If you’re a curious traveler with time on your hands in Buenos Aires you won’t want to miss out on a visit to one of the traditional pulpería taverns just 60 miles from the center. Along the way you can learn about the history and towns of the Argentine countryside, making for a perfect weekend getaways.
Pulperías were establishments traditionally frequented by gauchos long before the state of Argentina even existed and over time they have become unique institutions that stand out in the vast plains of the pampas.
The first recorded pulpería dates back to 1600 and by the early 19th century there were around a thousand across the Province of Buenos Aires. They were the favorite gathering places of gauchos, rural workers, and indigenous people looking to trade goods and soon became popular with European immigrants as they forged new lives for themselves across the ocean.
Weekend getaways, an immersion in the traditions of the countryside
Pulperías would dispense drinks such as gin, cane liquor and, closer to the 20th century, what was known as “Carlón wine”, a thick wine that had to be watered down. They also sold yerba tea, sugar, coffee, rice, weapons, ammunition and clothing for rural workers.
Many distributed fuel and acted as post offices where one could send and receive their correspondence while some were also way stations where one could get new horses for the journey. Towns soon started to form around them across the province.
On his journey around the world on H.M.S Beagle, captained by Robert Fitz Roy, Charles Darwin visited Buenos Aires in 1833 and spent a night in a pulpería. He was surprised by what he found there, particularly struck by how long gauchos could spend drinking and singing. He also described duels in which gauchos faced off to the death with their long facón knives.
The pulpero, or tavern keeper, took refuge behind steel bars that protected the counter from the salon. There was also generally a guitar and a payador troubadour who would improvise verses to entertain the clientele. In this flat landscape, the pulperías were often the only buildings to be seen on the horizon.
Games were also organized such as la sortija, a horse race in which riders had to grab small iron rings from the saddle at a fast trot. Gaucho skills were much prized and spoke to the talents of both rider and horse, their inseparable companion.
But everything began and ended in the pulpería, with the day often finished off by card games such as truco and mus. This was where the Argentine identity was forged. Time has passed but several dozen pulperías are still standing and have become iconic local landmarks. Some are well within striking distance of Buenos Aires, making for an easy weekend getaways.
Pulpería de Cacho
One of the most traditional pulperías still running, Pulpería de Cacho is 60 miles from the center of Buenos Aires and has been open since 1830 in the town of Mercedes on the shores of the River Luján. The Di Catarina family have owned it since 1910 and “Cacho” Di Caterina, who passed away in 2009, is considered the last of the pulperos.
However, his nieces are keeping the family tradition going. The interior has been so well preserved with old bottles and rural decor and implements that it feels as though one has gone back in time. The pulpería is famous for their platters of cheese and charcuterie as well as their fried empanadas, a family recipe that hasn’t changed for decades. They also hold barbecues and on weekends guitar players gather to serenade diners with surera melodies, the rich sound of rural Buenos Aires.
Another notable fact: Pulpería de Cacho was also the venue for some of the first women’s football championships.
GPS: La Pulpería de Cacho di Catarina Calle 29 y Rio, Mercedes, Provincia de Buenos Aires.
Pulpería Los Ombúes
The oldest pulpería in the province, records show that Los Ombúes was open back in 1780. It has never closed since and not much has changed. Located in the Exaltación de la Cruz district, in a town known as Cheanut, 63 miles from the city, it’s a lovely place for a weekend visit.
It’s run by the only pulpera in Buenos Aires, Doña Elsa Inzaugarat, whose family have been there for over a century. The local gauchos come by to stock up on provisions and have a drink, generally at midday and dusk.
But the establishment’s biggest attraction are Elsa’s stories about dances and guitar concerts back before the telephone and electricity lines arrived. Her shelves offer all manner of wares: vegetables, meat, bread and classical drinks such as table wine, as well as a few relics. They sell knives and their star dish is a sandwich of cured ham and cheese. A pair of ombú trees guard the entrance and provide shade for this classical, distinguished institution.
GPS: Pulpería Los Ombúes, Camino Andonaegui, Chenaut, Exaltación de la Cruz.
Boliche de Bessonart
An extremely traditional establishment where local heritage is prized above all, this tavern is located in San Antonio de Areco, a gaucho town where countryside traditions are maintained and honored. 68 miles from the City of Buenos Aires, it sums up all that is good and great about the local landscape.
Gauchos gather at the bar, accompanied by local ranchers, tourists and townsfolk while the architecture is wonderfully colonial and the menu is based around the local terroir offering cheeses, charcuterie and more.
“This place is my entire life,” says Augusto Bessonart, the third generation of his family to be in charge. The establishment has hosted notable figures such as the writer Ricardo Güiraldes who was a regular customer, and was where he met the gaucho Don Segundo Ramírez whom he immortalized in his novel Don Segunda Sombra. Another illustrious visitor was Carlos Gardel, who sang tangos between its tables.
GPS: Boliche de Bessonart Zapiola 151, San Antonio de Areco, Provincia de Buenos Aires.