San Antonio de Areco, 90 minutes northwest of Buenos Aires, is deep in Argentina’s Pampas, the vast grassy plains that dominate the country’s agricultural economy. The tiny town of about 22,000 people set on the Areco River is the spiritual headquarters for the legendary gaucho, Argentina’s equivalent to the North American cowboy.
The best time to visit is during the Día de la Tradición, in early November, when gauchos compete to show off their skills, from horseback riding, to roping cattle, to playing the sortija, a game where they catch rings from poles while riding horses, giving them as gifts to beautiful women in the audience in exchange for kises. Gaucho history is detailed in the Museo Gauchesco y Parque Criollo Ricardo Güiraldes, named in honour of the author of the gaucho-themed novel Don Segundo Sombra, and in Museo Las Lilas de Areco, full of paintings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the height of gaucho culture. Exquisite silver jewellery, swords and other ornaments can be seen and purchased at the Draghi Museum and Shop, which has an adjacent hotel reminiscent of the 1920s Spanish colonial apartment complex in Melrose Place.
San Antonio is romantic, infused with a sense of Argentine nostalgia. Certainly, it has been many a gay tourist’s dream to meet a man-loving gaucho to ride off with on horseback into a Pampas sunset. Even Annie Proulx, author of the short story that Brokeback Mountain was based on, came to Argentina in 2009 to witness gaucho culture and see if she could create a South American version of her famous gay-cowboy love story. Reality, as always, supersedes fantasy. Gay tour guide Juan Manuel Hernández lives in San Antonio and says, “It is a small town and not easy to be gay, but there are gay people in the town.” He adds, “My actual gaucho friends, they know, they accept me, so that has been a big triumph for me.” Hernández mentions one particularly macho man he was hesitant to come out to who surprised him with his openness. “The stereotype would be to assume he is very limited. But he knows the best women are around gay men!”
With same-sex marriage the law in Argentina, Hernández plans to get married one day. “I definitely want a husband, and if I have a gay marriage, I would get dressed as a gay gaucho for it.” The likely future setting will be a bed and breakfast Hernández is constructing near the Areco River in the town’s centre. “It will definitely be the place for gay honeymoons,” he says.
A current gay-friendly option is Solar del Pago, on the outskirts of town. Sales and marketing manager Nelida Barbeito says it’s been particularly popular with visiting lesbian couples. The hotel is known for its advanced accessibility for handicapped guests, including a lift for its pool. Many visitors to the region stay in nearby estancias, or working ranches, which have been equipped for tourism and ring San Antonio. Some of the most beautiful include El Ombú de Areco, with its vine-covered main house; El Rosario de Areco, owned by distant relatives of Che Guevara; and the 1830s French-owned La Bamba, used as the location for the historical film Camila, an 1840s story of forbidden love that got a 1984 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.
San Antonio de Areco is beautiful, romantic and nostalgic. And who knows how the local gauchos might surprise you.