Buenos Aires has many markets but none can beat Feria de Matadores – an authentic gaucho market where the country comes to town. Held in Matadores, an outer suburb named for its slaughterhouses, this market is a local celebration of gaucho culture where it’s clear that Argentine cowboys don’t limit their skills to horseback.
The word ‘gaucho’ derives from the Quechua for ‘vagabond’ or ‘orphan’ as originally the gauchos were outcasts, nomadic horsemen who roamed the pampas living off the cattle that thrived in the grassy plains after being abandoned by Spanish settlers. Shunned by both the indigenous and colonial groups of which they were a mix, the gauchos developed their own distinct culture and won respect for their toughness, skills, and enduring ability to dodge the lasso of settled living.
Throughout the market, gauchos stroll in traditional dress. Loose black trousers tuck into knee-high boots; dusty hats shield craggy faces; and leather chaps vindicate bow-legged swaggers. The wide leather belt, often adorned with coins and chains, serves as back support whilst in the saddle as well as a holster for a large, curved knife.
These knives are said to be the gauchos’ first love. The beauty of the ornate sheaths distracts from their use, but only a fool would pick a fight. It may be romanticising to envision a modern day gaucho sleeping rough under the stars, wrestling bulls to the ground, and knife fighting over a woman - but you’ll be hard-pressed not to do it.
The women wear long, colourful dresses with petticoat skirt: a look, ironically for a nomadic people, reminiscent of ‘Little House on the Prairie. The lack of practicality in the women’s clothing speaks volumes about the machismo of gaucho culture.
At the market heart, traditional musicians and dancers perform on an outdoor stage to the backdrop of stately buildings whilst locals folk-dance in the centre of an enthusiastic crowd. With hundreds of people clapping to the music, the grinning faces of the dancers, the smell of grilling beef, and the sun beating down - ‘vive la vida’ needs no translation.
The gaucho dances are like a story. From couple dances where the woman steps back and forth with coquettish allure whilst the man paws the ground like an impatient bull, to the male dances where they circle each other with violent stamps, it’s not hard to see what the dances represent.
The couple dance with handkerchiefs is beautiful, but such a sensuous display it feels almost voyeuristic to watch. Partners line up in a row but the individual couples have eyes only for each other. Handkerchiefs twirl overhead in a signal of intent then trail seductively across the partner’s body as the dancers flirt with an increasing intimacy that ends with the woman encircled by the man’s handkerchief held in two hands. Proof that tango is not the only erotic dance in town.
At the edge of the market, the real excitement happens with gauchos competing to show off their riding skills. The Carrera de Sortija, Race of the Ring, involves galloping down the sand-strewn street and trying to hook a ring the size of a man’s thumb with a short metal pointer. Rising from their saddles at high speed, the accuracy and skill of the gauchos is astounding. Hats fly as riders charge seeking the bell that signals success and a roar from the crowd.
Behind the main stage are stalls selling hot, tasty regional foods next to tree-shaded tables where you can tuck into your locro or tamales in comfort. Alternatively, follow the smoke to the parillas chargrilling chorizo and beef or line up for deep-fried empanadas fresh from the pan.
Wash down your food with sweet, red pisado wine that’s cheaper than a soft drink. Pisado means ‘stepped on’ so feet, rather than machines, crush the grapes.
Gourmet food stalls sell regional produce and there’s no shortage of tastings. Cheese, cured meats, breads, pastries, olive oil, and chocolate are just some of the delights that are hard to resist.
There is a huge range of quality handicrafts on sale and, not surprisingly, plenty on the gaucho theme. Buy an alpaca poncho and travel light gaucho-style using it as a blanket, raincoat and jacket. Fantasize about your inner Zorro with leather chaps, fearsome knives or woven rope bridles. Need a horsehoof ashtray or horseshoe bottle stand? This is your place.
Check out the boleodoras. Originally three rocks, but now wooden balls, attached to ropes and swung like a lasso to bring down cattle. Their cultural importance is emphasised in the traditional dances where men bang them against the ground in rhythm to the beat. With the gauchos’ reputation, it’s no surprise they have three balls.
Wandering through the stalls, there are plenty of bizarre sights: Shetland ponies decked out in what looks likes bondage gear; an alpaca eating popcorn; a crooner dressed as Elvis doing a Spanish version of ‘My Way’.
Getting to the market is simple with a bus journey that takes less than an hour: the 126 or 92 go from Retiro and will drop you at the market edge. Look out for the ‘Republica de Matadores’ painting on the corner of Directorio and Murguiondo and it’s the next stop.
The Feria de Matadores is a feast for the senses, an education in gaucho culture, and a wonderful day out. Don’t miss it.