My guide interrupted me and began insulting the man I was interviewing. “How many women have you had children with?” he demanded.
I was interviewing Hector Rodriguez Ortega, a silver-haired and grandfatherly retired accountant who has written a book on Chilean rodeo and who met me at Club del Rodeo Chileno Gil Letelier, recognised as the oldest rodeo club in Chile. “I have been married twice,” Ortega said, looking puzzled. Although I did not understand it then, the belligerence my guide was showing was a manifestation of how much meaning rodeo has in Chile. Rodeo is the country’s official national sport and the huaso, the Chilean cowboy, is considered the representative of authentic Chilean character: brave, modest, hard-working.
About 30 minutes from where most of the city’s better hotels are located, the Club Gil Letelier is the easiest way to experience rodeo in the capital. One brisk spring morning, I set out for it accompanied by a guide arranged by my tour operator. As we got closer, we began passing odd peripheral businesses: a small manufacturer of fish food; a seller of bathroom fixtures who had a pyramid of toilets on the sidewalk outside his shop. We came to the club’s high, wide gates and they swung open. Driving into the compound was like passing into Chile’s ranching past: there were low-slung buildings, a circular roofed corral, a stadium with bleacher seating, and flowers everywhere. It was hard to believe that this space existed inside the city and the sudden, surprising beauty felt like discovering a secret.
Ortega is a member of the club and he took me on a tour. My guide walked beside us looking angry. Ortega showed me a wall of photos of various club members on their horses, presenting a horn full of alcohol to different Chilean presidents. This is because each year on September 19, the members of the club are the first to march at a parade that is part of Chile’s independence celebrations. They ride up to the country’s president, who is in a grandstand, and present her with the horn and invite her on behalf of all huasos to drink. Since the huasos are seen as a folkloric representation of Chilean decency, this is interpreted as suggesting a popular mandate.
While Ortega showed me the photos my guide, who had been a student organiser against the dictator General Pinochet and had risked prison and torture, pointed out the images of the club’s members greeting Pinochet. He periodically asked Ortega random questions such as whether he drank on weeknights, and how much it cost to keep a horse at the club (sometimes, and about $100 per month). Whatever the answer, my guide would snort and roll his eyes. To him, Ortega belonged to the decadent upper class — the upper class that, in his eyes, had been complicit in supporting Pinochet — and was simply playing at cowboy and borrowing the dignity of a labourer.
All of this political anger took me by surprise. I am interested in horses and I knew rodeo’s importance to Chile, so had thought the sport would be a great indirect way of experiencing the country. The conflict I was seeing was one of the ways that travel can turn all one’s expectations upside down.
Ortega led me to the roofed corral. Because of the shade and the way that the dirt had been churned by hooves, it smelled sweet and a little like night in the countryside. Two employees of the club, neither members nor owners of the horses that they were riding, came into the corral. They were wearing what huasos wear: flat-topped, wide-brimmed hats and mantas — similar to ponchos. The most extraordinary thing about Chilean rodeo is the Corralero horses, the oldest registered breed in South America. About the size of ponies, they have been raised over centuries for manoeuvrability and speed, especially in the confines ofcorrals.
A calf was released into the ring where I was standing. The two huasos began racing their horses along the side of the animal, one slightly ahead of it and the other slightly behind, manoeuvring the calf back and forth, side to side.
Then they had me stand in the corral and raced their horses towards me. As they were about to reach me — so close I couldn’t help jumping backwards — the riders twitched the reins and the horses stopped, apparently in the space of a few inches, their hooves digging into the dirt. The huasos had their horses twirl like tops and shoot off in different directions, then run sideways in unison, a motion that reminded me of watching children at football practice.
My guide, who had several times grumbled that the huasos were only employees and should be seen just as that, said, “The only thing we can be proud of here are the horses.”
