It may surprise you to learn that the national hero of Argentina, a country known for its cosmopolitan cities, rich arts scenes, and fine wines, is a rough-riding cowboy figure known as a gaucho. The gaucho culture in Argentina symbolizes strength, independence, and freedom. Gaucho culture has excited the Argentinean imagination for centuries and many songs, poems, and stories celebrate these solitary, romantic Argentine cowboys and their relationship to the land.
History of the Gaucho Culture in Argentina
The first gauchos appeared on the Pampa, the vast untamed grasslands in the interior of Argentina, sometime in the 18th century. Mainly orphans of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, these first gauchos made a life for themselves domesticating the huge free-ranging herds of horses and cattle that had escaped from Spanish colonies over the years.
The gauchos’ needs were few, and many were content with just a good horse, a saddle, a knife, a lasso, and the clothes on their backs. They had all the free-range beef they could eat, and when they wanted tobacco, rum, and mate, they took hides and tallow from the cattle and sold them to British and Portuguese traders in defiance of the Spanish colonial authorities. Then they had all they needed to fuel a night of their favorite pastimes of drinking, gambling, singing, and fighting.
Over time, the wild herds on the Pampas were controlled and divided up into private hands. The new owners hired the gauchos to look after their animals.
By the early 19th century, Argentina began to really struggle to be free of Spanish rule, and armies of gauchos proved invaluable to this effort, earning themselves heroic status forever.
Today roughly 150,000 men keep the traditions of the gaucho culture alive. Most of them work for the owners of great ranch estates called estancias, caring for herds of horses and beef cattle through the cold wet, winters and brutally hot summers. Now-a-days, gauchos still spend much of their time out in the Pampa, living much as gauchos did hundreds of years ago.
Visiting an Estancia
If you would like to experience a taste of Gaucho culture in Argentina for yourself, you can visit one of the many estancias scattered throughout the interior of Argentina.
Though most estancias have every modern convenience for guests, as soon as you step outside into the realm of the gauchos you’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time.
Most gauchos still wear traditional attire, consisting of a wide belt called a chiripa, a wool poncho, and pleated trousers called bombachas over tall leather boots.
They also use the same methods for herding and roping livestock, including throwing bolas (leather-wrapped rocks on long straps) to catch cattle by the legs. You can witness their astounding feats of horsemanship in a performance at the estancia or even go with them on a trail ride out into the fields for a more authentic experience.
When visiting with gauchos and learning about Gaucho culture in Argentina, you absolutely must join them for a night around the fire.
Famous for their skill at cooking on an open fire, the gauchos can grill up a delicious beef dinner so you can taste the original “asado” that became the national dish of Argentina and it is one of the favorite Christmas foods in South America. After dinner you can drink rum and listen to a performance of Chamamé, the unique gaucho folk music.