In South America, Gauchos Still Ride Tall in the Saddle — and So Can You

by Dave


Even Charles Darwin was smitten by gauchos.

Notes from his 1833 expedition to South America excitedly describe a rare breed of cowboys discovered riding the open plains, “long, black hair curling down their backs . . . daggers at their waists” and weather-beaten guitars in tow.

For centuries, the itinerant gauchos roamed the South American countryside, toiling on ranches, serenading small-town women and inspiring folk legends about their footloose way of life.

Now, growing numbers of working farms, known in Argentina and Uruguay as estancias, are offering modern-day explorers the chance to experience the gaucho lifestyle for themselves, with a few contemporary comforts thrown in.

“The original gauchos were just wanderers,” Castro explains in Spanish,
lifting a gate to let the cattle back out to pasture. “They didn’t have
a home.” The herd streams past and recedes into the plains. Beyond, a
sea of scruffy grass rolls to the horizon.

It was on lonely plains such as these that, in the early 1700s, the
gaucho was born, the progeny of Spanish colonists and local Indians.
The mixed-race gauchos played Spanish guitars but wore ponchos; they
smoked tobacco but also sipped mate, an indigenous tea brewed from a
pampas shrub.

In Argentina, hundreds of rural hotels offer a taste of country life, often in lavish colonial estates retrofitted for contemporary travelers. But finding a real ranch — and real gauchos — can be a challenge.

“If you want a spa, go to Buenos Aires,” says Eva Boelcke, owner of El Ombú de Areco, an estancia just 90 minutes from the Argentine capital that’s bucking the trend of gentrified ranches. “That kind of thing doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to be a Disneyland.”

Although Argentine ranches such as El Ombú offer a glimpse of gaucho culture, they are hardly undiscovered. On summer weekends, as many as 150 day-trippers pack El Ombú’s patio for the afternoon barbecue.

To experience the estancia less traveled, cross the border into neighboring Uruguay. With rural tourism just blossoming, estancias in this country of 3 million see smaller crowds and still depend on ranching for their livelihood. For travelers, this means fewer gringos, more gauchos.

“The thing about sheep is they’re drought resistant,” explains Raúl Goñi, silver-haired owner of San Martín del Yí, a 4,500-acre sheep and cattle ranch that attracts visitors from as far away as India and Japan.

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