In the simplest of terms a gaucho is a man who works with cattle. However he also happens to be so much more than that. He is a nomadic horseman and cowhand who historically roamed the Pampas of Argentina, Uruguay and Southern Brazil. Gauchos date back to the mid 18th century and are folk heroes for this part of the world like the cowboys are to the United States. The word gaucho comes from the Quechua word huachu meaning orphan or vagabond.
Where there are cattle and there are plenty in the great wide plains of the Pampas, you will have people tending to them. Cattle raising is what has happened here for hundreds of years.
Once upon a time the gaucho could go where he wanted taming the wild horses, living off the land and all this without having to answer to anyone. By the 19th century things started to change as settlements and estates (estancias) grew and over time they became employed on these ranches as skilled animal handlers. The use of the land was intensifying and the gaucho was no longer able to be quite so free spirited. They spent their time rounding up cattle, repairing broken fences, branding the animals and tending the sheep.
They were nomads who spent very little time at home. They often lived in small mud huts where they would have a common law wife who looked after the children. The sons of gauchos often followed in the father’s footsteps. Religious beliefs tended to be mainly superstitions mixed in with a little Catholicism.
The gaucho’s wardrobe consisted of a wide hat, woolen poncho, long trousers or baggy ones called bombachas and knee-high leather boots. Their most valued possessions were their long knives (facon), a lasso, a boleadora (stones in leather strips for looping around the animals legs) and of course, their horse. There is a saying “the gaucho and his horse are one, the man on foot is half a gaucho”.
Obviously out on the pampas, everything had to be cooked straight away on an open fire and this is how the asado was born. All the meat was washed down with mate, the yerba herb infused drink still popular today.
Gauchos were mainly mestizo (mixed European and Indian ancestry) but also were sometimes white, black or mulatto. Initially looked down upon for their lowly status, this changed when they excelled themselves in the wars of independence against the Spanish. They gained the respect of the military and today June 16 is a holiday in Argentina celebrating their contribution to the War of Independence.
They became legends in Argentine literature and are part of the cultural tradition found there. To pass their time they liked to drink, gamble, play the guitar and sing ballads along the themes of hunting, fighting and lovemaking.
Today things have slightly changed, some now wear jeans and cowboy hats but others still like to dress in more traditional clothing. Unfortunately less and less men are choosing this way of life as urban life and earning a living in the city is now an easier option. Additionally cash crops like soya are steadily taking over the traditional pasturelands and horses are being sidelined for motorbikes. Times have changed although they probably still eat lots of meat…
To see gauchos at work today, you must visit one of the estancias. For inspiration take a look at Historic Haciendas for beautiful estancias to stay at in Argentina and Uruguay.
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