Visitors who book a Patagonia ferry itinerary expect to see Argentine gauchos, but few are even aware of their Chilean counterpart – less celebrated than the Argentine gaucho, the huaso resembles him in many ways but differs in others. Both, of course, are horsemen, but the gaucho arose from a background of fierce independence on the Pampas, while the more subservient huaso originated on the landed estates that dominated economic and social life in colonial and republican Chile.
Though the huaso was a hired hand or even a peon attached to the property, on Sundays he and his colleagues could blow off steam by racing their horses, betting, and drinking. As the spontaneous rodeo grew too raucous, though, it drew the disapproval of landowners, who responded by organizing competitions that, over time, became more genteel versions of their huaso origins.
Though Chilean rodeo remains popular, it is now, according to historian Richard Slatta, a nostalgic exercise that’s “a middle- and upper-class pastime, not a profession,” as it has become in North America. Riders wear colorful ponchos, flat-brimmed hats, oversized spurs, and elaborately carved wooden stirrups.
The signature event is the atajada, in which a pair of jinetes (riders) guide and pin a calf or steer to the padded wall of the medialuna, the semicircular rodeo ring. Since it’s harder to control the steer by the body than the head – the chest is best – the horsemen get more points for this. They lose points if the steer strikes any unpadded part of the wall or escapes between the horses.
There are no cash prizes, though the event ends by acknowledging the champions and other riders with wine and empanadas. Compared to Canada, the United States, and even Mexico, Chilean rodeo is truly machista — women prepare and serve food, dress in costume, and dance the traditional cueca with the men, but they do not ride.
An hour south of Santiago, the regional capital of Rancagua is the cradle of Chilean rodeo, drawing large crowds to March’s national festival. In the Andean foothills or in small settlements along the Carretera Austral in Chile, such as Palena, rodeo probably comes closest to its historic roots. It’s worth noting that, in this part of Chile, the gaucho overlaps the borders.