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Visiting Estancias and Haciendas in Argentina and Chile

Historical Accommodation in Argentina & Chile

In Patagonia, and in most of South America, where you stay is a fundamental part of the experience and one of the ways you truly learn about the values and culture of the country’s residents.  In our itineraries to Argentina and Chile, particularly in Patagonia, you might notice that many of the lodging venues are listed as either haciendas or estancias. The words have similar definitions.  While sometimes they are used  interchangeably, there are historical differences.  Their produce and layout are the main things that distinguished them from each other.

The owners of a hacienda might produce coffee, grains or vegetables.  If you were in the US, a hacienda might be referred to as a plantation.  Many of the haciendas throughout Argentina grew out of the “Hacienda System,” which developed in South America in the early 19th century, when the Spanish government awarded large tracts of land to members of the minor nobility.  The land was usually rich in natural resources and often the best land for farming. If cultivated properly, it would generate huge profits for its owner.

The term “estancia” is a bit different and was often used to describe a large rural estate.  In the United States, it would be closest to what is called a ranch.  Estancias usually sit in the grasslands or pampas of their host country and they generally only produce livestock.

The hacienda and the estancia had at least two things in common: they were owned by a single landed family, and they were tended to by a relatively large population of workers.  Many are more than a hundred years old and continue to operate.  They have a strong link to the political and social history of most South American countries, but the places you are most likely to come across them in your travels are in Argentina and Chile.

The estancia owners usually lived on the outskirts of the city, but a new social trend emerged during the late 19th century. Suddenly, it became fashionable for the landowner and his family to spend their summers at the estancia, explains Roy Hora, author of The Landowners of the Argentine Pampas: A Social and Political History 1860-1945.  

The arrival of the landowner and his family necessitated surroundings far more elegant than those afforded to the cattle workers.  Parks were built, gardens were planted and buildings were remodeled and redecorated.

The Estancias Today

Many of these historic estancias and haciendas, particularly in areas close to Buenos Aires or to the National Parks in Patagonia, have dedicated some or all of their space to be first class guest houses. Some are less opulent than others, but make up in charm what they lack in refinement and sophistication.  Estancia Nibepo Aike in Argentine Patagonia, inside Glaciers National Park and not far from the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, is a good example of this.  This is not a fancy place, and it’s not for those looking for luxury, but some travelers find it to be one of the top highlights of their trip to Argentina.  This is mainly due to the privileged location and great views, as well as the fact that members of the same family that settled here still operate it and are wonderful hosts.

Estancia Anita, home to a beautiful guest house called Hosteria Altavista, is not far from Nibepo Aike and is a better choice for those looking for a bit more refinement.  Estancia Helsingfors is another estancia in Argentine Patagonia that offers a refined experience along with a range of excursions into Glaciers National Park.

Any of these estancias can serve as an outstanding 3 or 4 night experience that lets you experience both the natural wonders of Patagonia and some of the essential aspects of Argentine history.  All offer organized excursions including horseback riding and hiking.  Gauchos and huasos (Argentine and Chilean cowboys respectively) generally work at the estancias to take travelers on excursions, but in some locations they continue doing the traditional ranch work they have done for many decades.

A more removed option is Estancia Cristina, reachable only by boat, near the massive Upsala Glacier.  This is one of the most remote and inaccessible estancias, and can give you at least some sense of what the frontier adventure was like for the original settlers who built most of these estancias, before there were any roads or modern transportation in this beautiful, still sparsely populated region.