Rolling hills, galloping gauchos, bellowing cows, wild horses running amok around this magnificent part of Argentina. These are just a few of the images that are evoked in the imagination of travellers when they think about the wondrous things that they will experience at the authentic estancia, Los Potreros. A brief look at their wonderful website will certainly concrete this ideal holiday experience in your mind.
Visitors come here to briefly indulge gaucho fantasies in the home of the Argentinean horseman. The setting is certainly right. Nestled in the Sierras Chicas hills a few hours from Cordoba, Los Potreros is true gaucho country, a place of rocky outcrops piercing the golden, grass-covered hills. It’s truly an adventure getting to the property. The lengthy driveway, with multiple gates requiring opening and closing and the bumpy road in declare loud and clear that you are off the gringo trail and into the true Argentina.
Sadly this was not my experience. This isn’t a happy, horse riding haven tale that you are about to read. In fact, this is a harsh lesson in the reality of the traveller. A combination of miscommunication, disappointment and mismanaged expectations. As my regular readers will know I’m a bit of a horse lady. With over 25 years of riding experience, across several countries. Perhaps my previous experience, as well as high expectations, have led me to this really shit experience that I had at Los Potreros. Perhaps I should have had more common sense and significantly lower expectations of what would be on offer for our three-day estancia stay. Not holding the team up to the high quality of customer service and experience that they portray across their social media accounts and website.
But before I dive into my deep disappointment let me weave you a simple tale of how things can go so wrong when a company is dealing with a tour group. A few things to note – this part of our trip was organised by Dragoman. An experience which we have paid dearly for. A full review of our Dragoman experience is coming along shortly. There was no way, and I certainly did ask, for me to upgrade to a more relatable experience. Which leads to the next level of disappointment when a quick google search shows how often to the team at the estancia host international media. The experience that we had, in my opinion, was directly related to the lack of funds paid by Dragoman to Los Potreros. The services provided were below the bare minimum. As we were constantly reminded we were guests of the owner and as such were treated more like naughty on our way to prison city children sent to the country for a tough life experience to help us reevaluate what we are doing with our lives. Children who could not at any point be trusted. At no point during our stay here did I feel like a 30+ year old professional woman who had paid for a service. Now you might be thinking that my western way of thinking on these issues has clashed with an Argentinian style of customer service. Ah nope. The ranch is owned by a couple who have spent many years living and working in Europe. On top of that the ranch manager, aka the prison warden, is from the UK and well aware of western expectations.
So exactly what went wrong?
It would be immature of me to say everything, with a huff and roll of my eyes. Our arrival day didn’t start off too well with an unexpected police situation when we were about 20mins away from the estancia. There’s nothing quite like a 6-7 hour drive topped off with a money hungry police officer trying to find something to fine you for.
Our arrival at the estancia was meet with lemonade and a truckload of overly tired travellers. As we walked off the long, painful drive, we were escorted to an asado area for a cup of tea and the first of many lectures. It was at this time that the warning bells started to tinkle in the back of my mind. There was no doubt at this point in the adventure that we were to be treated as second class guests. It was here that I got the first inkling that this would be more like a primary school camp than a group of adults. The rules were generally reasonable and nothing unexpected. Though it was a little odd to be told that during our time at the estancia we were to leave our Dragoman guides alone and allow them time to relax and enjoy a few well deserved days off. That should we need anything then to grab the attention of a estancia worker and ask for assistance. Yet when we were in the campgrounds we rarely, if ever, saw a staff member outside of the dedicated Dragoman Children Minding Duties time. After the loose lecture we were advised that the next day those who wanted to ride horses would be split into two groups, based on experience, and the evening we would be treated to a wine tasting with Kevin the estancia owner.
Wine Tasting Fiasco
As a gift to the Dragoman Children (ie adults who have paid for this experience), we were treated to an exclusive evening of wine, laughter and frivolity with Kevin the illustrious and mildly eccentric owner of Los Potreros. This was actually a highlight of the estancia experience. Kevin is a well-versed host, with a fairly well-worn script about his family, the ranch, wines produced and life in general.
The wine is free-flowing and during our set time with Kevin, we are allowed to ask just about any question and he happily answers. There are three candles on the table which at intervals are blown out, a throwback to ye olde ways of telling when your time with the lord is up. Sure enough, as the third candle is blown out all the Dragoman Children who attended the wine tasting are herded out and sent away. But not without a small bomb dropped. As we prepare to leave the manager declares that all riders will be combined into one large group and leaving at 10.30am the next morning. Oh and there is a weather warning so be prepared to get wet.
