Vagabond Tales: The Drunken Art Of Nicaraguan Bull Riding

Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe is an island of many things.

It’s the highest lake island in the entire world, and it has the most perfectly conical shaped mountain in all of Central America. Seeing as it’s set in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, it’s home to the world’s only freshwater sharks.

Isla de Ometepe is volcanic, home to two volcanoes – Volcán Concepción and Volcán Maderas – the former of which experienced a violent eruption in 2010. Isla de Ometepe is also historic, with Nahua and Niquirano Indian artifacts dating back to 300 B.C. During colonial times, Caribbean pirates plied its waters, and lawless outposts were established on its shores.

It is a tourist destination, a site of archeological importance and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Isla de Ometepe is also poor. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere behind Haiti, and in few places is this more apparent than on the rural village roads far removed from the main city centers of Moyogalpa and Altagracia. Despite being part of the same country, the poverty of Ometepe is a different type than in the national capital of Managua. The tent cities of the urban center are instead replaced by one-room thatched houses where three generations of family members all exist beneath the same roof. Bananas are gathered, fish are attained, piles of moist grass smolder to deter the mosquitos, the heat swelters and time lurches on.

Lastly, as is often the case with rural and agricultural outposts, Isla de Ometepe is also home to cowboys, although the rodeos in this part of the world are a loosely organized and drunken affair. I know this because I once stumbled into one.Having hired rickety, one-speed bikes from a Playa Santa Domingo guesthouse, my wife and I pedaled off down a dirt road at the base of Volcán Maderas. Bouncing down the dusty dirt track we waved at hordes of scampering schoolchildren as howler monkeys growled and danced in the treetops. One of the best ways to interact with local cultures, I have found, and a way to truly put a finger on the pulse of a destination, is simply to hire a bicycle, pedal without a plan and sit back and observe.

Having passed donkeys laden with banana leaves and elderly grandmothers harvesting large piles of sticks, a curious collection of people was beginning to become visible a half-mile down the dirt road. Approaching closer, the rhythmic thump of a bass emanating from an old speaker indicated what appeared to be some sort of festival.

Curiosity piqued – I decided to inquire as to why exactly a couple hundred local villagers had all gathered at this seemingly nondescript venue down a dirt road in the forest.

Permiso,” I gently asked of a passing woman – her mestizo stature amounting to no taller than 4 feet 10 inches – ¿Por qué toda la gente? What’s with all the people?

Está un rodeo“.

A rodeo. Of course it was. We had stumbled upon a rural Nicaraguan rodeo, and common courtesy dictates that when you happen upon a rodeo on a Saturday afternoon bike ride on Isla de Ometepe, you are ultimately obliged to stop in. Entry was $1, and the price of beers the same. There was no way this wasn’t going to happen.

Leaving our bikes with a 12-year-old boy we found manning the concession stand, I grabbed a lukewarm beer and ambled my way through the shoddily constructed grandstand. Bleacher style seating constructed of wood of dubious strength and safety, all the seats faced into a dirt clearing presumably meant to be the rodeo arena. Collections of men in faded blue jeans mingled inside of the ring, and a few isolated cows cohabited the arena along with them, their visible ribs a testament to the general level of poverty.

As thirty minutes faded into three beers, I began to wonder as to when the action was going to take place. The roping, the barrel racing, the bucking broncos and the clowns diving into oversized barrels. Thus far, the only action we had been privy to was a number of wildly intoxicated gentlemen periodically attempting to sit on top of a motionless cow and subsequently be carried over the side by their own inebriated momentum. Whenever this happened, it drew a slight yet noticeable reaction from the crowd.

Wondering if perhaps we had missed the main event, I inquired of the barefoot, elderly woman standing next to me when the rodeo was slated to start.

“This is the rodeo,” she replied with a deadpan stare. “This man, right there, it’s now his turn”.

Shifting my attention towards her outwardly stretched index finger, I watched as a thickly mustachioed caballero in a long-sleeve, olive colored work shirt approached a group of stationary bovines. Slapping his friend on the back, he proceeded to take a swig out of a bottle that didn’t quite look like rum, but sure didn’t look like water, and then drag his feet lazily over towards the cow. Much like the other before him, he nearly tripped and fell into the cow, eventually threw a leg over its visible spine, and then immediately slipped and fell off the other side, his face landing teeth down in the dirt.

The crowd cheered.

Well, some of the crowd – a greater number was paying attention to a fracas back by the entry way, which involved a group of children chasing a chicken that had gone rogue. This, it appeared, was just another Isla de Ometepe Saturday afternoon, the melody from the speakers and the howler monkeys in the trees providing the soundtrack to a rural Nicaraguan rodeo with bull riding like you’ve never seen before.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales over here.

[Image credit: permanently scatterbrained on Flickr]

Top North American rodeos to check out this summer

North American rodeosIn honor of the approaching National Day of the American Cowboy, which I wrote about earlier in the week, I wanted to highlight some of the best rodeos North America has to offer.

Even city slickers can enjoy a rodeo; it is, after all, a sporting event. With a lot of beer. And grilled meat. And a lack of giant foam fingers and face-painting (not a bad thing, I might add).

In all seriousness, rodeos are great family fare. There are usually parades and drill team exhibitions, down-to-earth people, great camaraderie, and you can watch some truly amazing human, equine, and bovine athletes perform in independent and team events. At day’s end, you can always count on a big barbecue, live music, and a dance. The below rodeos are all located in places of great historic interest if you love the Old West or Americana. Git boot-scootin’.

