An alternative to carnival-season revelry: Uruguay’s Tacuarembó gaucho festival
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An alternative to carnival-season revelry: Uruguay’s Tacuarembó gaucho festival

In Uruguay’s rural north, carnival celebrations take on a more traditional feel to those in the tourist hotspots of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and many other cities across Latin America.

In 2016, the Tacuarembó gaucho festival, La Patria Gaucha, celebrated its 30th year. Having grown from an insular gathering of communities seeking to preserve traditional subsistence methods, it is now a full-blown annual convention for the gaucho diaspora to compete and celebrate all aspects of its culture.

This year, the event – which ran from March 2 until the 6 – attracted 13 separate gaucho communities from across Uruguay. With small replica huts erected using traditional methods and materials to house participants, the five-day festival saw an estimated 80,000 people flock to Tacuarembó.

The Fogón de Curtina group retained the coveted Gran Premio title for ‘best community’ which it also won last year – its sixth in 16 years. Having been adjudged to have performed best in a number of categories, from campfire activities to horse-riding challenges, the winner receives $100,000 from the organizers.

Skills and entertainment

Younger members of the gaucho community battle to be crowned La Flor del Pago in recognition of a variety of skills including athletic prowess and cookery. María Jimena Porcile won the 2016 title, while Abilio Antúnez was rewarded for his skill on a horse – ensuring the next generation of gauchos was recognized for their commitment to the skills their elders hold in such high esteem.

Entertainment took the form of a choir, ballet performance and various other musicians, although the list of acts – both local and better-known international performers – is growing by the year, meaning costs are set to increase. An estimated $750,000 is invested in each edition of the festival, however with participation and interest from tourists increasing, the organizers believe that an extra $2 million is brought to Tacuarembó by La Patria Gaucha each time it is held.

Were it not for events such as La Patria Gaucha, the gauchos of the Uruguayan, Argentine and Southern Brazilian plains may find their existence threatened, as with many minority groups throughout Latin America.

However, in their case the opposite appears to be true. More and more people are taking an interest in gaucho culture and its keenly observed traditions, as a stay on a ‘working estancia’ becomes increasingly popular as a tourist activity in Uruguay. La Patria Gaucha is here to stay and the carefully nurtured traditions it embodies are certain not to be confined to the past as long as its expansion continues.