While classes are obviously an important element of study abroad—it’s in the name after all—they are not the only way that you learn as an exchange student. This year the biggest national holiday (Fiestas Patrias, which I’ll get into more here in a second) fell in the middle of the week. Because of this, all students and most workers had all week off. For me this meant the September 12th through the 22nd was completely free. So what did I do with all that time?
What ensued during this break was an experience in opposites, from extreme uncomfort, solitude, and awe to extreme gluttony, company, and partying.
Part one of this experience took me and a handful of my friends to Torres del Paine National Park. Considered by some as the “eighth wonder of the world,” this park is typified by its towering granite rock formations and glacial lakes. Not to mention, it is isolated. I mean really, really isolated. To just get there it took a plane ride and several bus rides that brought us deeper and deeper into the patagonian countryside. Once we reached the park, we might as well have been on another planet. We only had three days at the park, but we packed in the miles on each day, trying to see as much as we could while testing the limits of our legs. The latest I ever set my alarm for was 5am, and oftentimes closer it was closer to 3am in order to fit in extra trails. By the time I returned back to Valparaíso on the afternoon of the 17th, I was worn out, relaxed, and content.
Little did my weary mind realize that I was coming right back before what is perhaps the wildest week-long party that I’ve ever seen on a national scale. Think that the Fourth of July is crazy? I soon learned that Fiestas Patrias makes even the most full-throttle 4th of July gathering seem pedestrian.
Starting on the night of the 17th (the same day I got back), the celebration began. I should mention as well that for the entire month of September, Chileans had been slowly preparing and anticipating this festival. Supermarkets began to play traditional music, taxis clipped flags to their cars, and people began stocking up on meat, charcoal, and an ungodly amount of wine. This anticipation all exploded wide open the night of the 17th. This night is the first night that many of the ramadas (think fairgrounds, but where empanadas, not corndogs are king) open up. My host brother and I weren’t even able to get into the grounds of the ramada close to where we live that night because they were packed to capacity. There were some pisco-fueled hooligans who were trying to hop the fence to enter the grounds, but we decided to call it a night. No worry though, since I learned that there will be plenty of time spent at the ramada later. The ramadas are a quintessential element of Fiestas Patrias, but arguably more crucial is Chilean “asado.” Over the course of the week my host family whisked me away to three different asados. All of them are heavy on three items: grilled meat, Chilean wine, and yee-haw dancing with family members. I even got a chance to practice the cueca, the classic dance of the fiestas patrias.
As the days went on, a daily pattern emerged. Most days involved an asado during the day, a quick evening nap, and then a trip to the ramadas that would start with terremotos (cheap wine mixed with pineapple ice cream: a delicious, deceiving concoction) and end with dancing until a painfully late hour. Repeat this schedule for a few more days and I found myself tired in a new way than when I returned from Torres del Paine, yet equally in need of a shower, strangely.
While both of these back-to-back experiences of Torres del Paine and Fiestas Patrias left me tired and happy, I think there is more to grasp here. Amid the austere beauty of Patagonia and the bacchanalia of Fiestas Patrias, I felt like I was able to tap into a common denominator of Chilean life. This country is filled with beautiful places that are like no other. That alone is a reason to celebrate.