18th September: Fiestas Patrias

Get your dancing shoes on! Time for the big celebration in Chile that resulted in 4 days of partying, with sleep being squeezed in there somewhere. Chileans love a good party so their Fiestas Patrias was obviously going to be even bigger. It’s their independence day and is often referred to as simply dieciocho, eighteen, as that is the date in September when it’s celebrated. Depending on when the day falls the celebration could last a whole week.


For the past month or so I’d taken cueca lessons, Chile’s national dance, in preparation for the big day, so that when the inevitable time came I’d actually have some sort of idea what to do. Most of the time I felt like the small children in school, who do lots of dancing in assemblies: they try their best but actually have no idea what they’re doing.

Gringos with their cueca teacher Pino and Paola! (From the left) Pino, Susan, me, Meghan, Lily, Signe, Paola and Griffin.
Gringos with their cueca teacher Pino and Paola! (From the left) Pino, Susan, me, Meghan, Lily, Signe, Paola and Griffin.

You remember you need to wave a handkerchief and dance around a circle so you just make it up and pretend you know what you’re doing. Thankfully by the time dieciocho came I had a much better idea of what I was doing! We went to a peña the week before where a few of the gringos decided to participate in the amateur’s competition. I got through a few rounds dancing with my Chilean host dad, but in the end Susan and her partner won.

It may look like a mess, but we definitely know what we’re doing…
The amateurs’ cueca competition, waiting to hear the results of who will go on to the next round.

We had 4 new volunteers arriving in Punta Arenas in August, and this was our first time meeting some of them. A peña is like a community get-together with lots of dance shows, from both children and adults in full costumes.

The 18th fell on a Friday, so my school had their celebration on the Thursday, and then the evening started the 4-day party weekend. Going to school with everyone dressed up reminded me a lot of St David’s day at home, where everyone looks adorable in their costumes, but instead of an Eisteddfod  all day, there was a huge cueca competition for the kids and then lots of carnival-style games with sweets for prizes. I got loads of sweets despite not winning anything, as I was given a whole load from various kids.

My 8th graders dancing cueca
My 8th graders dancing cueca

That evening I went to the casino with Susan and her host mum to watch a concert. It was my first time in a casino but I wasn’t betting anything! It was actually quite fun although all the screaming women did give me a headache after a while – the band are a bit of a hearthrob here, but I just thought it was a bit like the backstreet boys had grown up. The casino has quite a lot of concerts, which means the acts often stay there. The first time I went to the cafe there, the teachers I was with got very overexcited about a famous person they spotted, so of course we had to get a picture.

Chilling with the stars: Pable Herrera
Chilling with the stars: Pablo Herrera

After enough of the screaming women I headed home and joined in with the party there, staying up until around 7am. Once it got light we realised we should probably go to bed!

The next day was the dieciocho itself, starting off very relaxed with an asado during the day where it was warm enough to be outside in the sunshine (quite a change after winter!). Later on everyone went to a fonda which was like a pop-up night club with live music, and the occasional cueca song. The evening wouldn’t have been complete without a terremoto drink – I still don’t know what’s in it, but the name means earthquake and it’s like an alcoholic float  – a cocktail with a scoop of pineapple ice cream plonked on top!

Everything to do with Fiestas Patrias! Trensas (braids), empanada, terremoto, anticucho (kebab) and ceviche
Everything to do with Fiestas Patrias! Trensas (hair braids), empanada, terremoto drink, anticucho (kebab) and ceviche (a mix of onions, lemon, garlic, coriander, and fish, usually salmon)

Another late night meant another asado the next day, much more relaxing. Despite not being hungover, lounging around in the sunshine with a BBQ made it feel like I should’ve been.

Sunshine, friends and food. A good day all round!
Sunshine, friends and a BBQ. A good day all round!

To mix things up a bit on the Saturday we had a carrete at our house. The long weekend finally finished on Sunday evening with a much more chilled out asado at another friend’s house.

The amount of preparation and partying and community get-togethers for this celebration is incredible. For weeks (even months) leading up to the day people talk about it and want to know where you’ll be spending the weekend. Some of the other volunteers would compare it to their 4th July celebrations, but as I didn’t have much to compare it to I just enjoyed the break from work and seeing how everyone here celebrates.

In my previous post I mentioned that you often get thrown in front of big groups to dance, without much choice in the matter, which means lots of people love filming you. If you’ve read this far then you’ve earned the right to see some video evidence! The first time it happened wasn’t that long after I arrived in Punta Arenas, so my Spanish was terrible, I was trying to keep a low profile and do fly-on-the-wall observation, but got caught coming back from the bathroom which just so happened to be where everyone was dancing. I had absolutely no idea what was happening or if I was supposed to be doing something in particular so the results were terrible.

I still don’t want that video to be seen, but many months later with practice, getting up in front of the school kids to dance cueca with a teacher was no trouble. Not perfect but a lot less awkward!


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