LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 42
Page. 52 - 61
By: Soledad Gil
The thistles with their intense lilac flower stand out in the golden dominion of the sunflowers, wheat and dry grass. They prick the cold wind intimidating the rolling countryside of Tandil and La Ventana, the hilliest area of the province of Buenos Aires. The two regions meet in Azul close to the crossroads of national routes 3 and 51. To reach La Ventana, our destination on the trip, one must take route 76, on and on and on.
The sudden interruption of the horizon caused by these dark hills is a relief. Over hill and dale Julie and I forged a path successfully to La Sorpresa, owned by Ana Olson. Her great-grandfather, Diego Meyer, arrived in Bahía Blanca from Bremen and her grandfather was the creator of the first nine hole golf course in the Sierra, a naturally rolling course, which both professionals and amateurs find challenging. For a golf course with so few people, it is maintained in excellent condition.
For the last three years Ana has been developing agricultural tourism and cattle rearing on her 500 hectares. She refurbished four rooms in the house of her mother in law, a Swede who excels at painting on wood, and who arrived from her homeland at the same time as her fellow countryman Tornqttist, the founder of the neighbouring village.
The large windows of La Sorpresa are strategically placed, overlooking the most beautiful landscape in the region: sown with greens, ochres, golds and dark patches of patiently ploughed land stretching to the distant foothills.
To see this view from above was such an irresistible temptation, that the following day we passed through the ever-open wrought iron gates of the Ernesto Tomquist Provincial Park and climbed the celebrated Hueco Mountain. In contrast to La Movediza boulder in the hills of Tandil (which one day tumbled downhill) La Ventanita (little window) - better known as El Hueco - is still in fine form. From the summit of the 1134m mountain, the aperture has other dimensions. In effect, it is a cave with a collapsed back wall, thus leaving a "picture frame" 8 metres high, 4 metres wide and 12 metres deep. Although we must admit to having seen it only in photographs as we arrived late and access is only permitted until noon. We all agreed, nonetheless, that the view from the top is worth all the effort of the five-hour climb to the top. The path is well marked and the park, which boasts many species of birds, including eagles (aguila mora), is visited by some 50,000 people a year. Fabricio, the park warden, explained that there were several endangered species of both plants and animals, which are found only in the park - if they disappear from here, they will become extinct. He said that the pampa grass of the region is unique and that amongst the animal species in danger are the copper iguana and the bill frog. They are also working on plans to control the spread of species introduced in the past, such as deer and the European hare.
Wild horses and the pine trees are another concern, but clearly they are also part of the local ecosystem and the solution is not straightforward. There were six horses introduced in the 19.70's, today there are more than six hundred. The sight of stampedes, the new-born fouls and colts, all with their manes and tails flying in the wind is spectacular. But it is plain to see that no one cuts the grass here but the herds of horses grazing freely alongside the armadillos, alligators and guanacos. We spoke of all this whilst Fabricio took us into the "Reserva Intergral". This area is only accessible in the company of a park warden. The circuit within the reserve is 8 km long. One travels in a vehicle and the sights include "La Cueva del Toro" (Bull's Cave), the source of the Sauce Grande River, the Rupestrian paintings of the "Corpus Christi" wing, dozens of birds and, of course, the destructive, but nonetheless statuesque, horses. Another option, which also requires a guide, is "La Garganta del Diablo" (the devil's throat), an interesting canyon for amateurs of mountainous country. Besides climbing the mountain one can also follow paths to the "Piletones" (access allowed until 3pm), and to the "Garganta Olvidada" (accessible until 5pm).
An alternative and highly recommended climb, outside the park limits, is the one to Cerro Tres Picos (the highest peak in the region) at 1234 metres- There are minor lakes at the summit and two visitors' books to be signed by those who tnanage to reach the top. The first of these is quite worn and yellow but both are valuable and entertaining documents. That may be so, but do not look for our signatures. No excuse, we were just too lazy to go.
