"What I find is that you can do almost anything, or go almost anywhere, if you are not in a hurry", Paul Theroux.
Most people travel leaving touristy Pucón travel directly north to metropolitan Santiago or east to Argentina's playground, Bariloche. Both are 12-hour bus trips. Having finally decided not to go to Bariloche, I decided to move north in small chunks and to get off the Gringo Trail for a while. I'll write a story about the Gringo Trail later.
A short bus ride got me to Freire, where I stepped into a completely new world. Freire is, to say the least, well off the Gringo Trail. Way off. People stared at my pack and me as I walked down the sleepy main street. It took me less than 10 minutes to walk to the end of main street, and I returned down the other side hoping I had missed something. I stopped in a tiny restaurant to have a cup of coffee and pry some information out of the server.
Stepping into Restaurante Central was yet another step away from the Gringo Trail. The first thing I noticed was an overpowering smell of heavy-duty cleaners, or was it insecticide? I ordered a coffee, also called a cafecito, which in Chile means Nescafe. The woman brought me a can of instant coffee, a bowl of sugar, a cup and hot water. This was a make-your-own-poison kind of coffee. I made it strong, she made it hot, and I sipped my coffee waiting for an opportunity to ask some questions.
"So, I hear there's a rodeo in town?" I asked. An old man sitting at the counter, the only other customer, grinned a toothless grin and said something that I assumed had something to do with my question. I think he confirmed there was a rodeo this weekend.
I then asked the waitress where I might spend the night in Freire. "Oh no, there's nothing in Freire," she said. Oddly, this did not surprise me. She responded to my blank stare, adding there were a few hotels in Petrufquén, four kilometers down the road.
I caught the next micro to Petrufquén and found the Hotel Frances (actually, it was Hotel Fances because the "r" had fallen off the sign) and got a double room with a lousy bed for the reasonable price of 5,000 pesos (US$8.50).
On Saturday morning I caught a micro to Freire where a police officer gave me directions to the rodeo media luna, 30 minutes from town. The trip took longer due to frequent stops to feast on huge, ripe blackberries. PHOTO
Starting to wonder if I'd ever find the rodeo grounds, the trees and blackberry bushes broke and I found an area buzzing with activity. Restless cows moved anxiously in corrals, horses stepped out of the backs of small trucks and men in traditional cowboy clothing, called huesos, leaned on fences chatting. I asked a fellow in the cafeteria (a dirt-floored pole shed), when things started. He told me the rodeo would start at 11, and it was just 10:30. I ordered a cafecito (I was learning the lingo, and I got a Nescafe) and went to the grandstand at 11. I wasn't learning, I was the only person there, despite the announcer trying to convince me things would start soon.
Taking a walk around, I spent some time watching the cows. PHOTO They waited impatiently in three pens, black and white, brown and white, and all black. More horses arrived while I was wandering around, looking comical with their heads well above the short sides of the small truck hauling them. PHOTO
I returned to the media luna and found a seat in the shade. I chatted with an elderly couple about the rodeo while other people found seats. By the time the rodeo started, there were less than 50 people in the stands. PHOTO
A Chilean rodeo is a team effort, and the announcer named the two men participating and the names of their horses. There were 15 teams, and after parading around the corral, they gathered in the center of the media luna under the shade of a huge tree. PHOTO
When I mention "rodeo," you probably have visions of "ridem-cowboy," hog-tying cows, clowns and bucking broncos. Erase all of this from your mind, we're in Chile. In this distinguished sport, the "huesos," or cowboys, wore heavily starched, button-down shirts, a sport coat and dress slacks, all covered by a colorful poncho, and the objective is to herd a cow back and forth to earn points.
The rodeo takes place in a media luna, or corral, 50 feet in diameter, with heavy wooden walls. Within the circle, another wall arcs to create a smaller space within the larger circle. At each side of this arc is a metal fence. The judges sit above this small area, the grandstands surround the larger space. An off-center tree shades the center of the corral, where the contestants wait their turn to compete. "Media luna" means crescent moon, which you can imagine looking down on one from above. PHOTO
The first team of two huesos enters the small corral with a cow. The huesos herd the cow back and forth in front of the judge. PHOTO After they pass the judge twice, the huesos herd the cow into the larger area, earning one point.
The huesos then herds the cow around the perimeter of the larger circle to a white-painted area at one tip of the media luna. Here they have to stop the cow completely, earning between two and three points depending on the quality of control. If they don't stop the cow but turn it around, they get zero points. If they loose control of the cow and it runs past the white area, they get minus two or three points. The team has two more tries to earn points before they run the cow out of the corral. PHOTOS
A rodeo consists of rounds, two before lunch, and two after. First, they herded brown and white cows. The top three point earners then had a run-off with the all black cows. They then went through a second round with the black and white cows and another run off. During lunch, I sat between a group of huesos and a few spectators ate a few empanadas and decided I'd seen enough. The national championships are April 2-4 just south of Santiago, I'm thinking about going to see the best cow herders in the country.