What an incredible awakening it was. In the lobby of my hotel in Buenos Aires, I flipped through pages of coffee table books filled with stunning photography telling visual stories of the "eternal wanderers" who became the symbol of Argentina. Colorful photos showed gauchos on horseback displaying impeccable riding skills. Their dress was rugged yet dapper. They wore berets, handkerchiefs around their necks, elegant belts, ponchos draped over their shoulders and trousers tucked into leather boots. And at the end of a hard day's work, gauchos young and old gather around the fire pit minding giant stakes sizzling with savory slabs of beef.
The images alone conveyed the gauchos' passion for the land and living a simple existence.
Even while walking the fashionable streets of this capital city, I realized the high regard given to the gaucho traditions. Whether a high-end shop or a stall at the weekly outdoor flea market, vendors displayed rustic apparel, espadrilles and accessories that speak of the Argentines' proud connection with their gaucho history that dates back to the 1600s.
Finally, our visit to Los Patos, an estancia (ranch), a half-hour drive outside Buenos Aires, piqued my curiosity to understand a culture so complex it inspired the 19th century Argentine writer Jose Hernandez (who spent many years as a gaucho) to write the epic poem "El Gaucho Martin Fierro" in 1872. An immediate success, it was translated into 70 languages and compared to Cervantes' "Don Quixote." Estanciero (ranch owner) Angel de Estrada welcomed Jacqueline and me to Los Patos, his family's 700-acre working ranch and guest lodge where we dodged the city for a day, immersed our senses at a working Argentine ranch, and met some modern-day gauchos.
We arrived in time for a criollo-style barbecue, where Miguel Delgado, a gaucho who has worked on the ranch for 37 years, grilled delicious cuts of beef — tri-tip, ribs and sausages — to juicy perfection and made the tastiest sweetbreads I've ever had. An economist, accomplished polo player and former executive, Angel's life came full circle when, after he and his siblings inherited land that has been in the family for more than 200 years, he built his ranch in 1969.
"As a young boy, I grew up on my mother's ranch," Angel explained in perfect English. "I liked spending time with the gauchos who worked there."
He reminisced about early morning rides across the fields, and how they taught him the craft of building fences and breaking horses. At Los Patos, Angel raises cattle, breeds polo ponies and provides lodging for guests itching for a taste of the Argentine countryside.
We felt at home in the adobe-style main house painted bright magenta against the pastoral landscape. The living room, dining room, three guest rooms in the main house and two private guest rooms across the lawn, all furnished with family heirlooms, offered a cozy ranch ambience and rustic elegance. After lunch we wandered the ranch on horseback with Angel and the gauchos. We watched in awe as the men worked gently with a 7-month-old filly that was leaving its mother for the first time to join the existing lot of horses.
Witnessing this made me ponder the early life of the gauchos. Long before private ownership of property in Argentina, they wandered the expansive pampas (countryside), living off the land. After Spanish explorers arrived in South America in the 16th century, it was the gaucho who tamed the wild horses and cattle that escaped from Spanish settlements. The gauchos hunted cattle using boleadoras, three balls linked by a rope. With great accuracy, they rode horseback and captured the running animals by throwing the boleadoras around their legs. They survived on the beef and, because leather was more valuable than meat then, they traded hides and tallow for tobacco, rum, and mate, Argentina's national tea beverage.
Through time, horsemanship became the primary reputation of the gauchos. The saying goes, "When a gaucho was without his horse, he was without his legs."
Their riding skills led to competitions among the gauchos. In the maroma, for example, a man would fall from a corral gate as a herd of horses was driven below. With great strength, the competitor had to land bareback on a horse and ride back to the corral gate. While the gauchos' character was all about machismo, they possessed a poetic soul. Some — called payadores — had the gift of song. As Angel described, the gaucho traveled with his guitar between villages and entertained the locals by "discussing" with another payador any subject of interest to the audience. Through exciting rhyming exchanges, they challenged one another singing poetic verses. Argentines still enjoy this popular musical art at rodeos, brandings and other public events. "These are very exciting moments for those who attend these shows," said Angel. Flawless horsemanship earned the gauchos respect when the military recruited them during Argentina's war of independence from Spain in 1810. Before that, gauchos had a reputation as vagabonds. Their name became dignified, however, when they displayed their valor and Argentina won the war.
When we returned to the corral at Los Patos, we met up with longtime gaucho Tomas Alfredo Battistessa, the ranch's horse whisperer, Angel was proud to say. Dressed in a bright blue shirt with sleeves rolled up, bombachas (pleated trousers with button cuffs for tucking into boots) and wearing his black beret, Tomas took a short break from building a fence he'd been working on since early morning. Like a surgeon, he works with skill and precision, with his hands and eyes as his tools. Tomas' alert hazel eyes exuded a quiet ruggedness. With the few moments we had before the sun went down, I asked him to share his favorite memory as a gaucho.
"I am most thankful to the horse, and the guitar," was his humble reply. "Also, the many people I have met."
As Argentina developed in the 19th century and private ownership fenced off large portions of land, the gauchos had little choice but to integrate into urban society. Their expert knowledge of the land and their incomparable skills at herding cattle and breaking horses made them natural candidates to manage and supervise private ranches. Reading random verses of "El Gaucho Martin Fierro," the words simple yet so powerful, I concluded that the Argentine gaucho is a culture in his own right. As the pendulum of time continued swinging, he evolved to national hero, and for many, a mythological figure. "I will sing my song till my breath gives out, I will sing when they bury me; And singing I'll come where the angels roam The rolling plains of their starry home, Into this world I came to sing, As I sang on my mother's knee."
IF YOU GO
Learn more about Buenos Aires at: https://www.welcomeargentina.com/ciudadbuenosaires/outings.html
For outstanding collections of 19th century silver pieces, original gaucho tack and tools, crafts and Argentina folklore, visit Jose Hernandez Popular Art Museum; https://www.buenosaires.gob.ar/museos/museo-de-arte-popular-jose-hernandez