The following day we decided that we deserved a rest. The failed attempt to climb to La Ventana had sapped our strength. Thus we found ourselves in the hands of Marcela and Cecilia of the Mahuida-Co estancia- Neither of our tourist guides were from the region although they are happily settled in this pleasant village known as "Sierra"- effectively the capital of the region. In Mahuida-Co, there is plenty to do. Gerardo Wendorff, a pilot and adventurer by nature, opened the doors to the public of his llama and tiandu farm where his father had planted great forests of oak, walnut and apricot trees, which give glorious shade and the sweetest fruit. Together with the Wendorff family we enjoyed a deluxe picnic in the hills. We arrived like royalty, carrying no luggage and with a llama with American saddlebags to carry, all the provisions to the top. We settled there and contemplated the view from this delightful spot. We then inspected the fields where the ñandus co-exist peacefully with Cameroonian black g oats, leaping antelopes, small deer and a few guanacos.
The following day our bodies clamoured for a little action. We signed up for one of Horacio Delgado's pony treks. The Delgado family came with us "en masse". We were a large group, but nobody uttered a word whilst we crossed the wheat fields. We travelled in line to the sound of the horses' hooves crunching through the dry wheat. We crossed fields full of cows and arrived at the slope that led to within a few metres of our goal. We travelled the rest of the way on foot until we arrived at the cave whose walls show some Rupestrian paintings. Thankfully there were some large stones perfect for us to sit on to recover our strength. After a few matés and sotne sweet biscuits we started back while the final rays of the sun embraced the hills.
That night we arrived at Cerro de la Cruz, the estancia bought in 1935 by Eduardo Ayerza when he fell in love with the place. There he started the. first cattle -breeding ranch specialising in Polled Hereford cattle in Argentina. Angélica, who runs the English style house designed by Alejandro Bustillo in stone and wood, greeted us. The moment we entered the front door, trimmed with jasmine, we knew we would enjoy our stay. There are five comfortable rooms with private baths, the table is laden with the tastiest home made food and there is a private river cascading through the gardens. Apart from pony trekking on the estancia, wandering along the rocky banks of a dreamlike creek and climbing the Cerro de la Cruz, the estancia also offers a swimming pool and a tennis court for its guests, from Cerro de la Cruz we completed our tour. Our last stop was the Club Hotel Sierra La Ventana, opened in 1911 on a magnificent spot which today is 1500 metres from the Villa Ventana campsite. What remains of the hotel is merely of historic interest as it is now little more than a ruin. However, looking at photographs, it is easy to imagine what an impressive structure this hotel must have been with its 173 rooms, marbled reception rooms and chandeliers. The construction began in 1903, together with the railway that arrived from Sauce Grande carrying visitors seeking fresh air. In 1914 in an extravagant gesture a railway connection was built between the hotel and the main line station 12-km away.
The hotel operated for only three years after that, until 1917, when President Yrigoyen banned casinos throughout the country. The hotel struggled on for three more seasons but finally had to close down. It reopened during the 2nd World War when 330 crewmembers from the German battleship Graf Spec were billeted there. They stayed for more than two years and during that time restored much of the building. The owner, Sara Sangford, had already sold the hotel to the government, and so began the hotel's sad decline. It deteriorated to the point where demolition was considered many times. In 1980 it was acquired by the Guaraní refrigeration company, which began the much needed reconstruction work. But not for long. Mysteriously, on the night of 8 July 1983, the Club Hotel Sierra de la Ventana went up in flames. The fire that night also extinguished any future the hotel might have had.
Sierra Chica, the castle built by the Tornyuists in 1905 and Floro Lavalle's El Retiro, one of the original estancias in the region, are living proof that the fabled splendour of the hotel was no illusion. More than the marble, it is the height, the green, the thistles in bloom. Anyone who may still doubt this has a little window way above to see the charm of the hills for themselves.