The Central Valley is the birthplace and heartland of Chilean rodeo, whose season kicks off on Independence Day, September 18. Over the following six months, regional competitions eliminate all but the finest horses and huasos in the country, who go on to take part in the national championships in Rancagua (Chile’s rodeo capital) on the first weekend in April. Rodeos are performed in medialunas (“half moons”), circular arenas divided by a curved wall, forming a crescent-shaped stadium and a smaller oval pen called an apiñadero. In Rancagua it is on the northern edge of town (on the corner of Av España and Germán Ibarra). The participants are huasos – cowboys, or horsemen – who cut a dashing figure with their bright, finely woven ponchos, broad-rimmed hats, carved wooden stirrups and shining silver spurs. The mounts they ride in the rodeo are specially bred and trained corraleros that are far too valuable for day-to-day work.
A rodeo begins with an inspection of the horses and their riders by judges, who award points for appearance. This is followed by individual displays of horsemanship that make ordinary dressage look tame. In the main part of a rodeo, pairs of huasos have to drive a young cow, or novillo, around the edge of the arena and pin it up against a padded section of the wall. Rodeos are as much about eating and drinking as anything else, and the canteen and foodstalls by a medialuna are a good place to sample regional food, gourmet wine and the sweet fruity alcohol known as chicha. Rodeo events are spread over the course of a weekend and end with music and dancing. This is where you can see the cueca being danced at its flirtatious best. For the dates of official rodeos, contact the Federación del Rodeo Chileno in Santiago (2 481 0990) or visit caballoyrodeo.cl.