A Gaucho’s Refuge: The Argentinian Pulpería
To understand the historic significance of the Argentinian pulpería – a combination of tavern, general store, and guesthouse that served as a gaucho institution from the early 20th century onward – you have to consider the vast size of Argentina itself, the eighth largest country on the planet.
A cowboy’s refuge
Argentina is huge, encompassing more than 1 million square miles. And before the days of connecting flights and paved highways, travelers – in this case, mostly gauchos on horseback moving across the sprawling pampas – needed a place to eat, sleep, socialize and stock up on supplies from silver boot spurs to caña and aguardiente (high-proof liquors, the latter also known as ‘fire water.’)
Pulperías, strategically positioned along some of the country’s most well-traveled thoroughfares, served these needs, and then some. Hosting lively congregations of lonely traveling cowboys, these meeting spots were cultural hubs of turn-of-the-century rural Argentina, hosting nightly agendas of folkloric music and dancing, gambling with traditional criollo games, and, of course, plenty of drinking of both yerba mate and ginebra (also known as gin holandés or Dutch gin.)
Preserving the pulpería
While most pulperías closed their doors years ago, a handful of locations remain open for business. Others are under new ownership, the cobwebs cleared away; still others are protected by organizations like Proyecto Pulpería, dedicated to saving and restoring classic pulperías – to keeping the gaucho spirit alive, so to speak – in the province of Buenos Aires. To get an idea of what they’re trying to save, take a drive two hours outside the city to the outskirts of the small town of Mercedes.
A pulpería straight out of the past
Constructed on the banks of the Luján river in the year 1830, La Pulpería de Cacho is the proud centerpiece of El Camino de las Pulperías, a small but charming circuit of old-fashioned watering holes in the area.
But unlike some of the town’s pulperías, which have been refurbished to attract a contemporary clientele, the rustic, family-run La Pulpería de Cacho has never been restored. Come on a weekend afternoon for a down-to-earth lunch of steak and potatoes – when you see the smoke wafting up from the outdoor parrilla (grill), you’ll know you’re in the right place. If you’re lucky, you might catch one of the old cowboys strumming a folkloric tune in the back corner.