Cowboys of the Andes

It’s a special breed of horseman that gathers bulls in South America’s mountains.

The cowboys whoop and shout to sort the last bulls from the herd, dusk fast approaching. One of the men ropes a particularly ill-tempered 3-year-old and suddenly becomes tangled in his lasso. He struggles to free himself, but his horse rears, spins away from the bull, and throws the rider to the ground. The chagra (Ecuadorian cowboy) scrambles to his feet, barely dodging the thrashing hooves of his horse. His timeworn saddle works loose and slides to the horse’s belly. The horse bolts. In the same instant, the enraged bull charges the thrown horseman, but a dozen chagras rush into the fray, lassos flying, distracting the bull just long enough for the man to escape.

The frightened horse is quickly captured, untangled, and re-saddled. The embarrassed chagra remounts and smiles at the jovial taunts of his friends. Serious accident averted, everyone is giddy with adrenaline, including me. It’s been wild and exciting to wrangle ill-tempered cattle and ride difficult terrain with these high-altitude Andean cowboys. Long days in the saddle have pushed my modest skills as a rider to the limit.

I’m in the state of Napo, Ecuador, on the southeast flank of a 19,393-foot volcano, Cotopaxi (the second-highest active volcano on Earth). The ranch is a world apart from the nearest town, Machachi, 37 miles away. I came to this austere, sweeping grassland to witness the annual El Rodeo (roundup) of fighting bulls destined for the country’s no-kill bullfighting rings. The roundup on 74,850-acre Yanahurco Ranch (the largest of its kind in Ecuador) is a two-week gather that attracts as many as 50 chagras from all over this beautiful and windswept region of the Andes. This tradition takes place each November during the summer dry season and has endured virtually unchanged for centuries.

Fernando Cobo, the current owner of Hacienda Yanahurco (which in colonial times belonged to a Spanish count), has continued the roundup each year since he purchased the ranch in 1989. A retired engineer, Cobo maintains approximately 2,500 ganado bravo, or fighting cattle, and 200 wild horses that roam this land. He also preserves Yanahurco as a private wildlife refuge and told me that his land offers “the ultimate refuge of peace and tranquility.”

I was a bit challenged by the idea of fighting bulls as symbols of harmony, but I can vouch for his success with nature. During my days on the ranch, I watched an endangered Andean black bear crossing a distant hill and saw massive condors soaring each day.

Six other equestrians from Europe and North America and I rode with the chagras during the final, most-exciting three days of the roundup and stayed at a 300-year-old hacienda. The simple yet comfortable, off-the-grid accommodations were more modest than the colonial ostentation of less remote haciendas, but the meals were good—especially if you like beef.

Our British guide, Sally Vergette, organized the trip so that we rode to and from the ranch instead of 4x4-ing the grueling dirt approach. Yesterday, when we arrived near the ranch for our ride in, Lucho, the 12-year-old son of the mayordomo (ranch manager), was waiting for us. A highly experienced horseman for any age, with hands already weathering from outdoor work, he admonished us to be careful.

“Follow my path exactly!” he told us in Spanish. “This place is full of invisible bogs.” He knew the terrain from multi-generational experience and tried to keep us safe from natural traps. If only we had followed his orders.

One of our riders soon wandered off course, and his horse dropped out from under him, sinking up to its chest in an “invisible” bog. The rider jumped, but the cinch broke and both saddle and rider tumbled. Fortunately, neither was injured. But it took us an hour to extract the horse, rig a temporary cinch, and get back underway.

hreading our way through more bogs, crossing streams, and traveling blind in thick fog required seven more hours in the saddle. We finally crested a low ridge and saw the simple earth-tone buildings of the historic hacienda. Behind the thatched roofs and utterly bald landscape rose a stunning panorama of peaks, including the massive symmetrical snow cone of Cotopaxi. The view made our spirits soar. There was also something more tangible in the air: the smell of dinner cooking. We were all starving after the long day.

Dressed in the hacienda’s cumbersome but warm goatskin chaps and heavy, wool ponchos, we would join a web of approximately 60 riders each day and travel on handy ranch horses to search for pockets of cattle. We’d methodically work our way down toward the corrals, chasing after cattle, whooping and shouting. The cattle seemed to multiply exponentially as more appeared from other corners of the ranch. Lunch was served on the ground, and we’d eat with the chagras, who joked and told stories in their native dialect. Everyone would stamp their feet, teeth chattering, and try to stay warm.

At day’s end, we’d arrive at the ranch house and retire for much-anticipated showers, dinner, wine, and early bedtimes. Many of the chagras, however, would stay at the corrals and continue working into the evening. They’d be up before dawn, too, and helped us jump back into our saddles to do it all over again.

Like many cowboys elsewhere in the world, the chagras of the Ecuadorian Andes are a vanishing breed. In this case, they’re a fading legacy of the Spanish conquest and the vast hacienda system that followed. In the seventeenth century, the Spanish gave the name chagra to people of mixed Spanish and Quechua (Andean Indian) ancestry. Spanish hacienda owners liked to hire chagras for the more important jobs, as they respected those of mixed blood above Indians. Chagras would travel horseback to the vast Spanish-held ranches to work the cattle and oversee the Indian farm workers. The chagras we met had learned to ride at very young ages, as did their fathers, grandfathers, and great-great-great-grandfathers before them.

Our mounts were of mixed ancestry as well. The horse of choice for Andean cattle ranchers is a blend of Iberian, Barb, and Arab stock brought from Spain and left to run wild for more than three centuries on the pampas and páramo (grassy plains). The resulting Criollo is a mere 13- to 14 hands high (though so-called “improved” Criollo hybrids are larger). Fitted with tack handmade by their riders, they are renowned for endurance, resistance to extremes of temperature and climate, and for performance at high elevations.

