It was past teatime before we pulled off the single-lane highway, through an unmarked wooden gate and across a sheep grid on to the dirt track. We hadn’t seen another soul for hours, not since the surly border police as we crossed from Argentina into Chile, just the momentous vastness of the Patagonian plains. The landscape had changed little, endless sheep grazing across undulating steppes and llama-like guanacos galloping towards mountain ranges outlined against the ever-changing sky as black-fingered condors coasted on the breeze. Yet up ahead, there was movement — great clouds of dust billowed golden from behind a low-slung ranch and the sound of beating hooves and frantic bleating drifted through the open window. “They’re late,” explained Christian, our guide, as he hopped out of the truck. Behind the house streamed a sea of bobbing white; dogs barked, racing to round-up the last remaining stragglers as three gauchos, swept along in the tumult, shifted effortlessly in their saddles. Silhouetted against the midsummer light, the gauchos, in the middle of their annual sheep-shearing session, were a magnificent sight to stumble across.
The ranch marked the entrance to the Tercera Barranca estancia, 7,000 hectares neighbouring the Torres del Paine national park in southern Chile, and home to 5,000 sheep, seven gauchos and the luxury lodge Awasi. It’s a jewel in a region regarded as one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses, stretching across the tip of Chile and Argentina. Its remoteness and rugged natural beauty have made it a Mecca for explorers and adventurers ever since the region’s first tourist, aristocrat Florence Dixie, trekked across it in 1878 so she could “taste a more vigorous emotion than that afforded by the monotonous round of society’s so-called pleasures”. Little has changed. Yet, while most travellers come to witness the glittering icebergs and tumbling cascades, trek the trails or climb Torres del Paine’s challenging peaks, it’s outside the parks that the authentic patterns of Patagonian culture can be witnessed. Across vast swathes of steppes divided into estancias, it’s here that the gauchos rule.
Travel through Argentina and you’ll find the gaucho to be a familiar figure, their story closely entwined with the evolution of Argentina itself. They are the original mestizo, born from illicit relations between the Spanish conquistadors and the native Indians they were determined to wipe out. The conquistadors’ success means the gauchos are the last link to the country’s native Indian heritage and their skill with horses, particularly the art of doma india — horse-taming — is part of this inheritance. Rejected by both the Indians and the Spanish alike, the gaucho evolved as nomads, working the vast pampas grassland around the recently formed capital of Buenos Aires while developing exceptional abilities with knives and an unbreakable bond with their horses — skills much valued by the first settlers who sought to establish farms across Argentina. While their nobility, honour and pride have been romanticised in literature since José Hernández’s epic poem, El Gaucho Martín Fierro, was published in 1872, these days it’s more common to meet them tacking up horses, taking tourists out riding or celebrating at traditional gaucho festivals. Despite years travelling across Latin America, I had never crossed the threshold into their world, or witnessed them in the wild, until now.
While the gaucho culture remains much more prominent in Argentina than Chile, Patagonia is considered by locals to be a region in itself, the borders irrelevant to a nomadic people who move depending on where their skills are most required. With a switch in the past decade from farming cattle to soybeans across much of Argentina, machinery has replaced man and the gaucho culture is seriously under threat, forcing many to roam south in search of work. Here in Patagonia, there’s no danger of that — with the natural elements unpredictably brutal, sheep farming is the only thing the land can be used for and only the gauchos demonstrate the tenacity and endurance to manage it.
