The best night’s sleep I ever had was at La Bamba de Areco, a country estate northwest of Buenos Aires, which sits at the end of a long dirt road. An Argentine cowboy on horseback greeted us upon arrival, announcing our presence into his Walkie-Talkie and beckoning us to follow behind him.
La Bamba de Areco is housed on a 19th-century colonial estate which had been a resting spot for travelers heading from Peru to Buenos Aires along El Camino Real. In the stables, ladies once napped by the fire while the gauchos stood guard; this same building, La Pulperia, has since been reimagined as the perfect lunch retreat. Picture deep, plush leather couches and a farm table where chef Federico Compte daily serves a traditional Argentine asado—a parade of grilled vegetables, housemade sausages, and spatchcock grilled chicken with Chimichurri sauce followed by a dulce de leche pancake caramelized with a hot branding iron.
The property’s owner is a French businessman, Jean-Francois Decaux, who visited about a decade ago, and found a roughshod hotel. (When Argentina’s economy crashed, some once-wealthy families were forced to open their estancias to guests.) “He was looking for a place to start his polo [team],” the manager, Maria Felices, tells me. “He saw the sunset and said, ‘This is the place.’ He wasn’t looking for a hotel. But he found this and he said, 'Why not?'”
A two-year renovation followed, with help from Decaux’s wife, Pascale, an interior designer who helped restored the property to its former glory. The aesthetic is like a Ralph Lauren fever dream. The silverware is locally crafted by artisans in San Antonio de Areco. The swimming pool is like a mirage. Taschen art books line the bookshelves in the main house library. The rooms, meanwhile, are perfectly appointed: four-poster beds, cloud-like linens, and bathrooms with porcelain sinks all look out on manicured lawns.
Before you go to bed at night, Maria tells me, make sure to move the doormat away from the door. The hotel’s dogs—Gaucho, Bruno, and Lassie—like to sleep outside at night, curling up on the guestroom mats. When they wag their tails, it sounds like someone’s knocking on the door.
Exhausted from a week of South American travels, the folks at Black Tomato (the chic, U.K.-based custom travel firm) had suggested I visit La Bamba to decompress, with good reason: the property is 370 acres of parks and farmland and the daily pace is—como se dice?—leisurely. After breakfast in the pulperia (including sweet croissants known locally as medialunas, or half-moons), we walk over to the barn where one of La Bamba’s gauchos awaits to lead us on a morning horseback ride. After an hour-long tour of the property, it’s time for a mid-morning tea before—poof—lunch again, followed by an afternoon ride.
The meals are taken communally, which fits the vibe; staying at La Bamba de Areco is like staying at your wealthy Argentine cousin’s house. If you’re lucky, you might even see the owner’s polo team, also called La Bamda de Areco, practicing on the property. (They won the most prestigious trophy in polo, Britain’s Veuve Cliquot Gold Cup, in 2009.)
While the chef worked the grill one afternoon, I grilled him on his culinary bona fides. “My grandmother had a bakery in town,” chef Federico told me, “with a big, wood-fired oven.” He later enrolled at the IAG, the Argentina Institute of Gastronomy, and his approach is a mix of refined technique and family tradition.
“The estancia is a very luxurious place,” he said. “But I’m trying to make the kitchen feel like you’re in your mother’s house. We don’t have molecular gastronomy. I prefer flavor to what the food looks like.”
He serves me a piping-hot empanada and I see what he means. “The secret of my empanada…it feels like an empanada from another era. It’s ground beef, onion, a little bit of paprika.” In other words, simple. What separates this from an empanada, say, from the north? He sniffs: “In the north, they add olives and dried grapes…”
Federico then told me something about how he makes the meat filling a day in advance, for juicier flavor. “The liquid fat gets solid and you have all the flavors,” he said. At least I think that’s what he said. My hands were dripping with juices and I smudged my pad.
I haven’t slept as well before—or since—that night at La Bamba de Areco. And I’m still thinking about a century-old blanket I should have bought from an artisan in town. But I did take something better home with me: the chef’s recipe for empanadas, which he’s agreed to let me share here. Buen provecho.
From $590 a night in low season (May-August) and $890 in high season (September-April); labambadeareco.com.
La Bamba De Areco’s Empanadas
Recipe adapted from chef Federico Compte. Yield: 40 empanadas.
2 pounds ground beef
2 cups chopped onion
Salt, pepper, curry powder, cumin to taste
How to make it
Sauté the onion and leak in oil (on medium) for about three minutes until tender. Add the chopped meat and mix until it whitens. Add salt, pepper, and cumin and cook for another three minutes. Add hardboiled eggs, olives, and peppers (already chopped). Stir well and remove until it cools. The chef recommends making the filling a day in advance, but it can be made the same day—as long as it’s chilled.
8 cups of flour
1 cup of oil
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons of sugar
How to make it
Knead the ingredients and put in the fridge for one hour. Stretch it with a rolling pin so that it’s very thin. Then cut out circles that are 12 cm in diameter. Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the filling is cool, put one spoon of the mix inside the dough. Moisten the edges with water. Fold the dough to bind them. To seal them, use a fork so the filling remains inside. (I’m not ashamed to admit I watched several YouTube videos for help here.) Cook in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown.