Uruguay: living a gaucho dream (2023)

The cowboy tips his hat. I nod, as nonchalantly as I can. He grunts. I grunt back. This is how it should be. Amiable laconicism. Men among men. We’re in Uruguayan gaucho country after all.

I feel I have acquitted myself well as he saunters off, horse at the rein. Equals, the two of us. Then I note the sturdy knife wedged into his belt. I reappraise. A foot in length and wide as a scythe, it’s a no-nonsense blade. Useful for skinning rabbits, or for bar-room brawls. The grizzle-jawed cowboy looks as though he would be a dab hand at both. OK, so not perfect parity.

Enrico motions towards the departing figure. “We call him the last gaucho.” I take it as a joke, although the words come flat, deadpan. If the cowboy spoke, I’d bet on his speaking just like that. Enrico is six months into his stint at Finca Piedra. He is the son of a cattle auctioneer, and what he knows about ranching he picked up at agricultural college. I suspect he’s a bit in awe of the veteran hand. That makes two of us.

Gauchos, in my book, are about as cool as it gets. Imagine it: days spent herding cattle, fixing fences, tracking wild boar. Black tobacco by the pouch-load, campfires, pitchforks of barbecued meat. And no salad. Never salad.

So my imagination runs, at least. Uruguay provides my test bed. Are hardened gauchos still to be found roaming this forgotten corner of South America? Not along the coast, for sure. Cowboys don’t do sea and sand. The interiór, the hinterlands, that’s where I’m headed: rolling hills, great big skies, and grasslands rich and green.

Uruguay: living a gaucho dream (1) Horseback is still the best way to keep an eye on sheep in Montevideo

Before setting off, I have a place to visit: the Gaucho Museum. It’s housed in a wonderful French-style mansion in downtown Montevideo. I ascend the curved wooden staircase to the exhibition rooms on the top floor. The sounds of the city dilute with every step. Soon it’s just me and the murmur of gauchos past; the clink of their silver spurs, the swish of their ponchos, the whoosh of bolas leaving the braided leather sling. I leave inspired, the image in my head firmly intact.

At Finca Piedra, a few hours’ drive from the capital, Enrico is pointing to the birds that swoop and swirl in the still-blue sky: teros , horneros , lechuza . We’re on horseback, taking an afternoon ride around the 1,000-hectare farm. I note down the names in a jolting hand. Dressed in a red beret and a worn pair of bombacha trousers, Enrico looks the part. Horse and rider one. As I bump clumsily along behind, my nonchalance slips another notch. I give up on note-taking. Enrico is a man of few words anyhow. Instead, I give myself over to the moment. The scenery is lovely, in an understated, undulating kind of way. My eye is drawn to the newborn calves gambolling in the fields. They are cute, their mothers, less so. We – OK, I – trot along at a distance.

As we head back to the ranch, Enrico becomes momentarily effusive. The gaucho life is gradually passing, he tells me. Cash crops such as soya are eating into traditional pasturelands, motorbikes are gradually replacing horses. “And vegetables? Do ranch-hands eat vegetables?” He looks at me in utter shock. Hope remains, I tell myself. There’s life in the old gaucho yet.

At Salamora lodge, an eco-hideaway near the town of Minas, my hopes rise further. The location is spectacular. Perched on a high plateau, this rustic outpost looks out on to three distinct mountain ranges. It’s the kind of place where, when it gets dark, it gets properly dark. Riders and nature-lovers have everything they can wish for: well-marked paths, native woodland, a stable-full of criollo ponies, a rehabilitation programme for endangered birds. And not another soul for miles.

(Video) The Gauchos of Uruguay

Alicia, the lodge’s owner and host, is an expert in local flora and fauna. We take a lengthy stroll around the property. Curious botanical terms are soon filling pages in my notebook. “Like our people, Uruguay’s plant life isn’t ostentatious,” she remarks at one point. “You’ve got to look closely, at the details, to see the beauty.” I like the idea. And the more we walk, the more I get it. The vegetation is all brusque and wily, with spikes and smells and other trickery to keep predators at bay. La Salamora might have no gauchos, but you can feel their presence everywhere. Earthy, authentic, unadorned, wild.

