Romancing the Gaucho

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Gaucho: Tall in the saddle | Photo: Vera and Jean-Christophe CC

According to National Geographic, there are about 150,000 gauchos—the South American version of North American cowboys—living in Argentina. Ah, yes, but would I be able to find any in San Antonio de Areco, a town in the middle of the pampas about two hours from Buenos Aires?

I asked the locals where to go and struck gaucho gold. The Vuelta del Gato is a gaucho-only watering hole just north of the river. There was no point in acting as though I could blend in; women in Argentina don’t go to gaucho bars anymore than they would check out men’s Turkish steam baths in America. I sauntered in, ordered a glass of wine and nodded at the side-glances of the male patrons.

The gauchos in the bar were dressed in their uniforms: baggy pants tucked into boots, bandanas, black hats—or berets for the swashbucklers—and ponchos. Their typical outfit makes gauchos easy to spot at 50 paces. Perched on a tree stump that served as a chair, I casually tried not to stare as two typically clad gauchos rode up and tethered their horses to the hitching post outside the bar.

It had taken them two hours to ride into town, so they were thirsty. The good thing about horses is that no matter how drunk a gaucho gets, all he has to do is get back on his trusty steed and it will take him home. Horses tied, the pair slowly ambled in, nodded at the kids playing on the swing and greeted Florencia. She is the owner, manager, bartender, cook and cleaner of this one-person operation.

The gauchos hunkered down at a table and tucked into their fernet—a drink of Italian origin that Argentina has adopted as its own—and Pepsi. Historically, gauchos drank wine, but over time their tastes shifted and fernet became the tipple of choice. The cowboys of North America would approve of the evolution. Fernet is closer to whiskey and Coke, which is what cowboys switch to when it gets to the “she done me wrong” crying-time at the end of the evening.

An old car pulled up beside the horses and a gaucho got out. A large 4-wheel-drive that belonged to a rich local who now lives in Buenos Aires followed suit. The male-preserve of the gaucho bar cuts across socio-economic lines.

Then the gravel swirled as a sporty little SUV nosed into the parking area. A fair-skinned blond woman stepped out, took a quick look around and headed towards the two gauchos. She sat down and ordered a drink.

“There is sex in the air,” I stage whispered to Mariana, a woman from Buenos Aires I’d met earlier in the day. She shot me a “How do you know?” look and I continued, “Ms. Bountiful is gaucho-hunting.”

The evening wore on, but the cards didn’t come out. Gauchos, I learned from Florencia, play a type of Spanish game, rather than poker. But cards and money are still involved so it is much of a sameness.

By the time I was into my third glass of wine, the gaucho at the end of the table was being totally ignored. Ms. Bountiful shivered as the night air cooled. Her gaucho got up and covered her shoulders with his red wool poncho. His hand lingered.

Then all three of them stood up and the men headed for their horses. What? I’d got it wrong? Ms. Bountiful strolled to the back of her SUV and opened the back door. The gauchos led their horses over and they stood talking. Perhaps they were exchanging phone numbers.

One gaucho mounted his horse and headed north, leading the other horse behind him. Ms. Bountiful, the other gaucho and the horse’s saddle backed out onto the road and headed south.

I raised an eyebrow at Mariana and smiled.

This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, which organizes adventure tours to Argentina and beyond.

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Jody Hanson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel junkie who lived and worked in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before moving on to South East Asia. She has visited 99 countries, lived in eight and holds passports for three. She has yet to figure out if she lives to travel or travels to live. For more information, visit her site.

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