I exhaled a sigh of relief as I finally found my balance on top of the fence surrounding a bull riding ring. It’s been years since I last climbed a fence, let alone found myself perched up on one for a better view. But as I looked around, spotting dozens of locals young and old seated on the fence all around the ring my hesitations melted away. I quickly realized that these were THE BEST seats in the house!
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“I love fiestas!” said my future sister in law, Jessica, as she took a seat beside me at the top of the fence. “So much has changed in Costa Rica over time. It is much more touristy now than it was 25 years ago when I was growing up here. But despite all the development and all the changes, sitting here I feel like I’m 6 years old again. It’s the same town, the same people, and the same fiesta experience I know and love!”
Her enthusiasm was contagious. I was excited, I was nervous, but more than anything, I felt incredibly privileged. Aside from a few ex-pats, myself, and a few of our friends there were no other “gringos” at the fiestas that night. I was about to take part in the most authentic Costa Rican experience!
Every year between the months of December and January, towns all around Costa Rica host fiesta carnivals. Some, like ours, are small, featuring a small bull riding competitions, a few rides, games, food stalls, along with a bar and dance area. But others, like the ones in San Jose, Zapote and Palmares often span for a full 2 weeks and feature concerts, parades, and football games, attracting millions of locals from all over Costa Rica.
“TORRO NUMERO UNO!”- shouted a male voice over the PA, just as the 5 person Mariachi band behind us broke into a loud drum roll. The gate swung opened and the first bull leaped out from behind the door. He jerked and jolted in an attempt to shake off the visibly amateur rider on top of him. A few seconds of ooo’ing and aah’ing from the audience and the rider lost his balance and fell off the bull. The crowd erupted in a loud cheer overpowered only by the loud tunes of the Mariachi band. The bull, distracted by the local matadors, was now searching for a new target. Suddenly a dozen of young boys and men jumped off the fence and rushed towards the bull, trying to strike the perfect balance between attracting the bull’s attention and staying in close proximity to the fence. This game of cat and mouse lasted for a few minutes before 3 horse riders appeared on the field to reign in the bull. A few skilful moves and the bull was lassoed and lead back into the stables. Act numero uno was complete.
Each night we watched between 10-15 bulls in the ring, some were entertaining and harmless, others aggressive, smart, and downright scary! There’s been a few too many incidents at these bull riding competitions over the years. Riders, runners, and matadors have been seriously injured and some have even lost their lives as a result of the wrong step, a bad fall, or a fatal mistake.
Yet, despite the stories and numerous close calls we all witnessed on the field that day, some spectators craved that adrenaline feeling. Unfortunately for me, Max was one of them.
“I was 6 years old when I first sat in the middle of the bull riding field” – he told me days before the fiestas. “ I know you are worried about me getting hurt, but trust me, I know what I’m doing. I’ve been doing it all my life!”.
And for the first 8 bulls that night, he really did. He stood close to the fence, he climbed back up as soon as the bull charged in his direction and he was cautious. But by bull number 9, (too many) a few rum and cokes later, he felt braver than ever. Him and a few of his friends decided to play a game called “blind chicken”. The idea was for the boys to sit on the grass in the middle of the field with their backs facing the stables door. They would rely on the signs of other spectators to know when the bull was close and it was time to get up and run for their lives. It all sounded good….in theory. Except the game had a big flaw. The guys didn’t realize that by the time someone signaled for them to get up and run it could already be too late.
This bull was angry. He knocked off his rider in a few seconds and charged at Max and his friends. Seeing the faces of the spectators they jumped up and rushed towards the fence, two or them veering to the left and Max to the right.
Max was a millisecond too slow and a second later the bull was at his back, with his horns right up his back. He pushed him, knocking Max off his feet.
“MAX!!!” – I screamed at the top of my lung as my heart sank.
The bull jumped over Max’s flat body charging at another group by the fence. The next second felt like an eternity. I didn’t know how hard of a fall he’s taken, I didn’t know if the bulls horn seriously hurt his back, I didn’t know if he had stepped on Max or if he had broken Max’s back. I waited for a sign, afraid to breathe, to think and to say anything.
“He’s ok! He’s ok!” – Jessica’s voice jolted me out of shock. She gave me a hug. Max was off the ground making his way towards the fence. I was shaking, I was angry, but I was so relieved.
“I’m ok” – he said a few minutes later as he reached over for a kiss. “Nothing more than a scratch”
He knew he was lucky. I knew he was lucky. Everyone around us knew his was lucky.
Crowds of locals rushed towards Max trying to get the full story of what happened. He was shaken up but he reveled in attention. I was still shaking. I hugged him tightly as he came out of the ring, refusing to let go of his hand for the rest of the night. That evening, I was in no mood to experience the rest of the fiesta.
Luckily, it was day 1 and the festivities were just getting started. We went back to the fiestas the next evening and again a few days later. Max went back inside the ring, playing a lot less games and taking a lot less risks. There were no other incidents. Just good fun, laughter, and entertainment. On our last night at the fiesta, when the bull riding competition came to an end, we stayed behind to enjoy the carnival games, the rides, and of course the dancing!
The fiestas typically feature a great array of great Costa Rican dishes, so I made sure to try as many as I could: chicharrones, chop suey, fried chicken, green mango, and the local’s favourite – “copos” (shaved ice dessert). The food incredibly cheap, the cheapest we have seen it, priced clearly for the locals without the tourist markups.
Beers were only 800 colonies, just over USD $1.5. It’s still expensive compared to 500-600 colonies in the grocery stores, but very acceptable by locals’ standards. That night, the beers were flowing and with every sip I felt more and more comfortable among the locals. Eventually Max and I hit the dance floor, hoping that we would blend right in. And we did, or at least we felt like we did…
The fiesta was shut down at 11pm, but we continued on with the night, following the local crowd to a nearby hole-in-the-wall bar. The air in the bar was infused with latin heat (literally), the room was filled with sounds of merengue and the smell of rum. It was intoxicating…in the best way possible.
I think it was that day and that night that I really fell in love with the Costa Rican culture…
Have you ever fallen in love with another culture during your travels?