Across the sierras to the east, I find what I’ve been looking for. Ricardo, manager of Lagunas del Catedral, meets me at the gate, bedecked in full gaucho regalia. The bombachas, the belt, the knife, the neckerchief, the hat, right down to the leather boots. He’s chatty, ebullient. A local history buff, he keeps me entertained over lunch with tales of times gone by. The story I like most is a Butch Cassidy saga about a pair of murderous bandits who holed up in nearby caves. Ricardo delivers details of their dirty deeds with a raconteur’s delight. “They were executed, right here. September 28, 1902,” he says, filling my glass with an excellent cabernet franc from his own winery. “Salud.” Good health.

Ricardo suggests a post-lunch walk. The farm covers 300 hectares, almost all of it untamed country. I spy a lechuza. Small beer, I know, but it wins me an admiring glance. We walk on. Ricardo points out the snuffle marks of wild pigs, discusses the medicinal uses of indigenous plants, and swears that the erratic behaviour of a line of ants portends rain. I’m bought. It doesn’t even bother me when he later reveals that he’s a townie by birth. I feel my gaucho quest is complete. Yes, the cowboys of today might have college diplomas and ecologist tastes, but so what? They are keeping the dream alive.

My faithful steed and I take our leave, 90 horsepower of budget rental car roaring under the bonnet. As we pass through the farm gate, the heavens open. The ants were right. Heed the gaucho.

  • Oliver Balch is the author of Viva South America!: A Journey Through a Restless Continent (Faber & Faber)

Uruguay essentials

When to go

Uruguay’s rural lodges are open whatever the season, but the best time to visit weather-wise is between November and April. Gaucho fans might want to check out the Fiesta de la Patria Grande, a Wild West-fest held in the city of Tacuarembó in mid-March.

Flying time and time difference

Montevideo is 17 hours from London. GMT minus two hours.

Getting there

 Mention gauchos and estancias, and most think of the vast expanses of the Argentine pampas. What Uruguay has over its neighbour is size. Uruguay is small, which means far less time getting from A to B.

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There are no direct flights from Europe to Uruguay. Most flights are routed through Buenos Aires to Montevideo, though from June this year Air Europa (aireuropa.com) will fly three times a week from London Gatwick via Madrid.

Uruguay is a ferry ride from the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Buquebus (0054 11 4316 6500; buquebus.com) runs daily services to Colonia del Sacramento (1hr) and Montevideo (3hrs).

Getting around

Car is the best way to the hidden corners of the Uruguayan countryside. Avis (00598 2903 0303; avis.com.uy), Europcar (2401 0616; europcar.com) and Thrifty (2481 8170; thrifty.com.uy) have a comprehensive network of rental outlets.

Buses run irregularly in the countryside, although most lodges will arrange a pickup from the nearest town’s bus stations. For an additional fee, of course.

Packages

Audley Travel (audleytravel.com) and Infinity Tours (infinity-tours.com) both offer holidays to Uruguay. The country’s ecotourism market remains a pretty independent affair, though, so direct bookings are commonplace.

Where to stay

Lagunas del Catedral ££

Delightfully restored farmhouse in Maldonado state; 300 hectares, including native woodland, caves and waterfall; astronomical observatory; riding and mountain-biking (94 410408; lagunasdelcatedral.com, from $130/£80 per person).

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Finca Piedra ££

A modern-style ranch near San José; French-owned winery and vineyards on site; swimming pool, children’s play area, golf driving-range, mountain bikes; large, functional rooms (4340 3118; fincapiedra.com, from $150/£95 per person).

La Salamora

£ Fabulous setting in the Sierras de Minas; superb horse-riding country; guided walks; lectures on ornithology, astronomy and medicinal plants on request; whale-watching (August-October); five simple, comfortable rooms (99 923997; lasalamora.com, from $150/£95 per person).

