As surprising as it may sound, a country with a great polo tradition (yes, the sport is big here) also has a tradition for great polo holidays, too.
In Argentina, gauchos drinking mate and devouring endless full-fat asados enrich an already picturesque tradition involving country clothing, magnificent horse breeds and unfolding grassy horizons.
You would think that knowing this world of wonders is so close to Buenos Aires would be enough to move mountains, not just tourists. But many of them are just too lazy to hop on a crowded, malfunctioning train and sweat out a one-hour journey through the countryside.
It was to make polo accessible to the odd tourist specimen, that the people at Puesto Viejo Estancia, a 250-acre ranch in Cañuelas, decided to start a philanthropic pick-up service from the city centre.
A short morning stroll to the obelisk, a chatty drive to the pampa and there you are sipping on a mate while touring the estancia’s stables, riding horses in the sunlight, enjoying a delicious BBQ under the tree shadow, getting suntanned by the infinity pool or napping in a hammock gently rocked by the breeze while eagerly waiting for the polo match you are going to play in the afternoon.
And this is essentially what a ‘Puesto Viejo Polo Day’ experience is all about.
Madeleine Duxbury, marketing manager at the estancia, explains how the idea came about: “One day we were sitting on the grass watching a polo match and we thought how amazing it would have been to introduce people to this sport through…polo picnics!
“We knew that once you get started with polo, you just can’t stop”, she says. “The challenge was to convince people to come all the way up here from the city.”
A large number of estancias were already offering polo packages to enthusiasts coming to Argentina to improve their skills or simply to chill while icy winds lash the grassy European fields. Yet, very few of them dared open their doors to clumsy riders, polo neophytes or simply curious tourists.
Gaston Carrozzo, a 28 year old who has spent his life both teaching and playing the polo in Argentina, the UK and Spain, shares the ethos of the estancia: “We are just at the beginning. There are still a lot of things to improve but, in the end, it’s all about the same old magic formula: relaxing, eating and having fun.”
Gaston shows surprise however, when on our way to the polo field, I tell him that not everyone knows how big polo is in Argentina.“Almost all of the world’s ten-goal players come from here” he proudly points out. The problem is that, just like many other people, I have no idea of what a ten-goal player is.
“It’s basically like golf,” Gaston explains. “Players receive a handicap and they are rated on a scale from minus 2 to 10. A minus 2 player is basically a beginner, while a ten-goal player has the highest handicap possible. But it’s almost impossible to get to that level.”
I only come to fully understand his words when, struggling to make my horse move at all, I watch Gaston (a two-goal player) galloping at full speed whilst bouncing the polo ball on his stick, with all the naturalness of a child playing football at the school gate.
By the end of the afternoon, in which participants get to play against one another in a real match, I am in complete control of my horse but hopelessly overexcited and keep kicking his sides with my unprofessional running shoes to make him run faster.
A fully affiliated member of the Argentine Association of Polo (AAP), Puesto Viejo is home to three polo pitches where an active network of 2-6 goal professional players practice on a daily basis, or in the 12 free admission tournaments that are held throughout the year.
During the final practice of the day (played seriously by professionals), tourists looking for some predictable Facebook pictures get the chance to throw in the first ball of each chukker (the periods which break up the match in polo) and ring the bell. The game is so intense that each polo player has to change horse at every chukker: meaning that some 16 horses are required to carry out a proper match.
At the end of the day, some disappointment is inevitable however, since the polo package doesn’t include an overnight stay at the idyllic countryside resort. The idea of another asado, washed down with red wine and this time without having to ride a horse afterwards, makes the idea of travelling back to the city seem an unnecessary distress.
“We are studying a solution to this problem,” says Madeleine, adding that polo is an elegant sport, and the estancia is keen to preserve its standards by not allowing backpackers.
The estancia already offers full polo weeks for expert players or weekend runaway options for couples is also considering offering group discounts or special deals for people who want to stay a bit longer and save a bit of money by heading back to the city with public transport.
The overwhelming sensation I’m left with however, is that even if Gaston dumped you in the middle of nowhere on the way back – with aching muscles you’d never suspected existed before that day – it wouldn’t actually make much difference.
You couldn’t help but feel at peace with the world.