Only 2 hours by bus from Buenos Aires, Estancia La Cina Cina is located in the sleepy little town of San Antonio. We’d booked a full day with the ranch, with a full complement of activities – a traditional asado, or Argentinean barbecue, a dance performance, horse riding on the property, a tour of the working estancia and a demonstration of horse skills. There was also a swimming pool on the property – a welcome addition during the hot summer day we were visiting.
We first visited the pulperia, or bar, where Juan, our host, regaled us with the history and tales of the gaucho culture, the cowboys of Argentina’s vast pampas. Fiercely independent and self reliant, gauchos were either military deserters, Spanish emigres or vagabonds who prefer to answer to no one, living on the edges of civilisation. The hardships of their nomadic life, lived amongst the wilderness, shaped the distinctive gaucho culture.
Juan also gave us a quick once-over of the distinctive gaucho costume. Nowadays, the traditional loose pants, shirt and black riding boots have been replaced with more modern, and practical jeans and workshoes, but on special occasions, gauchos will still don their splendid traditional outfits. Their weapon was the facón, a large dagger worn in the belt at the back. This was often also a gaucho’s most valuable and prized possession, aside from his horse. Both practical and decorative, this dagger was used for utilitarian purposes like cutting food as well as for fighting.
Gauchos worked as farm hands when they could get the work, rounding up cattle, breaking horses, helping out on the estancia – but sometimes they also hunted livestock, using boleadoras, a throwing weapon made from three wooden balls tied with braided leather cords. Another essential tool of the gaucho was the rebenque, a leather whip usually worn coiled and attached to his belt, usually a beautifully worked silver or leather item.
Quiet, strong, honest, proud and short tempered, gauchos were master horse riders, and the modern cowboys on La Cina Cina proved to be no exception to that rule. We were treated to a show of great skill, including the ring race, or carrera de sortijas. A gaucho carrying a thin, long wooden lance, perhaps the size of a pencil, would gallop wildly towards a small ring, hung suspended from a wire above him. As he neared, he would stand up in his stirrups to drive the lance through the tiny ring without slowing down or breaking stride. The faster the gallop, the more impressive the gaucho. Juan told us that traditionally, this game was used to impress women, and the gaucho would present the ring to a woman watching. If she was suitable impressed, a kiss would be his prize – otherwise she would choose to kiss his horse instead as a form of rejection!
The gaucho culture is rich not just in horse riding, but also music, poetry, dance, textiles, silverwork and leatherwork. We watched the zapateo, a fast and furious tap dance accompanied only by the beat of the boleadoras hitting the ground and the clapping of hands. As more and more gauchos join in, the percussion and rhythm increases in tempo, and the boleadoras start to blur with lightning quick speed in the air around the tap dancing men. This, Juan told us, was the malambo, another way the gauchos used to impress their women.
Lunch on the estancia was a traditional asado, a barbecue of chicken, pork and beef, slow roasted over hot coals. After lunch, a sedate horse ride around the working ranch, Juan again playing host, while his lithe greyhound followed us. Emulating the gauchos, we chose a spot underneath some shady trees for a siesta, before saying our goodbyes in the warm light of sunset.