January marks the Stara of fiesta season in towns all over the country. The festivities typically last for about a week and vary in scale from local shindigs to mega events such as the Fiestas de Palmares, which is renowned locally and draws international performers.
In Guanacaste, the sabaneros (cowboys) step out in events that showcase their long and proud tradition of cattle farming. The hot, dry summers signal the season for the celebrations, which are characterized by topes (horse parades), bull riding, and fairs.
For the sabaneros, participation in the topes is all about putting your best foot forward. Turned out in their cowboy best, the parades allow the riders to display their horsemanship and the footwork of their mounts. Bystanders are treated to a close up view of the rapport between horse and rider. Trained to develop their distinctive high kneed bounching gait, the horses respond to even the barest movement of the reins. Although the topes are non competitive, the unofficial challenge lies in garnering the most attention for you and your horse. It’s a battle for the spotlight.
Another highlight of the loca fiestas is the rodeo. A popular spectable with the crowds, the bull-riding provides spectators with a thrilling combination of danger and excitement.
Spectators have the opportunity to become participants when they enter into the bullring, but they do so at their own peril. Although the bulls are never killed, they are often harassed and provoked by spectators in the ring. This combination of alcohol-fueled bravado and bad judgment on the part of spectators, and mismanagement on the part of organizers often leads to some very risky situations.
Those in doubt of the danger involved should be advised of the permanent presence of ambulance crews at these events.
After each ride, cowboys on horseback enter the ring to round up the bull with well – aimed lasso. Oftentimes, the festival-weary bull prefers to skip this part of the entertainment and subsequently makes its own way back to the gates and waits patiently to be allowed to leave.
The spectable of the parades and the excitement of the bull riding is a way for the people of Guanacaste to stay connected with their agricultural and colonial heritage.
For those who wish to savor the sabanero experience, a hacienda holidays allows people the opportunity to enter into the world of a real-life working rural estate.
Fiesta at Playas del Coco
On the last night of the fiesta the bleachers around the bullring are filled to capacity. Spectators press up against the high wooden fence enclosing the arena and many even sit on the top rung.
The hoard of men inside the bullring – some braver than others – are thrill-seekers who add to the excitement with their near escapes and bull-baiting antics. Then they surge en masse against the barriers to get out of the way of charging bulls, the fence-sitters clutch wildly to keep from falling. Spectators, bull-baiters. And Red Cross crew alike, are waiting expectantly for the next bull and rider to burst through the doors.
Meanwhile, the adrenaline is pumping in the holding pens.
Bull riding is an extremely dangerous sport, yet the financial rewards are small for the risk the riders take. Sebastian Rodriguez, 32, an award-winning competitor who was broken his body in six places, pints to a dirty white bull. The bull’s filed-down horns make me recall a story of a rider who was killed after being impaled through an eye. According to Sebastian, thisnext bull is a bad one. His name is Chingo and he bucks mean. Chingo has killed two people.
The rider positions himself over the bull before digging his spurs into its ribs. The doors to the pen are flung open and then they’re off in a blur. The reaction from the crowd is immediate and explosive. Men who were previously seen casually sautering around the ring now sprint for safety.
The sight would be comic if it weren’t for the very real chance of serious injury – even death. Earlier in the evening total chaos brok out in the bullring after a young man was trampled. The crowd screamed as cowboys on horses tried unsuccessfully to lasso the bull as it charged at the drunken Samaritans trying to carry the unconscious man to safety.
This time however the rider comes off the bull well before his requisite minimum nine seconds are up and he runs to the side with all but his pride escaping unscatched.
For many male Guanacastecos, bull riding is a rite of passage when they turn 18 and for that reason it is a tradition close to many people’s hearts. Sebastian the 15 year veretan is married and has young daughter – explains what is that compels him to keep riding. “For me it’s the only sport that gives the maximum adrenaline rush. When the bull, you don’t see the people, you don’t see anybody. You don’t hear anything, you don’t see anything.”
When the gates open the rider enters into a state of ecstacy. It is the moment the world disappears. It is the essence of the ‘sabanero’.