After over five weeks at sea, we are so excited to get Cuthbert onto dry-land to start the South American adventure. Our priority on arrival in Montevideo is to restock with food, gas and diesel, then to come up with a plan for the next few days. Maybe Gaucho Festival Argentina?
It’s Thursday and the is Gaucho Festival Argentina is in San Antonio de Areco this weekend. It’s some 700 km away from Montevideo. We would very much like to see the authentic gathering of the regional gauchos and watch them compete their skills, but if we do so we will have to skip Montevideo and go straight to San Antonio. It’s a tough decision, but we decide that Montevideo will still be there next year when we come north again. The Gaucho Festival is an annual opportunity and we are unlikely to be able to tie these dates into next year’s itinerary. So the Gauchos win. If we set-off on Friday morning and drive to the border taking the slower road along the river, we can stop-off for lunch in the highly commended Colonia de Sacramento and comfortably reach the border by Friday night. Early on Saturday morning we can cross into Argentina and get to San Antonio by lunch time, ready for the festivities of the afternoon. Nice! The plan is coming together.
We did find a few hours to have ‘a quick shufty’ around Montevideo on Thursday afternoon (looks like quite a nice city) and on Friday we had a wander and some lunch in the beautiful old colonial town called, funnily enough, Colonia! By Friday night we reached the town on the Argentinian border, Fray Bentos.
Home of Tinned Pies
Now… British readers of a certain age will be familiar with this name from the ubiquitous tinned steak pies that constituted the family fast-food of the sixties and seventies, in the pre-McDonalds and pre-microwave era. Being of that ‘certain age’, we were both brought up on said Fray Bentos pies, but it never occurred to us that Fray Bentos may actually be a real place!
The slaughterhouse and factory in Fray Bentos closed in 1979 but was a legend in its day. Originating in 1865, it was responsible for not only the meat pies, but also corned beef and the Oxo Cube. At it’s peak the factory employed 4,000 people and slaughtered over 2,000 cattle per day. It is now a sprawling derelict compound of industrial history, visited by tourists and by schools for historical education. And the site is not only a monument to a Uruguayan industrial history, it houses a symbol of another by-gone industrial era: the old cranes remaining on the crumbling wharf at Fray Bentos were engineered in Rodley, Leeds, UK by the very same factory in which Julie’s grandmother worked as a typist in the 1960s. So we supplied them with engineering and they supplied us with meat pies in return 🙂
Saturday morning we’re up bright and early to cross into Argentina before the queues build, and who should we bump into at the border but shipmate Phil on his motorbike! Great minds think alike.
By lunchtime we are parked up in San Antonio de Areco, sitting out in the sun enjoying a cold beer and a typical Argentinian parrillada lunch: huge piles of meat, slow roasted over an open fire. Beef doesn’t get better than this – certainly better than a beef pie from a tin! In the afternoon the two-day ‘Battle of the Gauchos’ begins!
Gaucho Festival Argentina!
In a large field on the edge of town, teams of gauchos representing all the cattle ranches in the region, gather with their horses to compete and show off their skills. These chaps are taking the completion very seriously and there seems to be much at stake here: not just the individual Latino male pride, but the reputation and status of their ranch rests on their performance this weekend.
The event is an excited mass of genuine gaucho competitors with their families, some local people who are not gauchos but enter into the spirit of the occasion by dressing as such, and many, many horses. Herds of untethered horses are led trotting around the venue, between the visiting crowds. Each herd is led by a single gaucho on horseback and we didn’t see a single horse wander off, get distracted or stray from the pack. It’s amazing (at least to us non-horsey types) how tightly the horses stick together and follow their gaucho through the crowds. The wise spectator obviously has to just move out of their way, pronto!
The rodeo competitor starts off on his bucking horse, whipping the steed wildly from his right arm whilst clinging on with his legs and left arm. It is a truly absorbing spectacle and we watch each one through the dust clouds with baited breath: the horses buck ferociously, hats go flying but the gauchos cling on bravely.
Many are thrown after a few seconds but those who manage to hold tight for the duration are rescued: two other gauchos catch up with him and gallop one either side of the competing gaucho. One of them tries to steady the horse whilst the other one scoops his arm around the competitor and lifts him off the horse mid-gallop, supporting him around the waist and drops him to the ground. In theory, the competing gaucho lands on his feet and walks away, but occasionally things don’t quite go to plan and he ends up being dragged off his horse, only to land under the hooves of the horses running alongside.
In most cases the extraction works successfully and the whole operation is one of impressively skilful teamwork. Of those who are thrown off the horse, most get up and walk out of the arena, but a couple need a bit of help. At one point an ambulance is called into the arena but the guy is eventually helped out of the ring on his feet.
The other part of the competition is the horse-herd skills: the competitors lead their untethered herds into the arena and collectively gallop at speeds around the ring, keeping their herd in extremely tight formation. The dust flies high and it is impressive how each gaucho controls his herd from the front. It is less obvious exactly what the specific objective is here, but it is nevertheless a dramatic and exciting scene.
Finally, prizes are announced and presented. The winning gaucho proudly raises his fist to the crowd, but there is some dissention amongst the ranks! Not everyone agrees with the judges’ decision and a challenge is raised by a disgruntled team. After many loud and increasingly animated announcements by the event commentator, and to the great amusement of the crowd, a one-on-one final play-off rodeo takes place. But the same guy wins and goes home the Great Gaucho 2015.
On Sunday, events started in the town with a short, formal military ceremony. It was 11:00 hrs on Remembrance Sunday and we found ourselves in San Antonio central square watching the Argentinian army raise their flag whilst the attendant townsfolk sang their national anthem. Historically, Argentina and UK have been great allies but within our lifetime the relationship has been notoriously strained; it seemed strange to stand amongst them for such an occasion.
Anyway… festivities soon moved on with a parade of gaucho families through the streets of San Antonio de Areco, follow by another great afternoon of competing and skills demonstrations, including gaucho-style lassoing and saddling of ‘wild’ horses.
During the whole event we saw only a little of San Antonio town so we decided to stay there after the weekend to have a look around when most of the visitors had left. On Monday afternoon, San Antonio was hit by gale-force winds and a ferocious hail storm. Ice-balls the size of marbles fell, making a deafening noise on Cuthbert’s roof and we feared they could smash our solar-panels. Cuthbert rocked in the strong winds and as the hail fell, it settled in our camp-field and coated the ground in a layer of white icing. Errr… is this an Argentine summer? Such a change from the sunshine of the weekend.
The force of the hailstones was understandably panicking some horses grazing in a nearby field and they started to run around – probably in pain. We can only imagine the absolute chaos that would have ensued had the wind and hail-stones arrived exactly 24 hrs earlier: scores of untethered horses freaking-out amongst hundreds of spectators, not to mention the numerous vending stalls that would certainly have been blown to smithereens in the strong winds… blimey!
Anyway, despite the hail, we thoroughly enjoyed our whole time in San Antonio watching the gauchos, sampling the fayre, people-watching and soaking up the atmosphere of a very authentic Argentine event. It’s slightly disappointing that due to the delays with our ship arrival we didn’t have time to see Montevideo properly before coming here, but we certainly made the right decision to prioritise the gaucho fiesta and rush to get here.
If you want to see the event next year for yourself, it’s held annually in early November. Click here for the town’s website for information.