It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’s a saying in Chile that if you just make it through August, you’ll survive another year. Apparently, the highest death rate is in August when the skyline is choked with smog and the dreary rain is at its coldest. But, if you can just survive the month, September comes to liven everything up again. In September trees blossom, fresh air clears the view for the beautiful Andes, people pedal bikes and runners pounce down every park’s trail, kites and flags fly in the breeze, there’s sunny days and holidays. THE holiday. Fiestas Patrias, el Dieciocho, el Día de Independencia. Call it what you will, to me: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
(To learn more about this holiday, read this 101 course I created with the help from my students — cute pictures guaranteed!)
Knowing that this would be my last Fiestas Patrias in Chile for the foreseeable future, I vowed to go all-out. Success would only come if I did as the Chileans do and sacrificed a week of sleep, spent all my money on terremotos and ate all the delectable treats I could stomach with a guilt-free conscience. And so that’s exactly what I did. During my nine-day holiday, it was all things Chile and it rocked.
Round I: Asado
I started the week off with a Saturday asado on the rooftop of my friends, Marianne and Nico’s, new apartment. We barbecued choripan, drank chicha and hung out in the beautiful springtime weather. After the barbecue and a little nap, Nora, Caitlin and I sang karaoke and danced our hearts out at our favorite pub, Flannery’s. I knew then that if the rest of the week was anything like our “pre-Fiestas Patrias” celebrations, that I was in for quite a crazy time.
Round II: Chico Trujillo Concert
Last year, Nora was too sick to rally and come with me to the Chico Trujillo concert. Since my friends Katy, Ray and I had such a blast at it last year, I was thrilled to go again. For hours, we danced to the opening band, Illapu, which I’d never heard of but turned out to be pretty cool. The eclectic band members from northern Chile played Andean folk music on an array of unique instruments I don’t know the names of, including one that reminds me of a cheese grater. We also danced the cueca, which I am obsessed with. More on that later. And we waited and waited and waited for Chico.
Only in Chile does the headliner not start its main set until 3 a.m.! But we stuck it out and danced and danced to the cumbia songs that brought a flood of memories from our early days in Chile.
After a couple hours of sleep, we got up to start the week’s main event: Sept. 18 – el Dieciocho.
Round III: Fonda at Parque Padre Hurtado
The actual 18th is an all-out, all-day event of all things Chile: Rodeo, terremotos, choripan, chicha, anticucho, cueca, amigos. It really is the best holiday, am I right?
It’s a little tradition to spend the day with my international friends to celebrate the adopted country we have all come to love. OK, so most of us have a love-hate relationship with the place, but in September it is all about the love. Viva Chile!
Dieciocho is all about asados and red meat. I never used to be a steak eater, but there’s just something about Chilean anticucho that gets me every time. When we finally got out of the never-ending entrance line, we bolted for the BEST anticucho stand at the fonda (it’s by the PDI tent for folks who plan to go next year). The extra couple lucas is worth it for this perfectly roasted steak, chori and chicken kabob marinated in a salty garlic sauce. You betta’ believe all three of us ordered our own GIANT anticucho (and ate every last bite).
Then, it was off to the rodeo to watch the nation’s second-most popular sport. The huasos did their regular tricks of standing on galloping horses, sharp turns and other things I don’t know how to describe. And then the show performed what is quite possibly the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed. En serio.
Cueca — on — horseback.
Cueca is Chile’s national dance that everyone knows and dances during Dieciocho. People even carry around handkerchiefs, or pañuelos, just in case there is a chance to do the cueca. I am quite obsessed with this phenomenon and too carried around my pañuelo all week after practicing the dance all month so I’d be prepared. So when the horses started to cueca — I almost exploded with glee.
After the rodeo, we walked around the park through the cool shops of hats, leather and all things Chile. We ate choripan and empanadas and more anticucho and french fries and more choripan. And, we drank terremotos. In case I haven’t said it enough already: Best holiday ever!
Chile loves to show off its armed forces. Each branch of the military and police units chooses its best looking crew to pose with camera-happy young women all day at the fondas. En serio…I think that’s really their job for the day. I, of course, couldn’t miss out on this part of the event. For several hours, I played a little game called “Get A Photo With Officers From Every Unit.” Again: Best holiday ever!
As the day fell to night, more and more friends met up with us to celebrate.
After hours of waiting, it was finally cueca time. I stomped my best “half-moon steps” and twirled my “pañuelo” to the Chilean national dance until the band stopped playing and the park closed. After a month of practicing, I was thrilled to even have some Chilean huasos ask me to dance. Being the loud crazy gringa helps.
To give you an idea of my cueca skills, here is a day-after translated conversation with my roommate who had been teaching me cueca in the living room leading up to the big Dieciocho:
Me: My Dieciocho was super amazing! I cueca-ed all night long. Like all night.
Sergio: Really? Who taught you?
Me: *confused, thinking I didn’t understand the question in Spanish* What?
Sergio: Who taught you?
Me: Um, you did?
Sergio: Oh no. *laughs*
So I may not be an expert cueca dancer, but I had the time of my life trying.
Round IV: Military Parade and Fondas at Parque O’Higgins
The 19th of September is Army Day, which has evolved more into a commemorative holiday for all Armed Services. Every year, thousands of military personnel participate in a parade that is inaugurated by the president. We weren’t able to get seats and it was difficult to see behind the crowd, but I managed to snap a few photos.
The parade, which showcases every single branch of armed forces, lasts for hours, so Nora and I wandered around the rest of the park which featured the run-of-the-mill food and drink stands. The cool thing about Parque O’Higgins is that it’s the most popular place for people to go for the holiday, so families filled every stretch of grass to host picnics, take naps and fly kites.
Round V: Fonda in Olmué
In hopes of experiencing more traditional Chile, I headed to the campo for my last day of Fiestas Patrias celebrations. Olmué, Chile, is a small huaso town in the fifth region of the country, about two hours by bus from Santiago. Caitlin, Caitlin, Nora and I wandered around the town’s events which were unfortunately quite spread out and difficult to reach. It was nice to see a less commercialized side of the holiday, where families set up mom-and-pop food and drink stands and generations of cowboys competed in the rodeo. It was a much-needed “tranquilo” rest day after quite the week.
If a successful Fiestas Patrias truly is measured in terremotos consumed and kilos gained, I should probably be nominated for some award. September has a way of making me fall in love with Chile and reflect on all that’s happened since I moved to this narrow little country in the south. It’s a bit sad to think this will be the last of my Dieciochos, at least for awhile, but I’m happy to have made it one I’ll be raving about for years to come.
Thanks for making this time of my life such an incredible adventure, Chile. Felices Fiestas Patrias.