Palo Encebado: Origin And History And How To Play

The p alo encebado , also called greasy pole or greasy pole, is a very popular game practiced in the celebrations of many Latin American countries, Spain and the Philippines. Its origin seems to be in a pastime practiced in Naples in the 16th century, without too many changes in its rules.

As a curiosity, it seems that the game connects with the legend of the Country of Cucaña, called in some areas the Country of Jauja. In that supposed nmythological action, riches were available to anyone without having to work. The game consists of climbing a stick, usually covered in grease or soap to make it slide, to get the final prize.

Greasy pole

This award can be of any type, although food rewards are very common. Although, as noted, it is practiced in many countries, the rules do not usually vary much. There is some version in which the stick is placed horizontally and others in which it is not covered with grease, but otherwise there are no major differences.

Chile, Spain and Ecuador are, perhaps, the places where the stick is more traditional, which makes it very present in many celebrations.

Origin and history

The original name of this game was that of cucaña and, in fact, it is still called that in some countries. In others it has been changing, finding different names such as stick or soaped stick.

The most widespread theory about its origin points to Italy as the initiator of the custom. According to some experts, in 16th and 17th century Naples this game became very popular, although it had some difference from the current one.

In this way, in some festivals a small artificial mountain was erected in the public square that represented Mount Vesuvius, a volcano located near the city. From inside the crater of the false volcano, various food products began to emerge, as if it were an eruption.

The most common were pepperoni, sausages and pasta, especially macaroni. When it was detached, the food was covered with grated cheese, leaving the slopes of the artificial mountain covered as if it were ash. Then the public had to strive to seize the food that had come out.

Later the false volcano was replaced by a pole. Food was hung at the highest point and contestants had to climb to get hold of it.

Country of the Cucaña

A curiosity about this game is that the experts connect its name as Cucaña with the famous mythological country with that name. The Country of the Cucaña, also called de Jauja, was a very popular legend during the Middle Ages in Europe.

According to the myth, in Cucaña wealth was abundant and available to everyone, without anyone having to work to get it. Food could be easily obtained from the ground, without requiring any effort.

Thus, the country was crossed by rivers of milk and wine, and the mountains were made of cheese. On the other hand, the trees gave piglets already roasted.

The relationship is pretty obvious, since the object of the game was to get the food hanging from the pole.

Other theories

Neapolitan is not the only origin that is given to the waxed stick. There are those who place the beginning of this tradition in the May Tree, from Spain.

This festival consisted of decorating a tree with ribbons and fruit during the month that gives it its name. Young people flocked to that place to dance and have fun.

It was a tradition linked to religious festivals and it did not occur only in Spain. In other European countries there were similar rites, linked to fertility and using trees or poles as a central symbolic element.

Finally, there are those who place the antecedents of the game in the Asian continent, specifically in India.


As previously mentioned, the game has spread to many countries. The names may vary in some places, as seen in the following list:

– Argentina: soapy stick or cucaña.

– Brazil: pau de sebo (typical of the northeast of the country).

– Bolivia: cucaña.

– Ecuador: cucaña, castle or stick ensebado

– Chile: soapy stick or ensebado stick.

– Paraguay: ibira shyí (soapy stick) or cucaña.

– Puerto Rico: stick showing.

– Venezuela: stick ensebado, cucaña or prize stick.

– Dominican Republic: palo ensebado.

– Spain: cucaña, pal ensabonat (Catalonia).

– Uruguay: stick or soapy stick.

How do you play?

As with the name, the game may vary slightly depending on the area in which it is played. However, it always has the same basis.

The stick in question is usually made of wood, with dimensions of 20 centimeters in diameter and about 6 meters high. Keep in mind that these data are approximate and may vary from one party to another.

The post is buried in the ground, ensuring that it remains firm and does not wobble. Then it is completely covered with tallow, grease or soap, in order to make it slip and make it difficult to climb. At the top are the prizes that, although traditionally they have been food, can be any attractive object.

Once the structure is ready, those who wish to try their luck line up, waiting their turn. In some places the order is sorted, since the first ones have it more complicated.

Way to climb

The most common is that the contestants try to reach the prize individually, although there is also a variant in which they participate in teams. In both cases, the existence of a judge is necessary who must control that no one tries to cheat and that everyone ascends cleanly.

In the case of individual games, the mechanics are quite simple, although being able to achieve the objective is not. The participant can only use her own strength to achieve this, trying not to slip on the grease smeared on the pole.

Although there is no standard technique that ensures success, most climb in the same way as climbing a palm tree, using their clothing to remove some of the slippery material. When they see that they can reach the prize by extending their arm, they try to tear it off hard to slide down again.

The team mode is quite different. In that case, the participants form a kind of human ladder, helping each other to try to reach the end.

In this case the post is usually higher, making the company difficult. The essential thing is to maintain the balance of all those who form the human ladder, without overloading the one at the base.

Horizontal wedge

There is a last type of palo encebado, practiced mainly in Spain. In this case the pole is placed horizontally, with most of its length placed over a river or the sea.

It is very typical, for example, of the Santa Ana Festivities in Seville, in which the pole is placed in such a way that the participants fall on the Guadalquivir river.

Depending on the skill of the participant, some try to reach the prize by walking on the greased stick, trying to keep their balance. On the other hand, others hold on with arms and legs and move forward little by little.


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