe construction with a traditional zaguán (hallway), four rooms, a kitchen, an inner veranda and a colonial water well. The highlights of the collection are the original French printing press used to print El Monitor de la Campaña newspaper, various typewriters, and original documents.

The kitchen has a brick bread oven and a British washing machine from 1857. That, I must admit, was fun to look at and try to work out how to operate. It was used at the local hotel in the 19th century and was donated to the museum.

The museum's courtyard
The museum’s courtyard

A very short drive away is the municipal cemetery. My dad took a lot of persuading; he does not believe in visiting cemeteries for fun. The Cementerio Municipal opened in 1838. Some of the mausoleums are works of funerary art. A series of vaults line two of the original walls. What’s remarkable about them is that the headstones are written in French and in English, another indication of how influential the Irish community was here. I found them puzzling at first, since I assumed they’d be written in Spanish. Then I remembered the Irish connection.

A cholera outbreak ravaged Capilla del Señor in 1868. It is believed an itinerant fruit seller unwittingly introduced the cholera. He sold out his infected produce during the day and died that night. The cholera spread quickly around town. The death rate was so high and fast that there wasn’t enough time to dig individual graves, so the victims were buried in a mass grave in the middle of the cemetery. Actually, not everybody. The more affluent used their family vaults. One was particularly heartbreaking: it listed the names of family members, especially children, who succumbed to cholera on the same week.

The lush vegetation of the main square
The lush vegetation of the main square

It’s not all gloom and doom in Capilla del Señor. We went down to the river, which had burst its banks because of heavy rains, and enjoyed even more peace and quiet. We munched on the terrific facturas we bought from a pastry shop located inside a house’s garage. The riverside is an ideal place to bring a picnic and spend the day, or even pitch a tent and stay overnight. Personally, I’d rather stay at one of the many estancias, cattle ranches, which provide room and board. The homemade food and a soft bed beat the heck out of a sleeping bag and coffee burnt over the campfire.

How to get there from Buenos Aires

By car: take RN 8 (route 8) and then route 39.

By bus: take the 57 bus from Palermo. There’s a direct service (one and a half hours), and one via Pilar which takes considerably longer.

By train: take the Mitre line in Retiro to Victoria. From there, take the train to Capilla del Señor.

Oficina de Turismo (Tourist Office): Rivadavia 506 – Tel.: (02323)-491347. Open Mon. to Fri. 8 AM to 8 PM. Sat., Sun., and holidays: 10 AM to 6 PM.

 

Boar Farm Revisited

(Oh all right! the title of this post was indeed inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel. However, a boar farm is slightly less glamorous than a country pile. Only just.)

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Last weekend my parents, Sean and I we piled into the car and drove to Suipacha.  This is the town where I bought my antique china tea set last year and I wanted to see if they had matching plates but they had none left.

We had reservations at the restaurant they owners of the boar farm recently opened on site. The food was very good. I’d never eaten boar before and I expected it to be more gamey than it actually was. I had boar ravioli, Sean had boar with a berry sauce, my dad had homemade pasta and my mum had goulash. Apparently, their recipes were handed down the generations of this family.

It was a glorious day, perfect for a stroll after lunch to see the boars. Some can be very mean and rather dangerous, hence the electrified fence inside another fence. Their grunts did sound scary.

 

 

Carlos Keen: snapshots of the countryside

Carlos Keen is a small country town located less than 90 kilometres west of the city of Buenos Aires (see map here). The nearest big town is Luján. Carlos Keen is known for its restaurants and is an ideal place to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon ambling about, checking out the goods at the arts and crafts fair, and cleansing your lungs with fresh country air.

The old railway station at Carlos Keen now houses an arts and crafts market, where one can buy anything from homespun wool clothes to tea caddies.
A classic countryside tableau: grazing horses and a windmill. It doesn't get any more "gaucho" than this.
An example of a typical old house in the countryside: very high ceilings; brick walls; tall, narrow windows. This style is called "casa chorizo", like a sausage, because the rooms are laid out one behind the other, joined by a corridor. This one was converted into a very good restaurant.
This is what a busy street looks like on a Sunday in the countryside. The perfect bucolic setting for a restoring siesta.
What I love about this shot is the contrast between city and country. Neither vehicle looks out of place parked on the street. I wonder if the belong to the same person.
To me, this shot embodies what life in the country is all about: friendship, modern living and tradition. I love the fact that one kid is saddling the horse while the other waits sitting on his bike!

Luján, between faith and history

The view of the basilica, with its looming spires, never fails to impress. It’s Luján, Argentina’s epicentre of Catholic faith, where miracles are prayed for and where thousands go on pilgrimage every year hoping that Our Lady of Luján will hear their pleas.

View of the basilica and colonial arcades

This time round we skipped the basilica and headed to the History Museum (Complejo Museográfico Enrique Udaondo). It consists of a series of historical buildings such as the old Town Hall (Cabildo) and prison, chapel, and so on and it covers an area of three and a half city blocks.

The Cabildo and the Viceroy’s house date back to the late 18th century. I was excited that we have such old buildings (I know it sounds lame but ours is a relatively new country!). These buildings are a fine example of the Spanish colonial architectural style. I adored the courtyards with their water wells capped with elaborate wrought iron railings.

Each room is devoted to a theme, like the British Invasions of 1806/07 (and the creole victory over the invaders), the Wars of Independence from Spain, the Civil War or the Confederation Era. On display are personal belongings of our Independence heroes. That was very interesting.

Spanish Colonial architecture

It was a glorious but cold day so we decided to shorten our visit since one needs to walk between buildings and the staircases are on the outside of the buildings. We hurried to the Transport Museum, where we saw really cool things like a Popemobile (I remember seeing Pope John Paul II riding in it when he came to Argentina in the early eighties), stagecoaches, the first steam locomotive, the first hydroplane to cross the South Atlantic, and even a Victorian hearse.

It is always a treat to spend time with my parents and to see familiar places like Luján through the eyes of a tourist.

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How to get there:

By car: Autopista del Oeste and then follow the signs to Basilica de Lujan (it’s 67 km from Buenos Aires).

By bus: from Palermo, Transportes Atlantida (Plaza Italia)

By train: from Estacion Once to Moreno and tranfer to the train to Lujan

What to see and do

Basilica

Complejo Museografico Enrique Udaondo

Picnic by the river

There are many cafes and restaurants in the area.

Some visitors should be taught not to litter. Such a pity.