Polo is one of the oldest competitive team sports in the world. It used to be played by wild tribesmen in remote mountain valleys; two centuries ago it became the favoured sport of princes and kings and today it's the exclusive preserve of the rich.

For a savage game that is older than Christianity, the sport has come a long, long way. Various versions were, and still are, played by ferocious, horse-loving, tribesmen in isolated mountains and hills stretching from Persia to China. Today, the basic rules are the same; teams line up on horseback with the sole aim of taking, or knocking a ball through the opponent's goal. Today the sophisticated version uses a ball, in wilder times they used the decapitated head of an enemy!

The 'taming' of polo began in India about 150 years ago when wealthy princes realised that the sport offered a perfect way to show off horsemanship. British army officers began to take an interest and the rest, as they say, is history.

It may still be a rich person's game (it's expensive to train and maintain the ponies), but polo has evolved into a truly international game. And nowhere in the world has it become more popular than in the horse-loving country of Argentina. Here polo is regarded as an art form as much as a sport and it is treated very seriously indeed.

That's probably why an increasing number of people are to be found migrating south from the northern hemisphere in gloomy winter months, to enjoy specialist vacations in the rolling pampas where they can learn to master this most exciting of sports with some of the world's top players while holidaying on luxurious, sun-drenched ranches.

What to Expect

Let's make one thing clear for a start; people who fancy the swashbuckling romance of polo without possessing the necessary saddle-skills would probably be better served taking an extensive horse-riding course before attempting this potentially dangerous sport. The ponies are fast, to say the least. They are often thoroughbred and they can twist and turn with more alacrity than the most nimble of common or garden steeds.

However, given a sound knowledge of basic horsemanship, Argentina has a number of first-class schools offering courses that will hone a polo enthusiast's skills. Many of these are based at luxurious and beautifully appointed ranches where guests are provided with full board. Alternatively, it's possible to stay in one of the country's fine hotels and travel to and from the schools.

We'll mention a couple of these later, but first let's take a look at some of the polo ranches, or 'Estancia' as they're known locally, and discover what they have to offer...

La Esperanza Polo Club is situated in the town of Coronel Suarez, home of some of the sport's top players and commonly dubbed 'World Capital of Polo'. It's 500 kilometres from Buenos Aires and is served by its own local airport. La Esperanza is a beautifully appointed estancia with more than 100 polo ponies. Each day guests are given training sessions and then can enjoy playing games at the famous Coronel Suarez Polo Club.

There's plenty to do besides playing polo. Organised trips allow guests to experience the 'real' Argentine by riding horseback across the pampas where they can spot deer, guanacos, boars and wild horses. The Club's accommodation is made up of pleasant and comfortable rooms and there is a swimming pool and golf course to help guests relax.

The Amaya Polo Clinic is a new service provided by Professor Eduardo Amaya and La Martina Polo Ranch. The Clinic claims its teaching method is 'fast, easy, and effective.'

'Our program is an effective way to become a better player and start looking at your polo in a different way, learning tactics and strategy, rules, horsemanship and stick and ball,' says the Clinic.

Professor Amaya is the well known head teacher of several of the country's most prestigious polo clubs and his step-by-step method starts with guests being scrutinised by experts for 'the way you ride, your balance, seating position, the way you hold the reins, whether or not you're straight on the horse's back, your fears, the way you stop, the way you use your arms, how you place your legs, how you place your feet, etc.'

The Clinic offers an intensive training program that consists of daily polo lessons and stick-and-ball practice where guests can share the field with Argentinean players of international renown. La Martina Polo Ranch is located 20 minutes away from the Ezeiza International Airport and boasts comfortable rooms, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a golf course.

The Estancia El Venado Polo School has been in the business for more than 15 years and has a vast array of facilities, including two polo fields and more than 175 horses. The number of guests is kept to a minimum to ensure individual instruction and each person is provided with mounts to match and improve their level of riding and polo skills.

The school is 165 kilometres from Buenos Aires and is located amidst 2500 acres of prime grassland pampas. It is based on a working ranch that has been family owned for four generations and is rich in history and tradition. English-speaking family members live at the ranch and often accompany guests on non-polo activities. The two-house hacienda provides a level of comfort just about unrivalled anywhere across the rural Argentine pampas.

