Words by Mark Stratton
I snapped out of the prairie’s mesmerising hold when Juan-Manual hollered, “Mark… vacas… izquierda!” We’d been driving 300 cattle and I was drifting off in the saddle. Lulled by the hot winds, I was so absorbed by the heartbeat of pounding hoofs across the emerald-green plains I’d missed a breakaway of a mother and her calf. Squeezing my steed Viento’s flanks with my heels, I turned and galloped after them. My criollo, the gaucho’s horse of choice, purred through his gears smoother than a Ferrari and we soon caught the escapees and turned them back into the herd.
I’d spent four days on Estancia Pangaea, a 4,950-acre gaucho ranch near Tacuarembó in northern Uruguay. To boost their income, owners Juan-Manuel Luque and his Swiss wife Suzanne take in wannabe cowboys to live the life of the gaucho. This term, Juan-Manuel told me, derives from the Indian word for ‘vagabond’ — reflecting a once nomadic lifestyle. Gauchada, he added, is the name of their code of values (chivalry, bravery and hospitality), which is still idealised to this day in Uruguayan literature, dance, and even fashion.
After being shown the daily ritual of tacking-up my criollo with sheepskin rugs and soft leather western saddles, I learnt to drive livestock, brand and grapple calves to the ground to administer medicinal injections. Surprisingly, sheep proved much flightier than cattle.
But as well as new skills, I was also learning that although gaucho culture extends across Southern Brazil down into Argentina, its heartland is here in Uruguay’s 34.6m acres of beef- and lamb-rearing pastureland, which plays an integral role in the country’s economy.
Juan-Manuel inherited the estancia from his grandfather and is one of around 50,000 Uruguayan gauchos. When I arrived he kitted me out with a wide-brimmed hat, baggy bombachos (gaucho pants) and floppy leather boots — comfy for up to six hours’ riding each day. Yet despite throwing myself into the work, I felt amateurish when faced with real gauchos in action one afternoon. Part of a shearing team on a neighbouring farm, these were real tough hombres who sheared feverishly like automatons. They drifted between ranches, they told me; slept under the stars, and ate only barbecued mutton with dried galleta bread, washed down with cow-horn cupfuls of herbal maté tea.
On my final day, we visited a livestock auction at Tacuarembó. Dressed in their finery, gauchos came in from across the region. I watched them moving cattle on horseback between pens with startling dexterity and speed. They rarely use the iconic three-stoned bolas (whips) but instead twirled brightly coloured ponchos above their heads to urge the livestock on. The hot sun glinted on silver daggers buried in their waistbands — these were men at work.
1. Gauchos, Uruguay:
Brush up your rodeo skills at gaucho festival Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha in Tacuarembó (6-10 March 2013).
2. Amerindians, Guyana:
Visit the Makushi people’s eco-lodge at Surama. www.suramaecolodge.com
3. Lake Titicaca, Peru:
The traditions of Quechua-speaking tribes such as the Uros survive on reed islands on Lake Titicaca.
4. Mennonites, Paraguay:
See locals riding pony traps among the Mennonite farming communities in Paraguay’s Chaco region.
5. Rapa Nui, Easter Island:
Mingle with the native Polynesian inhabitants on this Chilean island.
6. Yanomani Indians, Brazil:
Visit the Amazonian forest dwellers renowned for their shamanistic rituals.
Read more in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)