La Vigna

Stylishly redecorated 1880s farmhouse, close to Colonia del Sacramento; recycled-chic; art studio; organic garden; five uniquely designed bedrooms (4558 9234; lavigna.com.uy, $1,000/£634 per week, for full house rent).

Where to eat and drink

Given their out-of-the-way location, lodges generally include meals (but not drinks) in the overall price. Gauchos are straightforward eaters and most menus keep things basic. Meat, as you’d expect, features heavily.

El Palenque

Located in the Mercado del Puerto, El Palenque (Pérez Castellano; 2917 0190) is a regular haunt for committed carnivores; huge grill, friendly staff, open-air tables.

(Video) Traditional Gaucho Festival in Uruguay with Criolla, Asado and Folklore | Life in Uruguay

Inside track

Uruguayans drink yerba mate by the gourdful. A tea-like infusion, it’s an acquired taste with a pleasant kick. If nothing else, tracking down your own maté (cup) and bombilla (straw) is a good excuse to wander the streets of Montevideo’s Old Town.

Currency

£1 = 33 Uruguayan pesos. US dollars are widely accepted.

Visas/vaccinations

No special requirements.

Further information

Welcome Uruguay (welcomeuruguay.com) is a useful portal for basic tourist information. The Uruguayan Society of Rural Tourism has the best database of rural lodges (2902 1948; turismoruraluy.com).

For a history of Uruguay, Forgotten Conquests (Temple University Press, 2001) by Gustavo Verdesio is a good starting point. If you like your history told through fiction, try Carolina de Robertis’s debut novel, The Invisible Mountain (HarperCollins, 2010).

FAQs

What is a gaucho in Uruguay? ›

gaucho, the nomadic and colourful horseman and cowhand of the Argentine and Uruguayan Pampas (grasslands), who flourished from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century and has remained a folk hero similar to the cowboy in western North America.

Why are Gauchos important to Uruguay? ›

Gaucho, the cowboy of Argentina and Uruguay. Gauchos played an important historical role in the Río de la Plata and remain important cultural and political symbols. Gauchos, first called gauderios, emerged as a distinct social group of wild-cattle hunters during the early eighteenth century.

Are there gauchos in Uruguay? ›

In Argentina and Uruguay today, gaucho can refer to any "country person, experienced in traditional livestock farming".

Are there Gauchos in Brazil? ›

The Gaucho tradition runs deep in Southern Brazil. Gauchos are known as traditional cowboys born and raised in regions across Southern Brazil where they formed a culture and way of life that is truly unique.

What does gaucho symbolize? ›

The gaucho is a symbol of rustic elegance, autonomy, and hardworking ties to the land. Large baggy pants that are cinched at the ankles - known as bombachas, cowboy hats, berets, and even handle bar mustaches are all styles that make one think of Argentina way back when.

How is the life of a gaucho? ›

Living off a diet of beef and maté, gauchos spent their days on the plains hunting and herding cattle. They gained the reputation for being strong and silent, but with an affinity for violence when provoked -a trait that proved essential in the War of Independence.

What were gauchos known for? ›

In the late 18th century gauchos roamed the pampas outside of Buenos Aires in search of wandering herds of cattle and horses. These nomadic riders spent days alone in the saddle; some say they even bathed on horseback. They tracked the herds down looking for their meat, hide, and other trade goods.

What is another name for gauchos? ›

What is another word for gauchos?
cowboyscowhands
herdsmendrovers
stockmenranchers
cattlemenvaqueros
rancheroscowherds
17 more rows

What were the first gauchos called? ›

The word Gaucho has different etymologies but we think that the most well-known comes from the Quechua word huachu which means orphan, solitary or vagabond person… In the early 17th century, the first Gauchos appeared on the coast of Argentina, who at this time were also called gauderios or changadores.

