Tico–style bullfighting encourages audience participation.
  • Tico–style bullfighting encourages audience participation.
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Bullfight, Tico style

Even from the bleachers, a safe distance from the corral, the bull looked dangerously close. A sea of young men surrounded the bull, and every time the animal flinched, waves of contestants rippled away in fear. They scampered forward, waving their arms, in the hopes that the bull would chase them.

No, I thought. Angering a horned, 1,800-pound animal is not something I ever need to do. But man, is it fun to watch.

Ever since I heard about Costa Rica’s “bullfights” two years ago, I have been desperate to see them. Instead of matadors with capes and swords, the Tico bullfight is an everyman sport, and the bull is never harmed. Hundreds of participants jump into the ring and try to get as close to the bull as possible. Sometimes they are successful. They run past the bull, incite its rage, and then sprint away before the creature can give chase. Others aren’t so lucky: they get too close, and the bull tramples them into the dust.

Or worse: At least two competitors got gored this year. Such events are front-page news in Costa Rica, where the bullfights are broadcast on national television.

Author's Zapote bullfight selfie – a safe distance from the raging toros.

Author's Zapote bullfight selfie – a safe distance from the raging toros.

My friends Beto and Lindsay are both bullfighting veterans – as spectators, that is – and they invited me down to the San José suburb of Zapote to check out the show. I was practically giddy when we arrived.

Each December, the neighborhood comes alive with carnival rides and snack stands. Hordes of Ticos pour into Zapote to celebrate the turning of the year. We snagged some churros and headed for the stadium, which was packed to bursting with bullfighting fans.

The rodeo atmosphere fascinated me, because unlike in the U.S., city folk don’t seem to condescend cowboy culture. A vaquero isn’t just a campy national icon, but a respected professional in a very agrarian country. When they rode their horses into the corral, whirling lassos, the spectators cheered madly.

I had to meet my wife for dinner, so I turned down beer and food. But as I left the stadium, and the sun melted over the carnival tents, I promised to come back next year. And stay all day.

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