How to Do Estancias

The Argentine countryside is filled with century-old estancias, those emblematic ranches built by the 19th-century European immigrants who flocked to the pampas. Styled exuberantly as French châteaux, Tudor castles, or Italianate villas, many remain in the hands of their founding families, who have opened them up to paying guests. Getting out of the city, to be among rolling hills and horses and so much history, is an obvious draw for many travelers to Buenos Aires. And an entire industry has sprung up to bring day-trippers by the busload to nearby estates. So how do you do the countryside in style?

Choose the property carefully. Even the most exclusive ones can be marred by a dull landscape and mediocre food. And isolation can fast become a nightmare if you don't see eye to eye with the owners—you are, after all, sleeping in their home. One recent visitor, a savvy San Diego businessman, told us that his experience "made Kansas look sexy. The house was dark, dreary, and empty, the food ordinary, and there was no place to walk." A handful of estancias do get it right, though, blending the right amount of gaucho tradition with the modern comforts that Americans have come to expect. We found three, all within a few hours' drive of the city.

Estancia Dos Talas

Luis and Sara de Elizalde oversee the 3,700-acre farmland, forest, and Carlos Thays–designed park that surrounds this 1893 château. The main reason to come is for the threadbare yet utterly authentic aristocratic splendor.

Brass side lamps cast a subdued glow over gilt-framed maps and mirrors, faded family photographs, a grand 19th-century library, and curtains bought in Paris a century ago. You can stroll through the pear, apple, and cherry orchards and the woods of elm and poplar, where a slowly decaying 1914 chapel houses magnificent Byzantine art. Or you can ride horseback after the ñandú ostriches scurrying through the pampas beyond. $ $240 including all meals and activities; 54-2245/443-020;

Estancia El Rocio

Whistling herons flap lazily over this pastel-washed ranch, built by Frenchman Patrice Gravière to a level of luxury rarely found in a country home here. The four-bedroom house—shuttered in Provençal style and arrayed around a cactus-filled patio—is decorated by Gravière's wife, Macarena, with mementos from his travels. A hand-carved Portuguese armoire serves as a liquor cabinet, festive Mexican masks have become lampshades, and an 18th-century Jesuit mission door opens onto the dining room where chef Ramón Perdomo presents excellent French- influenced cuisine. Stables and two polo fields attract a horsey set, but there's a great pool and 400 acres of parkland for nonriders, too. $ From $280 to $400 including all meals; 54-2271/420- 488;

Hotelito Los Colores

Society girl and painter Alicia Goñi has decorated this century-old mansion in a fashionably bohemian style, with mismatched wool throws, cowhide rugs, and rough-hewn furniture. Washed in colors of mandarin, lime, and lemon—and covered with tumbling wisteria and wild jasmine—the house exudes Goñi's worldly élan. The bookcase, for example, displays titles on Krishnamurti, Che Guevara, and Frida Kahlo. Polo players can saddle up at the stables belonging to Goñi's ex-husband, Juan Martín Zavaleta. But most guests do little besides stroll the grounds, chat with the gardener, and try their hand in the cluttered artist's atelier. $ From $240 to $360; 54-911/5247-6308.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.