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By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Even Charles Darwin was smitten by gauchos.

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Notes from his 1833 expedition to South America excitedly describe a rare breed of cowboys discovered riding the open plains, "long, black hair curling down their backs . . . daggers at their waists" and weather-beaten guitars in tow.

For centuries, the itinerant gauchos roamed the South American countryside, toiling on ranches, serenading small-town women and inspiring folk legends about their footloose way of life.

Now, growing numbers of working farms, known in Argentina and Uruguay as estancias, are offering modern-day explorers the chance to experience the gaucho lifestyle for themselves, with a few contemporary comforts thrown in.

Gauchos in Evita's Back Yard

In Argentina, hundreds of rural hotels offer a taste of country life, often in lavish colonial estates retrofitted for contemporary travelers. But finding a real ranch -- and real gauchos -- can be a challenge.

"If you want a spa, go to Buenos Aires," says Eva Boelcke, owner of El Ombú de Areco, an estancia just 90 minutes from the Argentine capital that's bucking the trend of gentrified ranches. "That kind of thing doesn't interest me. I don't want to be a Disneyland."

El Ombú is perched on the edge of the vast plains called the pampas, outside a sleepy town where horses graze in the highway median and grain silos dot the horizon. Built in 1880 by an Argentine general, the estancia is, in fact, a legitimate country retreat, with ivy-covered portico, fireplaces in all nine guest rooms and even its own line of wines.

But El Ombú is also a 750-acre working ranch with nearly 500 cattle and 50 horses. This morning, the estancia's 20-month-old steers, fattened from long 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 locks 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-ton 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 back out to pasture. "They didn't have a home." The herd streams past and recedes into the plains. Beyond, a sea of scruffy grass rolls to 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 local Indians. The mixed-race gauchos played Spanish guitars but wore ponchos; they smoked tobacco but also sipped mate, an indigenous tea brewed from a pampas shrub.


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