An Evening Of Costa Rican Rodeo Madness

The reed thin drunk was just barely sober enough to avoid being flattened by a rampaging bull. The crowd roared when he broke into a nifty little dance, complete with somersaults and a crash but many were also hoping that he’d be trampled (see video). I was rooting for the harassed bulls to teach the dozens of insane men in the ring a lesson, but I dared not admit that to anyone. Costa Rican law mandates that a cowboy should be sober while riding a bull, but there is no such requirement for the spectators, even though many of them choose to be part of the action, right in the ring.

I’m not much of a rodeo guy but they are an integral part of the culture in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, so when we heard about Expo Liberia, a rodeo and carnival that was supposed to be one of the biggest and best in the area, we decided to check it out.

As we entered the fairgrounds just off the Pan-American Highway in Liberia, a regional hub in Guanacaste, a police officer approached us with a warning.

“Be very, very careful here,” he said. “There are a lot of criminals and drug addicts around.”

Not exactly what you want to hear any time, but particularly not with your wife and two small children in tow. Nonetheless, we appreciated the warning and the fact that there were police officers everywhere. We walked past a row of bars that were competing to see who could play the loudest music from the most distorted speakers (see video). I’m not sure who won but the fact that there were so few customers at most of the bars seemed to amplify the noise and absurdity of the situation.

One of the bars had a guy singing what sounded like Costa Rican show tunes and it was completely empty. We felt horrible for him but not bad enough to subject ourselves to the music for more than a few seconds.

My kids had fun squandering a large chunk of our hard earned money on rides, inflatable jumpy houses and cotton candy and I was dismayed but also impressed to see freelance port-o-potty entrepreneurs charging the equivalent of a dollar to use their facilities. A host of small children hassled us to buy them tickets for rides and we almost succumbed until one of the Costa Rican carnies intervened.

“Their parents are here,” he warned. “You don’t have to buy them anything.”

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Probably at the bars,” he said, gesturing toward where the distorted, pulsating music was coming from.

After my kids had exhausted their tickets, we gravitated toward the rodeo ring, where my sons watched in fascination as a group of jeering men and boys poked, prodded and harassed a pair of confined bulls. They were obviously getting them in an agitated state for the evening’s show but I decided that I didn’t want to support their endeavor by buying tickets, even at just $4 a pop. (Though apparently the bulls aren’t actually harmed in Costa Rican rodeos).

But as we were wandering around the side of the ring, we noticed that there were just as many people, it not more, watching the show for free under the stands. Curiosity got the best of us, so we stood alongside other cheapskates and vendors, who flogged little bags of fruity drinks, nuts and other treats, and settled in for the show.

“All these people standing underneath the stands, this doesn’t seem safe,” said Jen, my wife. “What if this thing collapses on us- we’ll all be dead.”

I pondered this prospect and considered what a small news item it would be in the U.S. Dozens perish as Costa Rican rodeo stands collapse. But as soon as the first bucking bull came charging out of the gate, our attention shifted from the rickety stands to the action unfolding in front of us.

There were scores of men- and not a single woman- standing around in the ring, but I had (wrongly) assumed that they would take their seats once the action started. After the sabanero (cowboy) was thrown off of the bull, attention shifted to all the men in the ring. Some of them appeared to be trying to taunt and smack the bull, while more prudent guys hopped up on the side of the wooden stands to steer clear of the beast.

For the first few seconds, the bull was angry and he actively charged a few men. But then he kind of just pulled up and stopped dead in his tracks, as if to say, fuck this, I am not going to take the bait and chase you macho assholes around this ring. A few of the men tried to bait him but he just stood his ground and glared at them. Eventually, as the men became more aggressive, he took the bait and started charging, sending all but the most clinically insane scurrying up onto the lower wooden rungs of the stands.

I asked a woman standing next to us why there were no women in the ring and she chuckled.

“We’re too smart,” she said.

The scene repeated itself time and time again. The men wanted action and needed to harass the bulls to galvanize them to play along. I don’t care for the idea of proving one’s masculinity by tormenting animals and it was hard to reconcile why so many guys wanted to be in the ring.

I didn’t stay long enough to witness any injuries but apparently it’s common for at least a few people to get trampled each night. Brian Wedge, a photographer from Maine who blogged about an evening he spent at a Costa Rican rodeo, actually photographed people lying injured in ambulances at the rodeo he attended in 2011.

But while I didn’t get a kick out of the tormenting of the bulls, I loved the dancing, strutting drunk guy who commanded our attention. As you can see from the video above, he was, when he could remain upright, a very good dancer.

After nearly an hour of watching the spectacle from underneath the stands, we’d had more than enough. I was happy to escape before the stands collapsed or a bull came smashing through the flimsy wooden beams that separated us from him. But I wished I could have taken the bulls with me to spare them the indignity of sticking around to provide amusement to the locals.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]