Every year around September 18, an amazing, festive spirit takes hold of Chile as the country gears up for its fiestas patrias, or national holiday. Everywhere you look there are flags, streamers and smiling faces. There is a tangible party atmosphere in the air, whether at intimate family gatherings or massive fondas or even carnivals all over the country. In short, it’s a great time to be in Chile.
Here are some highlights from an expat who recently experienced his first dieciocho in Chile.
The best food: There’s no better way to celebrate Chile’s independence than munching on an empanada de pino. Baked or fried, these pockets of mouth-watering pastry are filled with an enticing combination of ground beef, onion, hard-boiled egg, olives and raisins. As well as being tasty, they’re a great way to boost your energy levels after all the dancing.
Tip: Vegetarians don’t have to miss out. Just ask for an empanada de queso (cheese empanada).
The best fonda: When it comes to the lively fairground carnivals where people congregate to express their national pride, bigger really is better. The sheer size of the huge fonda in central Santiago’s Parque O’Higgins makes it the pick of the bunch. There is plenty of traditional food, drink and games like bingo and darts where you can chance your luck or your arm to win a prized bottle of Chilean wine or pisco. Outside in the park the air is filled with kites and on September 19, you can line up with hundreds of Chileans to watch the famous military parade that passes through the center of the park.
Tip: This fonda is popular so arrive before lunchtime to get a good look before all the crowds show up.
The best drink: For Chile’s fiestas patrias nothing beats the infamous terremoto, or earthquake. As the name suggests, this is a potent cocktail. Containing a lot of pipeño wine, a little fernet and a scoop of pineapple ice cream, the terremoto makes for an memorable drinking experience. As the ice cream melts, the drink takes on a thick consistency and a sweet flavor but don’t be fooled: it’s still a serious beverage.
Tip: After your first terremoto, it’s a good idea to move on to the smaller replicas, or aftershocks.
The best dance: While there are plenty of opportunities to bop along to the cumbia or ranchera bands playing the main stages at all the big fondas, no dance surpasses the cueca on this special day. The country’s national dance, it imitates the mating ritual between a rooster and a chicken. Although its much more subtle than many other Latin dances, if done well, the cueca can still be sensual and dramatic. And by joining in, you will earn instant respect from your Chilean friends.
Tip: You don’t need to get all the steps right but it does help to take a class or two in the weeks leading up to the fiestas patrias.
The best game: For Chile’s national holiday, children and the young at heart get together to compete in a range of traditional games dating back to colonial times. For beginners, a good place to start is rayuela, a simple game that tests both accuracy and patience. In teams of two, contestants toss small metal disks or cylinders at a piece of rope stretched across a muddy patch of earth. The disk that lands closest to the rope wins. Because it doesn’t require a lot of energy, rayuela is the perfect way to keep celebrating when you need to slow the tempo down.
Tip: For the best results, grip the disk firmly but tightly between your thumb and index finger. If you’re not sure about the technique, just ask a Chilean to show you how.
By Tim Dixon