What Is a Gaucho: The Culture and History
He's a mysterious loner, wandering the open plains with an equine companion.
He lives off the land. He sleeps under the stars. He knows everything there is to know about horses and cattle. He likes to drink, hunt, dance, and woo women, but he'll never be tamed.
Why not? Because he answers to no one except himself (and that's the way he likes it).
Who is this intriguing figure? If you're imagining an old-west American cowboy, you're close. But the hero of our story lives much farther south, on the fertile plains of Argentina and Uruguay.
He's called a gaucho, and he's been romanticized in South America for hundreds of years.
What is a gaucho? How did their lifestyle develop? And why do they (and everyone else in the world) love yerba mate so much?
In this post, we'll dive into the fascinating world of gauchos, from their humble origins to their modern-day counterparts. Read on to learn everything you need to know about the gaucho—the myths, the legends, and the reality.
What Is a Gaucho?
Gauchos were nomadic horsemen on the grasslands (or La Pampa) of Argentina and Uruguay in the early 1800s.
Most Gauchos were "mestizos," meaning they had both European and Indian ancestry. Some were white, black, or mulatto (mixed white and black). They shared many traits with American cowboys from the same time period and are romanticized the same way.
No one is sure exactly where the word "gaucho" originated. A few popular theories include:
- A Quechua word for "orphan" or "homeless"
- A Portuguese word for "vagabond"
- A Guaran-Indian word for "drinker"
- A Latin word for "thieves"
Regardless of where their name came from, certain traits of the gaucho are unmistakable. They were renowned for their horse riding skills and ability to work with cattle. They lived off the land—hunting, foraging, and drinking vast quantities of yerba mate.
What gave rise to this South American "cowboy?" Let's dig deeper into how their traditions began.
Origins of the Gaucho
Failed attempts to found Buenos Aires in 1536 left scores of horses and cattle wandering the fertile countryside. The first men resembling "gauchos" could tame a horse, hunt their own cattle, and generally live however they pleased.
Fast-forward to the year 1806. Governmental powers are shifting across Europe, sending powerful shock waves rippling through the Spanish empire. Argentina fights off a British invasion and sparks what will become a decade-long War for Independence.
Argentine forces often fought battles with the Spanish in rural areas, where they were outnumbered and outgunned. Nomadic men of mixed Spanish and Indian blood began assisting them, offering valuable insight into the land.
They worked mostly as guides and scouts, using their horsemanship skills to provide support to the troops. By the time the war ended in 1818, the "gaucho" was born in both legend and namesake.
Gaucho Culture Emerges
After the war ended, many gauchos migrated to the grassy, fertile Pampas region. Hunting and trading became their way of life, along with a rustic lifestyle of living off the land.
Some found work caring for cattle and performing odd jobs for estate (estancia) owners, although their overall lifestyle remained much the same.
Most gauchos lived in tiny mud huts with grass rooves. After a day of hunting or working on an estancia, the gaucho would come home to a bed of soft cattle hides. Their diet consisted mostly of beef, wine, and yerba mate (and we're pretty sure they would have been fans of yerba mate cocktails too).
Gauchos were the free spirits of the time, rarely legalizing their marriages (if they chose to marry at all). Many came from a Roman Catholic background, although their beliefs were often tinted by local superstitions. Their pastimes of choice included drinking, gambling, dancing, and playing the guitar.
The Decline of the Gaucho
As the 19th century drew to a close, gaucho culture began a slow and steady decline.
Private owners began acquiring livestock that had previously lived wild on the Pampas. Soon the land was fenced off into huge estates, leaving little room for wandering nomads.
The Industrial Revolution also sparked this shift, as many began to view the gaucho lifestyle as wild and uncivilized. With no more room to roam and fewer employment options, many gauchos were forced into the city.
Gauchos who wanted to continue their agrarian way of life were forced to take more permanent work on the newly founded estates. Purebred livestock replaced the feral herds while large tracts of alfalfa were planted to feed them.
In one generation, the free-spirited gaucho was forced to become a ranchhand.
Does this mean the gaucho culture disappeared altogether? By no means! The spirit of the gaucho lives on in the hardworking ranchhands on today's estancias.
In recent years, there's also been a huge boom in tourists seeking the traditional "gaucho" experience. Estancias across Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil now offer visitors the chance to experience gaucho culture firsthand.
Today's generation of gauchos has the privilege of sharing their rich history with the rest of the world. Events like the Feria de Mataderos and "La Rural" Exposition are a chance for gauchos to showcase their culture and skills.
Now that you know the story of the gaucho, let's look at some fascinating aspects of their culture.
