At first glance, it’s total chaos. Gauchos run between packs of horses, a litre of Quilmes or Imperial beer in hand. Mud cakes the animals’ chests and legs, a product of the morning’s rain, and saddles are haphazardly thrown over tree branches and fences. People shout, horses whinny, and dogs bark as they skirt between the legs of roaming mares and stallions. And, somewhere, there’s a competition running, evidenced by the faint sound of an announcer.
But an order to the madness slowly emerges. Centre stage is a large field, bound by a fence that separates spectators from competitors, except for when riders ask for mate. A system of subtle cues governs traffic patterns, signalling when packs of horses, led by a gaucho, get the right of way and when humans can cross the thoroughfares, their ground ravaged by hoofprints and tyre marks. Certain stretches of fence are fair game for tying a horse, and there’s a specific pasture for turned out horses.
It’s the weekend of November 10 in San Antonio de Areco, home to the annual celebration of the Dia de la Tradición (“Day of Tradition”). Started in 1937, the fair pays homage to gaucho life, the cultural and economic bedrock of Argentina. This heritage was famously memorialised in the book El gaucho Martín Fierro by José Hernández, one of the country’s most lauded poets and the inspiration behind the festivals’ creation.
“The best thing we have is our land. Argentina’s soul is rooted in animals and agriculture,” said Nicolas Puig, a 34-year-old gaucho from Capitán Sarmiento, about 30-kilometres away.
Rodeo events and horse shows are the primary entertainment this weekend. Thousands of people from all over the region come to compete, cheer and celebrate the life of a gaucho.
This isn’t for show, says Carola Vieytes, a tour guide with Areco Tradición, a local outfitter that provides daily or overnight trips to the campo. “It’s absolutely real, this is how you live here.”
Vieytes, a Buenos Aires native and self-proclaimed porteña at heart, moved here eight years ago looking for a change of pace. She’s never left.
San Antonio de Areco, a town of roughly 25,000 people, sits just 110 kilometres or a 90-minute drive away from Buenos Aires. Though separated only by one long, straight highway, what many call one of the country’s last bastions of traditionalism feels like an Argentina entirely distinct from the capital.
The journey cuts through vast flatlands lush with greenery and tall grasses. On this particular weekend, when gauchos from all over the Areco region travel to San Antonio for the festival, small groups of mounted riders dot the highway every few miles, transporting themselves and their wares by hoof rather than car.
Home to Argentina’s original gauchos, the town was the landing spot for some of Spain’s earliest conquerors. They brought horses — which the nomadic indigeneous groups of Argentina’s pampas had never seen before — and created the estancias that dominate the area today.
“The indigeneous people didn’t want to ‘break’ the horses like the Spanish did, so they developed an alternative using less brute strength and more organic, intuitive interaction,” said Vieytes. “The gaucho techniques are a mix of that native intuition and Spanish knowledge.”
Throughout this colonial period, a concentrated number of owners slowly gobbled up most of the area’s land and imposed an ownership framework that had never existed. They even armed gauchos and forced them to fight each other, today known as Argentina’s Civil War.
What ultimately emerged from the bloodshed, admittedly, was the mighty agricultural industry that flourished and powered Argentina’s growth.
“You cannot know Argentina without knowing the story of the gaucho,” said Vieytes.
With the economic system came this new way of life.
“If there’s no land , there's nothing. Our country is built on this heritage,” said Matias Servetto, 25, and a local gaucho.
Servetto competed in the tropilla event. Riders must guide a pack of horses without any lead lines, asking them to change direction, stop and remain close together using only voice commands and the sound of one bell tied to a single horse’s halter.
Historically, this was used during the days-long journeys between estancias for new work. Today, packs are bigger – maybe 10 or 12 horses – and they tend to match for competition aesthetics, Servetto said.
Echoes of that heritage are ubiquitous throughout the festivities, many harkening back to the colonial era.
Most stirrups are designed to look like a crown that’s been turned upside down, a symbol of gaucho resistance against the Spanish monarchy. Gauchos sport knives and belt buckles made of silver, a tribute to the antiquated process of taking silver coins — the day’s payment — to a silversmith to melt and convert into these items.
And then there’s the outfits — a beret-style hat, cotton parachute trousers, high socks and a long-sleeve shirt. For the most important competitions, they wear a red scarf tied around their neck, something the king used to make their ancestors do as a sign of fealty.
Above all, there’s the intangible yet undeniable authenticity, an unwavering commitment to the landscape of the campo even as that of of Argentina’s political and economic future changes.
“This is our identity. Our country was born out of men from the campo, and now we are born with the campo in our blood,” said Hugo Sivori, 62, a lifelong gaucho.