Cavorting with cowboys at the world's wildest gaucho festival (2023)

Beavers. It had to be. We peered out of the windows of our scaled-down train, chortling along a scaled-down track 10 minutes outside Ushuaia, the frontier town at the southern tip of Argentina. Tussocky meadows stretched into the distance, covered in hundreds of gnawed grey tree stumps.

I’d heard of beaver damage, but this was ridiculous. Then the train guide explained: the trees were felled by convicts. The Train at the End of the World – nifty marketing, that – runs on the rebuilt final section of track that once carried them from Ushuaia’s infamous penal colony to cut and haul timber.

It is almost impossible to conceive how hard the life was back then and how tough the people. The classic memoir of the region, The Uttermost Part of the Earth, does a pretty good job: I was reading it nightly, aghast at the sheer grind of eking a living from this punishing land in the past two centuries.

I was also aware that arriving in Tierra del Fuego carrying The Uttermost Part of the Earth is like rolling up in Haworth with a copy of Wuthering Heights. Cheesy. Taking it to Harberton, the estancia (ranch) built by Thomas Bridges, father of its author Lucas, is even worse. I’d heard the family was sick of it.

Harberton was one of the two estancias I had booked in Argentina, the other being in polo country north west of Buenos Aires. It was one way to grasp the scale of the country: Harberton was Tierra del Fuego’s oldest estancia, built in 1877 on a promontory with a 15-mile approach road.

It was a child of the South Atlantic, a place of bleached bones and penguin islands and beaver sightings. Estancia La Bamba, 1,500 miles north, was near the “gaucho town” of San Antonio de Areco, on the vast, humid pampas. I got the last room left for the November gaucho spectacular, the Festival de la Tradición.

My Argentine family mobilised to help. One cousin had a friend in Areco. Another told me about the convict train excursion in Ushuaia. A third, Lorna, bought a flight to the far south for the first time in her life and we booked a hostel room at Harberton for $100 (£82) a night. It appeared to be in the house of the estancia’s cook, which might, we thought, be very good or very bad, depending on the cook.

The hire car started rattling before we left Ushuaia’s timber-clad airport. “What’s wrong with it?” asked the guy, coming out to listen. “Oh, they’re all like that here. You’ll be fine.”

So after a night at Arakur, a hotel so fabulously retro that it was like staying on a Thunderbirds set high above Ushuaia, and after letting the car battery go flat (Lorna) and losing the car keys on the train excursion (Lorna), we set off to Harberton, worried about loose gravel (me), breaking down (me) and our next meal (Lorna).

The road looped and slung along the coast, out of the ratty edges of Ushuaia beside the cold, cornflower sea and into woods of southern beech, where dinky cabins could be seen between the trees, flashes of expensive blond pine, like ski chalets or dachas.

It took three hours to reach Harberton, 30 minutes of which was the front drive. It had been a dreadful winter: they’d been snowed in for weeks and Rae Natalie Goodall, the respected American naturalist married to Thomas Bridges’s great-grandson Tommy, had died.

But there was a warm welcome in the tea room, with its gingham tablecloths, books of press cuttings and cake. Tommy, blue boiler-suited and now in his 80s, said a polite hello and slipped away.

Our room was mint-green, straight out of a childhood holiday. The cook was called Ninfa and we loved her from the off. Lorna read out bits of my book, a tale of survival and decline: Thomas Bridges wrote the first English/Yagha dictionary and Lucas spoke Yaghan and Ona, spending much of his working life with Indian companions, but the indigenous Fueginos would die out in a couple of generations.

We strolled on the beach, entranced by disused long-drops standing over the water in full view, by silvery driftwood and blue-grey sea. Day visitors came for the Acatushún Museum, Natalie’s research collection of marine specimens, and for penguin trips. We tried to imagine the shearing sheds in full swing, before the winter of 1995 decimated the flocks.

On our last day we went looking for beavers, without much hope – I’ve tried beaver-spotting before. But at sundown there was a cautious splash and a “V” appeared in the water, arrowing busily around the messy lodges, clearly paying social calls. Noses and whiskers surfaced. Beavers, amply haunched, steered with paddle-flat tails. We sat and watched until we were too cold to sit there any longer.

