Costa Rican Rodeos: Cowboys, Drunks and Bulls (Tamarindo Fiestas)


I recently watched a typical Costa Rican rodeo with a professional MMA fighter. It was the Tamarindo Fiestas on a beautiful night as we sat on top of the 8 foot wooden bull ring fence. My friend towered over the Ticos, while I, in my small frame, fit in perfectly. The entire ring was lined with Ticos and foreigners, the night air was dry and cool and the crowd was excited for the first bull.

There had been lots of buildup for the first rider. The announcer started the non-stop hype about an hour before. They introduced all of the riders, the gate opener, the coaches, the cowboys, the gate closers. The band was playing traditional music with lots of tuba and accordion sounds, cheap carnival rides were flashing lights attracting kids to spend more money (to their parents’ dismay). Finally, the gate opener pulls open the gate and the enormous bull launches into the brightly lit ring.

The bull jumps and turns and kicks. The announcer yelling furiously. The band plays the same song they always play, and the crowd roars. On top of this raging bull is a young man. Graceful in his dance, his strong legs straddle the bull as both his arms wave in the air. “Look mom! No hands!” he seems to say. I am enthralled by his grace, but so glad I am not the mom looking at his trick. bull

After the bull calms a bit, he dismounts and quickly gets out of the ring. But the ring is not empty. It is full of men of all ages, experience, and degrees of sobriety. Now that the professional is off, its their turn. They taunt the bull, running up behind him, slapping his rump and he charges. The thing is, most of them are drunk, wasted drunk and they are as entertaining to watch in the quiet minutes in between the bulls as they are as they flaunt their drunken masculinity.

Its like watching a train wreck, its fascinating, but I fear what may happen. All too often someone gets trampled or gored. This time around the boys run out of the ring before the bull can bare down on them. They play this game until the cowboys come in and with absolute precision, lasso the bull and lead him back to the stalls. Once back in the stalls, the crowd is cheering, I’m cheering and I look over at this MMA fighter as he shakes his head in disgust.

“This is the most barbaric thing I’ve seen,” he says.

Wait. This comes from a man who beats the lights out of someone for a living? I’m so confused. Nobody got hurt, the bull did not die, the rider left in triumph, the crowd excited. After further conversation I could see his point.

He explains, “I choose to do what I do, the bull doesn’t.”

I don’t know if that is true. And if it is, I’m not sure I agree. I don’t know why a man would choose to fight, but a bull would not. Although I can see his position, I don’t believe it. These bull were chosen from a herd for their zest and fervor. It is in their nature to charge, they are beautiful, giant beasts of muscle and horns and I swear I can see it in their eyes, they love it, they are fighters! It’s man vs. beast, a timeless battle.

These local rodeos aren’t a fight to the death like the bull fights of Spain. We have “Montadores”, riders, not “Matadores”, killers. The bulls are the prize possession of their owners. They often times have their own pasture, get a special diet, plenty of rest and movement and mating. They spend the year being treated like royalty and earn their keep on Saturday nights during fiesta season. If I were a bull I’d prefer this life to the slaughter house.

Bull riding is part of the Costa Rican culture, especially here in Guanacaste. We live among the farmers of Costa Rica. During the fiestas its very common to see people out on horses. Men, women and children all ride. Watching the montador is part of the fiber of the entertainment of these fiestas and we have embraced it wholeheartedly.

That being said, its not always a “G” rated, wholesome-fun, family event. As you can see from this video it is very dangerous both for the men who ride the bulls and for those who enter the ring to chase the bulls after the rider dismounts. In fact there are so many injuries that each bullring has a little door leading directly to the red cross and ambulance. Injuries occur nearly every fiesta night. Some injuries, as you might imagine, are more severe than others. However the rider in this video walked away with only bruises.

The clip above comes from the Brasilito fiestas of 2014. I was there with my children, enjoying this not-so-kid-friendly pastime. My boys love the bulls. My youngest, Tahj, will act like a bull for weeks after seeing a rodeo. He and his buddies ride wooden stick horses (there is a local song here called “cabellito to palo” which means “horse made of stick”) and bulls through the house and out into the fields for hours.

The group of riders this evening was particularly entertaining in that some of the them came out sitting backwards on the bulls or standing on top of them. The last rider came out, ready to ride, mounted properly, with his safety vest and helmet. About 5 seconds into the ride, we notice that he is tangled in the rope of the bull. The other men in the ring are trying to distract the bull so the rider can dismount. But, he can’t dismount because of the rope tied around his leg.

He slides further and further off the top of the bull getting dangerously close the stamping hooves. Then it happens, he goes under the bull. I instinctively cover my boys eyes, I don’t want them to watch this man get trampled to death. You can see the rest of the men working so hard to free their companero. They are only partially successful. They free him enough so that instead of being trapped under the bull, he is now being drug around the ring by the bull.

I hold my children close to me, my hands tightly wrapped around their head as I watch this bull drag a limp body around the ring. It’s terrifying. The brave, frantic men in the ring are literally throwing themselves on the rider to try and save him, heedless of the bucking bull.

The bull finally turns around and rams his horns into the rider, breaking him free. I watch in horror as the dust settles. But the rider, who was seconds ago lying lifeless in front of the gasping crowd, jumps to his feet, puts both hands in the air in triumph and receives a fury of applause. It was absolutely amazing.

That is what you don’t see if the video above. You don’t see that regardless of what happened to his body, he felt victorious in his ride on the bull.   He raised his hand in the universal sign of victory.   And the crowd, cheered, because they got the show they wanted, without the real tragedy.

Author description

Geneva Garcia Ellen

About the author:Geneva Garcia Ellen is the co-founder and CEO (Capitana of Everything Onshore) of Serendipity Charters. Along with her husband, Captain Brad, she raises two wild boys, surfs and travels.