An important event that inaugurates the Festejos Populares is the Tope Nacional. A tope is a horse parade, which is a typical tradition in all local fiestas. The San Jose horse parade is the most famous and largest in Costa Rica. Thousands of riders come from all over the country come to show off their beautiful horses, riding skills, fancy steps, and specially designed cowboy outfits. It is widely known as the biggest people-watching event of the year.
The tradition began in colonial times as a horse race to commence the Fiestas de San Juan, a horse-racing and bullfighting event. It was customary for everyone to come out to see who the best jockeys and the fastest horses were. Costa Rica is a country with a great farming and agricultural tradition. Horses have a very important place in history since most families that colonized the country either had farms or raised horses. Naturally, like everything else in Costa Rica that was established by the Spaniards, this tradition has evolved into something uniquely Costa Rican. It has become the most important horse show of the country, what we know today as El Tope.
The tope is the National Day of the Horseman and, on December 26th, the Festejos Populares is inaugurated with this traditional event. Horse owners, farm workers and farm owners come to the capital from all over the country to bring their best animals to the best horseman show of them all. Instead of racing, the horses are trained to take special steps, almost dancing for the spectators that line the streets. You will also see many of the typical hand-painted ox carts created by famous local craftsmen. The girls are all made up, wearing flashy cowgirl outfits, and the men are right behind. The event is all about how good you look while riding your horse and how many fancy steps your horse can maneuver to impress the crowd.
The parade starts around 1 p.m. and takes over Paseo Colon and Avenida Segunda along a four-mile route. On the day of the tope, no cars can move around the narrow San Jose streets. Thousands of spectators arrive, converting the streets of San Jose into a sea of people and horses. Music is blaring throughout the day, and TV cameras focus on the beautiful people. If you are planning to come watch the wonderful parade, plan on getting there at dawn to ensure a front row viewing space.
People donning cowboy hats often have coolers full of their favorite chilled drinks. For the spectator, it is much like tailgating at your favorite football game, except the players, or riders, partake in the party as well! It is very impressive to watch, because these jockeys are multitasking; leading the horse, waving at the crowd, cooling off with a drink in hand, and making the occasional phone call or TV interview.