It was time to head north, and in Areco the contrast with that dreamy, golden evening was huge. The Estancia La Bamba had ironed-flat bright green polo fields, in-house gauchos doing horsemanship displays and glossy guests watching the fun and eating asados, or barbecues, at stunningly laid shaded tables.

The plains around Buenos Aires have their own beauty, utterly different from that of the south. The estancia’s oxblood walls and white-edged windows were a super-chic version of traditional style, with polished wood floors, tall iron-grilled windows and wraparound verandas.

My cousin’s friend Belen gave me a lift from Buenos Aires after work. She was brought up in Areco and returned most weekends – certainly for the Festival de la Tradición. She had a big, generous laugh and knew everyone. She tried to explain what made it special for her. “The gauchos have these little troops of horses, all looking the same… ” she said, “and at the end… but I won’t spoil the surprise.”

It was a surprise. Areco is where you go if you have no time to stay on an estancia: it’s near enough to the city for day visitors, who are fed and entertained with gaucho skills: riding for a ring dangling from a string; rodeo; lassoing; and pato, horseback handball once played with a live duck.

I was expecting a place that lived for tourism and, instead, found a country town with a large plaza and stucco houses.

Some businesses were geared to visitors: a cavernous grocery store run by an elderly couple like a South American Norman Rockwell painting; twin sisters with perfect English selling textiles and artefacts; leather-workers and silversmiths showing new work and antiques; jolly bars and cafés. Belen’s sister lived there with her family. Other houses belonged to the friends and acquaintances of their childhood. At the edges the tarmac simply became dust.

And while Harberton has Lucas Bridges, Areco has Ricardo Güiraldes, who wrote an atmospheric book called Don Segundo Sombra in 1926. It captures the stultifying nature of life in a country town and the edgy existence of the gaucho. The Festival de la Tradición, now pushing 80 years old, began in his honour and for years has taken place in the Parque Criollo Ricardo Güiraldes on the edge of town.

By the time Belen and I arrived at 10am, the streets were full. Men with flat hats and leathery faces accompanied elegant women with their riding habits spread over the horses’ rumps. Working horses stood about chewing, clinking with silver harness and stiff with rawhide.

For me, the day was a series of vignettes: the town houses of Belen’s family and friends, with gangs of excited children and, in one, a granny and a nun positioned by a window, assessing the passing horseflesh; a toddler in a flat hat, wrinkly boots and a blue-and-white Argentine neckerchief, fast asleep on his tiny pony in the procession; gauchos trotting along with their tropillas (horse troops), each troop following a madrina or “godmother” mare with a bell, turning them in tight circles at key points in the street to show their prowess and control.

The climax of the day was at the parade ground, where crowds picnicked around the boundaries, ringed by horseboxes, food stalls and country folk. It was like a point-to-point, except many riders were being catapulted off enraged horses at the rodeo post.

It ended with the bit Belen loved, the entrevero, as the gauchos mixed their troops into a swirling melee of colour, 300 horses circling in search of their madrinas, and the whole mess resolving into its component parts. Order restored, there was a sense of closure. And the fiesta was over for another year.

The essentials

Journey Latin America (020 8600 1881; offers nine days in Argentina, with three nights’ full board at Estancia La Bamba and three nights’ B&B at Arakur in Ushuaia, from £2,956 per person, including flights, transfers, a visit to Harberton and excursions.

Estancia Harberton ( is open from October to April, offering two hostel rooms at $50 (£41) per person per night or converted shearers’ quarters by the Beagle Channel for $350 per person per night. The latter includes full board, Acatushún Museum entry, an excursion to see the penguins and a guided tour of the estancia.

The Train at the End of the World ( costs 600 Argentine pesos (£32) adults, 130 pesos (£7) ages five to 15 and is free for under-fives. It takes roughly one hour.

For more on San Antonio de Areco and the Festival de la Tradición, see; for more on Argentina, see

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