Each year in January, Ticos descend on the sleepy coffee town of Palmares, northwest of San José, for the country’s rowdiest fiesta. Palmares hosts a traditional Costa Rican festival with bullfights, horse parades and carnival rides, but also brings in famous international acts and way more beer than is probably necessary.
Foreigners unfamiliar with the festival shouldn’t miss out either. Even if bobbing along to the international dancehall hit “Temperature” surrounded by drunk teenagers isn’t really your scene, the Palmares Festival still has plenty to offer.
Festivities kick off Jan. 14 with events every day through Jan. 26. Here are a few things to know about the festival before you go so that you can enjoy it while still maintaining your dignity.
1. More than a fifth of the country will attend. Cultura Profética will be there, too.
Festival organizers usually estimate about 1 million people will show up to this year’s festival. That’s about 20 percent of Costa Rica’s population. Organizers expect tens of thousands for concert headliners Cultura Profética, the acclaimed reggae outfit. (Concert takes place Jan. 18 at 12 p.m.)
Big crowds can mean big fun, but they also mean traffic and packed hotels. Most events do not have advance tickets, but tickets are available at any Maxi Pali.
2. You can get drunk. You can even ride a drunk bus.*
With beer consumption rivaling Oktoberfest, Palmares is known internationally as a giant boozefest. Costa Rican beer label Imperial now sponsors the festival so you can be sure you will not get thirsty.
Officially, security will not allow inebriated guests into the festival, but in practice, hardcore Palmares partiers book mini-buses with designated drivers and get plastered on the hour-long drive from San José. Find a listing for your own party bus here.
3. You can chase bulls. But don’t do that. It’s dangerous and stupid.
As with many other Costa Rican civic festivals, Tico-style bullfights are the event’s centerpiece. Unlike Spanish or Mexican bullfights, Costa Ricans do not kill the bull. Instead, they allow dozens of improvised rodeo clowns, improvisados in Spanish, to enter the ring and taunt the toro, sometimes getting killed themselves.
Watching strangers get launched into the sky by bulls is amusing, but think twice about getting into the ring yourself. At 2013’s Palmares Festival, a 28-year-old improvisado died after being tossed by a bull and breaking his neck.
4. Watch out: Thieves abound.
The drunk and merry make easy targets. You want to drink your weight in Imperial? Ok, but don’t bring that $1,200 camera you just got for Christmas and expect to still have it when you leave. And don’t leave valuables in your car.
Police will be out in force at the festival along with private security and dozens of surveillance cameras. Transit police also will be monitoring the roadways for drunk drivers.
5. If you can only choose one event, go to the tope.
A Costa Rican tope is a horse parade. Cowboys get dressed up in their tack and ride horses along a predetermined route through town. Think thousands of people on horses, in one big cluster.
The Palmares tope is one of the country’s most famous, with cowboys from all over the country turning up to show off their riding skills and sometimes other talents. Here’s a taste of what last year’s tope looked like.