Once were cow­boys

Hang­ing out with the gau­chos in Ar­gentina

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

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

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