After a night in Santa Rosa I'm on a bus again on my way to Victorica where Marga manages her family's pharmacy.
Victorica, founded in 1882 by the army after defeating the Ranquele Indians, is the oldest town of the Pampas.
Victorica is a well planned, well managed town of 5000 that serves the needs of the surrounding estancias (cattle ranches). Here is the church in front of the central plaza "Heroes de Cochico" commemorating the military conquest of this area.
Here is Marga at work. Small family businesses like hers all over the country were severely hurt by the 2001 devaluation of the peso.
The working middle class lost two thirds of its savings overnight by government decree. It is therefore justifiably bitter and distrustful of the politicians who survived and prospered through the debacle.
Most of the people that I met have had to pay the price of Menem's mismanagement of the economy and are pessimistic about the future of the country in the hands of a corrupt leadership subservient to a greedy oligarchy. President Kirchner is making political capital by telling the people that they won't have to reimburse the national debt but few really believe him. Morosity is crippling growth for no one is in a hurry to invest in the present climate of uncertainty (bank credit for small businesses is inexistent anyway).
This dire situation is heartbreaking to the outside observer for Argentina has everything it takes to be prosperous. It has a well educated human capital, abundant natural resources and an adequate collective infrastructure. Victorica is typical, with only 5000 inhabitants, it has a fine hospital, a decent public library, a kindergarten, a modern primary school, a secondary commercial school, a private college and an agricultural school specialised in cattle ranching. The well managed town even offers a pleasant recreational area, the Parque de los Pisaderos shown below (there is nothing more beautiful than water on the edge of the desert)..
Victorica even has a natural gas distribution system supplied by these trucks carrying cylinders filled with natural gas compressed at more than 200 atmospheres.
I was particularly interested in this installation because the company SOQUIP that I headed from 1970 to 1980 was the first to use this technology outside of Texas where it originated in the '70s.
Cattle ranching has been and still is the basis of Argentine economy so I just had to visit an estancia in the pampa. Fortunately, some of the smaller estancias have opened their doors to curious tourists like me.
Estancias are so large that they are measured in leguas instead of the sections (one square mile), square kilometres, hectares or acres that are used to measure farms in other parts of the world . One legua is 5 km by 5 km and contains 25 square km, 2 500 hectares or 6177 acres.
La Holanda is a small estancia established in 1933 by the Spanish painter Antonio Ortiz Echague (1883-1942). It is now managed by the artist's daughter Patricia and her husband Miguel.
Patricia and Miguel receive tourists in their comfortable hacienda and feed them vast quantities of delicious Argentine beef in this dining room.
The living room also has a fireplace that is used only in winter.
The once larger La Holanda now has only one legua but Patricia and Miguel manage it and another leased legua with only one hired hand. In addition, they host guests in their home and in this building erected especially to accommodate visitors in the hunting season.
Miguel drove me around to show me some of the cattle dispersed over the vast property. They keep the Averdinango breed that was developed in Argentina from the English Black Angus breed.
Its a pity I did not take more pictures of the cattle...
Here I am with my hosts Patricia and Miguel who answered my questions about their operation and their position in Argentine society with great candour.
La Holanda was not typical but my visit gave me the occasion to gather basic numbers about ranching economics that I later confirmed with other rancher friends of Marga in Victorica.
According to these data, cattle ranching is extremely profitable. It's not surprising that the estancieros are keeping a low profile in these troubled times when everyone else is complaining as loud as they can.
In the region I visited, one legua (2500 ha), worth 250 000 US$ (100 $US$ ha), can feed 250 cows and their calves (10 ha per cow).The cattle are left to fend for themselves and require no attention other than vaccination and castration of the males so labour costs are minimal. Each year the 250 cows per legua produce 200 to 220 calves that are worth 60 000 to 66 000 $US when brought to maturity (300$ each). That means a rate of return of about 20% on the invested capital (250 000 + 75 000). Thus, a four legua estancia brings in a quarter of a million dollars a year!
Farmers and ranchers complain everywhere in the world to get still more subsidies but here they have to be discreet about it because everybody knows that the great landowners have remained super rich while the working classes were badly hurt by the financial crisis that brought the downfall of de la Rua in 2001 and that is not over yet.
I had to take a taxi from Victorica to Santa Isabel because the local bus line that normally covers that route had its permit temporarily suspended, I was told, for "political reasons".
Being naturally an optimist, I first took these "horrible stories of corruption" with a grain of salt but my rosy glasses gradually darkened and after two months I had to admit that there had to be some basis for all the complaints of corruption that I was hearing.
I finally reached Santa Isabel where I took a bus to San Rafael and hence, another one to Malargüe where I expected to catch the twice weekly minibus to Chile.
I was only a few hours in San Rafael (100 000 h), just long enough to visit the busy commercial streets around the bus terminal where I shot this quaintly dressed estanciero. It turned out that I was rushing needlessly for my minibus left a full day later. If I had known, I would have spent more time here to visit the wineries and the nearby Canon de Atuel...
There was not much to do in Malargüe except wait for the departure of the Karen Travel minibus the following day.
At least, the Hostal Patagonia where I stayed was comfortable, friendly and inexpensive (5 $US).