El Tope is a traditional Costa Rican festival celebrating their history and culture. It is an equestrian parade that is often part of local fiestas. The biggest of these celebrations takes place in the capital, San Jose and is known as El Gran Tope Nacional.
We’ll take a look at El Tope in Costa Rica, what this traditional event offers, and some of the history behind it.
What is El Tope?
El Tope is a horse parade, with many of these topes taking place in different towns and cities around Costa Rica throughout the year. It is a great opportunity for these different towns and regions to promote and show off their horse training skills.
Horses are an important part of the culture in Costa Rica, and El Tope celebrates this. It is a way of linking the present with the colonial past, a time when the majority of the population lived in the countryside and depended on horses.
As well as horses parading, you will see beautifully painted carts, horse-drawn carriages, and marching bands. You can also expect eating and drinking, dancing, and even some flirting.
What Does El Tope Celebrate?
El Tope is a celebration and the National Day of Horseman in Costa Rica. In the past, many Costa Rican families worked the land, owning farms and relying on horses for their livelihood. From this grew a tradition of the “sabaneros” a kind of Costa Rican cowboy.
El Tope in San Jose
El Gran Tope Nacional traditionally takes place on December 26th and is the beginning of Festejos Populares. Festejos Populares is an organized group of events celebrating Christmas and the new year period in San José.
El Tope Nacional Costa Rica attracts thousands of horse riders from all across the country. It is an opportunity to show off riding skills, majestic horses, and sabanero outfits.
The horses are trained to perform special steps, almost like a dance, to entertain the gathered crowds lining the streets. Thousands of spectators converge on the route from San Jose; and beyond. If you are planning to attend the event, you’ll need to get there early in the day to find a good position. If you want to be at the front, you might even have to arrive at dawn.
On the day of the parade, the streets around the parade route are closed. At 1 p.m. the parade begins its 4 mile route through Paseo Colon and Avenida Segunda. Loud music plays during the event, and the whole thing is captured on cameras and broadcast on TV.
The tradition of Paso Finos is the extraordinary and spectacular Spanish dance steps performed by horses and riders. Sabaneros will work with their horses to perform amazing tricks that delight the crowds.
A great amount of training is required in order to put on a show like this, and practice takes place all year. The result of this hard work captivates the public that line the route as well as TV audiences.
El Tope Outfits
As you might imagine in a parade like this, participants want to wear their fanciest clothing. This includes the sabaneros, who make sure they wear their finest cowboy outfits.
The tradition of really dressing up for the parade is important all across the country but is particularly noticeable for El Tope Nacional. During this important traditional occasion, everyone wants to look their best.
While it may not have been the case originally, women now play a big role in the parade, with many riding alongside the men. Of course, these cowgirls or sabaneras also want to look their best for the crowds. This has led to an unofficial competition between the female participants for who can impress the audience the most.
Part of the tradition of El Tope parades are the ox carts. These aren’t just ordinary carts, they are decoratively and colorfully hand-painted by local craftsmen. The owners drive them through the streets to show off their beauty to the awaiting crowds.
The History of El Tope
There are a few different explanations for how this festival came into being. One account, perhaps the most likely, is that following the earthquake that hit San José in 1871 money was needed to repair the damage. The Metropolitan Cathedral was destroyed, so the Catholic Church decided to organize events in nearby towns to raise money to rebuild it.
Surrounding towns would take it in turns to organize fairs, the proceeds going to fund the construction effort. These fairs are still often known as “turnos” or turns, even though the money raised no longer goes to rebuild the Cathedral.
Following these fairs, the proceeds would need to be taken to San José. The money would be transported by some of the most important men in the town, and they would be met halfway by men from San José. Both groups of men would use their finest horses for this task.
Carts drawn by ox would also be used to transport materials for the construction effort, this might include stone, wood, and paint. These carts would follow the horses in a procession that would arrive in San José. Some of the best Costa Rican horses would lead this parade through the city. Following the completion of the Cathedral, the tradition of the parade continued.
An alternative explanation for this tradition says that it began during colonial times as a horse racing event. A horse race kicked off the Fiestas de San Juan, a bullfighting and horse racing competition every year. People would attend to watch the fastest horses and the best jockeys compete. This supposedly evolved over the years to become El Tope.
A further explanation suggests that the tradition began during the 20th century thanks to the United Fruit Company. To serve the banana plantations in Costa Rica, the United Fruit Company imported cattle. When the cattle arrived on ships, riders were sent to ports to collect the cattle and drive them to the plantations. From this, the idea of a national parade started.
Whatever the real origin story of El Tope, it is a fascinating spectacular unique to Costa Rica.