Rancho Grande

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“From here on,” said Francisco, stopping the car and pointing, “everything you see is part of the ranch.”

What gave this statement its force was not the way he said it, but where he said it. We looked to the right. A range of mountains presented itself about a mile away. We looked to the left. Another range of mountains, further away, established the northern border. What lay between was ours.

“But Dad,” Henry observed, “there isn’t anything at all in between. It’s just wasteland.”

“I feel a little ill,” said Elizabeth.

“Can we go back to Colomé?” Maria asked.

“Oh ye of little faith,” we replied. “Let’s push on.”

We had arrived at Gualfin at 10:35 on Monday morning. We took note of the time just to see how long it would take for Francisco to drive us from the main road to the house itself.

It was another 20 minutes.

“See, it’s not so bad,” we said, long before we actually arrived and long before anyone in the family had a chance to see enough of the ranch to form an opinion, good or bad. After managing expectations downward for so long, we now thought it would be prudent to steer them in the other direction.

In this effort we were aided by nature. It is autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. The house stands in a grove of trees, planted in neat rows so as to frame it on three sides. From a distance, we thought the trees were aspens — for they had turned bright yellow, the way the aspens do in Colorado. But these were Alamo trees, we were told later. For the moment, they seemed remarkably bright and remarkably welcome. Without them, the huge valley would be empty and almost colorless.

“It doesn’t look that bad,” was Elizabeth’s cautious first reaction. As we drew closer, we saw that there were actually two rows of trees, one on each side of the road up to the house. The effect, this time of year, was surprisingly stately, almost elegant. If we focused our eyes only on the road itself we might have thought we were in Virginia or even England. But as soon as we looked out beyond the trees we realized that we were in an oasis in the middle of a vast, high valley.

In this oasis, stood the house itself. Built of granite, it is a large rectangle with a central courtyard, which — should it fail as a habitation — might perfectly suit it to be a prison for the criminally insane, far enough from civilization that they would pose no threat even if they got loose.

Francisco introduced us to the caretakers: Jorge and Maria, a couple in their 50s, with cheerful demeanors and dark, weathered faces. While Jorge gave us a tour of the house, Maria went back to her cooking.

The house is a large place, nearly abandoned ever since it was built 50 years ago and Jorge and Maria use only a few rooms. The rest waits for the very occasional visits of the owner. The bedrooms had been aired in preparation for our visit…and furnished with brightly colored blankets. The beds themselves looked like the sort you’d find on the streets of Baltimore after a “put out” of a tenant who failed to pay the rent, except that they had rawhide strings holding up the mattresses rather than metal springs.

As we made our way around, we noticed the bloody skin of a goat hanging from a tree. There were also pieces of meat and internal organs hung up — to keep them away from the dogs, we guessed. Flies swarmed all over them.

All of the rooms in the house are dark and antique in appearance, with whitewashed walls and concrete floors, but the kitchen stands out as not merely out of style but practically prehistoric. The stove is fired by wood, which sends up clouds of smoke that, over the years, have completely blacked the walls and ceiling with soot. The smoke was so thick we could barely see the women working inside. Maria was in front of the stove and another, younger woman, later introduced as Clemencia, stood by her side.

Outside in the courtyard, an open fire had been built. It smoked and sizzled, too, with drippings from meat that had been placed on a grill directly on top of the flames.

“We’ve prepared some young goat for you,” Francisco told us. “Do you like goat?”

“Yes, of course we do,” we replied.

“And we also have some wine that my grandfather made 26 years ago. It was made at Colomé before the Swiss bought the place.”

After lunch, a couple of gauchos appeared, bringing up horses from the corals. They were sturdy looking animals, various mixtures of Peruvian and Spanish horses. There was also one very solid looking horse with a huge head.

“Oh, he’s a Percheron,” said Francisco. “And we also have a couple of mules.”

While Edward mounted one of the mules, the rest of us took the horses, matching them to riders by size and temperament.

Thus did life at Gualfin begin to take on a pattern which was to last only a couple of days. But they were glorious, sunny days spent discovering the ranch on horseback. The first day we rode out across the open plains — like outlaws after robbing a bank. We rode from one side to the other — that is from the hills on one side to those on the other — following the course of a river that drains the valley and then cuts through the mountains to an adjoining property. We wanted to keep going so we could meet our neighbors, but Francisco reminded us where we were.

“There is only a small trail that follows the riverbank. It is very dangerous in some places. Not even the horses can pass. You’d have to go on foot. Besides, it would take you at least five hours to get to Pucara.”

The next day we had a longer trip in mind. We were riding to visit some Indian ruins that were so far way we wouldn’t be able to get back the same day. We’d have to camp out overnight, sleeping out under the open stars.

“That should be fun,” we all agreed.

“Yes, it is what gauchos do all the time,” Francisco told us, looking vaguely satisfied with his profession, “but you have to remember that we are very high up — about 2,800 meters (9,000 feet). It gets very cold at night, but don’t worry, we bought sleeping bags for you that are good down to minus 12 degrees. It won’t get colder than that.”

Our patient readers may be wondering why we spend so much time recounting the details of our holiday in Argentina. We are, after all, usually concerned with money, not with travel.

But here we point out that there’s more to money than just making it. You also have to get rid of it. No dollar was ever made that was not subsequently unmade. For many people it is the unmaking that is the important part; they only make so that they can unmake later in the way most agreeable to them. Others prefer the making…and leave it to future generations to do the squandering. Your columnist tries to take a middle road.

The accountant in him tells him to carefully protect every penny by making sensible long-term investments, but the poet in him reminds him that the very flowers that bloom today will be dying tomorrow. So, he tries to find ways to hold onto wealth in ways that are amusing to him. Buying a ranch in South America seems to satisfy his requirements. He can imagine himself riding into the sunset — literally as well as figuratively — and leaving the ranch behind him, worth as much as when he bought the place.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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