Argentina’s gauchos, El Chalten, Argentina
I heard the cheering before I saw its origin. It was strange to hear such a loud noise – or any noise for that matter – after so many hours walking in the mountains around El Chalten.
There had been a serenity in the forests. At the trek’s zenith, I had reached an enormous glacier, shrouded in clouds, that exuded a sense of peace and silence fitting for its icy appearance and ancient majesty.
But now I was being jolted out of the trance my walk had become.
The cheering cut through the calm and drew my attention out from the deep cavern of my thoughts I had become lost in. I stopped and glanced around.
Locating the direction of the sound, I walked towards it and, arriving at a slope into the valley, I looked down and took in the scene below me with wonder.
It was a rodeo, but not just any old rodeo. This was a good old-fashioned traditional Argentinian gaucho rodeo.
I scampered down the hill to get a closer look and quickly found myself in the middle of the crowd. Dressed in the traditional clothes of the local ranchers, the hundreds of people stood around in groups watching the action.
They were drinking from beer cans or from plastic cups with the local spirit fernet mixed with coke. They ate huge chunks of meat that had been barbequed on an open fire nearby – a hearty meal I joined them in consuming.
The faces of the older member of the crowd showed their age, the creases in their skin telling stories of hard living and rough outdoor years. But this was a festive day and they wore smiles beneath the tired eyes.
A gaucho rodeo
On the field, young gaucho hopefuls tried their luck and skills with the untamed beasts.
One at a time they would climb on to a blindfolded horse tied to a pole. A bell would ring and the eye-covering and the ropes would be removed from the animal.
It would buck as it ran away from its former captors, trying in earnest to throw the strong young rider from its back.
The strength of the man was in no way greater than that of the beast, but the rider had something his opponent did not have – pride – and he would hold on valiantly to avoid the humiliation of being tossed to the ground.
Most would stay on until the challenge was complete and a roar would rise from those on the sidelines.
Like all rodeos, the competition draws its origin from the realities of life on the land. This was an exhibition and a competition but it was not too far removed from the work of these gauchos on the nearby farms.
They had trained not just for today’s event but for a life of breaking in young horses. This was their chance to prove their mettle.
I stayed for about an hour, an outsider but not one who appeared to be noticed or judged by the other spectators. At one point I was even asked to join in the raffle – either as a polite attempt to include me in the activities or as a hopeful attempt to get a few pesos from me.
Either way it felt good to be asked.
The Patagonian crowd
There were families in the crowd. Young children were also dressed in the traditional attire, some playing with toy guns (which were occasionally pointed at me), others transfixed by the competition on the field.
Sometimes the youngsters stayed near their parents but when they moved away to play elsewhere the parents almost seemed relieved they could continue drinking, smoking and talking with their friends in a way that was becoming increasingly rowdy.
The whole noisy scene was a contrast to the peace and quiet of the Patagonian wilderness trails I had left not long before. But both worlds fit together without leaving space in the joins.
The wilds of this part of Argentina do have a natural beauty but it is man’s nature to harness the environment. At least on this occasion it is with the same sustainable techniques that have been utilised for generations.
For me, the time at the rodeo was an unexpected novelty and a glimpse into the ways of the local workers of the land. For everyone else it was a style of life they have always known.