The pampas, the vast expanse of flat grassland that radiates out from Buenos Aires, forms one of the country’s most famous features. Similarly, the gaucho, who once roamed them on horseback, facón (knife) clenched between his teeth, leaving a trail of broken hearts and gnawed steak bones behind him, is as important a part of the collective romantic imagination of Argentina as the Wild West cowboy is in the US. The popular depiction of this splendid, freedom-loving figure – whose real life must actually have been rather lonely and extremely brutal – was crystallized in José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro, from which just about every Argentine can quote (they learn it by heart at school). It’s a way of life whose time has passed, but the gaucho’s legacy remains. You’re unlikely to witness knife fights over a woman, but you can still visit well-preserved pulperías (traditional bars), stay at estancias and watch weather-beaten old paisanos (countrymen) playing cards and chuckling behind their huge handlebar moustaches. The term “gaucho” is still a compliment while gaucho garb – beret or sombrero, knotted scarf, checked shirt, ornate belt (tirador), baggy trousers (bombachas), boots or espadrilles (alpargatas) and a poncho – is considered almost chic. A gauchada means a good deed or an act of macho heroism, altruistic courage or, at least, heartfelt generosity. Shrines of red flags dedicated to the semi-mythical Gauchito Gil, one of the most famous gauchos of all, are often seen by the roadside throughout the country.
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