Each year in January, Ticos descend on the sleepy coffee town of Palmares, northwest of San José, for the country’s most rowdy 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 chilling with reggae bands surrounded by drunk and high teenagers isn’t really your scene, the Palmares Festival still has plenty to offer.
Festivities kick off Thursday, Jan. 16, with events every day through Jan. 27. 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. A fifth of the country may attend.
In recent years, upwards of 1 million people have enjoyed the Fiestas de Palmares. That’s about 20% of Costa Rica’s population, though attendance dropped significantly in 2019. Big crowds can mean big fun, but they also mean traffic and packed hotels, so plan in advance.
2. You can get drunk.
With beer consumption rivaling Oktoberfest, Palmares is known internationally as a giant boozefest.
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.
Organizers have arranged for more family-friendly attractions in recent years. This year, the Fiestas will focus on athletic competitions, including cycling, crossfit, and mixed martial arts events. But there will still be plenty of partying, including at La Barra Imperial and its many concerts.
3. You can chase bulls. But don’t do that. It’s dangerous and stupid.
As in 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, or improvisados, 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 the 2013 Palmares Festival, for instance, 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 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.
Find more info, including a schedule of events, at Palamares’ Fiestas Facebook page.
This article was adapted from a 2016 Tico Times story.