Calgary Stampede
It may be surprising to learn that Canada has a cowboy culture, but Alberta does, and is home to this world-famous event, which is an integral part of the community. Critter lovers should note that the Stampede places extreme emphasis on animal welfare, which you can read about here (FYI, the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) also has strict animal welfare regulations in place, so contrary to belief, livestock are not being tortured for the sake of entertainment). Events ranging from steer wrestling and women’s barrel racing to junior steer riding will be happening July eighth through the 17th.

[Photo credit: bronc, Flicker user Bill Gracey;North American rodeosSheridan WYO Rodeo
Located in the heart of Yellowstone Country at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Sheridan has no shortage of pastoral pleasures to go with its Western heritage. Rodeo Week–July eighth through the 17th–kicks off with a parade, and night rodeos are held the 13-16th. Part of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, Sheridan WYO also features events like the Indian Relay Races (Those of you who are offended by the non-PC-ness of the name…remember we are not in Berkeley, and there’s a $25,000 payout prize), and a public Boot Kick-off event featuring live music, food vendors, and more.

Cheyenne Frontier Days
Know as the “Daddy of Em All,” the world’s largest outdoor rodeo has celebrated the American West since 1897. From July 23rd to the 31st, crowds from all over the world gather to watch arena events. You can also visit Cheyenne’s excellent Old West Museum, tour historic homes and “Behind the Chutes(don’t miss if you want to see what goes on before that gate swings open and bulls and broncs cut loose),” and attend Western Art Shows, concerts (Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow headline this year), a carnival midway, an Indian Village handicraft/historic recreation, and more.

Days of ’76 Rodeo

Held in one of the Old West’s most historic and notorious towns, this Deadwood, South Dakota event has been named Best PRCA Small Outdoor Rodeo four times, as well as PRCA Midsize Rodeo of the Year since 2004. This, the 89th year, runs from July 26-30th, and features two parades and lots of local Native American culture. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark located in the Black Hills Territory, so be sure to plan on an extra day or two for exploring.

Pendleton Roundup
Eastern Oregon is at the heart of the state’s cowboy country, and Pendleton is one of the ten largest rodeos in the world. Have a last-days-of-summer trip September 14-17th, when the weather is hot and sunny (it does happen in the Pacific Northwest, really). Bareback and saddle bronc riding, team roping, bull riding, Indian relay races, wild cow milking, children’s rodeo, and parade: it’s all here. Trivia: Pendleton is one of the first rodeos to have women officially compete. In 1914, Bertha Blanchett came within 12 points of winning the All-Around title.

[Photo credit: team roping, Flickr user Al_HikesAZ]

Midwest turns Wild West : Bull riding for the whole family

In northwestern Ohio where the land is flat, flat, flat and family farms dot the landscape in a scene of bucolic sedateness, the Midwest turns wild west on Saturday nights from October through May. Off State Rte 29, between the Indiana border and Celina, a town with a population of 10,000, is Mack Arena, a non-descriptive rectangular building that one might blow right pass without noticing. Only the white corral-style fencing around one end of the building says animals. Looks can be deceiving. Inside, excitement and a dose of danger crackles. Who knew?

The clues to the wildness inside the industrial corrugate structure start at the dirt parking lot where a pungent odor of animals and leather waft over the assortment of pickup trucks, trailers and cars that gather here every Saturday evening. The announcer’s voice can be heard over the crowd’s din of shouts of encouragement and awe.

The yellow sign near the door touting, “Beware of Bull” is more of a welcome mat than a warning, however.

That’s what Gadling found out a few weeks ago when we came upon the bull riding as an unexpected pleasure of Saturday night’s entertainment–just two hours from Columbus. The allure of the wild west in the Midwest pulled our station wagon into the mix of vehicles.

Although the bull-riding is rough and tumble, the crowd is not. This is family fun where kids are free to hang off fences close to the bull pen for a better look, and any one who wants to give riding a bull a try can plop down money for a go at it.

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Cowboy hats and jeans, of course, are part of the scenery.

First, though, comes the professionals who know how to ride these massively muscled beasts. Riding a bull is not a matter of just getting on and letting the gates fly open.

There’s a slew of fussing and positioning in the narrow chute where handlers keep the bull still, the gate closed, and help the rider settle onto the bull’s back.

Then when the rider signals ready with a raise of his hand, the gate is pulled open and whoosh!–out of the chute the bull and rider come for a rollicking, very fast ride.

For a few seconds, dust flies in a whirlwind accompanied by whooping and hollering in a rush of excitement. Once the bull rids itself of the rider, there’s a rush to get the rider out of the way while the announcer calls out the time.

Then the next bull and rider are made ready for their turn in the arena.

The crowd, a mix of people of all ages from grandparents to babies in carriers, visit with each other in between rounds. And, at the end, about 10 p.m., they file out of the building and into their vehicles to pull out of the parking lot into the calm night until next Saturday when the excitement calls them back.

The nuts and bolts of bull riding if you want to give it a go:

  • Jackpot riders (experts) $45
  • Novice riders–$25
  • Practice rides–$15
  • Riders must be 18 or over, although parents can sign a release for younger kids.

Our son rode a sheep as part of the evening’s entertainment. Alas, no photo. He was a hit though since his riding style was to lay along the back of the sheep with his legs hanging over the rump.

By the way, the arena is heated and you can bring in your own coolers. Admission is reasonable.

[all photos by Jamie Rhein]