Chile is a land of big-hearted cowboys, bright colours and barbecue, where no public event passes without folk music and dancing. From religious feasts to public holidays, to high (and low) art events, there is a year-round calendar of festivals to warm the cockles of your heart.
#1 Fiesta de La Tirana
A sleepy town of less than a thousand people swells to almost 250,000 one day a year, when multi-chromatic sprites and saints take to the streets for a riotous dance off. The Fiesta de la Tirana, held in a far northeast corner of Chile in July, is the principle event honouring the country’s patron saint, the Virgen del Carmen (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Participants don gorgeously gruesome masks for the main event, the Diablada or Dance of the Devil, spinning and wailing in fit of Andean folk glory.
#2 Fiestas Patrias
Come September, homes across the country are adorned with the national flag in preparation for Fiestas Patrias, Chile’s annual celebration of independence. Formally, it’s a two-day event culminating in a huge military parade in Santiago’s Parque O’Higgins, watched by millions via live TV broadcast. Informally, Fiestas Patrias is a week-long national holiday filled with Chilean rodeo events, asado (barbecue) and music, from the Caribbean-influenced Cumbia to the mariachi-style Rancheras. Crowds gather in temporary outdoor food halls called fondas and couples across the country turn out for Cueca dance competitions, waving sexy hankies and wearing bright ponchos for the traditional chicken dance of seduction.
#3 Fiesta Tapati
On UNESCO World Heritage-listed Easter Island, home to the iconic prehistoric carvings of the Rapa Nui people, the Fiesta Tapati brings indigenous Chilean culture to life. Locals cover themselves in traditional body paint and markings and sing tribal folk songs in heart-swelling chorus. A festival queen presides over parades, floats and performances while ballsy young men enter the Haka Pei competition, hurling themselves down the side of a mountain on makeshift wooden toboggans. Held in February, the flavour of Fiesta Tapati is unique, being a Polynesian festival with a strong Spanish flavour. Grass skirts and headdresses abound and the music is just beautiful.
#4 Viña del Mar International Song Festival
The Viña del Mar Song Festival is the Eurovision of the South; the biggest music event in Latin America. Fifteen thousand spectators crowd the Quinta Vergara Arena in the resort town of Viña del Mar while millions more watch on TV or follow the event on the radio, as an epic list of performers compete in pop and folk song categories. The live audience, known collectively as The Monster, cheer or boo with wild abandon and producers aim to out-do themselves year-on-year with international guests, epic sets and trashy, explosive spectacle.
#5 La Semana Valdiviana
Also in February, La Semana Valdiviana (Valdivian Week) is a festival in southern Chile set along the banks of the Calle-Calle River, in the picturesque town of Valdivia. With fondas, craft fairs and many outdoor performances, La Semana Valdiviana is a celebration of summer that culminates in a one-of-a-kind floating parade. The final night of the festival sees brightly-lit barges take over the Calle, some that are discernably boats and some that are dressed as buildings, gardens and curious creatures, all flooded with light. As they glow and bob in the water, a spectacular fireworks show bursts overhead.
From March through to May, wine regions across Chile hold mini fests to honour the grape harvest, filled with de riguer Chilean dance and song. Town squares become lively markets for locally produced wine and artisanal foods, and there is inevitably a grape-stomping competition. Though Chilean wine production is machine-based, the Vendimias pay tribute to the traditional method of clambering barefoot into a tub and pulverising the fruit with your naked feet until the juice runs free – gross from a hygiene point of view but great fun to watch.
#7 Santiago a Mil International Theatre Festival
Santiago a Mil (Santiago by the Thousand) is the biggest arts festival in Chile, a three-week program of theatre, dance, visual art and music at indoor and outdoor venues across the capital. Founded two decades ago, the festival earned its name by offering ultra low cost tickets – just 1,000 pesos ($85AUD) back in the day. Prices have risen but the festival still offers a ton of free and cheap programs, with several hundred events every year including dozens of international companies.
#8 New Year’s Eve
Chileans flock to the sea to ring in the New Year, watching the biggest fireworks display in Latin America from hills and rooftops of Valparaiso – the picturesque, bohemian city by the sea. There and elsewhere in the country, you can partake in various Chilean traditions to ensure good fortune in the coming months: wear yellow underwear if you want to be lucky in love; eat 12 grapes at midnight to ensure prosperity; carry empty suitcases around the block if you’re keen to travel. You can also enjoy a traditional drink of cola de mono on New Years’s Eve – a heady mix of coffee, cinnamon, milk and aguardiente – which is guaranteed to give you a traditional NYE hangover.
(Lead image: @Chile_Satelital/Flickr)
Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and frequent flyer. She has written for The Age, The Monthly, triple j Mag, Paper Sea, Faster Louder and various other publications, and appeared on ABC Radio National, triple j and Melbourne's 3RRR FM. She has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark 'Chopper' Read, and she stashes a lot of her writing here.