Riding with the cowboys of the Andes
Ecuador’s Last Rodeo
Just below the equator, on the flanks of the Quilindaña volcano in the Andes, lies hacienda El Tambo. Every year dozens of chagras come to this farm to participate in one of the last traditional rodeos. National Geographic’s editor Barbera Bosma and WideOyster photographer Frits Meyst follow the Andean cowboys on their annual cattle roundup, which is not for the fainthearted.
In the distance there are shouts and cheers, and the clatter of hooves. From the back of the pickup truck we strategically parked just beside the dry riverbed, we see the first animals appearing on the mountainside in the distance. Behind it a U-shaped line of cowboys on brown and spotted horses. Early this morning they headed into the mountains to drive the herd from hacienda El Tambo to the corrals around the farm. The cattle, an estimated eight to nine hundred cows, bulls and calves, are spread over some five thousand acres of land. The terrain is jagged, the valleys and steep slopes littered with boulders and rocks from volcanic eruptions, the flatter parts riddled with canyons and rivers.
To our right, another group of chagras is getting into action. They should prevent animals from escaping via escape routes eastward. For hours they waited, provided with drinks and cigarettes. Now they dashed apart, visibly relieved to be able to take action. Three, maybe four hundred animals gallop in our direction. On the flanks of the herd, a handful of cattle manage to escape, including an agitated bull. Immediately a chagra goes in pursuit. With his lasso, he manages to catch the bull and guide it behind the herd to the bull ring. There, once loose, the animal continues to kick and buck wildly around itself.
This rodeo, famous and beloved far and wide, (from the Spanish rodear, “to encircle”) is nothing like its American counterpart. An Ecuadorian rodeo like this is first of all a cattle drive, a round-up. Twice a year – once during the big rodeo, and once during the repunte, a smaller-scale drive – the herd is moved to another part of the property to allow the area to recover. At the same time, the rodeo is a good time to count, vaccinate and tag the animals. Some of the bulls are then sold. Calves and cows stay together, and most animals graze around El Tambo until their (natural) death. Here and there we see carcasses. Animals that die here are not culled, their remains feeding condors, vultures, pumas and other wildlife.
But the rodeo is also a social affair, a festival almost, where chagras from the wider area meet, show off their riding and lassoing skills and, in the evening, celebrate their culture to the accompaniment of music, singing and strong sugar cane gin. During rodeo days, sometimes as many as a hundred chagras from far and wide stay at El Tambo. The small per diem they receive for their work is secondary to their love of the rodeo. ‘It’s in our blood. It’s an addiction, a love. It’s authentic, raw, fun, exhausting – an adrenaline rush. The herd sets the speed, and cows can gallop down a slope many times faster than a horse. No, it’s not without risks, but participating in the rodeo is something unique, one of the very best things you can do on a horse.’
The rodeo of El Tambo is one of the last rodeos in Ecuador. All haciendas used to organize rodeos, but those days are gone. It takes a lot of organization and is costly; therefore, many landowners have sold their herds or let the animals go feral. As a result, a four-century-old tradition is in danger of being lost – one of the reasons El Tambo perseveres, including by hosting guests on a very small scale during the rodeo and throughout the year.
Patrón Pablo Perez took over and opened with the The Lord’s Prayer. Hats come off, on the chest, eyes closed
At the stroke of 08:00, every rodeo day opens with a ceremony: la bomba. The chagras gather in full costume – poncho, chaps, hat – on horseback in a large circle, lassoes at the ready. Gerardo Cando, leader of the rodeo, welcomed the group. America, Marisol and Paola, the women who provide the food in the house and keep the fire burning in the fireplaces, go around with cigarettes, candy and alcohol. A toast and a shot of strong sugar cane gin: salúd, to a great ride, a great day and a great atmosphere. Viva la rodeo, viva El Tambo!
Patrón Pablo Perez took over and opened the day with the Padre Nostre, The Lord’s Prayer. Hats come off, on the chest, eyes closed. After prayer, roles, areas and groups are divided. In squads of five or six riders, the chagras move to the paradas, strategic spots high in the mountains, above and around the herd, where they wait until everyone is in position – as far apart as possible. With a smoke signal, often a burning tuft of hay, the starting signal is given. In a U-shape, the chagras descend to surround and herd the cattle. The basic rules for rodeo participants: in the herd, animals are docile; if they are alone, they are wild and territorial. Keep your distance. Get out of the way of bulls. It is always good to have something with you to throw, should you have to deal with an aggressive animal. If, for any reason, you want to stop for a while, please make that known to others. If you fall, there is always someone to come to your rescue. Maintain eye contact with the other groups and follow directions. ‘The idea is to have fun, not to get killed.’
