North America has the cowboy. South America has the gaucho. In Argentina and Uruguay, these colourful, nomadic, and often romanticized horsemen and cattle hands bourgeoned in the 18th century and are still very much a part of today’s culture.
The word itself comes from the Quechua language and means orphan or homeless. Gauchos are known as loners and freedom lovers who prefer a rustic lifestyle.
La literature gauchos (the literature of the gaucho) has grown over the centuries and tells the story of life on the open grasslands, often working alone and living by their own hand. Gauchos were primarily mestizos, people of mixed European and Indian ancestry.
They hunted, traded, and soldiered for their living. As more Europeans settled in South America, brining cattle with them, gauchos began to settle on the estancias (ranches), becoming expert cattlemen.
In the 19th century, gauchos joined the war for independence and thus earned their permanent place in the hearts of their countrymen. With their knowledge of the land, ability with horses, and their general rugged bravery, they were invaluable soldiers.
Their tools have always been the lasso, the knife, and the boleadoras – a rope of leather with iron balls that was thrown at an animal’s legs in order to immobilize it. Their costume has changed very little over time.
A woollen poncho, accordion pleated trousers (known as bombachas) which gather at the ankles and cover their boots are perhaps the most distinctive items in a gaucho’s wardrobe.
It also includes boots with spurs, a belt decorated with coins, a vest, a handkerchief around the neck and a wide brimmed hat.
Gaucho culture was honourable and often counter to the majority culture. Marriages were rarely legalized, religion was more about superstition than faith, and their entertainment was music, gambling, hunting, fighting, drinking, and lovemaking.
When not sleeping under the stars on an animal hide mat, they lived in small adobe huts with straw roofs and ate asado and mate (a kind of barbeque and a coffee like drink).
A guitar is a requirement for the gaucho. They are known as poets and payada singers who can tell a beautiful and inspiring story at the campfire each evening. Get a group of them together and you’re guaranteed to be treated to traditional dances like the gato, cielito, and the mediacana.
While the modern-day gaucho prefers a 4×4 Jeep just as much as a horse and reserves the traditional costume for special occasions, they still honour their cultural heritage and live up to their legendary status as freedom lovers.
Each year, December 6 marks a national holiday for the gaucho.
You can experience what life is like as a gaucho.
Join a small group adventure travelling to Argentina to live on a working estancia and muck in and do as the gauchos do. Herd cattle, ride horses, and trek into the Andes mountains for a taste of this fabled lifestyle or go big with an epic crossing of the Andes by horse.