Ñipas: Chilean folklore and viticulture in the Itata River Valley

Ñipas is one of several towns along the banks of the Río Itata (Itata River) named after types of foliage, each with a lively culture of folklore and wine traditions.

Ñipas is the capital of the Chilean commune of Ránquil (“Rangkül” in the Mapuche language) in the Bío Bío Region. Named for a fragrant species of Morning Glory, the intense scent of this wildflower often inspires friendly jests from neighboring communities, who refer to the “ñipiando” fragrance of Ñipas. This type of good-natured joke is commonly heard in the various festivals that are held throughout the friendly Itata Valley.

And in no case does Ñipas smell odd, as the joke implies! On the contrary, the Itata Valley is – simply put – a big, humorous family. The area’s harmonious rivalry is evident in the well-known and cinematic anecdote of the Ñipas’ legendary “Great School Robbery.”

As unbelievable as the story may seem, in 1925 citizens of Ñipas traveled to neighboring Carrizales (another plant-named town) with horse-drawn carts and farmhands, stealing an entire school building – with the French schoolteacher inside – and pulling it closer to the children of Ñipas instead.

This robust spirit is still apparent in Ñipas today, where visitors can directly experience the community’s unique folkloric traditions and history.

Wine

The dry coastal climate of the Itata Valley provides ideal growing conditions for wine grapes such as País (Mission), Muscat and Pinot Grigio, along with wild strawberries.

The region was made famous for wine by the Italian Casanova family in the 19th century, when they introduced French grape strains to Chile, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Today the Casanovas produce more than one million liters of wine per year in the Bío Bío Region, and in 2006, they earned the prestigious Star Quality international prize in Paris.

Fifteen kilometers northwest of Ñipas on the road to Coelemu, travelers can discover the Bodega de Batuco, which was created by the Casanova family in 1954. The Bodega was given to the Agricultural Committee of Batuco in the 1970s, courtesy of an agrarian reform that favored artisanal winemaking families. This facility can produce 940,000 liters of wine and chicha (a popular Chilean grape juice with slight fermentation). Bodega de Batuco is the central attraction of La Fiesta de la Chicha, a festival held each year to commemorate the grape harvest in April.

Festivities

Celebrated annually in the second week of February, La Semana Ñipense (The Week of Ñipas) is a grand celebration with spectacular theater and musical performances, including a giant bonfire on the river at Puente de Ñipas (Bridge of Ñipas), which is the festival’s main event.

Staying in Ñipas

Along the Río Itata, temperatures can soar to 35 degrees Celsius in summer, and visitors should apply strong sunblock during the day. Passing trucks sell watermelons and melons, a perfect treat to alleviate heat and thirst. Artisanal wine made in the area, along with fresh and healthy locally-grown produce, are also readily available beside the streets or in the town.

Camping on the river’s beaches is popular in areas like El Barco – which was once a busy pier. Other hospitality options, including hostels, are provided by the villagers and can be found throughout Ñipas.

Swimming in the river is permitted in certain areas, but ask a Ñipas resident first, to avoid zones with strong currents and deep holes on the river floor.

A popular street market – the Fería Colores y Sabores de Ranquíl – is held every Friday throughout the year, between 8 am and 3 pm, on Calle Maira Castellón

How to Arrive

Direct bus service is available from Concepción, 80 km from Ñipas. Concepción’s Collao Bus Terminal is located next to La Tortuga de Concepción stadium, on Calle Tegualda 860.

By Gretchen Stahlman, written for Chile.Travel
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