Rodeos in Costa Rica are unlike their counterparts in other countries. While American Rodeo tours expand their market into large venues like football stadiums and promote the brand of the athletes, sponsors, and vendors, the Costa Rican rodeo maintains a localized and intimate feel that truly connects spectators to the challenge, dangers and thrills of recreational bull riding.
The typical Costa Rican rodeo is held in semi-permanent venues constructed of plywood in a circular bleacher arrangement; in a lot of ways it resembles the “Wooden O” theaters of William Shakespeare’s time. These bull rings can be torn down and moved to different locations cheaply and efficiently. This is how the rodeos ‘go on tour’ is by physically moving the entire operation between shows.
The events mimic the standard western rodeo with bull riding as the main feature and various roping and riding events filling out the undercard. There is one huge difference in the Costa Rican rodeo: No scorekeeping. There are no judges, points, eight-second counts, or trophies to be won. Also unlike European bullfights the bulls are never intentionally harmed and certainly never killed. Costa Rica’s ranchers remain humble in this respect and view needlessly slaying an animal for spectacle as a terrible waste of precious resources.
I was fortunate enough to attend an authentic Costa Rican rodeo in 2009 in the town of Samarra located near the Pacific Ocean in the Guanacaste Province. The scene around the event was blend of Carnival and big-time Friday night football in Texas. The air was soaked with humidity and the smell of grilled mahi steaks mixed with pineapple and mango. Vendors serve this awesome drink that is banana peel scrapings and coconut blended into fresh milk…available with or without guaro (a potent tequlia made from azucar instead of cactus). Teenagers dressed in their best fashions mingle and flirt beneath the bleachers. Old men creakily settling into their seat with reserved anticipation. The participants, eager to gain fame in the community, stand off to the side of the chute pumping each other up in hushed tones.
The early events were slightly regimented, meaning that they only roped one calf at a time. There were no rodeo clowns as you would see in a more organized rodeo; safety duties were handled by a few steely-eyed old men and a posse of dogs who would keep the bulls at bay.
As the night wore on, it became clear that there was to be no order; instead cowboys at random would mount up on a bull and proceed to prove their strength to the crowd. In a way it looked like a dunk contest during lay-up drills at an NBA game. Hoping to show their huevos young men would run by and slap the bull on the backside or try to stand their ground. A few got mildly bucked but no one was seriously wounded.
By the end of the night young men from the crowd had jumped into the ring and the semi-organized bull riding turned into machismo-soaked bull taunting. I have video of this scene to prove it linked below.
Man and bull eventually tired of the dance and the rodeo ended with as little fanfare as it began. The crowd (that hadn’t rushed in to the ring) offered light applause and dispersed. Each participants slung there arm around their lady and roared off into the darkness on motorbikes or horses.
I’ve travelled in Central America extensively and I am always taken aback by how much ‘Pura Vida’ really influences the culture of Costa Rica; unlike their geographic neighbors the Ticos are very averse to things like scorekeeping, organized rosters, and mechanized permanence. The lesson I took from my Costa Rican rodeo experience is that pure enthusiasm and fun are much more common in a wooden stadium than they are in Yankee Stadium. The Ticos have much to teach when it comes to enjoying life as it comes: purely.