As the most experienced rider amongst the Dragoman Children, I approached the manager to ask what possibility there is of me being able to pay to do an additional more advanced ride. I’m sure that my face showed my true feelings of disappointment at having been promised a ride with like-minded and able people to being thrown into the led ponies group. No. Due to a lack of staff, it was impossible for me to do any more of an advanced ride whatsoever. However, it could be arranged if I was willing to pay $450 (Pesos or USD I’m not sure, however, I’m inclined to think it was USD) per night for a minimum of three nights. Then, in that case, it could possibly be arranged for me to have a more advanced ride. Though in reality there was not a hope in hell that this would happen. Even if I had coughed up the extra cash it was made rather clear to me that the discussion was over and that I would have to learn to live with the decision that was made for me. It was as if someone had offered me a bar of chocolate and then rubbed my face in a bucket of carob, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m sure that you can imagine how much I felt like a valuable customer and guest of the estancia at this point.
We stumbled off to our tent in the hope that the next day would bring a new, bright and shiny day. How wrong we were.
The first failure of a ride.
Our first ride was, to put it politely, boring and uninspirational. After being collected from our campgrounds we were escorted to the stables and the main house. Where we were shown the wonderful experiences of what money can buy you as a guest of the estancia. Lush green grass, the ideal Argentinian estancia house and generally what looked to be a lot of fun. Our morning’s ride started ever so well when the manager proceeded to lecture me directly in front of the rest of the Dragoman Children. Without a doubt, the entire lecture on how to ride a gaucho’s horse was to discredit the last 25 years of riding I’ve done and punish me for even daring to ask for a more advanced ride. Which really was an absolute waste as I’ve ridden more styles than I’d care to admit and generally these days prefer a relaxed ride with friends rather than my classical dressage ways! The rest of the lecture was a very loose and brief how to go – how to stop lesson for the beginners. With a wisp of mention that the guides would help and train the riders more so as we went along.
What proceeded after the glorious lecture was perhaps the most boring ride I have ever had in my life. Which is saying something as I, myself, was at one point a trail ride guide. Our group was large with 13 guests and four guides. With many gates requiring opening and closing. The even more painful part was that the group, under no circumstances was to be divided nor go past a brisk walk. Another grand lecture was given to me whilst on the ride and I was asked to remove myself from the more advanced riders, who shock horror had TROTTED to keep up with the guide and provide assistance to the beginners on the group.
As if these things weren’t enough to irritate me, along with the boredom of plodding along as if we were at a school fair on ponies, one of the young guides and I were chatting and it was let known that a group this large was very unusual and that they do normally keep a much faster pace. As well as allowing advanced riders like myself to use their skills rather than plod along.
After handing back our horses at the main house, we wandered back to our campsite to report back our most wonderfully dull experience to our non-riding companions. As the group had gone out as one large riding group it left us with an entire afternoon to be bored out of minds and question our life choices before being herded into the games room to be bullied and harassed whilst some local musicians played.
Sweet musings and music.
As I’m sure you can tell by this stage on our first day as a group we were pretty darn miserable. The non-riders had spent the day going on short walks and pondering life. The riding group were left unsatisfied and wondering why exactly we had all be thrown together like a bag of mixed nuts. It certainly didn’t leave us in a jovial mood to enjoy the wonderful music that was coming our way.
Now, had we been left alone, to dance the night away and enjoy the local musician’s talents and the bottles of wine, I’m sure that we would have had a grand evening. As the two gentlemen were greatly talented and were an absolute pleasure to listen to. So what happened? Well, the manager happened. Again. Treating us like children getting a special treat. Trying to force us to dance, sing and clap along. Really it isn’t play school and the previous behaviour had left the majority of the group feeling dirty and unwanted.
Then surprisingly we were informed by the manager that due to weather conditions today they had been forced to combine our group into one riding group and that the next day we would be split into two groups. Now some people may have sat there, nodded and accepted that this was a perfectly good reason for smushing us all together. However, we’re not the typical tour group and are rather cynical. If this was the true reason why only tell us nearly 10 hours after the disastrously boring ride? By this point, any level of trust between the staff and guests was well and truly broken.
Day two of riding and a failed asado.
As the sun rose over the hills I sat with the chickens, eating bread, drinking coffee and pondering what the day would bring. The chickens and I discussed a myriad of things and by the time the rest of the children arose and found a kettle of hot water awaiting them my mood was certainly more optimistic! Surely a new day meant new beginnings. I’m happy to say that the next, smaller group ride, was far more enjoyable the day before. However, it was still aimed at total beginners.
