Buenos Aires is the most visited city in Latin America. It’s known as the ‘Paris of Latin America’ due to its nightlife, sophistication in the arts, and beautiful European architecture. The people of BA consider themselves Porteños, or ‘port people’ (a reference to the location of the city on the Salado River and Rio de la Plata Basin, and a nod to the European immigrants here, which make up 85% of the population). They have a very different accent from the rest of the country, and ultimately, stand apart.
Tango originated in the port neighborhood of La Boca as a multi-cultural mishmash of music and dance. It was a creative form of communication for the new comers of the city from Europe and Africa who all spoke different languages (in essence, created for men to get attention from the limited number of prostitutes available). Polo, though not started here, was taken to new levels once introduced to this country. The people of Argentina, and BA specifically, are known for their passion, and that comes out in both Tango and their intensity and superiority in the game of Polo.
There are things you can’t miss when you come to visit, like the Teatro Colón, which has the best acoustics of any opera house in the world. You’ve got to see the Obelisk on 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world. You have to see the birthplace of the city in Plaza Mayo and the impressive 260 ft bronze dome of the National Congress. For your soul, you have to see Tango performed at least once, whether on a stage downtown, or in the square of San Telmo on a Sunday afternoon. The list goes on and on because this compelling city has so much to offer.
All of this said, one of my favorite excursions while being here has been to experience Polo first-hand. I don’t mean sipping a glass of champagne in heels and a wide brimmed hat with my back turned to the field during a professional tournament. I mean playing the game and learning the rules from a champion Polo player.
A Polo Day
The game of Polo, which initially began in Persia in the 6th Century BC, sprang to new heights here in Argentina back in 1875, thanks to the introduction of the game by the British who themselves had picked up the game from India about 10 years earlier. It helped that Argentina was full of Gauchos, this country’s cowboys and expert horse handlers. The game was only natural for them from the beginning.
Argentina has the largest number of perfect rated players (+10 handicap) than any other country in the world, in addition to having won multiple gold medals when it was still an Olympic sport. The most important Polo championship in the world, the Palermo Open, is held here in my neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and has been since 1893.
A great excursion to do while visiting BA is to learn how to play Polo in a single memorable day. With places like Puesto Viejo offering a Polo Day, you can get picked up right at your hotel or air bnb at 9am. You’ll make it out to the polo grounds in Cañuelas Town by 10am, then have coffee or maté and pastries over a discussion about Polo in the ranch house, before saddling up the ponies. Your instructor (ours was named Julio, a former champion Polo player, international coach, and currently a coach for individual Polo players here in Buenos Aires) will teach you how to ride while taking swings at a ball with a type of croquet stick, the mallet.
I learned that Polo is (one of, if not) the most expensive sport in the world. With expert Polo players paying between $300k-$1M per horse, $10k to fly a horse to a match, 8 horses per player, and 4 players per team… you’re looking at up to $35M (for the horses alone) to simply play a game.
The handicap (determined in part by a player’s horses, skills, knowledge of the game and -my favorite- sportsmanship) plays a large part in how the game is scored and coordinated. 0 to +10 is the typical handicap for an Argentinian, but if you’re from outside of Argentina, the handicap range is from -3 to +10. You’re automatically considered at a disadvantage if you weren’t born here.
Leaning wide off the horse, left foot back like a Tango dancer, right foot sticking straight out in front, body out of the saddle with shoulders parallel to the horse, you’ll reach down with the mallet and swing with a complete follow through, like a golf swing. The key is not to hit your horse in the face on the follow-through.
You’ll be treated to an asado (Argentinian BBQ) for lunch before playing a game of Polo in the afternoon and potentially watching a real match played with your instructor and a club team. Afternoon tea and pastries (merienda) are served before you are taken back to the city.
My horse, who was great in the morning, lost steam for the game. Alternatively, our friend Jeff who couldn’t seem to get his horse to move in the morning changed course when competition was in the air and scored 7 goals in the afternoon. I, unfortunately, was on the opposing team.
Despite the loss and potential injuries that we all escaped (there were a couple tumbles), it was a blast. The heard of dogs that followed us around the property, the beautiful horses that dutifully put up with getting hit by mallets, and the beautiful countryside made it a very different day in BA.
This excursion has been one of my highlights living in Argentina, despite playing in the off-season of winter. Alas, a Polo Day is affordable, but taking it up as a new hobby may not be. Have a first-hand crack at the sport when you visit and see the beauty of the country just outside of Buenos Aires.
*photo credit: Jeff Hansen, Bharathi Balasubramanvam, Gina Krupsha, Brian McCarthy, Jen Roth