Chile's Rural Heritage: This Country's Diverse Agrarian History Is Agriculturally and Economically as Rich as the Soil

By Kuntz, Neilan M. | Americas (English Edition), September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

Chile's Rural Heritage: This Country's Diverse Agrarian History Is Agriculturally and Economically as Rich as the Soil


Kuntz, Neilan M., Americas (English Edition)


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A country of splendor and solitude, Chile occupies a long sliver of South America wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the earth's longest mountain range, the Andes. Because of these natural borders, Chileans often joke that their country is really an island. A rich and distinct rural culture has developed on this "island" over the years, a result of its Spanish heritage and New

World ingenuity and labor. Rural Chile is a place of modern farming and ranching and successful connections to international markets. It has taken advantage of its geography to become one of the world's most respected exporters of farm commodities like fruits, vegetables, and high quality wine. It is also the land of cowboys, rodeos, and a myriad of rural arts.

In 1540, a bedraggled group of scarcely 100 Spanish soldiers led by the conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, negotiated a passage through the driest non-Attic place on Earth, the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile--an unforgiving, sterile environment where the average rainfall is just one millimeter per year. In the name of God and in the face of great adversity, these men pushed south from Peru to extend the reach of the Spanish Empire. After a year of travel, they arrived at a place with fertile soil along the Mopocho River, which runs through the present day capital of Chile, Santiago. When he saw the rich valleys fed by glacial waters, Pedro de Valdivia insisted that his soldiers build a settlement and begin "tilling the land and breeding livestock." The plow had begun to replace the sword.

Spain's past grandeur continues to be celebrated in the Chilean countryside today through the symbol of the horse. It was Spain, after all, that introduced the horse to the Americas, and the Chilean breed is the closest descendent of the first equines brought to the continent. Today, Chilean cowboys are quick to tell you the story of their "noble horses," which are quite striking indeed, defined by their curved, stout neck and forceful body. It is not difficult to imagine a conquistador exploring the New World mounted on these horses. The Chilean cowboy's horse is an extension and proud reflection of his own ancestry. "Like ourselves, our horses must always be trimmed and presentable," explains horse trainer Samuel Vargas of Osorno.

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The Chilean expression for cowboy is huaso, a word that means both a consummate horseman and a man of honor and virtue. To be a huaso, is to be someone. "We are very cultured," explains five-time National Rodeo champion Ruperto Valderrama. "Our jackets, pants, and boots are tailored, and our shirts are always ironed and buttoned to the collar." Refined and formal, the huaso is as respectable as the horse that carries him.

The art of winemaking is another longstanding European tradition that has found a place in rural Chile. When Spanish galleons braved the Atlantic in search of prosperity, they came not only with guns and horses, but also with the continent's first grape vines--Vitis vinifera. This common grape, valued for winemaking, was also critical for medicinal and nutritional purposes. Skin infections and diseases like consumption were often treated with the sap, leaves, and fruit of the grape. In some ways it was a survival--ist's plant. Folklore indicates that the first vines were planted within fifteen years of Chile's conquest and were most likely transplanted from Peruvian vineyards. It was a vine of soldiering endurance and also a sign of piety. Jesuit priests were the ones who cultivated some of the earliest vineyards in order to produce wine for Holy Communion.

Chile's wine country is located in its central region, where the temperate Mediterranean climate means there is no need to fear spring frosts or harvest rains--factors that often disrupt consistent viticulture elsewhere. Nestled between the Andean foothills and the coastal ranges, Chile's wines also benefit from a "rain shadow" effect: warm arid air that is trapped dung the day and then displaced by cool nighttime air.

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