We never planned to spend all of our time with the gauchos, but that is how it turned out — it was addictive. The beauty of Awasi’s approach is that each of the 12 log cabins comes with its own guide and 4x4, so you can plan your days with maximum spontaneity. With the lodge set in the middle of a private estancia, it offers rare access and connection to the gaucho culture. Keen riders, we were anxious to roam the epic landscape that beckoned below our window and so we found ourselves outside Moncho and Daniel’s outpost on our first morning. Yet, just as the gauchos finished tacking up, the wind rose — even in the height of summer, the wind commands in Patagonia — and as the clouds raced in, we took shelter, deciding to wait it out over a round of mate (a herbal tea made from yerba mate leaves) inside the outpost, a single room where beds doubled as sofas and sketches of horses lined the wooden walls. The only light came from the wood-burning stove, where Moncho set the copper kettle while Daniel scooped herbs out of a pouch fashioned from a rabbit paw and into the mate gourd. Drinking mate, treasured for its natural caffeine and high-anti-oxidant qualities, is a cultural ritual practised across much of South America, where a shared gourd is passed around a circle of old friends or new acquaintances and sipped through a single silver straw — it’s the ultimate ice-breaker. By the time the sun came out, a silent intimacy had formed. As we set to cantering across the plains on impeccably trained horses, Patagonia’s bruised palette of moody greens, purples and glacial blues exploded, inspiring a heart-bursting sense of freedom and wonder at the immense, rugged, natural beauty.
“What the gaucho loves above all, above even his horse, is freedom,” Christian told us as we headed back to the lodge. “I’m not talking basic human-rights freedom, but the soul-soaring sort.” It’s this that ignites the gaucho’s dedication to a life defined by solitude and backbreaking work. In the summer months, the gauchos wake with the sun at 4am and work across the estancia, tending the sheep and mending fences until the light begins to fade around 10pm. In winter, working hours are shorter, 9am-4pm, but as temperatures drop to -5˚C, and with just a single wood stove for warmth, the only way to endure it is to keep moving. It tuned out our new friend Moncho was something of a local legend, his skills with a knife, lasso and rope famed as far as Puerto Natales, with a reputation as one of the last remaining bagualeros, a term given to gauchos who can track and capture wild animals. Puma-hunting in particular is common among Patagonia’s gauchos. Despite pumas being protected by Chilean law, the gauchos insist it’s necessary to hunt them to prevent them from decimating dozens of sheep as they teach their cubs how to hunt. The ultimate challenge is to capture the wild cattle still scattered across the Torres del Paine national park, remnants from the estancias that existed before the land was converted into a National Park in 1959. Park rangers offer the gauchos up to US$400 per head of cattle, but precious few manage it and it can take a gaucho the whole day, exhausting as many as four horses, to capture just one wild cow. Still, it’s a welcome supplement to average monthly salaries that range between US$500 and US$1,000; especially when you need to put a child through college.
A few days later, Moncho’s 18-year-old son, Armando, was due to arrive for the summer to help his father tend the sheep and mend the intricate web of fences that border the 7,000 hectares of the Tercera Barranca estancia. Next year, though, he’s off to college to study to be a nurse. Even with a lifetime of training and a strong heritage, the lure of a different future proves too strong. It’s a choice his father whole-heartedly supports. “You can’t try to be a gaucho,” Moncho tells us by way of explanation. “You either are one, or you are not.”
On our last day, Christian takes us driving out to the Sierra Baguales, where the wild horses roam, to meet Don José Coliboro, one of the area’s oldest and most respected gauchos. Our pretence is to take him biscuits — living on a diet of lamb and bread alone, gauchos love biscuits — and he welcomes us with a wide smile as he poses for pictures and makes mate. He’s unabashedly pleased to see us, an indication of how lonely life as a gaucho can be. Tomorrow he is heading out to spend the day with his wife and kids, who live three hours away by bus. But with his own estancia and 5,000 sheep to manage single-handedly, he can’t spare more than a day, particularly in the middle of summer. Relationships for gauchos in this part of the world do not come easy — while girls flock from across the country to take part in local festivities, chasing the dream of a strong, macho man, the reality is of sacrifice and rare visits.
Factors such as these contribute to a world in which the gaucho’s position is increasingly precarious. On the one hand, the “cult” of the gaucho has rarely been stronger, celebrated in festivals by a modern society enraptured by an enduring image of nobility and essential, masculine strength. Sales are up on traditional clothing — leather boots, facón knives, bombacha pantaloons, elaborate rastras belts and boina berets — as normal guys tap into the myth, boosting their image in the hope of getting the girl. Yet while many are ready to display the macho bravado of the gaucho, few can commit to the lifestyle. As the next generation breaks away from their birthright, it’s increasingly rare to find the real deal.