Skills & Tools
No cowboy would be complete without his horse, and the same is true of gauchos past and present.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of a true gaucho is his horsemanship skills. Not only can they break and train young horses, but they're fearless in the saddle. Some have even been called "horse whisperers" because of their deep connection with horses.
As gauchos developed their skills with horses and cattle, three tools became essential. The lasso and knife are common to many cattle cultures, but the gaucho's unique tool was his boleadores or "bola."
The bola consists of three stone or iron balls attached to long cords of leather. The gaucho would throw this weapon at the legs of an animal to immobilize it. It was useful when hunting animals for food, but a gaucho would also use it to temporarily restrain calves and cattle.
As you might expect of minimalists living off the land, gaucho dress developed to be more functional than fashionable.
Baggy trousers called bombachas were their pants of choice, especially for long days in the saddle. They were designed to gather at the ankles and cover the tops of their boots.
Gauchos usually wore a woolen poncho that could also double as a saddle pad or sleeping bag. They'd switch out a lightweight poncho for a heavier version during the wintertime.
Other traditional gaucho fashion items include a wide-brimmed hat, spurs, and a vest. Others wear a handkerchief tied around their neck or a belt decorated with a silver buckle and coins.
Food & Drink
The early gauchos lived off the land, so their diet was limited to what was available. The majority of gauchos lived on a diet almost exclusively of beef and yerba mate.
What makes this fact so noteworthy? You would think that a diet limited to two items would result in malnutrition or poor health, but that wasn't the case for the gauchos.
The secret was in yerba mate's amazing health benefits. Aside from the energy boost from the caffeine, yerba mate also supplied a steady stream of vital nutrients. Wandering gauchos would have been able to get all the vitamins, potassium, and magnesium they needed from sipping their daily brew.
Bonus: Yerba mate can also act as an appetite suppressant. This was surely helpful for the gauchos and their limited dining options!
Music, Literature, & Dance
Just like Americans have tall tales and legends about their cowboys, the gauchos have also been immortalized in fiction and prose.
The majority of songs and stories about gauchos began with the gauchos themselves. They were written and sung by wandering gaucho minstrels, accompanied by a guitar, of course!
If you get a group of gauchos together around a campfire, there's sure to be plenty of singing and dancing. Traditional dances include the gato, the cielito, and the mediacana. They're especially proud of the Malambo, a dance featuring very fast (and very complex) footwork.
Gaucho lore and legend became a vital part of 19th-century South American literature. Rafael Obligado wrote three famous poems about the legendary gaucho Santos Vega, who was only defeated by the Devil himself. After his death, his ghost inhabits the Pampas.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento had a more serious take on gaucho life in his book Facundo. It explores the cultural clash that occurred between the nomadic gauchos and the city dwellers during the time of the Industrial Revolution.
Each year, the annual television awards in Argentina are named the Martin Fierros. This is a direct homage to the title character in Jose Hernandez's beloved gaucho poem.
Gauchos & Yerba Mate
As deeply ingrained as gaucho culture is into South American life, so is the tradition of drinking yerba mate. It's an old Guarani tradition from the native Indians in South America, who many of the gauchos were descended from.
The gauchos of old would have found the herb growing wild across the Pampas, allowing them to drink it to their hearts' content. Today we can easily order and enjoy yerba mate, but back then, they would have a little more work to do.
First, a gaucho would need to build a campfire and secure his kettle, or pava, above the flames. Next, he would take the dried yerba leaves and pour them into the mate (gourd) to about half-full.
The gaucho would cover the mouth of the gourd and turn it upside-down, shaking out the fine powdered dust. It was important for the yerba to settle on only one side and leave the other side of the gourd empty.
Next, he'd pour a bit of hot water down the empty side and let the yerba soak it up for a minute or so. This would allow the leaves to bloom and release their wonderful flavor. Once the rest of the water is nearly boiling, he'd pour in the rest and get ready to drink his favorite beverage.
Gauchos living on the plains would have enjoyed their yerba mate "amargo," or bitter. Gauchos (and many others) today often add some sugar to make mate dulce, or "sweet" yerba mate.
Are You Ready to Drink Like a True Gaucho?
Well, there you have it. After reading this article, you'll have the perfect answer the next time someone asks you, "What is a gaucho?"
Gauchos are hard-working men who love their land and the animals that live on it. The history of their culture spans hundreds of years. They've been romanticized and immortalized in songs, poetry, and novels.
And while the original "gaucho" lifestyle may be gone, their spirit lives on in the ranching culture of today. If you're lucky enough to visit an estancia, you can get a glimpse of gaucho culture for yourself.
Speaking of gaucho culture, has all this reading made you thirsty? Until you get the chance to sit around a campfire with a real-life gaucho, you'll have to be content with a cup of yerba mate at home.