Gauchos and Estancias: Cowboy Culture of Argentina
Few characters and cultural elements are as Argentine as the gauchos. These legendary Argentine cowboys have played a central role in the history of Argentina and the development of its culture.
Keep reading to learn more about who the gauchos are, what their history is, and how they have evolved along the years. I will also explore a few cool stories about the gauchos, and the modern estancias where you can experience that fascinating way of life.
If you have ever wondered what an Argentine cowboy is, or how to call an Argentine cowboy, you have to read this post!
Who Are the Gauchos Argentinos?
The gauchos or “Argentine cowboys,” are nomadic horsemen that live, work, and wander in the pampas or “grasslands” of Argentina. They’re rugged men, outsiders, and even historical outlaws.
Truth is that, in a similar way to that of the North American western cowboys, the gauchos have an aura of romantic nostalgia, symbolize a foregone era, and a way of life that’s no more. However, there’s a whole gaucho culture developed during over three centuries of existence.
History and Origins
The history of gauchos is closely intertwined with that of Argentina. A failed attempt to found the city of Buenos Aires in 1536 left many horses and cattle to wander free around the area for decades. With time, several men across the pampas started learning to tame horses, hunt their own cattle, and live with freedom and independence. These were the first “proto-gauchos.”
However, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the gauchos “flourished from the mid-18th to the mid 19th century.” However, gauchos started gaining notoriety during Argentina’s War of Independence (1810-1818), when they played a vital role in the fight against the Spanish Crown. The constant ambushes they set against the Spanish army and their intel gathering, gave way to the legend of the gaucho.
Although gauchos have always been mostly mestizos of mixed European and indigenous heritage, no one is sure where the word actually comes from. Some theories propose that it comes from a Quechua word that means “orphan,” others say it’s a Portuguese word for “vagabond,” a Guaran-Indian word for “drinker,” and even a Latin word for “thieves.” Although we may don’t know for sure, the meaning of those words give you a very good idea about the original perception people had about gauchos.
How Have Gauchos Evolved Over Time?
Along the centuries, los gauchos have evolved according to the circumstances of the times. As mentioned before, they started as nomadic horsemen, they hunted their own cattle and tamed wild horses.
During the war of independence they became guides and scouts, set ambushes, and served as spies. When the war was over, gauchos migrated to the pampas to live off the land, hunt, and trade.
These decades, from the end of the war to the start of the 20th century, saw the best years of the Argentine cowboys. People highly appreciated their skills in those times as Argentina’s economic development was based in farming, a trade in which gauchos were experts.
However, the dawn of the new century brought new technologies and business practices that slowly but steadily meant the decline of the gaucho way of life. Large swathes of land were privatized into huge estates, and gauchos‘ cherished independence was limited as they were forced to take on permanent jobs in these new companies.
Although the original gaucho way of life is perhaps gone forever, their culture and mythology still persists in Argentina’s popular imagination. Nowadays, gauchos still exist in Argentina’s ranches and estancias, and have found a new line of work offering “the gaucho experience” to tourists from all around the world.
About the Gaucho Culture
Obviously the essential element of gaucho culture (beside the gaucho himself that’s it) is the horse. Without horses, there are no gauchos. However, this fascinating culture in rural Argentina has some other very interesting elements.
Let’s learn a little bit more about them:
Las bombachas: these are the gauchos pants, a kind of baggy trousers designed to “gather at the ankles and cover the tops of their boots.”
El bolero: the Argentine cowboy hat is called bolero and is made of black wool felt, with a wide flat brim and a chin cord.
La bola: among the gauchos weapons, the bola or boleadora is perhaps the most popular in Argentina’s lore. It’s a throwing weapon made of interconnected cords with weights on the ends of these cords. It was used to entangle the legs of animals and there’s proof that it was used in Pre-Columbian times.
El lazo: the gaucho lasso, was along with the bola and their distinctive knives, the only weapons gauchos needed for their subsistence. They would use their lasso in a strikingly similar way to that of American cowboys, and Mexican charros.
El baile: there’s even a gaucho dance that feeds from different cultures including Spanish, Portuguese, and other European countries. In Argentina the gaucho dance includes couple dances based on the fandango, and a man’s solo dance known as malambo.
Cool Gaucho Stories
Argentine cowboys have quite a few cool stories to tell. These are just a couple of them.
1. Inventors of Asado
Argentinian steaks are famous around the world, but what isn’t as well known is that if you have ever enjoyed a good steak, you owe that delicious piece of meat to gauchos. Asado means “roasted,” but it’s actually the Argentine version of the cookout. Because gauchos were the first asadores, or specialists in cooking asado. Next time you have a barbecue in your backyard spare a thought for the gauchos.
2. Gauchito Gil
The story of Gauchito Gil or “the Robin Hood of the Patagonia” is one of the richest stories about gauchos. A veteran of several Argentina wars, Gauchito Gil was drafted one more time to fight on a side he didn’t support. So, he deserted the army and became a cowboy bandit stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. These days, he’s considered a sort of cowboy patron saint, and every year over 200,000 pilgrims visit his resting place in Mercedes, Argentina.
What Are the Estancias?
Estancias are large private cattle ranches where gauchos work and develop their horse-taming skills and other types of expertise to handle the cattle. They’re the equivalent to the Brazilian fazendas or the rest of Latin America haciendas.
How Have Estancias Evolved Over Time?
It was the Spanish Crown who originally gave estancias to reward conquistadores and other explorers after colonizing the land forcefully. Estancias represented a kind of payment for the conquistadores’ efforts and they used them to breed sheep for wool, and cows for meat, fat, and tallow.
With time, these estancias remained in the same families, making Argentina “a big land of great aristocratic landowners.” However, by the beginning of the 20th century, the size of the estancias was reduced, and the estanciero or “the owner of the estancia,” took charge of the business side of the estancia, while the gaucho would take care of the production.
Nowadays, many estancias still exist throughout Argentina, and some have even opened their doors for tourists who want to experience the gaucho way of life. Visitors may spend a day or a few days in the estancia learning about the history of gauchos in the pampas, enjoying a traditional barbecue lunch, and riding horses around the estancias just like gauchos have been doing for centuries.
Visit Argentina, Experience the Gaucho Culture, and Practice Your Spanish
If you’re interested in learning more about gauchos and their legendary way of life, perhaps you should consider visiting Argentina and spending a few days at a modern estancia. Just remember that working on your Spanish skills will make your trip easier and you’ll make the most of your experience as your communication with the locals will flow more naturally in their native language.
Sign up for a free class to prepare for your trip to Argentina. At HSA we have been providing professional and reliable services to Spanish learners for more than 10 years, we offer flexible schedules, and tailored Spanish packages.
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