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]