National Horse Parade & the Zapote Parties
One of Costa Rica's rowdiest and most beloved Christmas traditions is the Tope Nacional, or National Horse Parade. Held in San Jose on December 26th, this annual event dates back to colonial times, when the festivities to honor Saint John began with a horse race. The parade has evolved into the country's largest equestrian display, where horse owners come from far and wide to show off their best steeds. Instead of racing, the horses are trained to take special steps, almost dancing for the spectators that line the streets. For many, the Tope Nacional is the culmination of a year's hard work -- many horses are raised and trained just for this event.
Colorful oxcarts pulled by strong oxen join the skilled riders during the National Horse Parade. In the nineteenth century, carretas (oxcarts) were the only means of transportation for many families. An intricately painted oxcart was a status symbol and a source of pride for the family. Today, Costa Ricans continue this tradition, producing colorful oxcarts, often painted with geometric shapes or detailed patterns. Generally, the father or head of household guides the ox along the parade route, while his family rides inside.
Huge crowds gather to watch the Tope Nacional, and everyone dresses in their cowboy best. Spectators and riders alike wear huge ten-gallon hats and leather chaps. Costa Ricans often "tailgate" before the event, drinking beer and barbecuing meats. The parade marks the beginning of one of the country's biggest parties, the Festejos Populares (Popular Festivities).
These festivities, also known as the Fiestas de Zapote (Zapote Parties), take place in eastern San Jose. The event is a combination of traditional festivities, county fairground, and raucous parties that last late into the night. Most San Jose residents head out to the Fiestas at least a night or two during the two-week celebration, and many come from other provinces to enjoy the fun.
During the day, the fairgrounds come alive with folkloric dancing, mascaradas (masquerade parades), cimarronas (brass bands), marching bands, and baton twirlers. While these parades are not specific to the Christmas season, they are an important part of the national heritage and celebrated with enthusiasm. Many public and private schools send their best marching bands and dancers to participate.
As daylight fades, the Zapote fairgrounds transition into a lively party scene. Visitors will find large carnival rides, megabars (huge, portable discos), and chinamos, or food stands that feature local specialties like pupusas (meat or bean-filled corn tortillas), chop suey, and other fast foods. Cotton candy, churros (stick donuts, sometimes filled with caramel), and other treats round out the street food offerings.
The large megabars have bright lights, blaring music, and low cover charges (usually $2-$3). Some are themed and most offer nightly contests, including prizes for the best dancers. It is a boisterous and sometimes out-of-control party that young (and young-at-heart) Costa Ricans look forward to each year.
A perennial favorite at the Zapote festivities are the toros a la tica, or Costa Rican bullfights. Locals -- almost always men -- are invited to jump into the ring and taunt the bull. Unlike Spanish bullfights, the bull is never harmed or killed in Costa Rica. Called "improvised bullfighters," five to thirty brave souls run, whoop and holler in an attempt to rally the bull to action. Toros a la tica is looked at as a comedic event -- there is little skill involved and participants do not compete for honor. In fact, most bullfighters jump out of the ring at the first sign of danger. (However, there is always the very real chance of getting hurt.)