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Fiestas Patrias: Independence Day in Santiago, Chile

They love Fiestas Patrias, or Independence Day, in Santiago. I’m talking five-day festivals, decorations in every bar and restaurant for weeks, and flags everywhere. People seem to be more excited about Independence Day than we’ve ever seen anyone be about futbal (and they also love futbal in South America).

We didn’t plan to be in Santiago for Fiestas Patrias, but we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to so much pomp and circumstance. Here’s what you need to know about the biggest holiday in Chile.

A traveling group of traditional singers and dancers passes through Plaza de Armas and a decorated mayor’s office.

What It Is

Fiestas Patrias takes place every year on September 18 to commemorate the date of the first governing body of Chile which took place in 1810. The celebrations are preceded by a week of festivities that culminate on September 19, which is Armed Forces Day, with a huge parade.

To kick off the two official holidays, the president of Chile (and lots of other important people) attends mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago in Plaza de Armas. A military marching band plays as the president is ushered in on the back of a fancy car by a parade of mounted patrol. They block off the entire plaza to make way for the president’s arrival, so it’s not something you would go to watch. I know all of this because the window of our Airbnb looked right onto the square, so I got a front-row seat!

The president arrives at the Cathedral and is greeted by a large military marching band.

How to Celebrate

People around the country celebrate by going to festivals, called Fondas, with traditional Chilean music, dancing and lots of food and drinks. If you’re in the capital city of Santiago, the party is at O’Higgins Park. While this is the only Fiestas Patrias that I’ve ever attended, I’ve been told that this is the biggest and best party in the capital city, and possibly all of Chile.

Food vendors line the main street of the fonda in O’Higgins Park.
A live band performs traditional Chilean music and all the locals dance with white scarves in the air.

What to Eat

The fonda (and actually all of Chile) is a meat-lovers paradise. You will find long skewers of meat roasting on open grills, empanadas filled with beef and raisins, and piles of french fries topped with all sorts of sausages (they put cut up sausages on all sorts of things here, including pizza!). If you’re vegetarian like us, the churros are fantastic and come covered in powdered sugar or filled with caramel.

Churros Espanioles were covered with powdered sugar and sold by the half dozen for 2,000 pesos (~$3 USD).

What to Drink

There are two traditional beverages that you have to try when you’re in Santiago and you can find them both at the fonda and around town.

  • Mote. If you’re hungry you eat it, if you’re thirsty you drink it. Mote is a cup of cooked wheat and peach halves, all topped off with a sticky-sweet peach nectar. You can find mote at at street vendors throughout the city all the time, not just at the fonda. It was probably Kenny’s favorite street food in all of South America.
Mote is a sweet, non-alcoholic drink of wheat, peaches and peach nectar.
  • Terremoto. When you’re ready for a buzz, you have to try a Terremoto. This alcoholic drink is named for the Spanish word for earthquake because when you stand up after drinking one, you feel a bit shaky. It is made with crappy white wine (Not an insult, its actually part of the recipe), Fernet (a bitter liquor) and pineapple ice cream. It also might come with a shot of liquor of your choice added on top. It was tough to suck down at first, but once the ice cream melts a bit, it’s quite sweet and delicious.
My first Terremoto at Fiestas Patrias in O’Higgins Park.

Where to Stay

Our Airbnb was right on the main square, Plaza de Armas, which gave us a front-row seat to the festivities without having to leave home. We would absolutely recommend staying at the same Airbnb, or somewhere on the square. Use our Airbnb referral link for $40 off a home booking of $75 or more and $15 off an experience of $50 or more.

There was some sort of activity in the square every single day, from sun-up to sun-down, and my eyes were basically glued to the window our entire stay. I’m sure the square has some action even during non-holiday weekends, but I’m pretty sure all the marching bands and traditional dances were special for the holiday weekend.

The view of Plaza de Armas from our Airbnb at night.

The Downside to Fiestas Patrias

If you find yourself in Chile during Fiestas Patrias, you are in for a treat. The city is alive leading up to the holidays and there are lots of festivals and special events that will be a lot of fun during the holiday. However, I’m not sure that I would tell you to specifically plan a trip this time of year though, only because it also comes with some disadvantages.

The biggest one being that the city basically shuts down on the 18th and 19th if you’re not at a holiday festival. The city was nearly silent and empty when we left Tuesday morning looking for a coffee shop.

The same main street on Thursday morning before the holiday (top) versus Tuesday morning of Armed Forces day (bottom).

We chose to attend the festival at O’Higgins park on Monday (Independence Day), which meant we had very few plans for Tuesday (Armed Forces Day). We also had an evening flight so we were not going to be able to see the culminating parade, anyway. While you could spend both days at the festival watching the performers and drinking your weight in Terremotos, we felt that one day was enough.

If you’re not celebrating both days, there’s not much else to do in the city. We found one Starbucks open, and it was one of the only businesses we saw open for a good six blocks. Absolutely none of the museums or churches are open, nearly all the restaurants are closed, and even the street vendors seemed to close up shop. So if you are in town for the holidays, be sure to get all of your touristy items done before the holidays or plan to pick them up after.