Atacama’s Bailes Religiosos

“Bass drum, snare drum, flute and drum, are the dancer’s feet… a Baile with no sound simply cannot exist, a dancer cannot dance… a fest without the presence of Bailes Religiosos ritual is not possible… Religious fest is a symbiosis of elements coming from the people (Ortega, 2010)”.


Big and small sanctuaries for pilgrimage in our country stay alive and grow by virtue of Bailes Religiosos promeseros, brotherhoods formed by members of several families, elders, adults, and children who, because of multiple reasons, have made a promise to la Virgen or a patron saint, expressing their faith and passion through music, singing, and dancing. They are the basement of any religious fest, and, at the same time, a bridge bewteen the fest itself and society. This religious mixture has been lying in the midst of the collective unconscious of a community for hundreds of years; icons, signs, symbols and ways cultural tradition has left imprinted as the most relevant and transcendent aspects of their life, treasured for all their members as an open book.


In the beginning of a vigorous mining activity in Norte Chico valleys, during the early XVIII Century, popular religiousness was enriched by mestizaje or mixing with farmers coming from Central areas of the country, looking for a better work. Devotions such as Andacollo, in Coquimbo region, and La Candelaria in Copiapó, express this syncretism by means of the pirquinero idiosincrasies: Bailes Chinos, the oldest dancers brotherhoods from La Candelaria fest, in Copiapó.


In the midst of XX Century, many families from Southern Antofagasta salitreras moved, bringing their cult and spreading it through Inca de Oro, Chañaral, and, of course, Candelaria de Copiapó. This implied the arrival of new musical instruments, that allowed these pilgrims playing and dancing at the same time – the so-called instrumentos gruesos, resisted at first, but fully accepted in the long run. Mostly bass drum, snare drum and cymbals, their usage spread all over the region: Inca de Oro’s Baile Moreno was a pioneer in Northern Atacama fests, matching the heyday of the mine’s exploitation, its remaining echoes living in Chañaral city, after its demise. Baile Moreno Candelaria, from Chañaral, was founded from this way. Nowadays, a wide range of Bailes Danzantes, such as Gitano (Gypsy), Arabic, Spanish, Chuncho, Red Skin Indios, Blue Skin Indios, Sioux, or Cherokee are present.


These new brotherhoods are the result of influences coming from the huge fervor in Virgen del Carmen de La Tirana, in Tarapacá, and Virgen de Guadalupe in Ayquina fests, the latter closely connected with the most recent cultural transmission from Norte Grande: the arrival of a Brass Band to a La Candelaria de Copiapó fest. Sabor Moreno band, year after year, travelled from Copiapó to Ayquina, preparing repertoire looking for the community recognition, till they were finally accepted and included into Atacama Bailes Religiosos Federation. For fifteen years, Diabladas, Sambo Caporal, and, in the last 5 years, Tinku, have been born, all of them accompanied by Brass Band.


Summing up, then, Atacama region has been the recipient for multiple traditional forms of cult, coming from neighbor north and south regions, migration in search of a better life being a key element, bringing along travelling trade, present via large open markets, offering clothes, toys, music, kitchen elements and even real restaurants. Undoubtedly, another family meeting point during the religious fest season.


Baile chino


These are unique brotherhoods in the country. Its rituals are present in the most diverse religious fests, from Aconcagua coasts and valleys to Iquique City. Baile Chino means dancer, flautero, tamborero, singer, and promesero. According to their location, they present distinctive features, but the common thread are their instruments, flute and tamborcillo. Size, materials and playing may vary – the latter, in the case of flute, called rajío by Chinos. Another common feature is their chief, banderilla or bearer, depending on the region. He is the Cantor Divino, the voice of Baile appealing to the divinity. He delivers his deepest feelings in a capella verses, followed by the other members, who repeat the verses in turn with unique beauty, as an expression of devotion towards la Virgen, la chinita, as they fondly call her. Atacama region Bailes Chinos are recognized as chinita servants – therefore the name of the Baile (‘Chino’ standing for ‘humble servant’).


Thus, this kind of Baile Religioso and its ritual has been maintained for centuries, not needing a band for dancing, for every member performs a musical and coreographic role during processions; the ones playing tamborcillo or flute, perform their steps or mudanzas with dexterity, the electric blue suit of most part of Copiapó Bailes Chinos, some elders say, represent the lightnings falling on the zone Andes Mountains; dressing up as representatives from old pirquineros tradition, a shirt adorned with spangles, a sweater and an embroided binder, pants with leather bottoms, a morrión (or cap) also adorned, with ribbons hanging, plus a handkerchief falling down the back. The greatest historical privilege is being la Virgen’s carrier Baile, taking her out of the temple and into the procession, and bringing it back to the altar, where they offer welcome, farewell, and thankful verses… venerating their chinita.


Bands and Bailes Musicianship (by Guillermo Álvarez Muñoz, Historian, 1946-2009)


Dancing and music have been closely connected since the dawn of Man. Tempo and rhythm were punctuated by bodily, penetrating sounds, hitting trunks, rocks, or even the soil, which later became percussion instruments. Added to this is human voice, alone or accompaning dancing, that serves both as a manifestation of affections and as cult – in fact, instrumental music is closely connected with cult, the sacred, the elements of Nature and the spirits.


