When experts expound on how highly developed Chile is compared with the rest of Latin America, they are usually tallying a boring statistic such as telephone lines per capita, not jugglers per street corner.

But it turns out that this long, thin, copper- and wine-producing South American nation can lay claim to being a juggling paradise and powerhouse. Chile's jugglers are recognized as far away as Germany for their jaw-dropping dexterity.

Chileans are notoriously staid, but at rush hour, uninhibited jugglers post themselves at stoplights in the capital to compete for commuters' coins.

And this is not run-of-the-mill, itinerant juggling. This is knives, flaming clubs, stopping the pin on the nose or on the back, spinning and unicycles, eight pins, nine pins, clown costumes and greasepaint, acrobatics and complex routines involving stealing pins from a partner.

"Our movement is more advanced than anywhere else in the Americas. And there's nothing for us to envy in Europe," said Felipe Magana, 27, a dreadlocked elder in Chile's juggling community.

Magana, who runs the circus theater group Circunloquio, recently returned from a trip to France and Spain vaguely disappointed by First World juggling.

He thought he would pick up tricks abroad. But instead, the Europeans are coming to Santiago to learn a few things.

Patrick Frei, 22, a juggler and street-theater activist from Germany who was traveling through Chile on a bicycle and paying his way with street performances, dropped into a weekly informal gathering of jugglers in Santiago's forest park on a recent Sunday.

"Totally world-class. Today I've seen one of the best jugglers I've seen anywhere with five balls," Frei said. "And he's great with seven, too. He totally amazed me."

Frei estimated that one in 10 participants at European juggling conventions comes from Chile or Argentina, and German juggling equipment manufacturers have paid Chileans to come to conventions to demonstrate new equipment.

"Chileans are better, and there are more of them. You see that at the conventions," said Raul, owner of the Cabeza de Martillo jugglers' shop, who travels all over Latin America selling unicycles, pins, torches, luminous balls and other tools of the trade.

Mauricio and Pablo, who partner for street-corner juggling and also perform in the six-member Wicked Jugglers troupe, said that rather than learn new tricks, they are adding clowning to their routine to bring in better tips.

Asked how much he earns during his regular two-hour morning gig at an intersection in a wealthy district, Mauricio, dressed in a clown's suit, said: "It's a state secret. But it's a lot more than a laborer gets, and fewer hours."

So, why are Chileans such good jugglers?

"They practice a lot," Frei said.

Jugglers said the movement has its roots in a social welfare program and in experimental theater groups. In the mid-1990s, a group of artists and social welfare groups formed El Circo del Mundo, a nonprofit organization that trained dozens of children from poor neighborhoods in circus arts in a bid to keep them out of trouble.

El Circo del Mundo got funding from the successful Canadian circus Cirque du Soleil, from the government and elsewhere.

Also in the mid-1990s, the Teatro del Silencio theater group traveled to Europe and came back to Chile full of the new theater-circus movement and its ideas.

It was members of Teatro del Silencio who institutionalized Sunday gatherings of jugglers in a park behind Santiago's fine arts museum.

The juggling community meets there to practice, hang out, share tips and steal tricks. It's like a free circus with a park-bench audience of retirees, tourists and passersby.

Michael and Guillermo Gomez, teenage jugglers from northern Chile, were in town on vacation and dropped by the jugglers' park. Like most Chilean jugglers, they were modest, protesting that they were not very good. A moment later, they were standing on a lawn doing circus-worthy juggling.

A Chilean boy practices with a ball at a park in Santiago. The South American nation has become a juggling paradise and powerhouse. Javier Ramirez practices before a juggling show in Concepcion. Observers say one in 10 jugglers at European conventions comes from South America.