The annual summer roundups take place one after another other across the highlands and are the highlight of a chagra’s year. These horsemen often work several roundups and make a point of showing off their riding skills, outdoing each other in speed, agility, and bravery. Before our arrival, the chagras had already spent ten days on the far reaches of the ranch driving 2,000 cattle from mountain pastures at 16,400 feet. Down at the ranch, teams of two to four chagras would cut out the bulls and drive them into separate corrals, waving ponchos and sometimes throwing their huasca, a handmade bull-hide lariat.

“Only a fighting bull hide is strong enough to hold a fighting bull,” one chagra told me, a prideful glint in his eye. “That’s why we make them ourselves.” The cattle are then branded before most of them are released back into the páramo.

The year I attended, approximately 120 bulls were sorted for sale to no-kill bullfight promoters. The sorting is a slow process, one that requires constant attention and lightning-fast reflexes.

Descended from the fierce Lidia (Spanish fighting bulls) and crossed with a local breed well-adapted to altitude, these Santa Coloma bulls are bred to be combative. They live in isolation on the páramo, so they are dangerous and belligerent towards humans. Local legend has it that Jesuits first brought the bulls to stop livestock thievery from the haciendas. Supposedly it worked. The pilfering Indians were justifiably afraid of these fierce beasts.

These days, the no-kill bullfights remain an important part of the country’s cultural pride. Fernando Cobo speculates that more than 300 matches a year are held in different parts of the country. (Spanish bull fighting, where the bull is killed, is also very popular in Ecuador. The Yanahurco’s bulls, however, only go to no-kill events, where they are used for lasso competitions and “open” bullfighting that involves spectators getting in the ring themselves and taunting the bulls.)

Due to the poor economics of ranching, Ecuadorian haciendas are shrinking in size. Fewer and fewer ranchers can afford to raise cattle as a primary business, and many chagras have been forced to take up farming or move to the city to support themselves. Increasing numbers of hacienda owners, like Fernando Cobo, have turned to tourism to sustain their ranches. He hosts over 1,000 guests a year for riding, fishing, and walking adventures.

Ranching economics are far from my mind, however, as we prepare for the final day of the roundup. We tack up our horses and take our places in a line of 60 or more chagras for the blessing of the patron (hacienda owner, Fernando Cobo) and last-minute instructions from the ranch manager. One by one, each rider is given a bull’s horn filled with puntos (sugarcane liquor) served by Lucho, the lad who had led us in. Each rider raises the horn to toast the patron, drinks half, then pours the other half on the mane of his horse in blessing for pacha mama (Mother Earth). It’s a scene rich in history and tradition, one that still binds this brotherhood of cowboys and their horses to the land.

Afterwards, the line of riders splits into groups of two to four. The last of the cattle need to be driven the final distance into the corrals below, and we ride off in various directions. My group heads high into the nearby hills, where we take our positions and wait.

Cries of “Toro! Toro!” (Bull! Bull!) tumble across the landscape. The chagras above us drive the remaining cattle down through the mist and tall grass. At last we see the black forms of the bulls emerging from the white cloud. These are the holdouts, the angry bulls that have refused to join the herd, and they’re looking for trouble. It’s our turn to join the fun.

We gringos have been told to keep back, but my instincts urge me to cut off a stray. Fortunately, my horse is fast, sure-footed, and smart. He repeatedly steers me away from disaster, as we gallop across the páramo, weaving our way in and out of whooping, poncho-waving chagras and irritated bulls. The chagras yell out hazards and commands to each other.

The mayordomo (ranch manager) had told us when we arrived that there are only two rules when bulls are present. Rule number one: Never, under any circumstance, get off your horse. (“If you drop something, just leave it.”) Rule number two: If a bull charges, spur your horse uphill. (“Bulls can outrun Criollo horses going downhill, but not up.”) I was even assigned a chagra minder to keep an eye out and hold my horse while I shot pictures. It was also important to keep out of the bull’s direct line of sight; staying in his periphery would keep him from seeing clearly and targeting you.

The most defiant bulls require two and sometimes three chagras with ropes to bring them in. Late in the day, the gate of the corral finally swings shut. The last of the bulls are penned, and the chagras finish the sorting. Amazingly, they still smile and laugh as they work.

“This is how my father and grandfather lived,” one of them had told me. “For them, life was the paramo and working the cattle. For us, we still ride the roundups to be with our friends, and for fun.”

I am tired, but happy. My Criollo partner seems to agree. After retiring him for the night, I settle onto the earthen wall of a holding pen and watch. Lariats fly in every direction, as the chagras swiftly separate the cattle, their horses expertly dodging the horns. Some of them are still wearing wild roses in their hats, a privilege reserved for the best and most experienced horsemen who work at the highest altitudes.

American Cowboy Picture

A chagra (Ecuadorian cowboy) in his wool poncho flanks A herd of cattle.

Plan It

Sixty miles from Quito (and three hours by 4x4), Hacienda Yanahurco offers 12 guest rooms in thatched-roof, ranch-style buildings. Two- to five-day packages include riding, fishing, or hiking. Prices range from $225–435 per person (not including transport). +593-2-445248, www.haciendayanahurco.com

Englishwoman Sally Vergette runs Ride Andes and offers adventurous riding vacations to Ecuador (including Hacienda Yanahurco), Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. +593-99-738221, www.rideandes.com

American Cowboy Picture

A solitary bull stares down the riders in The foothills of Cotopaxi, a 19,393-foot volcano.

Only senior chagras, who work at the highest altitudes, may wear the mountain rose.

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