In search of... Polo in Argentina

Where better to learn the 'king of sports' than on the pampas? No need for snobby elitism there. Aoife O'Riordain picks up her stick and joins in a chukka
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The Independent Travel

I thought polo was a British thing?

Not strictly true. The first recorded game took place in 600BC between the Turkomans and Persians. The Moghuls were mainly responsible for taking the game to India from Persia around the 16th century. It was here that polo was first discovered and adopted by the British in the 1850s. Now the "king of sports" is played in more than 77 countries worldwide.

So why do I have to go to Argentina?

Because Argentina is considered polo's spiritual home, and it's spring there, which means it's the beginning of their season. The game arrived in Argentina at the end of the 19th century courtesy of English and Irish engineers and ranchers, with the first official match taking place on 3 September 1875. While it's undoubtedly still a game for the wealthy, polo is much less elitist in Argentina than it is in the UK. Plus, the devaluation of the peso - disastrous for the local economy - means it's more affordable than it used to be.

How do you play polo?

There are six "chukkas" in a game of polo, each lasting seven minutes. Teams of four players change ponies in between each chukka - experts can transfer from one to the other without touching the ground. Polo players must always use their right hands to hold their polo stick, so if you're a left-hander beware. Play is fast and teams change goals after each score to minimise wind advantage, so pay attention or you'll lose track. Polo handicaps are classified on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the best.

Where can I see the experts in action?

Three of the most prestigious tournaments take place from October to December in Buenos Aires at Tortugas, the Hurlingham Club and - the most prestigious of them all - the Argentine Polo Association. In the elegant district of Palermo, you'll find the Campo Argentino de Polo. These hallowed fields are to polo what Maracana stadium in Rio is to football. The 110th Argentine Polo Open is in full swing now and the world's finest teams are competing, with top names including the Heguy brothers and Adolfo Cambiaso, playing for teams such as Ellerstina Costa Rica, and La Dolfina. The winners of the final on 13 December can lay claim to being the world's best. Swap the expensive seats for one of the unnumbered seats in stand "B", to blend in with the polo set.

I'd like a leg up. Where can I start?

About an hour's drive west outside Buenos Aires in the unassuming town of Pilar you'll find a large concentration of polo clubs, for this is where the best players have stables. But polo is played all over Argentina, so for a true taste of country-style polo head west through Buenos Aires province to the Estancia La Escondida, near the village of Pazos Kanki. It's not La Pampa province, but it shares many of the same characteristics - vast open spaces and endless horizons.

La Escondida is a typical Argentine ranch, a low single-storey house with a veranda, dating from 1906. The house is the family home of the Avendaño family and you'll be welcomed by the vivacious Carolina, an Argentine of British and Spanish extraction and supreme hostess to boot. La Escondida is the perfect introduction not just to polo, but life on an Argentine estancia. At a vast 7,000 acres, the farm is home to countless cattle and more than 200 polo ponies. Most importantly, both novices and expert polo players are equally welcome.

OK, I'm ready to get in the saddle.

Learn polo in Argentina and there's no messing around. If you can ride you'll be put straight on a pony, polo stick in hand. At La Escondida you will be under the watchful eyes of Carolina's sons Diego and Enrique - who only reinforce the assumption that all Argentine polo players are both charming and handsome. A day at the ranch will take the form of stick and ball (hitting a ball around the polo field) in the morning, and if you're up to it, chukkas in the afternoon. Hitting the ball at a leisurely walk will be the easy part - the real challenge comes with trying to hit the ball even at a moderate canter. You will also realise that riding a polo pony is a bit like driving a BMW - all are bred for temperament, agility and stamina. Argentine breeders have found the ideal combination: part thoroughbred, and part traditional criollo cattle horse.

I think I like spectating better.

Take advantage of the Argentine countryside on your doorstep. Ride through the fields with a gaucho as your guide, soaking up the big skies, wildlife and the spectacular pink sunsets over the pampas. Or persuade Carolina to take you for a birdwatching safari. There are more than 1,000 species in Argentina and you'll see a good few here, with a diverse array of birdlife including snailkites, yellow woodpeckers, finches, scissortails, the flamingo-like pink spoonbills and strange looking southern screamers. Otherwise lie by the pool and look forward to an asado - an outdoor barbecue - which is an integral part of Argentine cuisine. Once you've tasted Argentine beef, nothing will ever quite compare.

My polo sticks are packed. So, how do I get there?

I travelled to Argentina as a guest of British Airways and Journey Latin America. British Airways (0845 850 9850; www.ba.com) offers return flights to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo from £677 until mid-December. Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) can arrange a seven-night tailor-made trip to Argentina with three nights at the five-star Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires and a polo package at Estancia La Escondida from £1,980 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, three nights b&b in Buenos Aires and four nights' full board at La Escondida, with daily polo tuition and chukkas in the afternoon.

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