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Honeymoon ranch

A little fluffy article, but I thought it was cute!

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Honeymoon ranch — She had wanted Paris but settled for an estancia in Argentina. And loved it.

Web Posted: 01/15/2006 12:00 AM CST
Lesley Téllez
Special to the Express-News

DOS HERMANOS RANCH, Argentina — We are, at heart, city people. Riding horses in Argentina was not what I thought I'd be doing on my honeymoon. Months ago, when we were planning, we wanted Paris.
"Picnics on the Seine!" I told my then-fiancé excitedly. "Shopping on the Champs Elysées!"

After some scrutiny, we realized we would not have been able to afford much more than a hunk of bread and some cheese. So we picked the "Paris of South America," as Buenos Aires is often called, instead.

We soon became obsessed with Argentine barbecue, and theorized that a ranch, or estancia as it's known here, would be the best place to try it. We found Dos Hermanos through the Internet.

The Web site said it offered horseback riding, various outdoor sports and a barbecue lunch. It was also owned, the site quaintly said, by "Pancho y su mujer, Ana." We liked that. And we figured we could pass up the horseback riding for a nap if we wanted. We booked a one-night stay, sandwiched into our weeklong stay in Buenos Aires.

Since the ranch lacked access to a bus or train (it's about 11/2 hours outside the city), a driver was sent to pick us up from our Buenos Aires hotel.

A balding, English-accented man named Santiago arrived promptly at 9 a.m. He frowned at our large suitcases, but somehow squeezed them, two more guests and the cook into his small gray station wagon. (The cook sat in the back with the luggage.) Once safely on the highway, we bumped along hypnotically. I drifted off.

When I opened my eyes, we looked to be in a different part of the country. The sky was vast and clear and open, like a gigantic, overturned blue punch bowl. Blankets of tall grass sprouted everywhere. Up on the left, children played in a schoolyard; beyond that, a square adobe building either painted peach or baked that way by the sun looked as if it hadn't changed in a hundred years. A faded sign on one wall said "Panadería."

We made a left, and a few minutes later we saw two small signs attached to a wooden fence: "Los Hermanos. Entrada General." The station wagon rumbled up the dirt drive.

The ranch grounds were open and modest. A collection of small houses, which held the guest rooms, were scattered about, along with a stable, a tack room/bar (with a plastic table and chairs) and a pool.

Ana and Pancho Peña's house stood in the center, pink adobe trimmed in sage green. Both Ana and Pancho immediately came out to meet us.

Ana, a sprightly mother of five, weighed no more than 100 pounds. She wore a loose white shirt and baggy black horse-riding pants called bombachas. ("It's the same word as 'panties' in Spanish," she told us later.) Pancho was grizzled and handsome but of a more considerable girth. He wore similar pants.

Reigning over the horses was the ranch gaucho, Don Juan. He had a tanned face and jet-black hair, and gray, triangle-shaped sideburns stuck to his cheeks. He wore bombachas, too, and a straight-brim leather cowboy hat. Cinched across his hips was a wide leather faja, or gaucho belt. ("It's to keep the kidneys in when you're riding," Ana explained.)

Pancho led us to our guesthouse, gold adobe with a green metal door. Inside, a large, open bedroom lay under an exposed-beam ceiling. The floor was red ceramic tile. Little Argentine knickknacks, including a set of painted dolls, sat on various shelves. We marveled at its authenticity for a minute, then changed into more sensible shoes (Pancho and Ana's suggestion) and walked out to the tack room area to join the rest of the crowd.

On a plastic table near the tack room, someone had set out breakfast: baskets of pastries from the old bakery down the street, orange juice, a pitcher of coffee and hot water for tea. We chomped on some croissants and tortitas negras — sweet rolls covered in blackened sugar — and then Ana told us to tie on our leather chaps. Once we did, she led us out to the stables to meet our horses: Cautiva, mine, was caramel-colored; Comanche, for my husband, was white with black spots. We climbed unsteadily into the saddle and started our ride.

Over the next two hours, under Don Juan's stoic lead and Ana's comedic one, we galloped. We trotted. We met Tito, the ranch's bull, who stared at us blankly from the creek bank, apparently oblivious to the fact that he had a wishbone-shaped branch around his neck. "He jumped the fence," Ana explained. "But he is kind. He will lick your hand!"

We came back, our inner thighs as rubbery as old bicycle tubes, to a lunchtime spread that I thought would be the highlight of the day, filled with snacks of salami, cheese and homemade fried empanadas, and plate after plate of sizzling barbecue — plus a bread-pudding cake for dessert.

Then Ana said we were going for another ride.

Another one? I whined to myself. I need a nap! But I didn't say anything and climbed back into the saddle.

About an hour later, we turned into another pasture, and there, spread out over the grass, were about 20 ice-cream-colored horses, in shades of chocolate, caramel and vanilla. They roamed about and swished their tails. They munched on grass.

Don Juan suddenly whistled and began galloping along the rear of the pack, trying to get the horses to move in the direction of the ranch. He motioned for us to do the same on the other side.

I had seen "City Slickers," but there was no mention of this activity on the Web site. Were we really supposed to help herd these horses?

Unsure of our ability, my husband and our riding companions tried to maneuver into a long line opposite Don Juan, on the outskirts of the pack. We were so close to the horses, we could almost touch them. I had never been so close to so many before. Unencumbered, they looked even more majestic and gentle, whinnying and snorting, their coats shining under the sun. Their eyes were like teensy bits of black glass. I wondered what they were thinking.

Quickly, one of our French riding companions called out "Allez!" and we began galloping toward the ranch. The horses, amazingly, followed right alongside. We herded the pack all the way back to Dos Hermanos without incident.

Back at the ranch, I sat with Chispa, the ranch dog, scribbling in my notebook. My husband went outside with his camera to try to capture the last mottled streak of clouds we'd see in the Argentine countryside.

Since we were the only two guests staying over, we were treated to a candlelight dinner for two in our guesthouse. Petrona, the cook, had prepared homemade gnocchi and bits of steak.

We slept fitfully, until a rooster's cry woke us before dawn.

When we told Don Juan about it the next day, he made a slicing motion across his throat and smiled.

Lesley Téllez is a freelance writer based in Dallas.