Encircled by a ring of several dozen young men, a woman in tight shorts wielding a yellow cape takes two determined steps towards an angry black bull. At first the bull doesn’t take the bait; it twists its head from side to side, eyeing the other people within reach, agitated. But just when the bull seems to have lost interest, the woman wags her cape and the bull launches forward, bringing her to the ground.
“What a brave soul!” booms the announcer’s voice over the loudspeakers. “Who will be next? Which of these improvisados wants to make history?”
Welcome to Zapote, San José’s giant end-of-year festival where Tico-style bullfights are the main event.
Unlike the unabashedly gory Spanish and Mexican bullfights, Costa Rican bullfighting combines a rodeo with a massive human-toro game of chicken. A bull enters the ring through a door on the side of the arena, sometimes with a rider whom it quickly sheds before unleashing its fury onto a crowd of taunting “improvised bullfighters,” or improvisados in Spanish.
As untold numbers of improvisados are tossed, pinned, kicked and gored, the fights are sometimes terrifying, but more often the fiestas de Zapote are simply hilarious. Event organizers offer small cash prizes to the improvisados able to get closest to the bull, or devise sadistic games that put the unprotected rodeo clowns within goring distance of their bull nemesis. Outside the ring, festival-goers can enjoy carnival rides, greasy Chinese food and buckets full of cerveza.
The origins of Tico-style bullfights are a mystery even to the country’s foremost bull aficionados, but talk to anyone at Zapote and it is clear that bullfighting rivals soccer as the national pastime.
“It just gets your blood pumping,” said Renzo Retana, who has worked as a professional improvisado (yes, those exist) for six years. “I do it all for the excitement, the passion.”
Retana explained his love for “Toros a la Tica” shortly after returning to the ring from the Red Cross station, where he was treated after a nasty bull named Pijamudo lifted him into the air, jabbed him with its horns and kicked him around on the ground for good measure.
Retana is not alone with his injuries. In the previous seven Zapote festivals, the Red Cross has treated 4.070 people mostly for bull-related injuries, and in the first four days of this year’s festival the Red Cross saw 154 patients.
Despite the dangers, improvisados continue pouring in through the arena gates year after year. Some do it for pride or as a machista display, but most it seems just do it because it’s tradition.
“It’s just the Tico thing to do,” said Jon Carlos Cattano, 28. “It’s important to do it at least one time in your life.”