The History and Dances of the Chilean Festival: Fiesta de la Tirana
La Fiesta de La Tirana is a giant annual Chilean festival held each July.
The history of the festival dates back centuries (to 1540!), and it’s founded in both legend and truth. Where is it celebrated? In the tiny town of La Tirana—located in the Tarapacá region of Chile, about 70 kilometers inland from the coastal city of Iquique.
The celebrations last 10 days and involve lots of expressive bailes (dances) with colorful costumes, as well as music and fireworks. While it’s primarily religious in nature, the Fiesta de la Tirana involves a colorful mix of ancient customs and modern traditions.
A Brief History of the Fiesta de la Tirana
What is the legend behind this event? An Incan princess named Ñusta Huillac refused colonization. She was known for ruthlessly executing or enslaving any Europeans or Christians in her territory. She was beloved for defending her people from being conquered, and they called her La Tirana (the tyrant).
But La Tirana ended up falling in love with one of her Spanish captives. She was so in love with him that she even wanted to marry him and become a Christian. Her outraged community killed both the princess and her lover.
In the mid-17th century, a hermitage was built next to her grave. In the 18th century, a small town and church were founded there. Today, el Museo de La Tirana (the Tyrant’s museum) is located in front of the church. The lovers remain buried in the place where the festival is celebrated.
Today, más de 250 mil feligreses (more than 250 thousand parishioners) gather every year in the town of La Tirana to celebrate her death and their patron saint, la Virgen del Carmen (also known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel), one of the various invocations of the Virgin Mary. The mother of Jesus is colloquially called La Chinita by the locals.
Attendees observe the masks, costumes, and dances, take photos, and follow the procession of the Virgen del Carmen around the main square. They’re also welcome to attend Mass and other religious activities. This event is appropriate for kids and families.
Los Bailes – The Dances
Dancing plays a key role in the celebration of Fiesta de La Tirana. Dance groups perform before the Virgen del Carmen in the sanctuary at La Tirana. It is a sensory mosaic full of electric color, sound, energy, and movement generated by thousands of dancers.
Approximately 200 official dance groups from all over Chile come to announce they have returned to fulfill their promise to the Virgin. The round-the-clock performances last for days. Each dance group is allowed 20 minutes to dance before her.
Prior to their emotional visit with the Virgin, each group must first dance at the town plaza and then before the Cruz del Calvario (Calvary Cross) statue, where a priest formally welcomes and blesses them.
Dressed in elaborate costumes with lots of sequins, the dancers enter the temple accompanied by their band and banner. The melodies of ballads, boleros, and waltzes fill the air nonstop.
The origins of the festival’s vivid costumes, vigorous dances, and rhythmic music date back to pre-Hispanic times. Some of the main types of dances include:
The Dance of the Devils—las diabladas—represents the epic battle between good and evil. Male performers dressed in frightening devil masks and costumes dance with women dressed as angels moving flirtatiously with their hands on their hips. This is the most iconic and likely the most ancient dance of the festival.
In the gitano dances, male dancers use handkerchiefs and the female dancers play tambourines to accompany the band.
With roots in the Incan sun worship ceremonies, antawaras are performed in a standing position with the dancers’ arms raised. The women wear skirts, felt hats and flats, while the men dance in a thin, sequined poncho.
Originally from Bolivia and Peru, the kayahualla dance steps involve raised knees and toes, as well as dancers holding parasols. The men wear trousers and a bib in the form of an X, and the women wear skirts, felt hats, and decorated shirts.
As the dancers make their way through the streets of the town to the sanctuary, thousands of visitors gather to watch.
Daily Activities at the Fiesta de la Tirana
The biggest religious festival in Chile lasts for several days. The temple doors officially open on July 10, the pilgrims dance before the Virgin from July 11-14, and the closing activities are on July 15 and 16. Here’s la cronograma de actividades (the schedule of activities) on the key days of this unique Chilean festival, in Spanish and English.
Este es el real inicio de la fiesta de La Tirana.
This is the official beginning of the La Tirana festival.
Ese día, los grupos de baile hacen su entrada desde la Cruz del Calvario.
On this day, the dance groups make their entrance from the Calvary Cross.
No dejan de bailar en ningún momento.
They don’t stop dancing for a single moment.
Las horas y días venideros serán de danzas y eucaristías.
The hours and days ahead will have dances and Eucharists.
En este día, los bailes y celebraciones hacen una pausa para esperar la Hora del Alba (el cumpleaños de la Virgen, a la medianoche).
On this day, the dances and celebrations pause to wait for the Hour of Dawn (the Virgin’s birthday, at midnight).
En la noche del 15 de julio, una vigilia con música, hogueras y fuegos artificiales celebra el filo de la medianoche.
On the night of July 15, a vigil with music, bonfires, and fireworks celebrates the stroke of midnight.
Los devotos conmemoran la llegada del día más importante de la fiesta, la festividad de la Virgen del Carmen.
The devotees commemorate the arrival of the most important day of the festival, the feast day of the Virgen del Carmen.
Una gran procesión lleva la estatua de la Virgen por las calles.
A grand procession carries the statue of the Virgin through the streets.
Cientos de personas se acumulan en la iglesia de La Tirana para presentar su respeto y mostrar su agradecimiento a la Virgen.
Hundreds of people swarm the church of La Tirana to pay their respect and show their gratitude to the Virgin.
Este es el día que la mayoría de los asistentes esperan, ya que es cuando la fiesta alcanza su clímax.
This is the day most attendees look forward to, as this is when the party reaches its climax.
A las 2:00 pm empieza la procesión que recorre las calles del pueblo y termina a las 10:00 pm.
The procession that goes through the streets of the town begins at 2:00 pm and ends at 10:00 pm.
El 16 de Julio de 2021 es el día de la “Fiesta Grande”, donde la música, la danza y los cantos celebran el cumpleaños de la Virgen durante casi toda la noche.
July 16, 2021 is the day of the “Big Party,” where music, dance, and songs celebrate the birthday of the Virgin almost all night.
How to Get to La Tirana
The easiest way to get to the village of La Tirana is from the coastal city of Iquique. From there, the trip takes about an hour and a half.
If you’re going by car, take the road that connects Iquique with the Humberstone Saltpeter Works, until you reach the Panamericana Norte. Then turn south, passing the town of Pozo Almonte, until you reach the fork in the road. From there, Route A-665 will take you directly to La Tirana.
If you intend to take a collective shuttle, go to the Iquique Rodoviario Terminal. On the days when the La Tirana Festival is held, there’s a major influx of people, so it’s best to buy your tickets in advance.
Due to the small size of the pueblo (town) and the large quantity of people that attend the celebration, take the following into consideration if you plan to attend.
There are few places to stay in La Tirana, but you’ll find sufficient accommodation and food options in Iquique. La Tirana does have some campsites available, but due to the high attendance at the festival, it will be challenging to find space.
This celebration features an abundance of food stalls with a wide variety of culinary offerings, including typical dishes with llama meat.
La Tirana has a hot and dry climate. Be sure to wear comfortable clothes that are appropriate for the heat. At night, temperatures drop quickly to as low as freezing, so remember to bring a good coat, as well.
Practice Spanish Before You Go
Being able to speak Spanish makes travel to Spanish-speaking countries so much easier and more meaningful. And did you know that being bilingual also improves your cognition and decision-making abilities? Sign up for a free class to practice your conversational skills in preparation for your trip to the Fiesta de la Tirana in Chile! Here at Homeschool Spanish Academy, our friendly, certified teachers from Guatemala are ready to help you improve your Spanish skills.
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