South America's gauchos still ride tall, and you're welcome to saddle up alongside them, writes Remy Scalza.
Even Charles Darwin was smitten by gauchos. Notes from his 1833 expedition to South America excitedly describe a rare breed of cowboys seen riding the open plains: "Long, black hair curling down their backs ... daggers at their waists" and weather-beaten guitars in tow.
For centuries, itinerant gauchos have roamed the South American countryside, toiling on ranches, serenading women and inspiring folk legends about their footloose way of life.
Now, a growing numbers of working farms, known in Argentina and Uruguay as estancias, offer modern-day explorers the chance to experience the gaucho lifestyle for themselves, with contemporary comforts thrown in. In Argentina, hundreds of rural hotels offer a taste of country life, often in lavish, former colonial estates retro-fitted for travellers. But finding a real ranch - and real gauchos - can be a challenge.
"If you want a spa, go to Buenos Aires," says Eva Boelcke, the owner of El Ombu de Areco, an estancia 90 minutes from the Argentinian capital. Boelcke is bucking the trend of gentrified ranches.
"That kind of thing doesn't interest me," she says. "I don't want to be a Disneyland."
El Ombu is perched on the edge of the vast plains called the pampas, outside a sleepy town where horses graze on the highway median strip and grain silos dot the horizon. Built in 1880 by an Argentinian general, the estancia is a legitimate country retreat, with an ivy-covered portico, fireplaces in all nine guest rooms and its own line of wines.
El Ombu is also a 300-hectare working ranch with nearly 500 cattle and 50 horses. When I visit, the estancia's 20-month-old steers, fattened from days of feasting on the pampas, are being weighed and branded.
"It's their last day on the farm," says 24-year-old ranch hand Pablo Castro. With black hair spilling from beneath a beret and a long knife tucked into his belt, Castro is a dead ringer for Darwin's gaucho. Climbing into the saddle, he sets off after a one-tonne bull, wheeling and charging to corral the animal.
"The original gauchos were just wanderers," Castro explains in Spanish, lifting a gate to let the cattle out to pasture. "They didn't have a home."
The herd streams past and moves onto the plains. Beyond, a sea of scruffy grass rolls as far as the horizon.
It was on lonely plains such as these that, in the early 1700s, the gaucho was born, the progeny of Spanish colonists and indigenous Indians. The mixed-race gauchos played Spanish guitars but wore ponchos; they smoked tobacco but also sipped mate, a tea brewed from a pampas shrub.
Above all, they were outcasts. Rejected by conquistadors and the conquered alike, the gauchos mounted up and took to the plains, living off the land and herding cattle to earn money.
"They would ride from estancia to estancia looking for work," Castro says.
With the cattle branded, it's time for lunch. Ranch guests (Argentinian families, American students and a group of tango aficionados from Los Angeles) gather at half-a-dozen tables set up in the shade of the estancia's namesake ombu, a native tree that towers over the grasslands. Drawn by the smell of roasting meat, a misfit crew of farm dogs paces the perimeter.
Gauchos were notorious carnivores, with a preference for meat cooked asado-style, meaning over an open campfire.
Lunch at El Ombu doesn't stray far from tradition. Castro, who doubles as a kitchen hand, ducks into the smokehouse and emerges with a plate of chorizos.
Steak comes next, roasted for hours over wood coals. Every few minutes, Castro makes the rounds, serving up more sirloins and short ribs and clearing the graveyard of bones left behind.
In the meantime, 67-year-old farmhand Oscar Pereyra readies the horses for an afternoon ride.
"I learned to break horses from my father," he says, throwing a saddle on a brown mare named Luna. Pereyra wears the wounds of his profession: bowed legs and a stooped back from a nasty spill in his 40s. The weight of a prodigious gray mustache seems to pull him down.
In the saddle, however, Pereyra is transformed. After lunch, on a horseback circuit of the estancia, he canters ahead of the guests, eyes slit against the sun, to check on a heifer due to give birth. Pereyra casts an expert eye on the cow before guiding visitors into the next pasture.
"I left school when I was 11 and started working on estancias," he says. "I learned everything a gaucho needs to know ... to break horses, to play the guitar and to throw a lasso."
After the ride, Pereyra retreats to the stable and re-emerges with his instrument.
With guests scrambling for their cameras, he pulls up a chair and begins to play. The ballad, about a life lived too hard and too fast, seems to fit him well.
"I've ridden so many miles," he sings to the small crowd in a thin voice, "I can't even remember anymore."
Although Argentinian ranches such as El Ombu offer a glimpse of gaucho culture, they are hardly undiscovered. On summer weekends, up to 150 day-trippers pack El Ombu's patio for the afternoon barbecue.
To experience the estancia less travelled, you can cross the border into neighbouring Uruguay. With rural tourism just blossoming, estancias in this country of three million people see smaller crowds and still depend on ranching for their livelihood. For travellers, this means fewer gringos and more gauchos.
