Most of Chile’s festivals are held to mark religious occasions, or to honour saints or the Virgin Mary. What’s fascinating about them is the strong influence of pre-Spanish, pre-Christian rites, particularly in the Aymara communities of the far north and the Mapuche of the south. Added to this is the influence of colourful folk traditions rooted in the Spanish expeditions of exploration and conquest, colonization and evangelism, slavery and revolution.

In the altiplano of the far north, Aymara herdsmen celebrate Catholic holy days and the feasts of ancient cults along with ritual dancing and the offering of sacrificial llamas.

In central Chile, you’ll witness the influence of colonial traditions. In the days of the conquest, an important ingredient of any fiesta was the verbal sparring between itinerant bards called payadores, who would compose and then try to resolve each other’s impromptu rhyming riddles. The custom is kept alive at many fiestas in the Central Valley, where young poets spontaneously improvise lolismos and locuciones, forms of jocular verse that are quite unintelligible to an outsider. These rural fiestas always culminate in an energetic display of cueca dancing, washed down with plenty of wine and chicha – reminiscent of the entertainment organized by indulgent hacienda-owners for their peons.

In the south, the solemn Mapuche festivals are closely linked to mythology, magic and faith healing, agricultural rituals, and supplications to gods and spirits. Group dances (purrún) are performed with gentle movements; participants either move round in a circle or advance and retreat in lines. Most ceremonies are accompanied by mounted horn players whose four-metre-long bamboo instruments, trutrucas, require enormous lung power to produce a note. Other types of traditional wind instruments include a small pipe (lolkiñ), flute (pinkulwe), cow’s horn (kullkull) and whistle (pifilka). Of all Mapuche musical instruments, the most important is the sacred drum (kultrún), which is only used by faith healers (machis).

A festival calendar

January 20 San Sebastián. Spaniards brought the first wooden image of San Sebastián to Chile in the seventeenth century. After a Mapuche raid on Chillán, the image was buried in a nearby field, and no one was able to raise it. The saint’s feast day has become an important Mapuche festival, especially in Lonquimay, where it’s celebrated with horse racing, feasting and drinking.

February 1–3 La Candelaria. Celebrated throughout Chile since 1780, when a group of miners and muleteers discovered a stone image of the Virgin and Child while sheltering from an inexplicable thunderstorm in the Atacama. Typical festivities include religious processions and traditional dances.

End of February Festival Internacional de la Canción. This glitzy and wildly popular five-day festival is held in Viña del Mar’s open-air amphitheatre, featuring performers from all over Latin America and broadcast to most Spanish-speaking countries.

Easter Semana Santa (Holy Week). Among the nationwide Easter celebrations, look out for Santiago’s solemn procession of penitents dressed in black habits, carrying crosses through the streets, and La Ligua’s parade of mounted huasos followed by a giant penguin.

First Sunday after Easter Fiesta del Cuasimodo. In many parts of central Chile, huasos parade through the streets on their horses, often accompanied by a priest sitting on a float covered in white lilies.

May 3 Santa Cruz de Mayo. Throughout the altiplano, villages celebrate the cult of the Holy Cross, inspired in the seventeenth century by the Spaniards’ obsession with crosses, which they carried everywhere, erected on hillsides and even carved in the air with their fingers. The festivities have strong pre-Christian elements, often including the sacrifice of a llama.

May 13 Procesión del Cristo de Mayo. A huge parade through the streets of Santiago bearing the Cristo de Mayo – a sixteenth-century carving of Christ whose crown of thorns slipped to its neck during an earthquake, and which is said to have shed tears of blood when attempts were made to put the crown back in place.

June 13 Noche de San Juan Bautista. An important feast night, celebrated by families up and down the country with a giant stew, known as the Estofado de San Juan. In Chiloé, an integral part of the feast are roasted potato balls called tropones, which burn the fingers and make people “dance the tropón” as they jig up and down, juggling them from hand to hand.

June 29 Fiesta de San Pedro. Along the length of Chile’s coast, fishermen decorate their boats and take the image of their patron saint out to sea – often at night with candles and flares burning – to pray for good weather and large catches.

July 12–18 Virgen de la Tirana. The largest religious festival in Chile, held in La Tirana in the Far North, and attended by over 80,000 pilgrims and hundreds of costumed dancers (see Santuario de la Tirana).

July 16 Virgen del Carmen. Military parades throughout Chile honour the patron saint of the armed forces; the largest are in Maipú, on the southern outskirts of Santiago, where San Martín and Bernardo O’Higgins defeated Spanish Royalists in 1818.

August 21–31 Jesús Nazareno de Caguach. Thousands of Chilotes flock to the archipelago’s tiny island of Caguach to worship at a two-metre-high figure of Christ, donated by the Jesuits in the eighteenth century.

September 18 Fiestas Patrias. Chile’s Independence Day is celebrated throughout the country with street parties, music and dancing.

First Sunday of October Virgen de las Peñas. Each year, numerous dance groups and more than 10,000 pilgrims from Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina make their way along a tortuous cliff path to visit a rock carving of the Virgin in the Azapa valley, near Arica. There are many smaller festivals in other parts of Chile, too.

November 1 Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day). Traditionally, this is the day when Chileans tend their family graves. In the north, where Aymara customs have become entwined with Christian ones, crosses are often removed from graves and left on the former bed of the deceased overnight. Candles are kept burning in the room, and a feast is served for family members, past and present.

November 2 Día de los Muertos (All Souls’ Day). A second vigil to the dead is held in cemeteries, with offerings of food and wine sprinkled on the graves. In some far north villages, there’s a tradition of reading a liturgy, always in Latin.

December 8 La Purísima. Celebrated in many parts of Chile, the festival of the Immaculate Conception is at its liveliest in San Pedro de Atacama, where it’s accompanied by traditional Aymara music and dancing.

December 23–27 Fiesta Grande de la Virgen de Andacollo. More than 100,000 pilgrims from all over the north come to Andacollo, in Norte Chico, to worship its Virgin and watch the famous masked dancers (see Andacollo and around).

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