In Argentina it's the people's game - the beautiful people, that is. For top polo players, movie-star mates come as standard. But for beginners, says Mark MacKenzie, there is life beyond Buenos Aires

In contrast, English polo's big day out, the Cartier International at Windsor Great Park in July, has traditionally been a gathering for glamorous A-listers, players and spectators alike, although recently the likes of Jade Goody have lowered the tone.

In Argentina, the game's spiritual home, there has been no such slipping of standards. Next month sees the start of the Argentine Open Championship, the most prestigious polo tournament in the world. Mallets were first swung in anger on the Campo Argentino de Polo in Buenos Aires in 1893; this year, the grandstands will groan beneath the weight of trophy wives. As the most gilded sporting culture in the world reaches its apogee, they will only be out-preened by their player husbands.

The Argentinian polo professional is an exotic creature; in the rarified country clubs of Buenos Aires, these lithe, bronzed demi-gods rule as kings. Top players, themselves often heirs to vast fortunes, command fees of many thousands of pounds, jetting around the world at the behest of billionaire patrons and performing in front of star-studded audiences ranging from Prince Albert of Monaco to Sean Combs, the rap artist formerly known as P Diddy.

Even in England, where the standard of play is more modest, running a team for a season will leave you with little change from £1 million. So, are the doors closed to the average earner keen to take up the game? The short answer is yes, at least at the top level. But for the active traveller, the game is becoming increasingly accessible, in ever-more-varied locations.

The rules of polo are relatively simple: two teams of four contest six chukkas (periods of play) of seven minutes each, changing ponies between chukkas, and the team with the most goals wins. Mastering the skills and intricacies of play, however, is an altogether more complex undertaking. Players are ranked on a goal-handicap system, from minus two to 10 goals at the élite level.

In Argentina, a 10-goal handicap is accreditation for a playboy lifestyle: fast days on the field, even faster nights off it. For beginners, though, the action is likely to be more mundane: basic instruction on technique (known as "stick and ball") in the morning, followed by chukkas in the afternoon.

Before you call the travel agent, you might like to know that insurance companies consider polo to be one of the most dangerous sports in the world, given the distinct likelihood of your being separated from your mount at 40mph. Yet despite the havoc polo can play with your travel insurance premiums, the numbers taking up game continue to grow, a trend anticipated by Inder Jit Singh.

Ten years ago, the former Indian army colonel and polo enthusiast set up Polo Holidays, a bespoke polo travel operator which over the past decade has become the market leader. "Different countries are better suited to different abilities," says Singh. "But the serious student shouldn't think about heading anywhere but Argentina."

The cost depends on the type of venue you choose, but the quality of both facilities and tuition in Argentina is pretty uniform - which is to say, excellent.

"Polo there is a vast industry," says Singh, "and the basic standard is so high that you can accelerate your skills very quickly." But he adds a word of warning. "You do need to be very fit, and do expect a gruelling examination of your game."

The style of game you can expect to play varies by region. On the limitless plains of Patagonia, for example, gaucho horsemen play a form of the sport often referred to as "bush polo". The skies are high, the game fast and attitudes relaxed; a morning's instruction and an afternoon of limitless chukkas can be had for as little as £150.

"Patagonia can be a good place to start, as the formality of the smarter city clubs can be a bit intimidating," says Singh. He is referring to venues such as La Martina Polo Ranch, the self-styled "home of polo" in the Buenos Aires suburb of Vincente Casares, a 45-minute drive from the centre of town. It is owned by the Cambiaso family, a legendary polo-playing dynasty whose scion Adolfo Cambiaso is currently rated the world's top player.

If you would prefer a less demanding arena, an increasingly popular destination is South Africa. Kurland, near Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape, is a polo venue on the up. While establishment clubs such as Inanda in Johannesburg are dominated by public-school types, Kurland offers lessons in an informal yet spectacular setting. "The lack of time difference with the UK means we're seeing more and more British players," says George Morgan, a former South Africa international and Kurland's resident professional. "It's perfectly possible to come and play for a long weekend."

Possible, that is, if you have pots of cash. With a short-notice business-class flight to Johannesburg starting at £3,000, and four chukkas costing up to £250 a day (excluding bed and board) you'll have no problem blowing £5,000 before you get back to your desk on a Monday morning.

South Africans have pioneered polo schools across the African continent: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya are among the 20 destinations on Inder Jit Singh's books. But if you fancy the subcontinent, Singh recommends India. On the outskirts of Jaipur, the arid plains of Rajasthan are home to a host of excellent instructors whose various military backgrounds reflect the game's colonial heritage.

"In India, the emphasis is on one-on-one tuition," explains Singh, "and unlike staying on an Argentinian estancia, you get to choose your accommodation. A day's polo costs £85, and as you stay off-site, you can choose between a £300-a-night hotel or one that costs £50."

In Britain, polo's reputation as a bastion of privilege is not without foundation. At £90, an hour's novice instruction may seem reasonable, but thereafter you'll need to stump up around £30 for one chukka (that's seven minutes, in case you've forgotten). And if you take up the sport seriously, then there's the small matter of providing your own ponies and equipment. In terms of cost, we're not talking jumpers for goalposts.

Saddle up and give it some stick

Argentina's Estancia La Escondida offers bush polo and full board in the pampas for £145 a day: 020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk. Lessons at La Martina Polo Ranch in Buenos Aires cost from £125 a day: 00 54 22 264 30777, www.lamartinapolo.com.ar. Coaching and full board at Cordoba's Estancia La Paz, an ex-presidential palace, from £200 a day: www.estancialapaz.com. In South Africa, tuition and chukkas at Kurland costs from £190: 00 27 44 534 8082, www.kurland.co.za. Lessons at India's Jaipur Polo and Riding Club from £85: www.jaipurpolo.com. All of the above can be booked with Inder Jit Singh: www.poloholidays.com. Back home, courses at Ascot Park Polo Club start at £95: 01276 858 545, polo.co.uk.

John Travolta (top, with Prince Charles and wife Kelly Preston) is an avid polo follower. Sean Combs, aka P Diddy, has been seen on the exclusive East Coast lawns of the Hamptons, while Colombian pop diva Shakira attends matches in Spain. Actor Tommy Lee Jones (above left) breeds his own polo ponies on his Texas ranch and on this side of the Atlantic, Jodie Kidd is an accomplished player, as is Sir Rocco Forte and the Sultan of Brunei. The actors Orlando Bloom and Colin Firth attended various events this summer, as did Elizabeth Hurley and the singer James Blunt

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