The vast pampas, or grasslands, that sweep north from the rugged mountains and barren lands of Patagonia through Argentina, southern Chile, Uruguay and southern Brazil are home to one of South America's most iconic figures — the gaucho.
Most well known in Argentina, these leatherfaced, weather-beaten men are some of the most skillful horse handlers on earth, herding huge numbers of cattle and sheep around the large farming estates or estancias on which they reside.
When the term was first coined, the gaucho was something of a nomad. He wandered the pampas alone on horseback with his facón, a large knife tucked into his sash (used for everything from eating steak to fighting off a love rival), and his boleadoras, a type of lasso made up of three leather-bound rocks on a rope, which would be thrown to wrap around the legs of a cow to bring it to the ground.
The image of the gaucho in these early days was not a good one; viewed in the same light as cattle thieves, these men lived on the margins of society and were silent types with alleged bad manners and fierce tempers. However, since these beginnings, the gaucho has played a large role in the shaping of modern Argentina and today is something of an icon of Argentine identity.
Their renowned horsemanship meant gauchos made up almost the entirety of the cavalry on all sides of the wars of the Southern Cone that took place throughout the 19th century, and they played an instrumental role in the struggle against Spain. The epic Argentine poem, ‘Martín Fierro’, portrays the gaucho as a symbol of Argentine tradition and a key player in this fight against colonial power. Since then, the image of this gruff, ill-mannered wanderer has transformed into one of a strong, silent type, loyal to his country and his heritage.
Immortalized in advertising campaigns and on guidebook covers, the gaucho can also be credited with creating the wonderful asados, or barbecues, that are enjoyed across the country today. Cooking meat discarded by traders (whose primary interest was the cattle’s leather) on an open fire, the gaucho inadvertently invented this national dish enjoyed as much today on the pampas as it is on the patios and in the gardens of people’s city homes.
Whilst the image of the gaucho has emerged from a rather dark cocoon, his physical appearance has changed little since the 19th century. Today’s gaucho still wears his beret pulled over the ears, dons a poncho in cool weather, and will enjoy a flask of maté drunk under a tree as a relief from the summer heat. However, whilst captured on the front of many a magazine as relaxed, smiling rugged types, the modern gaucho is still a hardworking man, as dedicated to his livestock and horses as always.
In fact, most gauchos are somewhat bemused by the way estancias now cater for visitors and by the interest shown in them by foreign travelers. A visit to a working estancia is an excellent way to appreciate the horsemanship and heritage of these men. They are immensely proud of what they do but are somewhat aloof, so time with a gaucho is best spent observing his skill and appreciating the intimate knowledge of the lands that he works.
And of course, whilst some estancias offer guests the opportunity to get involved in the herding and shearing that is part of the gaucho’s day-to-day life, taking a step back to simply observe provides the ideal excuse to spend a fine afternoon enjoying a tasty asado, accompanied by some fine Argentine wine.
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