Gaucho Life in Uruguay

by Mirta Bonilla

Uruguay has a population of around 3.4 million people, a national herd of 10 million cattle, and more than 15 million sheep.

Because raising cattle and sheep in Uruguay is still the primary occupation, wherever you go in the countryside, you will find gauchos with their Criollo breed of horses working cattle.
Without these gauchos and their expertise, it would be impossible to manage such huge numbers of cattle under open land conditions. Gauchos are the symbol of our national workers. They work very hard, all day and have tremendous riding and roping skills.

Not too long ago when there were no fences and no dividers between ranches, cattle used to move freely on open lands. Gauchos had a nomadic life, spending little time at home. Cow leather was an important good, traded between the old world and the colonies. Cows were mainly of interest for their leather. Since the commercial value of a cow was narrowed to this one item, once slaughtered, a cow’s meat posed no interest, except to the gauchos who would use as much as of the cow as they could for food.

Once the cow was slaughtered, the gauchos would quickly cook the meat in an open fire, to ensure it was cooked before it turned bad. After many decades the habit of grilling meat 'the gaucho way,’ in an open fire, become a national pastime and popular food. In Uruguay, we call this the asado or barbeque.

Nowadays, gauchos have changed their way of life. Gauchos no longer roam the countryside sleeping under the stars, but instead they work under an organized structure at the estancias and usually live inside in one of the estancia buildings. Every estancia or ranch is a business and must be run as a legal enterprise. Most of the employees at these ranches are gauchos, who have a specialized expertise and live on the ranch. However, one thing has not changed. Meat is still the most important food in their diets. A gaucho will may refuse a meal, if it does not involve meat!

Also, gauchos cannot live without mate (see Darley’s blog for more on mate ). Mate, an infusion of an herb with hot water, is consumed several times a day. It is like a tea, containing caffeine and traditionally drunk out of a metal or silver straw.

The necessary equipment to carry out gaucho duties includes: a wide hat, a woolen poncho, loose baggy pants called bombachas, knee-high leather boots and a big knife that could help them in several instances.

“Gaucho Life in Uruguay” is written by Mirta Bonilla of Estancia Renacimiento in Uruguay. For more information on Mirta’s ranch, a family owned estancia close to Montevideo and Punta del Este in Uruguay, visit Est. Renacimiento’s website.

Purchase Equitrekking DVDs, the Equitrekking Travel Adventures on Horseback book and more at Learn about equestrian vacations and book horseback riding adventures at