The Most Important Gaucho Festival in Uruguay
In all likelihood, you have never heard of a place called Tacuarembó! It’s a rural town in the north-east of Uruguay. For most of the year Tacuarembó is a sleepy town, not much different from any other country town in Uruguay. But come early March there’s activity everywhere as the town is about to hold its annual Gaucho Festival.
In the rolling hills along the Cuchilla de Haedo, Tacuarembó is gaucho country. Not your ‘we pose for pesos’ types, but your real-deal ‘we tuck our baggy pants into our boots and slap on a beret just to go to the local store’ crew.
Quoted from Lonely Planet Online , who don’t mention the Gaucho Festival at all!
The Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha is famous throughout South America as the most important event to celebrate the Gaucho heritage & culture in Uruguay.* We visited this year (2016) and it was the 30th annual festival. It’s always held in early March and runs for 5 days. Around 6,000 to 8,000 visitors attend the fiesta every year, but the site is so large that it never feels overwhelmingly crowded.
For more practical information please see the end of this post.
The Gaucho Compounds Erected for the Festival
Activity at the site must start some time before the festival begins. All participating and invited gaucho teams set up elaborate compounds. The ones erected by the the regular participants consisted of a fenced-in yard with several solid structures. These were small to medium-sized buildings, sometimes consisting of several rooms, constructed from natural stone or bricks! One was built from tightly stacked turf. Many had simple rammed earth floors, others paving or even floorboards. All had rainproof roofs. Can you imagine the labour and dedication going into these compounds?
Link to a nice photo gallery of the building process on the official festival site.
Every year the compounds of all participating groups are in a competition, judged by the visiting public, hence the effort put into them. The compounds of the invited groups were smaller and usually had only one or two huts, often made from sticks covered with mud, or other simple materials.
Nevertheless, all buildings were furnished with antique furniture and paraphernalia, which recreated an ambience of gaucho life. Each compound also had a large fire pit with seating around it, and enough space to tie up some horses. Additionally, we noticed the occasional historic cart or makeshift workshop.
In comparison the vendors’ wooden structures and on-site restaurants looked simple, although they too were made from strong timber beams, which were dug into the ground and supported solid roofs.
For those who wanted to stay around the stage and watch performances, there were unfortunately no seats and the ground was rather dirty and moist at night. For Uruguayans it wasn’t a problem because everybody is used to bringing their own folding chair and setting it up in front of the stage, ready for the evening. For visitors from afar, who have arrived with only a suitcase or backpack, this is not really a convenient solution.
The Festival Programme
Overall, the festival is unfortunately heavily geared towards locals. For us as foreigners, with poor Spanish, some things remained a mystery. Not that we didn’t enjoy our visit, but we would have loved to have more information and background knowledge about individual things that were happening around us.
The programme is only in Spanish, which might not normally pose a major problem, but it’s laced with so many typical regional gaucho specific terms that every online translation tool failed. If there had been anyone at the festival information who spoke some English, or other common foreign languages, it would have been really helpful. But alas, there wasn’t!
Some days we also got the impression that the programme wasn’t much more than a loose guideline, with events either starting late or already finishing when we arrived at the programmed time to see them. The stage programme was only in list form, with no times given for individual performances.
What Else to See During the Festival
We didn’t find it a major problem that the programme leaflet let us down on occasion, because there was always something else to see. We spent countless hours wandering around the gaucho compounds, peeking into the buildings, admiring the dedication which went into the assembly of them, or just waiting for the perfect snapshot.
And then there were all the stalls selling gaucho paraphernalia: hats, belts, clothing, shoes, elaborately decorated knives in leather sheaths, saddles, saddle blankets, spurs, stirrups, and every imaginable kind of horse bridal and lasso. Some of this stuff seemed to be of genuine high quality and was being snapped up by the visiting gauchos – several stalls were sold out by Sunday! But a lot seemed to be more of souvenir quality, suitable as stylish accessories for the visiting public; probably 70-80% of all visitors wore some kind of gaucho-themed outfit.
