The rainy season is officially over and that ushers in…FIESTAS SEASON!
In Costa Rica when we talk about “the fiestas” it’s not simply a party. It refers to what in North America might be compared to the County Fair. Fiestas take place in practically all communities even if very small and attract not only locals but also people from the entire region. Some are famous enough to have a nationwide following.
“Sabaneros” are the equivalent of the North American cowboys or Argentinian gauchos. Costa Rica, traditionally a country where farming and ranching were the main occupation of people in much of the interior and the backbone of the traditional economy, has always had a large number of sabaneros or ranch hands. To pass the time and show off their skills at riding, roping, branding, herding and related activities they would hold competitions with sabaneros from other “fincas” (ranches or farms) often when herding cattle to market. In a simpler time when there were no TVs and little in the form of entertainment in the countryside, it developed into more organized competitions held periodically. Crowds came to cheer their favorites and vendors came to sell their wares. Local women made a little money by selling their traditionally prepared food and in addition to the typical sabanero activities, other entertainment was added in time. Young children preparing to follow their father’s footsteps, would compete riding sheep and teenagers would ride very young bulls. With time, mechanical rides such as carrousels and other carnival rides started touring and coming to the fiestas. Cerveza, Spanish for beer and guaro sales found their way to the fiestas and, this being Costa Rica, so did music and dancing. In more recent times, karaoke singing has been added as a very popular attraction. And all sorts of other miscellaneous fun time things for the entire family keep joining the fiestas.
Though all the above are popular reasons to get together for a good time, there are 3 central components of these events we haven’t mentioned yet which attract the largest crowds and participation. One is the “Tope” or horseback parade. Held in the most important date of the Fiestas, “Caballistas“ (riders) decked out in their finery cowboy style, parade on a pre-designated route greeting the crowds that gather to watch them pass by. Men and women of all ages ride in the Tope, usually in their very attractive cowboy/cowgirl attires. Some are little more than toddlers the but the age range also includes grandmothers and grandfathers, it’s an activity for the entire family to participate either as riders or spectators. The public usually stands on the side of the road or the street, some bring folding chairs to sit on and others sit or stand on the back of pickup trucks. Many bring coolers with their drinks of choice as it can get hot out in the sun. And music is always playing. As the public wait for the activities to pass the area they have staked out, dancing on the street or sidewalk often breaks out.
Riders pay a registration fee which includes participation in raffles for the riders with prizes that usually include pricey saddles and other horse tac items. When the parade is over (this takes a while as they usually stop along the way for “refreshments”), the riders and others who pay the entrance fee adjourn to a reception where live music and good food and more raffles and awards are given out. This is a genuine old time cowboy party where just as often the cowboys could be real life sabaneros or might come from any walk of life (teachers, lawyers, ranch owners, shop keepers, etc.) But this day, they are ALL sabaneros and everyone, including all the party attendees, are dressed for the part. It’s like being in a real life cowboy movie!
Another pivotal activity is the “montas de toros” (bull riding events). These are somewhat like in the Rodeos in the US but with some differences: It’s not just the bull and the rider plus some clowns ready to distract the bull if the rider finds himself in trouble. The bull ring is crowded with people proving their courage by alternately taunting the bull and running away from it. This is an activity in which spectators should not participate. Usually those who do are aspiring bull riders and people born to the lifestyle.
It’s important to distinguish the bull riding in Costa Rica from the bull fights of Spain where the bull gets killed. These bulls are highly valued and not killed or harmed. If any bull becomes too aggressive they are retired from the riding circuit and only make special appearances by prancing around the ring, rider less. People honor their bravery but the idea is not to have killer bulls, just good fun. There is a ranch in Guanacaste whose bulls are a pleasure to watch. While they have a rider on their back, they are as spirited as they come. Once the rider has dismounted (or has been dislodged by the bull), the sabanero who is the bull’s handler comes into the bullring, walks up to the bull, puts a rope round its neck and walks him out calmly as if walking a docile dog!
A third largely attended event is the Coronation of the Queen of the Fiestas. Usually a local young school girl and her court. After a process during which they sell votes to determine who the winner is, the Queen and her Court preside over the events of the Fiestas. They usually also parade in ceremony around the bullring on horseback for some of the events and there is a Coronation Dance held in honor of the Queen.
Now I am going to let you in on a little secret not usually known to tourists who may attend some of these events. There is another dimension to the Fiestas. It’s not just the fun and prizes and good times. This is also how the towns raise money for community projects and services. And for the local school. Every community in Costa Rica, no matter how isolated, no matter how small, has a school. And school attendance is mandatory. Education is a highly-valued part of being Tico. However, the budget is not always adequate to cover all the expenses associated with 100% of the cost of running a town and a school. So, the proceeds from every event of the Fiestas, from the fees the horse riders pay to participate in the tope, the entrance to the bull rides, the rental paid for food, drink, entertainment, souvenir, or any other kind of stall or attraction, after deduction of the expenses incurred, all goes to the community fund. Sometimes, the schoolhouse needs another classroom or needs to equip a computer lab, the towns roads need to be improved, whatever the needs are, the revenues from the Annual Fiestas is the main source of income for those little towns.
The people who year after year put on this show, are civic minded residents working for their community on a volunteer basis. The work is hard, the goal is worthy and the successes are a point of high pride.
If you are interested in going to one of these fiestas during your vacation in Costa Rica, you can ask your concierge if there are any going on in the area at the time of your visit. For example, the Fiestas in Playas del Coco, a town close to most of the Costa Rica Star Villas, will take place the last week of January. And because this is a tourist center and beach town, the tope route is partly on the sand by the beach which is unique to Coco, incorporating its beach town idiosyncrasy.
There are so many dimensions to explore when you travel to Costa Rica. Today you have learned some about the local traditions and values of Costa Rica. You might want to consider learning more about the people and their customs in addition to your Costa Rica tours and adventures, visits to a Costa Rica National Park, tour to a volcano, zip lining, white water rafting, sport fishing, golfing, surfing, diving, sunset tour, etc. So much to do, so little time! You may just have to repeat your vacation in Costa Rica… We are waiting for you, give us a call or send an email to reserve your favorite Star Villa vacation rental!