Gambling your life on an angry half-ton bull requires practice. For Dylan Rodríguez, a member of the group Los Bajureños, that practice happens in his grandmother’s patio on a rusty barrel underneath a star fruit tree next to the latrine.
Los Bajureños are a group of young people who carry on a Santa Cruz tradition they say runs through their blood: traditional bull riding.
Dylan, 18, began his journey in the world of bull riding while still in kindergarten, according to his mother, Mirna.
“When he was (young) like that, I was against the idea. But what could I do? His father was always a bull rider,” she says.
Dylan’s father, don Wálter, is founder and teacher of the nearly 40 youngsters who dare to learn the art of bull riding in Los Bajureños, their ages ranging from 16-20.
A traditional bull rider is a brave soul who dares to hang onto a strap with two hands and work with a pair of spurs and leather strap on top of a bull.
Essentially, traditional bull riding is the art of scarcity: scarcity of helmets and vests, above all. Nevertheless, few bullrings still permit riders to compete without protection.
This is not a sport practiced for money. Those who organize riding events pay on average ¢10,000-¢15,000 for each ride, and that amount doubles on weekends.
For the young riders, bulls are a vice.
“It’s an addiction, because it’s very hard to stop. You start as a kid. My dad was a bull rider and my grandfather before him was,” said Kevin “Pato” Contreras, 19, who has a 1-year-old son named Ian.
Bullrings are like the eye of a hurricane at Guanacaste’s festivals. Entire families fill the rings’ bleachers to watch youngsters attempt to tame the bulls, and to witness tradition.
—Is it different riding in Guanacaste?
“Of course. People already know the environment,” Pato responds. “In other places, people don’t know the style very well. Here, people do know, and kids will ask us which bull we have to ride.”
“Look, I tried to stop bull riding when she [his girlfriend] became pregnant. I lasted 10 months without riding, but I couldn’t stay away. The environment at festivals unsettles you. It’s like it’s pulling you,” Pato says.
Except for the presence of a professional team of safety workers, traditional bull riders preserve and repeat scenes that easily could have been seen a century ago in Guanacastecan bullrings. That’s why we’re publishing these photos, from December 2016, in black and white.
In traditional bull riding, risk is a tradition.
Dylan Rodríguez left his studies in early 2017 to train on the barrel and focus on the bull riding season.
Dylan Rodríguez practices on a barrel in his grandmother’s patio in Santa Cruz. The barrel simulates bull riding when it’s wrapped in leather to allow Dylan to dig in his spurs.
At his mother’s house, Dylan Rodríguez watches bull riding from the previous day at Arado de Santa Cruz.
Dylan waits for the Arado bullring to open with his girlfriend, Carolina. Another member of Los Bajureños holds her daughter, Monserrat. Without the luxury of dressing rooms, bull riders get dressed wherever they happen to be. Their clothing is simple and usually dirty. Dylan says he doesn’t wash his bull riding pants for good luck.
Isaías Arrieta prays before a drawing to determine which bulls will be assigned in Belén. Judges won’t allow Isaías to ride because he doesn’t have an I.D. proving he’s old enough. Pato Contreras, from Belén de Carrillo, receives a round of applause during the community’s year-end holiday celebrations. Pato (second right) doesn’t hide his anxiety after learning he will ride Chutil, from Santa María Ranch. “Now, I’m more scared about riding, because you’ve got to think about your family and everything,” he says. Los Bajureños hold a group prayer before nighttime bull riding begins in Belén, Carrillo. Riders leave the bullring after a drawing to determine who would ride which bull in Belén, Carrillo. Walter Rodríguez, leader of Los Bajureños, adjusts his son Dylan’s spurs before a ride in Belén de Carrillo. Kevin “Pato” Contreras takes his son Ian to several bull rides in Guanacaste. “I don’t want him to become a bull rider. I want him to study, to have a different life,” says Pato, who works in a gelatin factory in San José. “In traditional bull riding, there’s no time. There’s no anything. You’ve got to go rib-to-rib with the bull,” says Dylan Rodríguez.