Fiesta Brava: a field report from Costa Rica
By Don Wright
Anthropologists interested in cultural variations among humans frequently engage in various forms of participation and observation of cultural practices—which includes spending time at the research location, interacting with subjects, and taking notes—in other words, fieldwork.
So it is with our “cultural anthropologist” hats on that my partner and I left the comforts of the Playa Tamarindo tourist zone and caught the chicken bus to a dusty little town in cattle country to witness what was described to us as the most important event of the year in Santa Rosa—the annual bull riding “Fiesta Brava”.
This is not a decision we took lightly. We’re both concerned about how animals are treated at events like this. Nevertheless, we arrived early enough that they were still setting up the perimeter fencing, but the mini-midway was open so we grabbed a plate of fried chicken and a couple of beers and watched as the crew finished setting up.
We were also aware that the night was special because it was being broadcast live on television; there was a large crew from the television station setting up cameras and lights. It was a small ring, but they had as many cameras and crew members on the job as Hockey Night in Canada, including a camera on a long boom to get overhead action shots.
We purchased tickets for seating in the stands—10,000 colones each, which is US$20. The other option was to buy lower-priced tickets for standing room around the ring, but we had been told the event would go three hours and opted for a seat in the shade.
The stands were about half full when about 100 people, mostly men and mostly 20-something, many in T-shirts promoting the various corporate sponsors, spread themselves around the ring. Most were in running shoes although a few were in flip-flops; some had capes or costume parts, a few had fabric advertising signs, many had drinks in their hands.
We were puzzled to say the least. Then they opened the gate to let a large bull run around the ring, alternatively trying to avoid, or charge at, this ground crew that was taunting it and running around trying to touch the bull but at the same time escape being gored by its sharp horns. This continued for about 15 minutes to the great delight of the audience before thrree sabaneros on horseback steered the bull out through the gate.
It was finally time for the first rider. After much fanfare from a booth full of very annoyingly shrill announcers, the gate opened—unfortunately the rider was left hanging on the gate itself, so much for the ride! This is where the ground crew continues to provide the entertainment—running in front of, and away from, the loose bull for about 10 minutes before it is guided back to the gate. While the next rider was getting ready, they let another bull out for the ground crew to taunt and run from, again rescued from torment by the three men on horseback.
The second rider only made it a few feet out of the gate before being thrown and stomped on—and promptly carried off the field to the medical room below the stands. The loose bull ran around, the ground crew ran around; eventually the bull trotted back through the gate; you got the sense that they knew the routine.
By now, it was dark out, the stands were full, and the standing area around the ring was jam-packed. As we looked around it was evident there were very few tourist-anthropologists in the crowd—it was mostly local people, including lots of families. Many had picnic bags or coolers, well-stocked for the long event. Three rows down from us a bottle of Johnny Walker was being shared by one group of friends and family members.
The third rider made it only a little further into the ring before being thrown and stomped on, and quickly picked up and taken to the medical room. At the end of the first hour it was Bulls 3, Riders 0.
Before the next bull was released, a man in a messy blonde wig, large fake breasts, and a dress took centre field to perform a rather lewd dance. He then ran into the stands to dry-hump male audience members, pose for photos, and pretend to pole-dance—all to the great enjoyment of the crowd, and the men in particular who were returning his lewd gestures, grabbing at him, and enthusiastically embracing him. Our neighbour told us he and some of the other “characters” in the ground crew are quite famous.
Following yet another runaround with a loose bull, the field was cleared and two street-hockey goal nets were set up and two five-person soccer teams took the field. They played for a few minutes and we thought it was rather lame half-time entertainment—until they released a small bull onto the field, joined a few minutes later by a second small bull.
That really mixed things up. By this time, some of the ground crew had returned to make sure the two bulls were properly motivated to interfere with the soccer game—and we have to admit this was actually quite entertaining—the soccer players working hard to score some goals while avoiding the wrath of two mad bulls.
After the game the fourth rider shot out of the gate on a very angry bull but he held on for 30 or 40 seconds before losing his grip and being thrown onto the field. We stayed for several more rounds of riders and random bull running, but this rider lasted the longest of them all. At the two-and-a-half-hour mark we made our way out to the dark and car-filled street to find a taxi back to Tamarindo, rather than chance having to wait forever for a ride at the end.
Our fieldwork complete, we retired to a small bar near our apartment to compare notes and reflect on our observations. It was clearly a highly anticipated event rooted in the lives of farmers, ranchers, and others in the region. The crowd knew some of the bulls and riders, as well as some of the more outrageously dressed members of the ground crew. They laughed and cheered, it was a family event, and it was being filmed for broadcast to an even larger audience. We were happy we had left the tourist beachfront for a glimpse of life in the valley.
Don Wright and partner Deborah live in Vancouver and are travelling through Central and South America. In February they spent two weeks in Tamarindo. Playa Tamarindo is one of numerous tourist beaches along Costa Rica’s northern Pacific Coast, on the Peninsula de Nicoya. They are easily reached by bus from other points in Costa Rica, including the newly expanded international airport in Liberia, about an hour away by tourist shuttle. Find other Don Wright travel stories at vida en el camino.