El Venado's owner, Federico Cendoya, a five-goal polo pro of international repute, describes the typical day guests can expect to enjoy at his hacienda. It begins with 'a light Argentine breakfast of coffee, juice and pastries. Then, it's off to stick-and-ball sessions and tutoring. Sessions end with a break for lunch and a well-earned siesta. In the afternoon, knowledge gained in lessons is put to use in chukkas. Polo usually remains in the 12-goal level, ideal for teaching. Post-polo teas turn into "chalk talks" and include cold drinks and traditional Argentine appetizers in a social atmosphere. After dinner, all return to the living room for coffee, brandy and cigars.'

Where to Stay

This rural idyll might be just a little too remote for people who would prefer taking their polo lessons in or around Buenos Aires. The city has a number of first-class international hotels including the Alvear Palace, built in the heart of the city in 1932. It's one of the most characteristic buildings in town and boasts magnificent rooms that have recently been completely refurbished. The hotel is said to be one of Argentina's finest, combining state-of-the-art technology and comfort where Boticcino marble bathrooms with Jacuzzis come as standard.

The Park Hyatt is close to the famous Obelisk on the widest avenue in the world. As part of its impressive facilities, this prestigious hotel has an area known as The Mansion, a turn-of-the-century building housing a number of top-of-the-range luxury suites. In this historic residence guests are pampered by a 24-hour butler service. The Mansion's décor is sumptuous, highlighted by specially selected antiques that uphold the French style of the beautiful surrounding gardens. The 12th-floor terraces offer fantastic views of the city and the Rio de la Plata.

Whether you choose the traditional estancia or one of the luxurious city hotels, a sporting polo break in sunny Argentina during the northern-hemisphere's winter months is guaranteed to add a little romantic 'swashbuckling' to your life, especially if you like your fun on horseback.

Pre-Travel Checklist

All visitors entering Argentina must have a valid passport (contact your travel planner or airline for current visa requirements)
Currency: Peso
Language: Spanish
October-December 12 to 22 degrees Celsius (54 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit)
January-March 19 to 30 degrees Celsius (72 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit)
April-June 13 to 23 degrees Celsius (56 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit)
July-September 7 to 15 degrees Celsius (45 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit)

Estancia El Venado Polo School
For further information contact:

Argentina: Federico Cendoya
Fax: +54 11 4311 1753
E-mail: fcendoya@polodays.com

USA: Kimber Damron
Tel: +1 410 577 0867
Fax: +1 410 577 0458
E-mail: kdamron@polodays.com

UK: Josie Jordan
Tel: +44 1428 714465
Fax: +44 1428 714768
E-mail: polo@riumph.freeserve.co.uk

Web site: www.polodays.com

The seasons for Estancia El Venado Polo School are from mid-October to mid-December and from mid-January until the end of March.

Weekly rates:
USD 1900 from October to December
USD 1800 from January to September
Non-playing companions pay USD 1000.

Rates include: daily private polo lessons, four chukkas five times a week with rated professionals, stick and ball, trail riding and related activities, accommodation at the estancia, traditional Argentine meals, appetisers and beverages, laundry service and airport transfers.

La Esperanza Polo Club
For further information contact:

José Maria Bertola
La Esperanza Polo Club
CP 7540 Coronel Suárez
Tel: +54 2926 430418
Fax: +54 2926 423802

Mr Carlos M Bertola
La Nuova Poncho Polo and Country Club
22040 Annone Brianza
Tel: +39 341 578696
Fax: +39 341 260156
E-mail: laesperanza@teletel.com.ar
Web site: www.la-esperanza.com.ar

Amaya Polo Clinic
For further information contact:

Alvear Palace Hotel
Avenida Alvear 1891
1129 Buenos Aires
Tel: +54 11 4808 2100
Fax: +54 11 4804 9246
E-mail: alvear@satlink.com
Web site: www.alvearpalace.com

Park Hyatt Buenos Aires
Posadas 1086/88
1011 Buenos Aires
Tel: +54 114 321 1234
Fax: +54 114 321 1235
E-Mail: hotel@parkhyatt.com.ar
Web site: www.buenos-aires.hyatt.com/bueno/index.html

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