South America’s Cowboys


Library of Congress

Gaucho of the Argentine Republic, 1868

In the heart of the country a skilled horseman surveys the barren grassland. Like most days, he has spent most of his time in the saddle under the hot sun searching for stray cattle. He looks forward to dusk, when he can enjoy a warm meal cooked over an open fire. A vagabond since birth, he lives and works off the land. By nature he is a nonconformist and a symbol of all that is free. Who is he? If you live in the United States, you might guess a cowboy out West or a cattle rustler in New Mexico. Both are perfect answers, but what if you lived in South America?

More than 6,000 miles south of the United States, Argentina boasts its own version of cowboys. Known as gauchos, they were excellent horse riders who roamed the pampas grasslands, rounding up the overpopulation of wild horses and Cimarron cattle. Gauchos relied on horses for transportation and on cattle for food and clothing. The word gaucho is derived from the Quechua language and means orphan or vagabond. Like their name, gauchos wandered the countryside making use of the country’s natural resources.

While gauchos played a similar role to that of cowboys, there were distinct differences, such as the way they dressed. The typical gaucho wore a poncho that doubled as a saddle and sleeping bag, loose trousers called bombachas with a sash belt called a tirador, or a chiripá, which resembles diaper-like pants. They usually carried a facón, a long-bladed knife, always worn at the back of the waist, and a whip called a rebenque. The most unusual accessory of the gaucho was the boleadoras or bolas, three leather-bound rocks tied together with leather straps, used to catch wild cattle, horses, and ñandú (birds similar to ostriches).

In the eighteenth century, leather was more highly prized than meat in the Argentine colonies. Since beef was the main staple of their diet, gauchos were perfectly content to trade the leather and keep the meat for themselves. Their style of cooking beef over an open fire is known as asado, and is a favorite Argentine cooking style today.

In current times, gauchos still exist. Fewer in number, they can be found working on cattle ranches called estancias. Gauchos are highly respected, and are seen as an important symbol of Argentine history.

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