Chino flute:


Vertical wind instrument made up of one tube, with no holes, ranging from 20 to 50 cm long. In La Candelaria fest, in Copiapó, we have noticed flutes built up from the most assorted elements: the most common are made out of cane, furred with wool of different colors; others, made out of wood, are very similar to mapuche pifilca. Sometimes, they appear with the cane (or metal) tube inside, protected in both sides by hollowed wood pieces; Sometimes, we have seen the inner tube placed and furred with cloth afterwards, to tighten it; woods’ verges always longer than the inner tube. Nowadays, plastic tubes (PVC), made flutes, which are lighter and reach greater loudness than cane’s, are being used. Cane and wood flutes must be ”drunk”, as Chinos say, splashing them pisco or hard liquor to tighten them up and not become “rajadas”, according to flauteros who always play their instruments in counterpoint: one queue plays their instrument and the other replies, all this accompanied by tamborcillos rhythm.


Tamborcillo Chino (or Chino small drum):


Tamborcillos played in Candelaria de Copiapó are only 10 to 12 cms. high, and 25 a 35 cms. wide. According to promeseros, artisans making up these instruments vary their techniques, particularly in the way of treating leather. Don Julio Castro, leader and founder of Baile Mixto Chino N° 7 from Candelaria, says he ‘makes up tamborcillos for with goat or unborn leather”; he thinks goat leather is the most resistant, for years have gone and tamborcillos haven’t broken up. He says his technique consists in not washing leather with “lejía” (water, ashes, and salt), as other promeseros do, but leaving it washing in natural, unprepared water: “lejía eats leather, for it softens it a lot; you just wash it with water, you shave it completely, you place it wet in the structure, and then you tie it. Previously, you cover both sides with fat, so that it doesn’t break up when dry and tight”. Usually, a well-treated leather belt is placed on them, so that it adjusts to the wrist sustaining it, plus other leather belt for little finger, allowing tamborero free handling while performing Baile steps and figuras.


Each Baile Chino presents a huge number of tamboreros, who perform their movements and choreographic jumping among the flauteros and women queues in Bailes mixtos. In Chino Bailes N° 1, 2, 3, and 4, only performed by men, tamboreros dance between two flauteros queues, doing their steps and mudanzas with great ability and elasticity, provoking the amazement of people attending the fest.


Instrumento Grueso Bands:


Instrumento grueso bands are formed by: northern bass drums – 26, 30, or more inches wide -, snare drums, cymbals and, in some cases, metal whistles. Each band is formed up by four or five bass drums, up to six snare drums, two cymbals, and one to six pitos, like Baile Marino de Copiapó band. All these instruments join the ones played by the dancers, like rattles 3or appealing to La Virgen or any saint patron.


The first appearance of a Baile de danzantes with Instrumento Grueso band, at La Candelaria fest, takes place in 1958: Sociedad Religiosa Baile Moreno, from Copiapó. After a strong resistance from traditional Bailes de chinos, this Baile, created and formed by several families coming from Norte Grande, and participating in Bailes from Pedro de Valdivia, María Elena, and other Antofagasta region nitrate fields, is finally accepted. The second Instrumento Grueso Baile arrived to Candelaria and was accepted in 1971. This was Sociedad Baile Religioso Pieles Rojas from Copiapó, being the first aboriginal Baile Danzante appearing at the forefront. As in the previous case, their founders came for previously participating in several Bailes from nitrate fields.


Atacama Region Bailes Religiosos Federation


Federación de Bailes Religiosos de Atacama was founded and legally constituted with the support of Copiapó Diocese very recently, on October 4, 1970, its mission being caring for Bailes Religiosos’ general organization and regional associations’ members, managing and enforcing regulations for the affiliates. Federation regularly participates in international meetings, being formed up by six local Associations:


- Valle Norte Association of Chañaral

- Monseñor Fernando Ariztía Association of Diego de Almagro

- Mariano Caro Association of Copiapó – Candelaria Association of Copiapó

- Vallenar Association – Valle Huasco Association


* Atacama Bailes Religiosos updated inventory:


Asociación Valle Norte (Chañaral Province)


Baile Moreno de Candelaria

Baile Pieles Azules Baile

Comanches Guardianes de la Tirana

Baile Danzantes del Carmen

Baile Apache de Lourdes

Baile Atacameños de Lourdes

Baile Chino Mixto No 1 del Carmen de El Salado


Asociación Mariano Caro de Copiapó


Bailes Chinos de Candelaria 1 – 2

Bailes Chinos de Candelaria 3-4

Baile Mixto Chino No 5 de Candelaria

Baile Mixto Chino No 6 de Candelaria

Baile Mixto No 2 del Carmen.

Baile Santuario de Andacollo

Baile San Pedro Baile Padre Negro Baile Corona del Inca

Baile Cheyennes Baile Siervos del Carmen


Asociación Valle Huasco


Baile Sioux

Baile Gitano San Pedro

Baile Chino del Tránsito

Baile Cruz de Mayo

Baile Osada del Carmen

Baile Cherokee

Baile Nuestra Señora de Lourdes

Baile Aldeanos Apaches

Baile Indios Promesantes de la Santa Cruz

Baile Osada de San Pedro

Baile Diablada Atacameña Baile Comanches


Asociación Candelaria de Copiapó


Baile Árabe Candelaria

Baile Apaches de Candelaria

Baile Diablada de Candelaria

Baile Marino del Carmen

Baile Moreno Baile Pieles Rojas


Asociación Monseñor Fernando Ariztía de Diego de Almagro


Baile Sambo CaporalVirgen del Carmen

Baile Danzantes Virgen de los Dolores

Baile Comanches Guardianes de la Tirana Chica

Baile Comanches Guardianes del Carmen