A carnival is a carnival, but there’s always going to be some local charm that you can’t find elsewhere. At the Festival de las Mulas, Spanish replaced English, while churros filled in for funnel cakes, and bottles of rum (yes, rum) supplanted stuffed animals as prizes. A familiar smell of cooking oil filled the air, mixed with a slight twinge of manure. We were walking towards the stadium to watch the bull riding competition. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but as both an avid traveler and animal lover, I was simultaneously excited for the new experience and nervous about what I might see.
The Festival Nacional de las Mulas is a major annual event in the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica, drawing thousands of locals each day. The 10-day festival, which takes place in the city of Parrita, includes mule racing and bull riding, a horse parade, a tractor race, a traditional rodeo, and an outdoor carnival with food stands, games, bumper cars, and even a tented bar with a dance floor and neon lights. I attended the festival during a recent visit to Costa Rica. I was with four other American journalists, and between our sunburns and the cameras around our necks, it was glaringly obvious that we were from out of town.
We entered to see hundreds of Costa Rican spectators, plus cameramen, announcers, and TV producers. We looked straight down toward the gate into the ring as the first bull rider climbed on. Our trusted guide, Fernando, explained that each rider must stay on the bull for more than eight seconds, but no more than 25, and all of the riders are from the Central Pacific region (which, naturally, generates quite the rivalry between the individual towns).
The bull ride itself was thrilling to watch. Having grown up in the suburbs of New York City, I’ve only ever seen people thrown from mechanical bulls. The young man kept amazing balance as the angry bull bucked to and fro, and after ten seconds or so, fell hard onto the ground. The bull continued jumping up and down for a few seconds, missing the man’s head by a matter of inches.
Simultaneously, there were dozens more local men in the ring. Fernando explained that anyone could enter at their own risk. With the bull free of his rider, the men began taunting it – running towards the bull, kicking it as it ran by, waving flags to catch its attention. These men are called improvisados, and they can win prizes or money if they touch the bull’s head or horns.
There were clearly two very different emotions in play: the utter anger, discomfort, and agitation of the bull, and the enjoyment of everyone else. As an animal lover, it was disheartening to witness the bull so clearly in distress. After the activity was over, the bull’s agitation had increased to the point that it became more dangerous and charged at a few improvisados at full speed. Two men on horseback lassoed the bull, then took it to the edge of the ring to calm it via electrocution. The bull’s eyes rolled back in its sockets as it foamed at the mouth. I saw blood on the side of his head.
I turned away and moved behind the TV crews. I looked around the stadium at the hundreds of locals who had paid to be here. Kids eating plates of seafood and rice and beans. Grandparents, parents, and teenage girls who wore sashes that named them the beauty queens of Parrita. I saw a woman zoom in with her iPhone to take a picture of someone – her boyfriend or husband, probably – who was sitting on the edge of the ring across from us, one of the improvisados. She was noticeably proud.
I believe that the treatment of the bulls that night was inhumane, but when you travel, there’s a fine line between holding on to your beliefs and respecting those of the country you’re visiting. And after all, Americans are far from perfect when it comes to treatment of animals, for both sport and industry. While seeing how the bulls were tormented was far from ideal, it gave me a realistic glimpse into the culture I was trying to immerse myself in, and in turn, made me reflect on my own.
That is precisely why I travel: to expose myself to new people and cultures and traditions, even ones with which I don’t necessarily agree. I ultimately left feeling like I knew just a little bit more about the people and the traditions of this region of Costa Rica – and all the better that they were different from mine. Why would I go somewhere new for more of the same?
I traveled to Costa Rica as a guest of Alma del Pacifico, but all opinions are my own.