Chilean rodeo, where two huasos move cattle back and forth in a corral, occurs throughout the country. Because of the hectoring of my guide, I had begun to think of the sport as a way for well-off people to pretend to be working-class; that the very nature of the sport, for which good-quality Corralero horses can cost up to $40,000 each, means its participants have to be wealthy.
In San Pedro, the main settlement in the high and incredibly dry Atacama Desert in Chile’s far north, I waited in the lobby of my hotel, the Tierra Atacama, for members of the local rodeo club. It was morning and, as I drank my coffee, a staff member came up to me and said the president of the club would be late because his llamas had escaped their corrals and he had spent all night trying to find them.
Pedro Layana Collao is small, dark-skinned, handsome. He met me under a tree with his horse. Rodeo in Atacama makes no sense, he immediately offered. “We have no cows,” he said. “For competitions we have to hire cows from nine or 10 hours away.”
It was a dazzlingly bright morning and Collao was dressed in a crisp white shirt, a short jacket and a huaso hat. In the distance were dry brown mountains. “A horse is a luxury. The only thing one can do with a horse here is go riding.”
I asked him why he practised the sport. Standing nearby was another member of the rodeo club, a tall muscular man also dressed as a huaso. He spoke up: “It is our national sport. It is necessary to preserve our tradition.” Such open patriotism took me aback, not just because we live in an ironic age but because it was hard to understand what patriotism could mean in a country with such a turbulent recent past.
I asked Coallo how many “cufflinks” there were in the Atacama — this was the term Ortega had used to describe the pair of huasos who had manoeuvred the calf. When Coallo asked me what I meant, I explained how I was using the term; as I did this, his companion, Bernardo Flores Soza, asked what a cufflink was in reality. I described how they function and Coallo started laughing. He said that this was not an area of Chile where people used or saw such a thing.
The conversation opened out. I had noticed that Coallo’s horse was much larger than the ones I had seen in Santiago and he explained that the rodeo clubs there have more stringent standards as to what can count as a Corralero horse. His horse was much less expensive than those one would see in a Santiago club, he explained. The idea that somebody might impugn his horse appeared to hurt his feelings. He began speaking faster, complaining that the rodeo clubs in the south were full of rich people and the members there could hire riders to exercise their horses; that in competitions they would have one full-time employee whose role was simply to make his employer, the club member, look good; that they might win rodeo competitions but they were not true to the huaso ethos.
“The best thing about rodeo,” Soza volunteered, “is the horse.” Early in the conversation both he and Coallo had been talking about how special the Chilean horse is and now I realised that for many participants, the rodeo is actually not the important thing. The feelings of patriotism they attach to the sport are fixed not to the activity but to the Corralero breed. These men needed to put their heart and pride somewhere and they put it in the horse.
The Atacama — dry, empty, endless — is frightening. There is very little plant life, just grey dust and brown stones. Travelling through it, when one loses sight of a road, one feels a rush of panic, like being at sea and losing sight of land. A few days after meeting Soza and Coallo, I was hiking through a rocky area and saw Soza on a horse, picking his way through the stones and leading two more horses, beautiful and glossy, by their halters. The sight of them was bizarre, like Soza was leading two swans through the desert. What sort of passion would lead someone to bring horses to a place so completely inappropriate?
Along with Santiago and the Atacama, the third place all travellers to Chile are likely to visit is Patagonia, in the very south of the country. The sharp, sudden mountains, the wind that seems to come from all directions, even from below one’s feet, makes it completely different from any other part of the country. Many Patagonians seem to feel a disdain for the rest of Chile. Literally the first conversation I had in Patagonia concerned who is tougher: the huaso or the gaucho, the Patagonian cowboy? The huaso is a town cowboy, I was told. He works in a corral and at night goes home to sleep in a bed. A gaucho has to spend months outdoors. When he comes inside a house, the fact that there is a ceiling above him makes him duck.
Rodeo in Patagonia is rough, slapdash. It is pickup trucks arranged in a ring and a man in the centre riding a bucking horse that seems half-horse and half-rabbit. It is also a sport of working people, with horses that might be wild or might cost $500. One gaucho told me that the reason he did not take part was that he spent all day every day on a horse and he did not want to do more of the same on his day off.
