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Jeremy Baker is a man who misses Tarmac. It is surprising, considering that the former Goldman Sachs trader packed it all in after 15 years at the bank for an outdoor life in Argentina. “You drive on big, beautiful roads here, come off the exit and hit dirt. Believe me, bumping along at 10mph in a cloud of dust is not that much fun.”
Baker, 48, together with his Argentine wife, Lilliana, are the owners of Puesto Viejo, a 220-hectare estancia (estate) outside Buenos Aires that is home to a polo club and boutique hotel.
He purchased the land in 2002, near the end of the Argentine debt crisis “at a very good price”, when he was still at Goldman Sachs. “I was always looking to do something else,” he says.
“The idea was to spend a large chunk of our marriage in the UK and a large chunk in Argentina. We were building towards it and my bosses were aware too. But we probably started our life plan in 2002 when we bought the land.” Thanks to a combination of Baker’s age and the number of years’ service at Goldman, he was able to retire with his full deferred compensation.
“I did OK at Goldman, plus London house prices were beneficial, so financially I had the opportunity not everyone gets. I would’ve hated myself if I hadn’t done it.”
Puesto Viejo literally means “old post” and was formerly stables and living quarters for workers on the edge of a larger, 5,000-hectare estancia. It is situated about an hour from Buenos Aires, and 25 minutes from the international airport.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere and you can see the wonderful openness of the Argentine pampas all around you,” says Baker. Also near the airport is his two daughters’ bilingual school.
Both girls were born in the UK and left for Argentina aged seven and four. “It was one of the reasons to do it, because I do value being bilingual. They study half the day in a foreign language, in English – so rather than just having studied it for an hour or two a day, they have really lived it.”
Another reason to move, of course, was the weather. “It’s a sunny, temperate climate – like an English summer’s day, but extremely often. Polo was cancelled a lot more in the UK than it is here,” he says.
Baker and his wife took up the game of polo in the UK in 1998, and building an estancia and polo club were always part of the plan.
In addition to the four polo pitches they have installed at Puesto Viejo, there has also been 70,000 sq ft of construction: for the polo club and stables, accommodation for grooms and employees, plus the 10-bedroom hotel and the Bakers’ own house.
All this has been built around the site’s original, 100-year-old building, while retaining its design, including the original colours (“the paint was first made using milk and cow or sheep blood,” says Baker). Baker’s wife designed the hotel and the interiors were sourced from local antique markets, which gives the hotel a Spanish and French feel.
“There is a lot of Lilliana in Puesto Viejo,” says Baker. “Her paintings are on the walls and she chose all the furniture. The estancia concept is about inviting people into your home, like a bed and breakfast, and we eat with our guests a lot of the time.”
The hotel officially opened in 2012. Running a business in Argentina, after 25 years in finance in the UK, has been challenging. “The UK works,” says Baker. “It’s surprising how much you notice [after you leave]. Buenos Aires is a world-class city with some great restaurants and museums, but it also has developing-world issues [and] business wise, it’s hard to get things done.
“Thankfully, my wife’s Argentine so we can see our way through that better than most expatriates, but the bureaucracy is difficult.”
Among his biggest frustrations have been the complex local taxation and labour laws, “and understanding not only the laws but how those laws apply”. At the same time, it’s been insightful, especially when compared with his days as a macroeconomics trader. “Worrying about getting replacement blades for a grass-cutting machine is very different from, say, whether the US government is going to go off a fiscal cliff. Sometimes I have to tell myself that, although it may seem minor, it’s important to us – to my life and the financial viability of Puesto Viejo.”
Baker adds: “I now understand what businesses actually struggle with. I see what regulation does to the entrepreneur, to employment, and how inflation affects salaries. We feel how disposable income affects our guests – whether we have many, or few.”
Managing 30 people is also new territory, especially when the only thing Baker managed before was his own book. “It’s also been challenging working with my wife,” laughs Baker. “We haven’t yet worked out who’s boss.”
The Bakers initially hired foreign staff, but have since taken on local employees, which has tested Baker’s Spanish. “I studied it for 15 years before we moved, so I had a good base. But I didn’t realise how much more I needed. I can now read a newspaper, and watch a film in Spanish. And I dream in Spanish, so I think I’m getting there.”
Even so, it’s important that Puesto Viejo has an international feel, as clients include both local polo players and those coming from abroad on polo holidays. Baker is now also offering lots for sale on the property.
“We have Tarmac right up to the front door and all around the estancia,” says Baker. “I laid it myself. It was expensive but we did it.”
What you can buy for . . .
$100,000 A one-bedroom apartment in the Palermo or Belgrano barrios of Buenos Aires
$1m A three-bedroom apartment in Puerto Madero
$2m A high-end apartment in Recoleta, usually with river or park views
Baker’s verdict . . .
Spanish bilingual schools for the children
A sunny, temperate climate with few hot days, and short, mild winters
The best polo in the world
Best asado (Argentine barbecue)
La Parrilla in Cañuelas. A petrol station that offers great asado, making it a popular hang-out for polo players
Best stay The 5th Floor, a B&B in Buenos Aires. The owner offers great advice on where to go in the city
Best day out Watching a match from the Puesto Viejo clubhouse balcony on finals day, with a beer and an asado sandwich
Ming Liu is a journalist for the FT’s How To Spend It magazine