Gauchos are the traditional caretakers of the herds that roam the immense South American grasslands named the Pampas. These South American cowboys live in harmony with nature and the quiet environment of the plains. As the American Cowboys, the gauchos have a vital love for their lifestyle and a strong respect for the cattle that they tend. Preserving their cultural traditions of their regions and raising their animals in an old fashioned way.
The gaucho plays an important symbolic role in the nationalist feelings of this region, especially that of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The epic poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández (considered by some the national epic of Argentina) used the gaucho as a symbol against corruption and of Argentine national tradition, pitted against Europeanising tendencies. Martín Fierro, the hero of the poem, is drafted into the Argentine military for a border war, deserts, and becomes an outlaw and fugitive. The image of the free gaucho is often contrasted to the slaves who worked the northern Brazilian lands. Further literary descriptions are found in Ricardo Güiraldes' Don Segundo Sombra. Like the North American cowboys, as discussed in Richard W. Slatta, Cowboys of the Americas, gauchos were generally reputed to be strong, honest, silent types, but proud and capable of violence when provoked. The gaucho tendency to violence over petty matters is also recognized as a typical trait. Gauchos' use of the famous "facón" (large knife generally tucked into the rear of the gaucho sash) is legendary, often associated with considerable bloodletting. Historically, the facón was typically the only eating instrument that a gaucho carried.
Also like the cowboy, as shown in Richard W. Slatta, Cowboys of the Americas, gauchos were and remain proud and great horseriders. Typically, a gaucho's horse constituted most of what he owned in the world. During the wars of the 19th century in the Southern Cone, the cavalries on all sides were composed almost entirely of gauchos. In Argentina, gaucho armies such as that of Martín Miguel de Güemes, slowed Spanish advances. Furthermore, many caudillos relied on gaucho armies to control the Argentine provinces.
The gaucho diet was composed almost entirely of beef while on the range, supplemented by yerba mate, a tea made from the leaves of the yerba tree, a type of holly rich in caffeine and nutrients.
Gauchos dressed quite distinctly from North American cowboys, and used bolas or boleadoras (three leather bound rocks tied together with approximately three feet long leather straps) in addition to the familiar "North American" lariat or riata. The typical gaucho outfit would include a poncho (which doubled as a saddle blanket and as sleeping gear), a facón (large knife), a rebenque (leather whip), and loose-fitting trousers called bombachas, belted with a tirador, or a chiripá, a loincloth. In the wintertime, gauchos wore heavy wool ponchos to protect against cold.