A BEAUTIFUL DISASTER
That the rodeo is not harmless was evident almost immediately the day before. During the raising of the toros bravos – the fighting bulls, which keep cattle thieves at bay in addition to predators – there is an incident. While photographer Frits Meyst follows the cowboys into the mountains, I watch from the valley from the back of my horse. In the distance, a dozen black bulls come hurrying down the slope, chased by screaming chagras. A few dogs crisscross the group. My horse feels the excitement and becomes restless. I control him as best I can, reins in my right hand, left arm loose along my body for balance.
Then suddenly, a feint. The bulls scatter and escape from the encirclement. A number of chagras set off in pursuit, but it is in vain. Unfazed, the riders returned to El Tambo and considered a plan B: a larger group of riders, a different route.
When I later ask Jorge Perez, one of the owners of El Tambo and co-organizer of the rodeo, what exactly went wrong, he laughs. ‘Organizationally, it was a mess. They wanted too much, too fast. It was a beautiful disaster.’ One of the chagras, moreover, was quite reckless, which nearly killed him. One of the bulls attacked, throwing the chagra out of the saddle and tumbling to the ground over the bull’s horns. Thanks to an alert other rider, who intervened with his horse to distract the bull, things ended with a hiss. ‘But,’ Perez stresses, ‘this kind of accident happens only during the bull riding, not during the other drives. That’s why out-only the best and most experienced chagras are allowed to participate in this.
That same afternoon, Plan B is implemented. From a higher-lying piece of land, I look out over the mountains from a few logs. It is cold, the air thin, but the sun is bright. In the distance, the snowy spire of Antisana volcano stands out sharply against the blue sky.
Further on, the group of chagras schooled together, about thirty men, I estimate. They split into two groups. Black dots appear on the horizon. Behind them white, red, a patch of blue: the chagras in their colorful, knitted ponchos, galloping, chasing some fifty black and brown bulls. Through the fences they stormed into the first corral and then into the adjacent pasture.
Further ahead, a handful of men on horseback approached, between them an out-sized bull caught in a lasso. Once in the corral, three, four, five chagras jump off their horses, wrestle the bull to the ground and lasso him to a bare tree. The bull bellowed in protest; once calmed down slightly, he was flanked by two riders into the ring. The first rodeo day is over.
cowboys of the andes
Origin of the chagras
The word “chagra” is derived from “chakra,” “plot” or “piece of land” in Quechua, the indigenous language. These “cowboys of the Andes” are mestizos, descendants of natives and Spaniards who learned from the Spanish rulers the art of horseback riding and how to deal with brave bulls. Being a Chagra, something usually passed down from father to son (and nowadays from father to daughter), is a way of life. Chagras are known for their exceptional horsemanship and unwavering devotion to their animals. ‘A horse is not a means of transportation or an animal, it is the lost part of my soul and my spirit,’ said Faraón, one of the chagras. With the disappearance of rodeos, chagra culture is under pressure, and (small-scale) tourism is helping to preserve it.
PAPAS Y POLLO
In the evening, after dinner, which takes place partly in the house and partly in the huts, everyone – chagras and their families, guests and hosts – gathers in one of the half-open mud huts next to the house for the evening fiesta. There is drinking and singing, about the rodeo, about patrón Juanito, the father of the Perez brothers, about El Tambo and about the events of the day – Santiago falling off his horse and Uncle Pablo jumping in front of it. Rodeo leader Gerardo Cando and his brother German, also known as Dúo Hermanos Cando, sing and play guitar, surrounded by the chagras, whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers sat here before them. Jorge Perez translates the thrust of one of the songs into my ear; this one is about single women, “as delicious as papas y pollo ” – potatoes and chicken.
When I ask Santiago Perez – the chagra who escaped the wrath of an angry bull that morning, what the rodeo means to him, his eyes begin to sparkle and his mouth curls into a wide smile: “Adrenaline. Love. Addiction.”
The moonshine, Tropico, and a home-brewed absinthe-like brew, served in a bull’s horn, flowed profusely, the chanting swelled: ‘How wonderful is the life of a chagra / With my chaps of goat’s hair / And my dancing horse / Viva El Tambo!’
Across from the singers, a chagra has fallen asleep, sandwiched between two younger cowboys, who are making hooting selfies with him. When I ask Santiago Perez – the chagra who escaped the wrath of an angry bull that morning, what the rodeo means to him, his eyes begin to sparkle and his mouth curls into a wide smile: “Adrenaline. Love. Addiction.’
Now that most of the herd has passed the fences of the hacienda, it seems that today, day three, is the final round-up. Photographer Frits and I are ready in the back of the pickup truck, on a gentle slope leading directly from the mountains to the corral.