What did the gauchos wear? ›

The style of a Gaucho is quite distinct; these cow-herders would typically wear a brightly woven poncho (which doubled as a saddle blanket and sleeping gear), with loose-fitting trousers called bombachas that were belted with a tirador, or a chiripá, a loincloth.

What makes gaucho unique? ›

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.

What did gauchos eat? ›

The typical diet of a gaucho consisted primarily of meat and yerba mate, the caffeinated tea plant native to Argentina. Yerba mate is not only rich in caffeine but the brew also provides high amounts of other nutrients.

What language did gauchos speak? ›

Gaúcho (Portuguese pronunciation: [gaˈuʃo], alternatively [gaˈuʃu]), more rarely called Sulriograndense, is the Brazilian Portuguese term for the characteristic accent spoken in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, including its capital, Porto Alegre.

What are female gauchos called? ›

A female Gaucho, better known as "Chinit.

What is a gaucho girl? ›

Rural women role⁣

During the 19th century, the activities carried out by female gauchos were varied and normally they were in charge of milking cows, orchard work or caring for farm animals.

What does the word gaucho mean in English? ›

noun. gau·​cho ˈgau̇-(ˌ)chō plural gauchos. : a cowboy of the South American pampas.

Where do the gauchos live? ›

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.

What is a sentence for gaucho? ›

How to use gaucho in a sentence. The landscape was in Gaucho days the same for hundreds of miles. The gaucho remounted his horse, and set off; he soon disappeared in the darkness.

What happened to the gauchos? ›

Towards the end of the 19th century, gaucho culture went into decline. These rugged country folk were marginalized by the greater Argentine community, who saw their rural lifestyle as uncivilized.

Do gauchos carry guns? ›

Then, of course, there was the knife, an edged weapon and a multipurpose tool used almost at any time during the gaucho's day. Gauchos had limited access to firearms, which in our territories were reserved to the high or military classes almost exclusively.

What year were gauchos popular? ›

Though somewhat unusual in cut, gaucho pants reflected the growing interest in ethnic looks and world cultures in the late 1960s and 1970s. Fashion writers praised them as one of the new, modern alternatives to skirts. Gauchos first made an impact in the fall of 1970.

What did gauchos drink? ›

Gauchos carry a small tea pot (pava) to heat water for mate. They gathered dried animal dung to fuel a fire. Mate is always shared, everyone drinking from a common cup. The beverage is drunk from a small hollow gourd (also referred to as mate).

Who founded gaucho? ›

And that emphasis inevitably stems from the very top, specifically in the form of founder and chief executive Zeev Godik. Godik founded Gaucho mark 1 way back in 1976. The young Dutch national was travelling through western Europe before studying when he experienced Argentine steak at a restaurant in Germany.

What is a gauchos hat called? ›

The major characteristics of the "gaucho style" is the flat top or flat crown and wide flat brim can be made with wool or fur felt. Some other names for this style hat can be gambler or bolero hats.

What does gaucho mean in Spanish slang? ›

1. ( Latin America) gaucho. (= vaquero) cowboy ⧫ herdsman ⧫ herder (esp US)

What is a gaucho and what did they do? ›

In the late 18th century gauchos roamed the pampas outside of Buenos Aires in search of wandering herds of cattle and horses. These nomadic riders spent days alone in the saddle; some say they even bathed on horseback. They tracked the herds down looking for their meat, hide, and other trade goods.

What kind of meat is gaucho? ›

"This recipe contains a flavorful and simple technique for grilling beef steak, which also works well on pork ribs. The result is savory, juicy meat."

What is a gaucho food? ›

Often refers to grilled steak that is marinated, basted, or served with chimichurri.

What is a female gaucho called? ›

A female Gaucho, better known as "Chinit.

Who are called gauchos? ›

: a cowboy of the South American pampas.

What language do gauchos speak? ›

Gaúcho (Portuguese pronunciation: [gaˈuʃo], alternatively [gaˈuʃu]), more rarely called Sulriograndense, is the Brazilian Portuguese term for the characteristic accent spoken in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, including its capital, Porto Alegre.

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