Just as the cowboy was and is an integral part of the North American West, so the Gaucho remains an inextricable part of Argentina and especially Patagonia. This vast area of flat land in the southern cone of South America in Chile and Argentina lends itself perfectly to the raising and herding of enormous herds of cattle and sheep.
Hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle, sources of beef and leather must be watched over and moved from place to place as the seasons dictate. There are various theories about the origins of the word “gaucho” but the fact remains that it has denoted the South American version of a cowboy in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay for at least a couple of hundred years. The gauchos, like their North American Cowboy counterpart, are a tough breed, used to long days in the saddle and living, at least in part, off the land. Indeed, it is from their habit of roasting beef and lamb over an open fire that the Argentine tradition of asado has come from, a barbecue on a rather larger scale. Due to their mixed ancestry, the gaucho tends to mix features of both native Americans and black slaves, as well as the poorer immigrants who flocked to the New World from Spain after the conquest.
The simple way of life of the gaucho in Argentina has given rise to various highly regarded culinary traditions, such as the asado, for which people actually construct special pits so as to be able to roast entire sheep over a huge bonfire without having to worry about their houses catching fire. Chimichurri also comes from the gauchos, a hot sauce very popular as an accompaniment to your asado.
Gauchos haven’t always had the best of reputations. There was a time when they were actually despised for their unfortunate habit of hunting indiscriminately on the plains and of slicing the tendons in animals’ hind legs to keep them from running away. Since they had to travel light, just themselves and their horse, they also developed a reputation for thievery and consequently became very unpopular.
However, when the colonies began to rebel against Spanish rule, the guacho came into his own. Used to spending long periods of time in the saddle, having developed excellent horsemanship and used to fending for himself, often alone with a hundred thousand cows, the guachos were strong and fearless in battle and proved themselves again and again against the Spanish.
The original gaucho was easily recognized by his baggy trousers, an import from Europe, specifically Turkey, his long curved knife or facon, his horse and his boleadoras, three hard balls of leather connected by long leather straps which he used to bring down runaway animals or during hunting. Often these were his only possessions and with them he carved out a hard life on the vast flatlands of the Patagonian pampas. As was often the case with the North American cowboys, the gaucho developed a reputation for hardness, a sense of justice and great courage, all highly important qualities when the majority of your life is spent miles from any kind of civilization and you must protect yourself and what you value at all times, with only the most basic tools and your own strength of character. The south of Argentina is a wild lonely and above all vast place.
After the Spanish were evicted from the New World and just as they were becoming popular once more among the general populace for their behaviour in battle, the gaucho declined and almost disappeared from view altogether. However, since the vast herds of cattle remained and by far the easiest and quickest way to get around the land is on horseback, the gaucho made a comeback and still exists today. You are unlikely to see him in the cities, but if you head out to the pampas, particularly any working estancia or ranch, you will see him in all his glory, usually astride a horse. Whether he is on horseback or not, he will move with a straight back and his head held high, completely aware of his importance to the ranch and proud of his ability to do his job better than anyone else.