Look! Cotopaxi (“Neck of the Moon,” in Quechua)! Slowly the clouds around the volcano dissolve. Only around his neck still circles a collar of fog. It is almost as if the volcano, known as shy – it likes to hide behind the clouds – is doing a striptease.
Even before we see the herd, we hear the cries of the chagras. About sixty animals gallop in our direction, chased by the chagras. On either side of the car they run by, encouraged by the riders. We hear that somewhere on the slopes and horse has been injured. An angry bull pierced the horse’s shank with its horns. On foot, rider and horse – which survives the attack – return hours later.
In the corral, the bulls are separated from the cows by lassoing them one by one. This requires skills, perfect cooperation between horse and chagra and utmost concentration: the animals are unpredictable and angry. Furiously they bucked around. Almost goes wrong. One of the cowboys, who, as befits modern chagras, is filming the scene with his phone while driving, is surprised by a bull. His horse spooked and tried to throw the rider off his back. It ends well, but when I get to see the video in question, I see that it was only a hair’s breadth away. In the screen, I see the bull approaching. He storms straight toward Alejandro Perez. Then: shaking image, an inverted horizon, a wild bull on the attack, screams. At the last moment, Alejandro manages to get his horse under control and climb back into the saddle. He comes away with a scare, and with a video that will probably earn him a lot of thumbs up online.
I see the bull approaching. He storms straight toward Alejandro. Then: shaking image, an inverted horizon, a wild bull on the attack, screams, he manages to get his horse under control and climb back into the saddle
After lunch, a group of chagras returns to the mountains in search of straggling animals. The other chagras work in the corrals, where the animals are counted, vaccinated, and separated from each other. From the large corral to the other corrals, a passageway of wooden fences has been built through which the animals are driven. From the fence, I watch. It smells like manure, mud and cigarettes. One by one, the animals go down the corridor. Pablo Perez counts out loud: vaca (cow), cria macho (calf, male), cria hembra (calf, female), torete (young bull), toro: plaza (mature bull, to the ring, to be sold), vacona (pink).
Once the animals are vaccinated and divided, they are again led into groups of twenty in one of the corrals. A fire is burning in the corner. Before the herd is released into another grazing area, one more thing needs to happen.
Large plumes of gray-white smoke billowed from the fire. A team of cowboys trot through the corral on their horses, lassoes circling through the air. In some places, the mud flies halfway up their legs. Once the bull is looped, a chagra on the ground grabs the tail of the captured animal; two others restrain the head and wrestle the bovine to the ground. Immediately, rodeo animal doctor Arturo Espin arrives with the hot iron. In seconds, the mark of El Tambo, the Flor de Lis, is on the animal’s hindquarters. Calves, except very young ones, receive a cut in the cartilage of the ear, first one, the next year a second one. A number of adult bulls lack the mark, and the ears of some are also not yet cut, indicating that they have never been captured before. These will be sold, as there is no chance they will ever be caught again.
As a second cow is tagged, a young bull races around, heading straight for the chagras. The men dashed apart, leaping onto the fence, onto the berm, behind the scaffold. Cheers, shouts and jeers. Two chagras run into the mud and grab the animal by the horns. La puerta, la puerta, the fence! With three men at a time, the beast is maneuvered out of the corral and into the adjacent pasture.
Large plumes of gray-white smoke billow from the fire. A team of cowboys trot through the corral on their horses, lassoes circling through the air
The last day of the rodeo has arrived. It is foggy, the moisture from low-hanging clouds standing in droplets on weathered foreheads. There is no mountain in sight; we are surrounded by mist. The herd in the pasture at the foot of El Tambo, bellowed all night. Horses are saddled, a number of trucks arrive – buyers of the bulls. The last animals of the herd are released.
As we begin our return journey after breakfast, we find the last remaining chagras on horseback in a circle in the corral. About thirty people, with Gerardo Cando in the middle with his guitar. He begins to play. There is laughter, lots of viva and chanting. About the rodeo, about whiskey, women and toros bravos. The bottles go around. In the middle of this spontaneous bomba, an impromptu closing ceremony, brothers, uncles and cousins Perez, owners of El Tambo and organizers of this last remaining rodeo, dance. Viva la familia Perez, it sounds. Viva El Tambo!
This report previously appeared in the Dutch-language edition of National Geographic Traveler (03-2023)
Hacienda El Tambo
Tambo means “resting place” in Quechua. El Tambo lies on an ancient Inca route from the highlands to the Amazon Basin. During la Conquista, the Jesuits claimed this land for the Spanish king and destroyed the structure. With the stones they built the walls around the corrals in which they kept their livestock. Centuries later, the house was rebuilt with part of the old stones. The corrals are still used for livestock. El Tambo is open to guests year-round.