I was staying at the Awasi Patagonia, a remote but sleek lodge, 90km north of Puerto Natales on the edge of the celebrated Torres del Paine national park. The hotel had set up a meeting with Victor Manuel Sharp Becerra, a young, mustachioed rodeo champion, who showed me the barn where he prepares his equipment: the spurs that he keeps sharp, the riding boots made from dead horses that he has skinned himself. Talking about animal-rights activists, he told me that people think horses are pets, when they are really working animals. “I wish I had a life like the horses used in rodeo. They don’t get thin in the winter. They get vitamins. They only get ridden a few times of the year.”
Becerra’s family has a sheep ranch not far from the hotel and he took me riding around his property. Everywhere there were thorny grey bushes tufted with wool torn from sheep. I asked Becerra what he thought of rodeo as practised in the rest of the country. He rolled his eyes. But if the wealthy practitioners in the north were laughable, the horses were another matter. Becerra had ridden a true Corralero just once, he told me. “It was like a sports car. You would think of something and it would start doing it.” If the “national sport” signified wildly different things to different people throughout the country, the pride in the Corralero united them. “Without the horses,” said Becerra. “It wouldn’t be anything.”
Akhil Sharma is the author of ‘Family Life’ (Faber), which won the 2015 Folio Prize
Meanwhile in the US — an alternative take on a macho sport
On a Saturday morning last October, the stands of the South Point Casino Arena in Las Vegas were filled with whooping and hollering, despite some hoarse voices and bloodshot eyes hidden behind dark glasses. The World Gay Rodeo Finals were under way, and rather too early for some spectators, writes Will Hide.
The International Gay Rodeo Association was founded in 1985 and has 5,000 members across the US and Canada. It oversees a season of events, starting this year in Dallas in April, then making its way through Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Calgary and California before culminating at October’s finals back in Las Vegas.
About 120 men and women took part in last year’s finals. By day steers were wrangled and broncos bucked. By night some donned heels and wigs for the “Royalty Competition” where Mr, Miss, Ms and ‘MsTer’ IGRA were crowned and She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy boomed from loud speakers at the afterparty. To an outsider the weekend seemed to be a deliberate affirmation of all the similarities to the much bigger “regular” rodeo circuit and at the same time a celebration of all that makes it different.
Unlike in “straight” rodeo, men and women competed equally in all events, including bull riding (usually men only) and barrel racing (women only). There were also categories unique to the IGRA, such as “wild drag racing” where Wonder Woman, Superman and other costumed characters tried to ride an unsurprisingly grumpy steer that had already been pulled and cajoled from the other side of the stadium.
The Stars and Stripes were carried round the arena on horseback. Everyone stood, heads were lowered and prayers said. “Lord, we thank you for putting your hands over us, for protecting us, and for letting us marry the ones we love.”
About 30 per cent of IGRA aren’t even gay. “The camaraderie and community is way better here, it’s like things used to be,” said one (straight) competitor about to take part in bull riding. “It doesn’t make a difference what your orientation is, it’s all about your athletic abilities and sportsmanship”. He sauntered off to prepare as Dolly Parton’s Here You Come Again echoed around the arena.
Akhil Sharma was a guest of Black Tomato (blacktomato.com) which offers a 12-night trip from $11,450, including accommodation at The Singular Santiago, Tierra Atacama and Awasi Patagonia, international flights from New York and internal flights, and guided visits to meet those involved in Chilean rodeo.
The Club del Rodeo Chileno Gil Letelier (clubgilletelier.cl) has regular events open to the public. Riding with Pedro Layan Collao and Victor Manuel Sharp Becerra can be arranged through the relevant hotels.
Photographs: Martin Bernetti/AFP; Hugo Infante/Polaris/Eyevine; Dave Yoder/Corbis; AFP/Getty