On our first full day in Costa Rica, we attended the Zapote Festival’s main event – Toro Tico. As luck would have it, our professor met the son of the organizer of the event, Eli, who agreed to meet us beforehand to give us a behind-the-scenes look at the event management. Upon entering the fairgrounds of Zapote - a short 15 minute drive from downtown San Jose - we proceeded to the main entrance of the bull ring and met Eli at the door. We were permitted entrance before any of the spectators for the first of two sold out shows, our show at 2:00pm and an evening show at 8pm. The festival has two Toro Tico shows a day for the twelve days of the festival, which began on December 25th and runs through January 5th.
The stadium holds 3000 people and according to Eli the most sold out shows are on January 1st – the day we attended the event. In addition to gaining early access, Eli told us about his family business and how they bid and won the concession contract to manage the stadium where the event occurs for the next five years, after having managed the venue for years previously but only just won back the rights this past year. While bulls are not his priority, managing the business side of the venue was clearly his motivation and what he enjoys most about his current role within the family business.
Eli also introduced us to his girlfriend, who is studying to become a veterinarian and who looks after the bulls diligently. She gave us a tour of the area where the bulls are examined before going into the arena and we saw many of the contestants entering the back of the arena who are equally checked out before they are allowed to participate in the event.
Unlike in Mexico or Spain, where bull fights consist of matadors who use swords and other instruments to ultimately kill the bull, Toro Tico is an event where the bulls are not harmed and enter the arena full of willing volunteer participants who then run away from the bull to avoid being struck by the bull’s horns (meticulously maintained and rounded by the veterinarians on staff at the arena).
Upon taking our seats when the doors for the stadium were opened for general admission, food and beverage vendors came around with various snack foods, drinks and ice cream concessions. The atmosphere was most festive and intoxicatingly joyous. Tico families (as Costa Ricans are know) packed the arena and were clearly excited for the event to begin. After 45 minutes of music and dancing by entertainers while everyone took their seats and had time to get some food and drinks, the announcer introduced the characters who ‘fought’ with a baby bull in the first act – including Charlito (our section of the arena’s representative) Bat Man and their friends. In order to engage the audience, competitions for applause and participation with the characters’ signals ensured people were kept involved during the three-hour long event, which saw 14 bulls and 8 baby bulls in the arena. Each act consisted of the same general order: first participants entered the ring and a bull was released to the sound of a horn; the bull charged the crowd which ran away from the charging bull to safety on the either side of the ring; participants were encouraged and prodded by announcer to engage in increasingly dangerous behavior – kneeling in front of the bull, lying in front of the bull, etc.; cowboys entered the ring, lassoed the bull and took it back to the pen. Then a bull rider would enter and stay on the bull as long as possible (generally no more than 30 to 45 seconds) before dismounting and running to safety on the other side of the bullring. The audience applauded and chanted their support for the bull rider, until cowboys came back to help the bull exit the arena and the process began all over.
After enjoying three rounds of the bullfighting, we explored the fair grounds, spoke with other international tourists visiting Costa Rica to ask them about their perspective on the experience and then returned to our hotel. It was a fascinating experience that captured a uniquely and authentically Costa Rican cultural attraction that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting this beautiful country during the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day – as it will be a memorable experience for sure and one that provides real insight into the culture of this country.