You need some endurance to see all that the festival has to offer. The action in the arena started every morning between 8 and 9am. There was a lunch break from around 12 to 2pm, then more happening in the arena until sundown. Performances on the stage started at 8pm and seemed to last into the wee hours of the morning! The first 2 nights we camped a good kilometre away, and were woken by loud music coming from the festival site after 2am. Friends, who camped just outside the festival site, told us that many of the revellers left at around 6 o’clock in the morning…
Early evenings were an interesting time to visit, particularly during the first days. Several of the participating gaucho groups put on small performances in front of, or inside, their compounds. There you could get really close to the action.
Personal Summary & Information
In hindsight I would say that we probably enjoyed the first couple of days the most. We were still fresh and everything we saw was new and exotic to us. This feeling was bolstered by the fact that there were less people. When we wandered around the gaucho compounds we were sometimes the only visitors inside, which allowed for better photo opportunities.
Entrance to the arena was free of charge as it was sparsely visited. Yet we were able to see enough of the horseback action to satisfy our curiosity. These might not have been the acclaimed international champions performing at their best, like on Saturday and Sunday, but some rides were nevertheless just as exciting.
So keep this in mind if you fail to secure accommodation for the main weekend! Entrance to the entire site is free for the first day, entrance to the arena remains free for the first two days, the ‘must-see’ gaucho parade through town starts early on Saturday morning. Once this is over you’ve probably ‘had your fill’ of memorable, typical, gaucho events…
* The festival in Tacuarembó is only rivalled by a similar festival in Argentina where, north of Buenos Aires, the small town of San Antonio de Areco holds a gaucho festival each November.
More Practical Information
We paid 1,300 Pesos per person for our tickets, which was a little over US$40. This included 4 days of entrance to the festival site and 3 days of reserved seats in the rodeo arena. You can buy individual day passes. These were 200 Pesos for entrance to the festival site and 250 for reserved seating at the arena. So we saved 250 Pesos by purchasing the all inclusive pass. Only cash payments are accepted.
It’ll probably be difficult to find accommodation in Tacuarembó on short notice for the main festival weekend, so book well in advance! We would imagine that for Wednesday and Thursday nights you might be more successful to find something on short notice.
There are several camping options:
Two camping fields are really close to the fiesta. One is right inside the fenced festival site, where friends paid 900 Pesos per night to park their small camper van. Another is a little further away where friends with a tent paid 300 Pesos. Consider in both cases: toilet and shower facilities cost extra, and it will be noisy all night…
Another option is to camp around Balneario Iporá, about 6 Kilometres from the festival site. This is a large artificial lake with green spaces and forest around. There is an established campground with facilities, or informal camping around the lake shore. We moved here after the second night near the fiesta; you could still hear the music in the far distance but overall it was much quieter! Biggest drawback: you need some form of transportation to get to it – there’s no public bus.
The weather in Tacuarembó in early March (early autumn) is still mostly very pleasant. But we had two days with short, but heavy, rain showers. Looking through photos online from previous years, this seems to be normal. When it’s overcast, temperatures will be in the low to mid twenties Centigrade, with a fresh breeze. Otherwise daytime temperatures can go as high as 32°C, but in the evenings it cools down quickly to 12°-15°C. So take sun protection for in the daytime, and a light jacket for the evenings.
One thing we have to praise the organisers for is the toilet facilities. They are plentiful, well spread out and you never find long lines. All have attendants during opening hours, cost 10 Pesos to use, and are kept fairly clean.
The official website of the Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha provides more updated information closer to the festival, plus a list of all hotels in town. [only in Spanish, but more than you can find elsewhere]
Have you ever attended a similar festival, which celebrates a local culture so foreign to you? What was your reaction?
Please tell us in the ‘comments’ below!