The Chileans are not a particularly exuberant people, but passions are roused by several national enthusiasms – chiefly football and rodeo, which at their best are performed with electrifying skill and theatricality.
El fútbol reigns supreme as Chile’s favourite sport. Introduced by British immigrants in the early 1800s, football in Chile can trace its history back to the playing fields of the Mackay School, one of the first English schools in Valparaíso, and its heritage is reflected in the names of the first clubs: Santiago Wanderers, Everton, Badminton, Morning Star and Green Cross.
Everton and Wanderers are still going strong, but the sport is now dominated by the Santiago teams of Colo Colo, Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile. Matches featuring any of these teams are guaranteed a good turn-out and a great atmosphere. There’s rarely any trouble, with whole families coming along to enjoy the fun. If you can’t make it to a match, you’ll still see plenty of football on the huge TVs that dominate most cafés and bars, including European games shown on cable channels (you may notice, too, that widespread exposure to English football has led many young Chileans to refer to an Englishman as a húligan rather than a gringo).
Football hardly has a season in Chile. In addition to the league games played between March and December, there are numerous other competitions of which the Copa de Libertadores is the most important. So you’ll generally be able to catch the action whatever time of year you visit.
There are two very different types of horse racing in Chile: conventional track racing, known as hípica, and the much rougher and wilder carreras a la chilena. Hípica is a sport for rich Santiaguinos, who don their tweeds and posh frocks to go and watch it at the capital’s Club Hípico and Hipódromo Chile, which have races throughout the year. The most important of these are the St Leger at the Hipódromo Chile on December 14, and the Ensayo at the Club Hípico on the first Sunday in November.
Carreras a la chilena are held anywhere in the country where two horses can be found to race against each other. Apart from the organized events that take place at village fiestas, these races are normally a result of one huaso betting another that his horse is faster. Held in any suitable field, well away from the prying eyes of the carabineros, the two-horse race can attract large crowds (who bet heavily on the outcome).
Rodeos evolved from the early colonial days when the cattle on the large estancias had to be rounded up and branded or slaughtered by huasos. The feats of horsemanship required to do so soon took on a competitive element, which eventually found an expression in the form of rodeos. Even though ranching has long declined in Chile, organized rodeos remain wildly popular, with many free competitions taking place in local stadiums (known as medialunas) throughout the season, which runs from September to April. Taking in a rodeo not only allows you to watch the most dazzling equestrian skills inside the arena, but also to see the huasos decked out in all their traditional gear: ponchos, silver spurs and all. Added to this, the atmosphere is invariably loads of fun, with lots of whooping families and excited kids, and plenty of food and drink afterwards.Read More
The Chilean huaso
The Chilean huaso
“Of the many cowboys of the Americas, none remains as shrouded in mystery and contradiction as Chile’s huaso,” says Richard Slatta in Cowboys of the Americas. Certainly the huaso holds a special place in Chile’s perception of its national identity. But the definition of the huaso is somewhat confused and subject to differing interpretations. The one you’re most likely to come across is that of the “gentleman rider”, the middle-class horseman who, while not a part of the landed elite, is a good few social rungs up from the landless labourer. This is the huaso you’ll see in cueca performances and at rodeos.
These gentlemen riders are part of a romanticized image of the Chilean countryside and a far cry from the much larger and perhaps more authentic group who carried out the real horse-work on the land. More akin to the Argentine gaucho and the Mexican vaquero, this other type of huaso was a landless, badly paid and poorly dressed ranch-hand who worked on the large haciendas during the cattle round-up season. Despite the harsh reality of his lifestyle, the lower-class huaso is also the victim of myth-making, frequently depicted as a paragon of virtue and happiness.
All types of huasos, whatever their social status, were renowned for outstanding horsemanship, marvelled at for their practice of training their horses to stop dead in their tracks at a single command (la sentada). A skill mastered in the southern Central Valley was that of the bolas – three stones or metal balls attached to long leather straps, which were hurled at animals and wrapped around their legs, bringing them to the ground. Huasos also developed a host of equestrian contests including the juego de cañas (jousting with canes), the tiro al gallo (a mounted tug-of-war) and topeadura (a side-by-side pushing contest). Today these displays have a formal outlet in the regular rodeos in the Central Valley. As for the working huaso, you’ll still come across him in the back roads of rural central Chile.
Huasos are the chief performers of cueca, Chile’s national dance – a curious cross between English morris dancing and smouldering Sevillanas. Its history can, in fact, be traced to the African slave dances, which were also the basis of the Brazilian samba and Peruvian zamacueca, and were introduced to Chile by a battalion of black soldiers in 1824. During the War of Independence, Chileans adopted their own forms of these dances known as la Chilena, la Marinera and el Minero, which eventually became a national victory dance known simply as the cueca. Although there are regional variations, the basic elements remain unchanged, consisting of couples strutting around each other in a courtship ritual, spurs jingling and handkerchiefs waving over their heads. The men are decked out in their finest huaso gear, while the women wear wide skirts and shawls. In the background, guitar-strumming musicians sing romantic ballads full of patriotic sentiments. If you are going to a fiesta and want to take part in a cueca, remember to take along a clean white handkerchief.