Welcome to Realico, La Pampa, Argentina
If you have read The Silver Gaucho you will have seen Realico through my writing eyes. You will know some of the history and changes that have impacted this isolated place. And you will know what became of Realico when the TV production circus rolled in to film the hugely successful soap opera, The Silver Gaucho.
Aside from the writer’s imagination – here is the real Realico.
And if you have not read the book and would like to experience my Realico – here it is:
In the heartland of Argentina, near the point where the provincial boundaries of La Pampa, Cordoba and San Luis intersect, is the town of Realicó. The location is just north of the junction of Routes 35 (north-south) and 188 (east-west). It’s in the middle of nowhere.
My first visit to Realicó was on a bus travelling from southern Chile to Buenos Aires in 1998. I was backpacking, collecting information for a South American edition of ‘Snapshots’.
Back then, I knew nothing of El Gaucho de la Plata.
I’m on a bus again now, but this time I’m wide awake and watchful. I’m thinking about all that has happened in this place.
Here is a brief history of Realicó:
First Age: The Wild Years
The town is sited 146 metres above sea level. It’s flat. Dead flat. Surrounded by more flatland than might be imagined – a visual conundrum in the middle of the steppes, the prairies, or as the Quechua language would tell it: Las Pampas.
During the Wild Years, guanaco and rhea ran free here, pursued only by hunting and gathering Querandies.
Oral histories confirm that in long-ago times flamingo colonies flocked to the salt pans in vast numbers as they do today. No doubt, when the birds took flight, they blocked the sun in the same way as they rose in concert.
And back then, I guess, the beating of their many wings would have produced a similar downdraft.
Some things don’t change.
Were the hunters and gatherers in awe the first time they witnessed the flight of the flamingos? Was the ensuing silence more profound? And when the warm breeze fluttered did the Querandies feel restless, as I do?
I stare out from the bus across to the endless Pampas. Grass tips shudder and tremble. They ripple and pucker, rising, swelling, ebbing like a wide and gentle sea. I hope the spirits of the Querandies are mollified by the whispering grasses.
Second Age: The Coming of the Gaucho
It was in the seventeenth century that the cattle and horses came – herds and hordes of both. Liberated by the Spanish invaders who no longer needed them, the animals made their way out into the wilderness. They went forth and multiplied.
It could have been expected that they would live in relative peace as the guanaco and rhea had done, but hot on the heels of the cattle and horses came the gauchos.
The early gauchos de Las Pampas were a mix of outlaws, itinerants and adventurers. Some were Querandiies, some Patagones or Tehuelches, and some Mapuches and Aracaunos from the other side of the Andes.
A few were immigrants who sailed from faraway places, jumped ship along the coast of the continent and made the best of what they found as they moved inland.
They met in the Pampas. Many became agile Criollo horsemen – nomadic, singular men who threw the deadly boleadoras, a weapon borrowed from the Indians, to bring down their prey.
Three hundred years ago the gaucho rode into the history of South America and stayed. And every year, interest in his way of life expands. It is possible that there are more gauchos in Argentina today than ever laid claim to the title in the nineteenth century
Third Age: Cultivation
By the second half of the twentieth century Realicó had become what locals like to call the Granary of the World. It was a commercial bread basket.
Cargill’s, the American grain-growing giant, moved in after the Second World War. The company became the town’s major employer. Within a few years this corner of Las Pampas was irrigated and tamed.
Some say the agrarian move heralded the beginning of the end of romance for Realicó, that when people turned their eyes towards cultivation and harvest on such an enormous scale, they traded something essential for a short-term compromise.
Fourth Age: The New Beginning
In a short space of time Realicó was to be turned on its head. Towards the end of 1998 Producciones Películas Colonia rolled into town to film El Gaucho de la Plata. The local residents could not imagine how their small part of the world would be transformed by a TV production circus.
They could not believe that a day would come when, instead of re-fuelling or passing through without a backwards glance, people would make Realicó a tourist destination.
Now billboards at all entry and exit points read: La Ciudad de “El Gaucho de la Plata”.
In the middle of the town is an information centre staffed by locals who answer endless questions about the show and its stars. Ice cream parlours, themed restaurants and parillas line the streets. Young people drop out of school to become overnight tour guides. And anyone who has a 4×4 is using it to show people around.
Realicó is on the map.
Tourists come in their thousands. They come looking for food and accommodation, for camp sites, toilets, petrol stations, postcards, guide books, DVDs. They need telephones, internet connections, batteries.
And since the death of Luis Mabon they come with their floral tributes and their tears. They come to take photographs, to put their feet on hallowed ground, to stand together in bewilderment.