Heidi Fuller-Love spends a day roping cattle, cooking asado and hanging out with a gaucho near Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Gaucho day trips are a-peso-a-dozen near Buenos Aires, but I wanted to head out to an estancia (ranch) with a bona fide member of Argentina’s cowboy club, so when I met Andre – a gaucho guide from toursbylocals.com – I jumped at the chance to visit his ranch in the Paraná Delta.
It’s an hour’s drive through Buenos Aires’ shanty-town-packed suburbs to reach the delta, where Andre awaits me. Back in the bohemian neighbourhood of San Telmo he had looked uncomfortable in his city suit, but here he is in his element. Short and wiry, he wears the pancake-sized traditional boina beret and baggy bombacha trousers revealing bandy legs – the hallmark of any true gaucho.
Before leaving for the ranch, he takes me on a short tour of the Paraná Delta’s tiny capital. “It’s called Tigre because of the jaguars – known as tigres – that once roamed here”, he tells me. We visit antique shops, a crafts fair, a museum packed with the work of Argentine artists and even take a tour of the mate museum before hopping into a shallow-keeled motor boat and taking to the water.
Covering some 5,405 square miles, the Paraná Delta is Argentina’s answer to Venice. A vast, watery wasteland dotted with islands, it flows into the Río de la Plata, which separates Argentina from Uruguay. Churning the chocolate water into worry furrows, we chug past rambling, colonial-style properties. “Many important people have lived here – a few years ago when she was playing Evita, Madonna even came here with her kids”, Andre explains.
With its rich grazing land, the Delta has been home to gauchos for centuries. “My great grandfather bought this ranch”, Andre tells me as we leap from his boat onto the narrow jetty next to his sprawling property.
Gauchos are a potent symbol for Argentinians. The 1940s film La Guerra Gaucha about the gaucho struggle for freedom in Spanish-occupied Argentina is a well-loved classic, while José Hernández’s epic poem Martin Fierro is taught in many schools. According to Andre, this is because Martin Fierro is a symbolic gaucho: he represents the force of good against bad.
In a hummocky field behind the timber-framed ranch house I have my first gaucho lesson. Andre shows me how to sling the boleadoras, those three lumpy, leather-bound rocks tied together with straps that are used to catch wild horses and runaway cattle. It looks easy when Andre swings the weights around his head then slings them in a windmill flurry, neatly capturing the gatepost. When it’s my turn, however, I mistime the moment to let go and capture my own shins, bruising them black-and-blue.
When Andre’s gaucho employee, Jose, brings out two sturdy-boned native Criollo horses, I’m happy to move onto the next class. Donning a pair of bombacha trousers and a woollen boina I swing clumsily into the saddle, then canter off behind Jose and his hairy, wary-eyed dog to round up a few of those big-horned, docile Criolla cattle that Argentina is famed for. Jose lassos a young calf, expertly binding its feet then slinging it over the high pommel of his saddle, then he teaches me to lasso a tree stump. Soon I can catch that darn old stump without difficulty, but when I try out my skills on an ornery herd of galloping Criolla cows, I can’t catch a single horn.
Back at the ranch the mate calabash, made out of a varnished gourd, is doing the rounds. When it’s handed to me I poke the metal bombilla straw through the murky hash of floating leaves on top and take a deep sip as if I’ve been doing it all my life. Made from the leaves of a species of holly, Argentina’s national beverage is so acrid it makes me want to vomit. Snorting with laughter, Andre takes the calabash and shoves a glass of Argentinean Malbec into my hand. “It’s an acquired taste”, he says.
I sip the Malbec, allowing the wine’s soothing flavours to comfort my yerba-assaulted palate, while Andre shows me how to prepare the asado. Using the same technique that gauchos have employed for centuries, he fills a deep pit with charcoal and lights it, then straps hunks of morcilla (black pudding), chunks of mollejas (sweetbread) and slabs of asado de tira (ribs) onto the parilla – a large metal grill, which he fixes almost vertically above the lit fire.
An hour later, I bite into my first crisp, slightly charred chunk of morcilla, take a long sip of Malbec and face up to the fact that I’ll never be much of a gaucho. Andre hands me hunks of asado de tira dripping with parsley-and-garlic Chimichurri sauce. Dropping my fork, I pick up the ribs with my bare hands and tear off strips of tender meat with my teeth. “You might not be much of a gaucho, but you certainly eat like one,” Andre laughs.
Explore more of the country with the Rough Guide to Argentina, or tackle an entire continent with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.