Bullfighting in Costa Rica
“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
The great American author, Ernest Hemingway wrote those words, as he was a big fan of bullfighting from the time he spent in Spain during the war (when he was an ambulance driver, not a soldier!).
However, no matter what romance Hemingway attributed to the intersection of man and beast in the ring, we live in different times, and most of us would agree that cruelly torturing and killing animals for sport is either unnecessary or flat-out wrong.
Well, you’ll be happy to hear that in Costa Rica, they have a far more humane system of bullfighting, in which the bull is the one inflicting the lion’s share of damage and the rider or the human occupants of the wring are the ones being hunted for sport!
A far cry from the traditional brutality that still takes place in Mexico and Spain, bullfighting in Costa Rica is consistent with the nation’s ethos of being a natural wonderland and progressive haven. Likewise, bullfighting evolved in Costa Rica in its present form because the country used to be heavily dependent on cattle, so ranchers couldn’t afford to surrender or harm their livestock.
But don’t get it wrong – bullfighting is still extremely popular in Costa Rica, and they’ll have bullfights – or Corridas de Torros – at just about every fair and festival in small towns to large stadiums. By the way, that name literally translates to ‘Running FROM the bulls,” so you know these events are done differently in Costa Rica!
The local Ticos also call bullfights, Toros a la Tica, or the bulls of Costa Rica. Sure, those festivals that are the pride of every pueblo and light up the night offer carnival rides, concerts, food stalls, plenty of cheap booze, and plenty of singing and dancing, but the bullfights are the main attraction for adrenaline junkies, foreign and native.
In fact, the most celebrated yearly bullfighting festival is called Zapote, and it’s held in the capital city of San Jose each December around Christmas time. But bullfighting is still popular from Palmares to Puntarenas, Guanacaste to Limon, and just about everywhere in between.
Here’s how it goes down: at the bigger Corridas events, they release about ten bulls into the ring in any given evening, one by one. There is a matador, just like bullfights in Spain or Mexico, but his role is merely ceremonial, and he doesn’t injure the bull. Called montadores, they earn the equivalent of about $30 U.S,. but can gain the respect and admiration of the crowd!)
With a yell of “Puerta!” (door) from the montadore atop the bull, both man and bull are released into the ring, charging, bucking, violently stamping, and usually throwing the rider, similar to rodeos and bull riding competitions in the U.S.
But, after a few minutes with the montadores, the event becomes far more democratic, as dozens or even scores of bystanders and patrons jump into the ring for the real show. These adrenaline-charged young men jump into the ring with no training, equipment, or strategy, with bulls made extra-aggressive after not being fed for 24 hours before the spectacle, as well as ropes tightly cinched along their midsection.
The enraged bull, which is called El Violdaor, stampedes throughout the ring, charging after this montadore and that one, changing direction, resting and then going on a violent spree again, all as these loco amateurs try to sprint and dive out of harm’s way.
The scattering (and, sometimes splattering) of machismo amateurs is cheered and revered by the crowds at Corridas de Torres. It’s all a test of bravery and balls as they come as close as possible to the bull, taunt and tease them, and basically test fate in a confined space with an angry animal that weighs a ton and has sharp horns.
Sure, alcohol fuels the bravado of the montadores, but it’s quickly balanced out by adrenaline, and, in the larger showcases in the cities, they don’t let visibly drunk people into the ring. In fact, in San Jose or main cities, they make participants literally sign their life away before getting in the ring.
The amateur bull taunters also might wear capes, masks, costumes, display their athleticism with flips or other prowess. They even play beloved games, like four montadores sitting at a table right in the ring, drinking beers like nothing else was going on. The trick is to stay relaxed and keep your butt in the chair as long as possible, which is to say until the irate bull charges and decimates the wooden table – and anyone still sitting there.
It’s not just for show – people get seriously hurt all the time. Of course, there are medical workers and safety officials ready to help at the larger and more organized tournaments. But, big-city arena or tiny pueblo festival, the montadores are on their own.
Last year, it was reported that more than 250 people were officially injured in bullfights (and far more that went unreported), and a few deaths usually occur yearly, including when tourists and foreigners try to jump in the ring in the past.
Why do they do it? There may be a few cash prizes involved but, mostly, it’s for the fame. A poor, hormonal teenager can vault themselves to national fame overnight by a legendary showing in the ring.
Raising bulls is also big business, as ranchers, breeders, and owners try to find the meanest, nastiest bull that delves out the worst damage – and brings in the biggest paycheck.
But the baddest bull in Costa Rican lore is Malacrianza, which literally translates to “Bad Ass.” Weighing in at almost a ton, Malacrianza is a jet black with white specks and a huge set of razor-sharp horns. Malacrianza began its bullfighting career in 2004, when owner Ubaldo Rodríguez entered the ornery, malcontent beast in a local festival in Guanacaste. Since then, he had a ten-year run in the ring, injuring countless fighters, killing at least one, and gaining a reputation that strikes fear into every Tico.
Only in a nation like Costa Rica, where bulls aren’t injured or killed during bullfights, could Malacrianza enjoy such a long run and more national fame than any of its human ring-mates!
If you head down to Costa Rica, I highly encourage you to check out the festivals and take in a bullfight!