"The thing about sheep is they're drought resistant," says Raul Goi, the silver-haired owner of San Martin del Yi, a 1820-hectare sheep and cattle ranch that attracts visitors from as far away as India and Japan.
San Martin del Yi lies deep in Uruguay's breadbasket, in a rural belt where livestock outnumber people and horses remain a preferred means of transport. Guests at the estancia are put up in a restored 158-year-old ranch house nestled beneath eucalyptus trees. Inside, rustic but comfortable rooms open to an inner courtyard edged with jasmine vines. Hardwood ceilings, fieldstone walls and Spanish tiles all date from the mid-1800s.
But San Martin is no mere country inn. While saddling up guests' horses in the stable out back, Goi proudly ticks off the ranch's statistics: 1100 sheep, 850 head of cattle and a crew of half a dozen gauchos.
As usual, there's work to be done. From his horse, Goi surveys a flock of lambs that needs to be corralled and sheared before the week is out. A group of travellers from the US and Canada trots behind as he does.
"The gauchos were never what you'd call hard workers," Goi says, nudging the skittish flock across a fallow field. "They were loners. They didn't fit into society."
Though romanticised in folk legends, gauchos had a chequered history. By the 1800s, they were seen as criminals and cattle rustlers: uneducated, unsocialised and dangerous. Argentina even passed a vagrancy law to curb their wanderlust: gauchos caught travelling without working papers were conscripted into frontier militias.
By noon, with the help of Goi's eager German shepherd, the flock is packed into the corral. In the shearing shed, a crew of six hired hands sets up shop. All wear the distinctive uniform of the contemporary gaucho: wool beret, knee-high leather boots and loose-fitting bombacha pants (think MC Hammer on horseback). Hand-rolled cigarettes peek out from beneath their bushy moustaches.
The action unfolds as a gruff ballet. Workers clutch the squirming lambs in a tight embrace while deftly running a pair of shears over the animals' backs, legs and stomachs. With assembly-line efficiency, the flock is shorn and sent blinking and shivering into the afternoon sun.
During a lull in the action, Goi's wife, Cristina Onetto, rounds up the guests, shuttling them through a side door and into a four-wheel drive. After tossing a picnic basket in the back, she slides behind the wheel and makes for the gleaming River Yi, barely visible on the far side of the ranch.
"When I first came here, gauchos were always knocking on our door ... looking for a meal and a bed for the night," Onetto says. "I was terrified but Raul said they were good people."
The passing years would cramp the gauchos' nomadic lifestyle.
Modern ranching, with fences and feedlots, relegated the once free-spirited horsemen to day labourers on the region's massive farms. Still, the name and the fashions stuck.
Down by the river, Onetto has set up a picnic table. While guests take afternoon tea, a tradition from colonial days, an armadillo, serenely indifferent in its prehistoric armor, scuttles by.
"They're near-sighted," Onetto explains to us. "If you don't make a sound ... they'll bump right into you."
On the ride back to the ranch, the setting sun sends bands of pink and orange streaking over the hills. Near the shed, quiet now after a day of shearing, two sleepy dogs mind the flock. The bearded faces of the shearing crew, lit by the red glow of their cigarettes, hover above the darkened Uruguayan plains.
The scene - gauchos, prairie, twilight - reads like a page from Darwin's journal.
"The death-like stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gypsy group of gauchos," Darwin writes in an August 1833 entry, "has left in my mind a strongly marked picture of this first night, which will not soon be forgotten."
Qantas now flies a direct service from Sydney to Buenos Aires three times a week. Return fares from $1941. Uruguay's capital, Montevideo, is a 50-minute flight from Buenos Aires. Aerolineas Argentinas leaves three times daily for about $US250 ($387) round trip.
Estancias in Argentina will often arrange airport pickup and transport to and from the ranch. Cars can be rented from several agencies at the airport. Once at the estancia, most travel is on foot or horseback. In less-developed Uruguay, a rental car is the best option. Most estancias are within a few hours' drive of the capital, reached by highways that fan across the pampas.
El Ombu de Areco, Ruta 31, cuartel VI, Villa La, San Antonio de Areco, Argentina, phone +54 11 4737 0436, see estanciaelombu.com. Colonial-style guest rooms have cast-iron wood stoves and claw-foot bathtubs, $US155 a person per day. Estancia Santa Rita, Antonio Carboni, Partido de Lobos, Argentina, phone +54 11 4813 9034, see santa-rita.com.ar, is one of the region's oldest and most lavish estancias, $US275 a person per day. San Martn del Yi, Herrera 765, Trinidad, Flores, Uruguay, phone +598 360 4023, see sanmartindelyi.com.uy, lets guests live like gaucho, $US85 a person per day.
See inargentinatourism.com.ar, www.turismo/gub.uy