Bonnie Tucker / FST
Santa Catalina, the best-preserved complex of 18th-century Jesuit ranch buildings in the central Argentine province of Córdoba, is a short horseback ride from El Colibrí, one of the most perfect rural boutique hotels that the country has to offer. You can also get there on foot or on a bicycle provided by the hotel, but who could possibly want to miss the experience of being astride one of the property’s black-and-white paint criollo horses when the white baroque towers of the mission church come into view? Just past the control post at the entrance to El Colibrí are the club house and two perfectly manicured polo fields. El Colibrí has its own polo team. But the idea is for guests to learn or perfect their game there too.
Beyond a grove of trees is the colonial-looking but new hotel, in front of which the owners and staff greet guests. Inside the building is a world of enormous, tastefully arranged spaces and colors with temperature and humidity control, high vaulted ceilings, chandeliers in bedrooms and bathrooms, and the possibility of dining in different areas. It is like house, but with the dimensions of a hotel. Upon your arrival, and if you accept, your bags will be taken to your room to be unpacked and your clothing will be arranged in closets and drawers according to type and color while you have breakfast, lunch or a snack. There are nine suites and bedrooms. The food is fantastic. Out back, the horses graze in an alfalfa field on the other side of the swimming pool.
El Colibrí is the creation of Raoul Fenestraz, a member of one of the mythical French hotelier families whose establishments figure in the list of the exclusive The Leading Hotels of the World group. He and his wife Stéphanie and the couple’s three children left the comforts of Paris and Courchevel in 2001 for the polo, tranquility and outdoor life of this part of Córdoba. Quick, easy access to the Córdoba airport (70 km) and connections with Buenos Aires and overseas destinations were other factors that influenced his decision.
The nearness of Santa Catalina (7 km) is frosting on the cake for history buffs who stay at El Colibrí. It reminds them that thanks to the Jesuits, Argentina had local craftsmen and skilled workers in colonial times.
During most of its first presence in what is now Argentina (from 1585 to 1767), the Society of Jesus financed the work of its missionaries, as well as its schools and universities in the urban centers, with the revenues produced by its network of ranches. The workers on those rural properties were African slaves and local indigenous people who received lodging, food, religion and instruction in crafts and trades that they performed without pay, and were taught to read, write and play music. For the most part, they preferred this arrangement to living in totally abject slavery on the estates owned by the Spanish colonists. The wealth produced by the well-organized ranches made the Jesuits a state within a state, and the crowned heads of Spain, France and Portugal eventually became envious and distrustful enough to decide the expulsion of the order from their turf and New World dominions in the second half of the 18th century.
The five remaining Jesuit ranches in the province of Córdoba, and the order’s main buildings in the provincial capital, comprise a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, as well as the province’s 250-km-long “Jesuit Ranches Road” circuit, which promotes lodging in country hotels and working ranches near the former colonial properties. The San Ignacio ranch no longer exists. Of the others, only the churches, and, in most cases, the administrative buildings, are still with us. The land they exploited was auctioned off to other landholders following their expulsion in 1767 and later subdivided, and their universities were nationalized in the 19th century. The order returned to Argentina in 1853, but didn’t open universities again until the mid-20th century.
The biggest ranch was Santa Catalina. The Society of Jesus bought the property in 1622 with a few rickety buildings, lots of livestock and very little water. Unfazed, the priests built a masterful underground aqueduct that brought water by force of gravity down from the hills in the Ongamira region. With the irrigation system thus obtained, their ranch blossomed into an estate with thousands of head of cattle, sheep and mules, in addition to crops, two mills and workshops specializing in weaving, carpentry and ironwork. It took them more than 100 years to build the ranch’s baroque central European-style church, which was finished in 1754. The church and many of the property’s buildings are intact thanks to the fact that they have been kept up all these years by the numerous descendants of Francisco Antonio Díaz, the Córdoba City Mayor who purchased the Santa Catalina ranch at an auction seven years after the expulsion of the Jesuits, and went to live there with his family. The descendants still use most of the rooms as weekend and vacation getaways.
Virginia Díaz, one of the descendants, and her husband Sebastián Torti, have installed a good restaurant and crafts shop in the former slaves’ quarters, which they call La Ranchería. Here you can enjoy cold cuts and/or a barbecue lunch to the heavenly strains of the American baroque music by Italian-born composer Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726), who taught music at Santa Catalina. Reservations must be made for lunch or dinner by calling (0352) 542-4467 or (03525) 424-467. Accommodation in artfully recycled slaves’ quarters is also available.
Try to make your visit coincide with November 25, the saint’s day of the village beside the church, or the last Sunday in January, when the Díaz family celebrates their traditional votive mass and procession commemorating their ancestor’s miraculous escape from death during an Indian attack.
The post house museum has two carriages from that period.
For a look at what else El Colibrí has to offer, see http://http://http//http//http//www.estanciaelcolibri.com/.
PHOTO CREDITS: El Colibrí's paint horses in front of the Santa Catalina church, Bonnie Tucker. Polo horses in front of the El Colibrí Club House, Bonnie Tucker. The luxury ranch's swimming pool and main living room, El Colibrí. The Jesuits' early 17th-century university and church in the city of Córdoba, period engraving. Composer Domenico Zipoli, period portrait. Sinsacate post house, Bonnie Tucker. The ambush in which Facundo Quiroga was murdered, period engraving.