“A Gaucho without a horse is only half a man”
ESTANCIA EL OMBU, SAN ANTONIO DE ARECO
The Argentinian Pampas – rolling terrains of grasses, flowers and herbs – are the home of the Gauchos. The nomadic and colourful horsemen and cowboys have wandered the prairies since as early as the 1700s, when the flatlands were overpopulated by wild Cimarron cattle, originally brought to South America by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza in 1538.
Gauchos were loners who were hardy and uncompromising, but famed for their kindness to fellow travellers, always sharing their food or what little shelter they had. Sons of gauchos invariably became gauchos too.
The pastimes of the gauchos included gambling, drinking, playing the guitar and singing about their skills in hunting, fighting and love-making. The gaucho, his horse and his facon were inseparable. Knives could open cows and close discussions.
Some presume that the name gaucho is derived from the Mapuche Cauchu, meaning ‘vagabond’. Others consider the Quechua word Huachu, meaning ‘orphan’, to be a better candidate.
Whatever its roots, the word ‘Gaucho’ came into existence for the first time in the late 1800s to describe a roguish individual that would ride alone, sometimes with a woman, whose only baggage was a facon (knife), Boleadoras (three iron or stone balls on leather cords thrown at the legs of an animal to immobilise it) and a reata (lasso), in order to capture running cattle or game.
Duels amongst gauchos were not intended to kill. They just wanted to mark the other, preferably on the face. That mark would make it obvious and forever to all that the bearer of the scar had lost a duel.
If one of the Gauchos unintentionally wounded his opponent fatally, sympathy was felt for the killer who would from then on be considered a man in disgrace in need of protection and help to escape. Little sympathy was felt for Gauchos known to be deliberate killers.
The Gauchos spent their days caring for their herds and catching wild cattle. Being nomadic, the gauchos would spend little time at home, which was a mud hut covered with cowhides and containing a few horse skulls to sit on.
Gauchos usually did not marry the woman they lived with. She raised their children (with sons following in their father’s footsteps) and took care of housekeeping.
PARQUE NACIONAL LOS GLACIARES
The gauchos were self-sufficient free spirits who were wedded to their horse and the open plain. Not only were the gauchos independent and tough, they knew the pampas intimately and were extremely skilled horsemen, which made them ideal cavalry during the wars of independence (1810-1816) and the civil wars that followed.
When on the range, the gaucho diet consisted almost entirely of beef, supplemented by yerba mate, a herbal tea-like drink rich in caffeine and nutrients. Cows were slaughtered for their hides, leaving the meat for the gauchos, who promptly roasted it on an open fire before it spoiled.
Argentina’s national dishes are derived from simple Gaucho cooking (Asado).
Gaucho beliefs consisted mainly of age- old superstitions varnished with Roman Catholicism. Setting themselves apart from society and being free spirited allowed gauchos to do whatever they thought necessary to survive, without being worried about fate, destination, sin, guilt, heaven or hell.
“All in the line of duty. Sometimes to get the best shots one has to end up with a mouth full of dust and hopefully not a horses’ hoof!”
SAN ANTONIO DE ARECO
The life of the gaucho got increasingly difficult during the 19th century, as anti-vagrancy and other laws forced the horsemen further inland. Extensive portions of the prairies were settled, leaving less room for the gauchos to roam with their ponies and the wild herds of cattle they lived on. By then, commercial cattle ranching had begun, and the pampas had been fenced into huge estancias. The ranch and landowners (estancieros) needed managers to control cattle breeding and herding, and none were better qualified for the job than the gauchos.
GLACIER PERITO MORENO
In the 18th century, when leather was in high demand and hides fetched great prices, gauchos arose to clandestinely hunt the huge herds of horses and cattle that had escaped more than a century earlier.
Gauchos were usually of mixed European and indigenous ancestry, but sometimes were of largely African or part-African descent.
ESTANCIA NOBEPO AIKE, LAGO ROCA
The typical gaucho outfit would include a poncho (which doubled as a saddle blanket and sleeping gear), a facon, a rebenque (leather whip)
and loose-fitting trousers called bombachas. Nowadays, working gauchos are as likely to be found in overalls and wellington boots as in their traditional dress, the latter usually worn in desfiles (parades) during festivities and celebrations.
Over time, the early gauchos gave up their solitary existence to work for the estancieros. They settled down, rounded up cattle, mended fences,
branded animals and tended sheep. As their way of living changed, the legend of the gaucho grew.