Once were cowboys
Hanging out with the gauchos in Argentina
I FOUND Alberto at the riders’ station, preparing for the ultimate gaucho encounter. He seemed a little on edge. ‘‘Very wild horses,’’ he muttered, chewing his lip. ‘‘ Muy, muy salvaje.’’
From the far end of the rodeo field came the sound of splintering wood as the muy salvaje horses began to kick the corral to pieces by way of a gentle warmup. The horses seemed a bit keener than Alberto for the bronco riding to begin.
The previous night it was all so much happier. It was the eve of the annual parade in honour of great Martin Miguel de Guemes, and around the base of his statue in Salta town the gauchos were drinking wine, telling tales and dancing the zamba, a sultry Latin step in which handkerchiefs do most of the work.
Between dances, Alberto threw his arms around my shoulders and gestured to the statue above us of Guemes, mounted on his fine horse, peering manfully into the distance.
‘‘On such a night,’’ said Alberto, ‘‘The great Martin Miguel should not be alone. We are here to keep him company.’’
In Salta, Martin Miguel de Guemes is idolised and worshipped.
Dead for a couple of centuries, he is still the kind of guy the gauchos want to be — brave, romantic, dashing, a man who had a way with women, horses and facial hair. If Alberto seemed to be hitting the wine flasks a little heavily, it was probably because the following day at the rodeo he would need to prove he was that kind of guy.
Salta is the Argentine Outback, a remote sprawling province of stunning landscapes and earthy characters. About 1600km from Buenos Aires, it borders Bolivia in the north, and runs westward towards Chile and the high Cordillera.
Through these spectacular Andean vistas runs Argentina’s iconic road, known as The Forty, a gravel track twisting among mountain canyons.
At lower altitudes, such as the Lerma Valley, Salta is classic gaucho country, the kind of old-fashioned place where a man can grow a moustache and wear a pair of leather chaps without anyone making certain assumptions.
I was staying at El Bordo de las Lanzas, a rambling 17th-century estancia with a stable full of fine horses and a library full of fine books.
After a breakfast on the first morning, I set off with the estancia gauchos. They were classics of the genre — weathered and thickset beneath their crushed hats, sporting faded bandanas, knives in their belts, and chaps so wide you could use them for roofing material.
Their horses, Peruvian pasos, were an interesting contrast. These estancia steeds were gentlemen of the equine world with perfect posture, a demure manner, and an elegant trotting gait — a four- beat high- stepping lateral paso llano. We trotted down dust lanes. Black pheasants scampered away into the long grass, and a flock of white doves swooped between the trees ahead of us. We pushed through tall stands of Cuban grass, skirted a wood of gangly acacias and then passed a lake where caimans, those small