Wherever you have cattle, and cattle ranches, you have people on horseback tending to them. They're called by many names: cowboy in the US; gaucho in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil; vaqueiro in northern Brazil; huaso in Chile and llanero in Colombia and Venezuela.
In the great wide plains areas, called pampas, of Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, cattle raising is a primary way of life.
The men who work the cattle are called gauchos, from the Quechua huachu, which means orphan or vagabond. Spanish settlers distinguished the two by calling orphans guachos and vagabonds gauchos, but over time the usage melded into gaucho.
Much has been written, fact and fiction, about the legendary Gauchos, the wanderers of the Pampas. The early horsemen were skilled horsemen, loners, scrabbling out a life on the sun-baked pampas, living off the land and tracking down lost cattle for ranchers. Their clothing reflected their life on horseback: a woolen poncho, long pleated trousers and knee-high leather boots. They owned nothing of value but their horse and the long knife, the facon, they kept sharp, and handy.
They had no way of preserving meat, and after butchering a cow, would cook it immediately over an open fire. This was the beginning of the asado, still popular today. This photo of a modern day gaucho and friend in traditional dress, enjoying an asado and maté, portrays the romance of the gaucho life.
It wasn't always so. In the beginning, they were looked down on as lower-class, mestizos, but when the wars of independence against Spain began, and commanders looked for able-bodied men, the gauchos were called into service and commanded the respect of the military. Today, June 16 is a holiday, celebrating the gaucho contribution to the War of Independence.
Back then, as settlements grew in the interior of the country, the gauchos resisted encroaching civilization. Over time, however, the early gaucho lost his solitary existence and became employed on the great ranches. They settled down, rounded up cattle, mended fences, branded animals and tended sheep. As their way of living changed, the legend of the gaucho grew. They were studied, as in Some Notes on Argentine Gauchos in the 19th Century and the Question of "Class" and honored, as in the classic epic poem, El Gaucho Martín Fierro by José Hernández.
Today,musical groups and sports teams call themselves gauchos, clothiers sell hats, and the gaucho is a prime attraction on tours and often photographed. Photos and more photos of Argentine gauchos.
In Brazil, the southern state of Mato Grosso do Sul is a cattle-raising area famous for its rough-riding cowboys, and its 10 million inhabitants are even known as gauchos. They do the same work as other gauchos, including curing and dyeing hides using tree bark (photo.) Zona Arara Azul, (sul) is an account of a trip to the Pantanal with some close-up experiences with Brazilian gauchos.
Surprising to some, "Brazil also boasts a year-round circuit of more than 1,200 other rodeos, according to the National Rodeo Federation." (Quoted from Brazil's Redeo Boom.) The Festa do Peão de Boiadeiro de Barretos, also known as the Barretos International Rodeo, is the largest international rodeo. Competitors come from many countries, (photos), and celebrity country and western music stars from the US make regular appearances there. Riding High in Brazil has photos of this rodeo.