The Costa Rican Rodeo

Ready for the chase

Ready for the chase

After roaming around Costa Rica for a few weeks, I was bored of the bars and the beach. Okay, that’s a lie. My wallet was wearing thin and I needed to make some quick money before I was broke. My friend from North Carolina, Morgan Smith, had moved to Costa Rica the previous year and opened the tour guide company Native’s Way. She operates out of Guanacaste, taking people to various places like Arenal for zip-lines and horseback riding, or Tamarindo for sunset catamaran cruises and surf lessons.

She wanted to start offering tours off the Gringo Trail—the same touristy path that everyone takes when they get to Costa Rica—and rodeos were her new thing. She needed a driver, and so for a short time, I was her guy. I practiced driving the manual transmission around town one afternoon, and before I knew it we were cruising down the road with a load of gringos in the back.

We set off in the massive, Mercedes passenger van. It could fit fifteen people, but this tour group was smaller—around eight people in total. Morgan packed an ice chest full of Imperial beer so the group would be good and ready for the big show. It was about an hour and a half away from Playa Del Coco in the quite town of Bagaces. She promised it to be hectic from the moment we got out of the van—and she was right!

I pulled the van off the main road to a dusty little town in the middle of nowhere. Just over one big hill, and the town became electric. Cowboys pranced their horses down the roads, police tried to manage traffic, and locals pretty much danced their way around the streets.  I was told it was a parade of show horses for the men that were to wrangle steers once in the arena, but I could tell some locals jumped in the procession with their horses to keep the parade going.

We stayed in the town square and drank beer for a few hours with what seemed like everyone in the surrounding towns partying like it was a modern day New Years Eve meets El Paso circa 1880. I was expecting everyone to simultaneously start shooting pistols into the night sky.

The music got increasingly louder as we ventured towards the coliseum at the other end of town. It was how I imagine a wooden version of the Roman Coliseum should look. We passed vendors and the main outdoor dance floor. Tables, chairs, beer bottles, and trash littered the grounds around the entrance, as it seemed the locals had been partying all week. We were the only gringos in the entire wild town.

Morgan covered our entrance fees as part of the tour, so we just had to buy extra food or beer. It was all really tasty, cheap, local food. There were games around the rodeo, too, and even rides, reminiscent of a county fair. Everyone was very welcoming. Nobody looked at us like we were lost—even though we may have felt like it at first.

All lassoed up

All lassoed up

The Rodeo started around 8 p.m. By that time, only a few people had made it to their seats. It seemed that it was more of a family event inside and the real party was still going on in the streets. Most of us had never seen a rodeo—and most of us paid to do so—so we stayed in for the show.

Inside the arena, loads of Ticos flooded the ring. Many of them were still partying, wavering with beers in hands, as they stood around waiting for the bull rider to make his appearance. When he finally did it was mayhem. Eight seconds of screaming, yelling, and chasing the bull, and the rider was thrown off. I figured that would be it, but the show had just started.

Now the hundred or so men that teased and taunted the bull clung to the sidewalls ready to climb out of range when the bull’s horns came too close. They wanted to keep the crowd entertained, and to get the wranglers in position to lasso the bull. They even played a game where, beforehand, they would tape money to the tail or horns of the bull then after the rider fell, they’d try see which man was brave enough to snatch the money. Needless to say this was the best part of the whole show—watching young, drunk guys try to outsmart/outrun a raging bull. Most of them had experience doing so, but with all the empty beer bottles and cans littering the grounds of the ring, one was inevitably going to slip. It was a great show for my first time.

After the dozen-or-so riders finished, the rodeo was over and it was reaching midnight. We decided to head back to El Coco instead of hanging around the town square. The ride was long and most of the group was beat from all the excitement. Luckily for me, we made it back just in time for last call at the bar. It was my first rodeo, but it wouldn’t be my last.

Patrick Mallory

About Patrick Mallory

Patrick Mallory is a traveler from the East coast of the United States. He’s lucky to have traveled extensively in Asia and Central America and hopes to see a real, live kangaroo in the coming year.