I did get the chance to talk more to the manager and guide and learn all about the wonderful offerings that aren’t on offer to Dragoman guests. It did make me feel that if you were a guest of the house and not a Dragoman guest, then we would have had totally and completely different and much more positive an experience. Lunchtime cooking lessons. Polo lessons. Multiple rides per day. Oh, so many options. You can view all the amazing options at the Los Potreros website.
The afternoon was spent attempting to bake scones and bread. Sadly due to the asado (Argentinian BBQ) preparations we were kicked out of the pizza oven and had to cook our bread on a fire. I’m pleased to say that the bread turned out wonderful but that’s a story for another day. For the past two days, we had been promised that they would feed us our weight in beef. Apologies to the vegetarian readers but I for one was excited. Really by this point, I should have learnt to severely lower my expectations. Unless I have suddenly lost over 55kgs I can assure you that the portions on offer were rather small and bland. We had spent the afternoon watching the preparation of the bbq area and the meat being cooked. What we didn’t expect was literally unflavoured, overcooked tiny pieces of beef to be plonked on our plate. The only saving grace being a very few small jar of sauce on the table. Perhaps the plan had been to get us drunk on the el cheapo wine that was being served in the hope that we would not notice the small meal sizes nor the usual ushering service. Just an FYI – if your wine comes in a four-litre bucket and costs less than $10 USD then it’s not going to serve you well.
This was our final experience of being naughty school kids. What was promised was a buffet but really was a tiny taste of food, before it was time up – off to the music room to leave his lordship alone. But not before the obligatory tip envelope was handed around. All of a sudden we are asked to tip the guides generously and donate to a local school that the estancia supports. A thing which we had until this point heard absolutely nothing about. Considering how clearly bored we had been for two days, and perhaps in the guides had been around they would have seen this, a trip to the school or even the story of the school wouldn’t have gone astray.
Did we experience estancia lifestyle?
An extract from the Los Portreros website;
As a working cattle estancia, there is often the chance for our guests to ride out alongside the gauchos and help them with their daily tasks. Bringing in the young horses to protect them from the elusive puma, rounding up stray cattle, moving the herd into the corrals for counting or vaccinating, or taking salt out to the herd are just some of the day-to-day estancia activities in which guests can be involved.
No, not at all. The area which we were confined to had a few working dogs, the owners house, a house with dorm rooms and bathrooms and a few horses resting. Oh and very polite chickens. The only time we actually saw working gauchos was around 7am in the morning when a solo rider came into our area to feed the half a dozen horses. There was no opportunity to see other areas of the estancia, despite being told about breeding stallions, a polo field and other wonderful activities. Again those are only available to the rich guests. It was as if we were at a farm experience without any of the farm activities.
What activities are there on offer if you don’t ride?
Nothing. Literally, there are no other activities on offer for those who can’t ride or don’t want to ride. Our crew had 5 members who due to health reasons couldn’t ride. You are expected to entertain yourself with a book or if you can rope someone into it there is a games room. In which we found a 1983 Trivial Pursuit- Genius edition (and yes we did play it). As we were camping at the cheap end of the estancia there are no staff around during the day to assist you. The only time that we saw the staff was during horse riding drop off and pick up times. And the other aforementioned obligatory child minding times. If you are lucky you can have a friendly staff member draw you a map of a hiking area.
Also don’t be deterred Argentina has a lot of amazing things to do.
Is Los Potreros really that awful?
This is an overview of our personal experience. There are several incidents that I’ve omitted, as this article is already rather long-winded enough and the end result is just a double of how we were treated. At no point did we feel like we were paying guests. We were looked down upon for the majority of the time we stayed here. In the end, I felt as if I was one of the London children who had been sent to the countryside during the London Bombings and was unwanted. Sent away to get fresh air, be safe and be well behaved and not upset the lord. I really had wanted to write a much better tale for you. One that showed us having a wonderful time. Enjoying the very rare occasion that James and I ride together. But in all honesty, I couldn’t sit here and lie to you. This was a shitty, shitty experience.
The estancia has been running as a tourist destination for more than 15 years. They should know how to entertain and please guests. Guests with money. Guests who are willing and able to pay and play within their rules. I can’t honestly say that yes you should come here and experience the estancia how I did because it was severely lacking. If you have the funds, and one day I hope that I will, then do yourself a favour and stay at the estancia and not in cheapsville camping.
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