All along Palmares’ main street, officially known as La Recta, the crowd was like a parted sea of cowboy hats. They flanked the empty avenue in growing anticipation, swigging beer from Pilsen cans, eating skewers of barbequed chicken, and taking selfies in front of waiting horses. So began the Palmares “tope,” or horse parade, on that sunny Thursday.
While Palmares is a fairly humble coffee town in Alajuela province, the hamlet balloons with visitors every January, when the Fiestas de Palmares overrun its fairgrounds and fill every shop and bar with revelers. Organizers expected more than 60,000 people to attend over the course of the week, and if you attended the tope Jan. 16, you probably believed that prediction: The Palmares bus terminal in San José boasted lines around the block, and the highway into town was so gridlocked that hundreds of drivers resorted to urinating by the side of the road.
The parade began with special riding clubs, carriages, ponies, and several queues of mounted police. Beauty queens waved from horse-drawn wagons – like country-style floats – and as the procession moved along, the marchers became more informal: True vaqueros of all varieties trotted down the avenue, riding everything from elegant mares to shaggy oxen. The parade continued for hours, as festivalgoers cheered from the sidelines.
The tope included at least one celebrity: Presidential hopeful Johnny Araya, a Palmares native and former agronomy major, rode a patterned brown steed down La Recta amid a cadre of supporters wearing green bandanas.
The Fiestas de Palmares continue through Jan. 27.