Bullfights & Rodeos

by Rachel Gertz

The charm of a country lies in its culture. Costa Rica drips with culture, holding festivals that would make a foreign event planner weep with jealousy. One of them is the rodeo.

Rodeo in Costa Rica isn’t your average deep-fried-coke, pricy rodeo tickets evening —typical of the Calgary Stampede. Nor is it the traditional matador bull-fighting event you’d see in Spain. There is no scorekeeping, no judges, and no competition (unless you call jumping into a ring with an angry bull and letting him chase you competition. Personally, I call it suicide). 

The lights of the rodeo

The event happens every January and pit stops all over the country, kicking up dust, fireworks, and the best sausage-on-a-stick money can buy. The stands are built of impermanence, meant to be shucked and moved at the end of each city round.

Fireworks in Santa Cruz
Sausage on a stick

This event was in Santa Cruz —I think it was part of the Esquipulas Christo Negro Festival. The crowd was thick with locals parading respectfully down the street, loudspeakers chanting prayer.

Santa Cruz Tower

Vendors cash in on the arrival of thousands of parched throats. Horses drink beer and kids dissolve churros on their sugary tongues.

Horse Drinking Beer in Santa Cruz
Street Vendors in Santa Cruz

The riders are mostly young (they barely own peach fuzz bragging rights). Oddly enough, they garner very little attention. It might be because they are bucked off in three to five seconds; then the bull starts charging the crowd.

Bull Rider

It’s the runners people are oohing and aaahing over; up to 200 of them pulsing through the rings slats, smiling and slapping each other on the back. They’re waiting for the run of the bull.

Runners in the ring

They’re all men between 15-40 years old, most drunk on guaro and the cheers of the crowd. Here you’ll see the one exception to the male monopoly. She held her own. 

Lone female bull runner

The runners light cigarettes and stand ‘fuerte’ (strong), showing off their cajones. They are fierce. Bold. Perhaps a bit stupid.

They smile and peer up at the stands to find a macha (girl) gazing back fatuously. There’s an eery silence. The bull wrestles against its gate.

Bull Runners

The band trumpets the start of the match and the trim but powerful bull roars out. Costa Rican bulls are a lot cuter here, but you can still see the stink of rage or fear in their eyes. Avoid tweaking their mighty balls, even in jest. Otherwise, you’ll be on a stretcher, praying for your eyeball back.

Bull balls.

The bull throws its rider in seconds and lights across the ring to charge anything and everything in its path.

Bull charging kid

It usually peters out within a few minutes and saunters around the ring, half heartedly charging a few folks in its way. When the crowd gets bored, horsemen lasso him and drag him back his pen. Then it starts all over again.

Bull shits itself out of rage

I wonder what prods the bulls to get them so worked up. They have scratchy ropes pulled tight under their bellies, and the riders tug on them sitting bareback. I doubt this alone would be enough to make them buck wildly around the pen.

I see shit smeared all over their rumps which makes me think they’ve been tasered before being set on the crowd. The word is: CR does not hurt its bulls. So I guess it’ll remain a mystery. The whole mystique of the Costa Rican rodeo plays in my brain over and over. I think we were on TV. 

For a few hours that night, we lost ourselves in the crowd and breathed a collective sigh as the bulls gored the air, narrowly missing their human targets. A few hours of bright lights, dust, and teasing smiles.

A few tequilas and we piled back in the car for the long ride home.

See more photos in our Flickr Set.

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