I found Alberto at the bronco 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 warm–up. The horses seemed rather keener than Alberto for the bronco riding to begin.
It had all been so much happier the previous evening. It was the eve of the annual parade in honour of great Martín Miguel de Güemes, and round the base of his statue in Salta town, the gauchos drank wine, told stories and danced 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 depicting Güemes mounted on fine horse, peering manfully into the distance. “On such a night”, he said, “the great Martin Miguel should not be alone. We are here to keep him company.”
In Salta, Martín Miguel de Güemes 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 on the following day at the rodeo, he too would need to prove he was that kind of guy.
Salta is the Argentinean Outback, a remote, sprawling province of stunning landscapes and earthy characters. A thousand miles from Buenos Aires, it borders Bolivia in the North, and runs westward towards Chile and the high Cordillera. 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 assumptions about his sexuality.
I was staying at a rambling seventeenth century estancia. After a breakfast on the first morning, I set off with the estancia gauchos. They are classics of the genre – weathered and thickset beneath their crushed hats, sporting faded bandanas and chaps so wide that you could use them for roofing material.
We trotted down dusty 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, then passed a lake where caimans – a small South American crocodile – watched us from the shallows.
After a couple of hours, we arrived at a riverbank for lunch. Steaks the size of encyclopaedias were already spitting into the hot coals of an asado while one of the gauchos unpacked bottles of Malbec from his saddlebags. Over a congenial picnic, one of the gauchos told us the story of the glamorous Martín Miguel de Güemes.
From 1817 to 1821 – during the battles for Argentinian independence and the ensuing civil war – Güemes had led an irregular force of gauchos, a people’s army, against both the royalist Spaniards and local landowners. He might have been a wealthy aristocrat himself, but to the gauchos of Salta, Güemes was the salt of the earth. He was one of them, transcending class barriers. Gauchos feed off the stories of his exploits as part of their own identity. When I joined the crowds of gauchos camped round his statue in that evening, drinking wine and dancing the zamba, the atmosphere was celebratory.
The next morning, crowds of people lined the colonial streets of Salta, and a reviewing stand had been set up beneath Güemes’ statue for local dignitaries. In a side alley I spotted Alberto. He looked a little fragile. He waved weakly, then turned to throw up in the gutter. His appointment with the “muy, muy salvaje” horse was now only hours away.
The bands played, the crowds cheered, and hundreds of gauchos rode in procession through the streets on their high-stepping horses. As they passed the statue of the great man, they doffed their hats and bowed.
A rotund fellow with a microphone had taken the Huw Edwards role, broadcasting a parade commentary to the reviewing stand and the crowds beyond. Lacking Huw’s soft Welsh lilt, he had opted instead for the manner of a South American football commentator, veering unpredictably between hysteria and lachrymose sentimentality. As rank on rank of gauchos passed, he became ever more emotional. “Ladies and gentlemen, lift up your voices for the heroes of our great land, the men who were proud to ride with Martín Miguel de Güemes…”
A rider-less horse appeared: the gaucho had died the previous week. The sight of his hat tied to the horn of the empty saddle was too much for Huw. “Our great and brave gaucho”, he cried, his voice choking, “now in heaven with Martín Miguel de Güemes”. He turned to the statue and began to address it directly. “Generalissimo, take this comrade to your bosom – embrace him, comfort him. He longs to be at peace with you, Our Leader, Our Guide, Our Saviour”, Huw blubbed into his microphone.
After the parade, emotionally exhausted but a little peckish, everyone retired to a large meeting ground on the edge of townwhere a gaucho lunch had been laid out. The smoking asados ran for several hundred metres, tended by cooks with pitchforks. At the long tables, gauchos drew castrating knives from their belts and carved slabs of meat on to their plates.
Then the rodeo began. A rodeo in honour of Martín Miguel de Güemes is not going to be the vanilla version familiar in North America. The bucking horses in Argentina do not need the encouragement of a strap round their genitals. They are the psychopaths of the equine world. Wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, they had been corralled at the far end of the field. I noticed guards with shot guns – presumably any escapees needed to be gunned down.
For the bronco riding, each horse was led out of the corral, blindfolded and trussed like Hannibal Lector, then tied to a hitching post in the middle of the field. Accompanied by his ‘seconds’, Alberto was led to his horse like a man to the scaffold, companions on either side gently holding his arms. Then he was hoisted gingerly onboard, and the trussing ropes were released.
There was a moment’s pause, a moment of strange stillness. Then all hell broke loose. The horse stood straight up on its hind legs, its fore hooves flailing in the air. Then it rolled on its back, pinning Alberto beneath it. A second later, it was on its feet again with Alberto sprawled across its back, possibly still conscious. It took off for the far end of the field, bucking wildly. In the distance, in a blur of movement, Alberto looked like a rag doll. But a rag doll with staying power.
The idea was to stay on for 12 seconds; presumably to the rider, this feels more like 12 weeks. At the end of his time, the ‘pick-up’ men, a sort of emergency rescue crew, rode in and lifted Alberto off the bucking horse. Limping, cradling a bleeding arm, he made his way proudly back to the riders’ station. His smile was as wide as the Andes.
“How was it?” I asked.
“Not so bad”, he shrugged. He had a terrible gash on his cheek and he was feeling his legs – presumably checking for protruding bones. “I think… ” He was struggling for breath. “I think even the great Generalissimo Martín Miguel de Güemes never rode such a horse.”
[Photos are by Stanley Stewart]
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.