A gaucho is a South American cattle herder, the equivalent to the North American "cowboy" in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and (with the spelling "gaúcho") southern Brazil. Like the word cowboy, or the Mexican vaquero, the term often connotes the 19th century more than the present day.
There are several conflicting theories of the origin of the term. It may derive from the Quechua "huachu" (orphan, vagabond) or from the Arabic "chaucho" (a type of whip used in herding animals). Other hypotheses abound. The first recorded uses of the term date from around the time of Argentine independence in 1816.
Gauchos were generally nomadic and lived on the pampas, the plain that extends north from Patagonia, bounded on the west by the Andes and extending as far north as the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. Most gauchos were either criollo (South Americans of Spanish ancestry) or mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Native American blood), but the term applies equally to people of other European, African, or mixed ancestry.
The gaucho plays an important symbolic role in the nationalisms of this region, especially that of Argentina. The epic poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández used the gaucho as a symbol of Argentine national tradition, in contradistinction to Europeanizing tendencies and to corruption. Martín Fierro, 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.
Like the North American cowboy, gauchos are generally reputed to be strong, silent types, but arrogant, and capable of violence when provoked. There is, perhaps, more of an air of melancholy about the classic gaucho than the classic cowboy.
Also like the cowboy, the gauchos were great horsemen. 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.
Gauchos dressed quite distinctly from North American cowboys, and used bolas (a rope with a rock tied in to the end) instead of the North American lariat or riata. The typical gaucho outfit would include a poncho (which doubled as sleeping gear), a facón (knife), a rebenque (whip), and loose-fitting pants called a chiripá, belted with a tirador.