In the ring, a crowd of more than 100 mostly young men enclosed in a semicircle crept towards an orange gate. The announcer’s voice filled the wooden stadium with an introduction worthy of a boxing champion: the bull’s name, his weight, his provenance, his dad’s history in the ring. When the announcer finished, fans in the crowd held their breath while some in the ring stretched out their arms in anticipation.
As the bovine burst from the gate, the bullfighters ran in every direction, with some leaping over or on top of the fences at the ring’s edge. The bull switched between short bursts of charging and standing still, sometimes stomping the ground. The braver contestants took these opportunities to dash as close as possible, while others stood in the back of the crowd, always with a clear path to the fences.
Costa Rican bullfighting is a more humane variant on the Spanish tradition. It resembles Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls more than a classic corrida. Contestants enter the ring only to run from the animal. In a chaotic swirl of bodies, some entrants keep their distance from the bull, while others attempt to sprint by as close as they can when they bull stands his ground. Though these bullfights occur across Costa Rica all year (last year, one U.S. tourist was brutally gored in Nosara), Zapote’s, is considered the country’s grandest event.
A 15-year veteran of the ring, Adrián Bindas said it’s the dream of every Costa Rican boy to bullfight in Zapote after turning 18. Bindas mentioned a 26-stitch surgery to his face where he also lost teeth, due to a close encounter with a bull’s horn. Last year’s Zapote festival saw a bull injure him in the leg.
“I hate football,” Bindas said. “I hate martial arts. For me, this is the Superbowl.”
Some women, including Bindas’ girlfriend, entered the ring in what is traditionally a sport dominated by young men.
The ring hosted other rodeo events as well. After the crowded bullfight, one man in tights faced a different bull. Taunting the animal to charge, the man amazed the crowd by leaping and backflipping over the bull. Bull rides and a horse race also drew cheers from the crowd. Men dressed as comic book characters pumped up each section of the crowd during the event.
Costa Rica’s bullfighting is not without controversy. The World Society for the Protection of Animals has condemned the sport for maltreatment of the bulls and horses. The daily La Nación reported that 257 people were injured in bullfights in last year’s festival, with 67 hospitalizations. Costa Rica’s Health Ministry banned fireworks from this year’s event, deeming them unsafe.
Outside the stadium, the Zapote festival offered carnival rides such as bumper cars and short roller coasters. One of the most popular rides with an adult theme called “Drive In” drew a crowd of observers. Riders sat on bench seats at the edge of a spinning disk. The ride’s operator could make the disk bounce up and down that jostled riders into suggestive positions, to the delight of the crowd.
The festival also offered carnival games, bars and a night club. Food options included cotton candy, Chinese rice, Chinese noodles, Argentine steak, churros and the classic meat on a stick.
The Zapote Festival runs through Jan. 5. Every day has two bullfight and rodeo events: one from 3-7 p.m. and one from 7-11 p.m.