Gone Gaucho

An American reflects on cowboy life on an Argentine estancia. It's impossible to say when North American cowboys first rode among the gauchos of Argentina. In 1901, a pair of mysterious westerners arrived in Patagonia and made a go of the gaucho life on a sheep ranch near the frontier town of Esquel. Granted, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were outlaws on the run, but they also made history in these parts, linking the cowboy cultures from each side of the equator.

More than a century later, history repeated itself when I signed on with the Estancia del Cielo, a 110,000-acre cattle ranch nestled high in the Andes Mountains. Working alongside a dozen gauchos at the annual roundup – held in December and January, the height of the South American summer – I felt as though I'd found horsemen's heaven.

The morning before the roundup began, citrus-colored firelight flickered through the cracks in the estancia cabin's wood-burning stove. The mayordomo, or ranch foreman, Hugo Manterola, lifted a teapot from the stove's surface and poured steaming water into a gourd filled with crushed yerba maté, herbal tea.

Where North American cowboys swear by coffee, a gaucho won't make his first lazo throw before his morning tea, and will anxiously wait his turn to drink from the communal maté gourd. The centuries-old custom is a fad in Hollywood, at present, because of the tea's health benefits. Most gauchos can't pronounce the English word "antioxidant," but they do know that "gaucho coffee" is why they'll rarely need a doctor before they're 60.

"Well, these cattle won't brand themselves," Hugo declared in Spanish before issuing instructions for the morning's work. "Lalo, you and Chipi bring down the herd from the holding pasture. Vincente, start the branding-iron fires. The day's already half-gone."

With that, he adjourned teatime and walked out the cabin door into what any sane man would call the middle of the night.