Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

‘La Fiesta Brava’ – the Fight (or Plight?) of the Bulls

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**No bulls were killed in the writing of this blog!**

Looking out over sombrero-clad heads into the stadium below

I continue along my route through the coastal lowlands, setting off at sunrise and often finishing before midday. I stop mostly in nondescript small towns or at out-of-town trucker stops. It’s been possible to get (very cheap) food and water everywhere, and to my delight, I haven’t had to camp or cook since I got to Colombia. Not sure I’m going to be needing those heavy gas canisters I bought back in Cartagena for a while, so for now I’m just going to have to keep lugging them along with me. Worse things could definitely happen.

This part of northern Colombia still has a very Caribbean feel to it (creole dishes, lots of yucca, plantain, refried beans, etc used in the cooking) and I often hear Calypso-type music blaring from houses as I ride through villages.

This isn’t a wealthy part of Colombia – many people live in small shacks along the roadside like these

Another typical ‘corriente’ lunchtime meal – usually preceded by a homemade stock-based soup. Most of my meals are like this at the moment and there are usually only one or two options on the ‘menu’.

I spotted a few traditional farm buildings from the road – quite a few houses and cattle sheds have thatched roofs like these.

The floppy-eared cows in the fields continue to put a smile on my face. Unlike the Patagonian cows that bolt for the hills whenever they see a human, Colombian cows seem to be a lot more curious and have a good look at me as I ride past.

I’m ahead of schedule on my route to Medellín, where I’ll meet up with the London ladies for a week, so I take a rest day in a town called Montería. It’s a beautiful place, with a stunning church (the white one that featured in my last blog post) and the town is built along a river which has a fabulous cycle route running the length of it, with signs that warn about iguanas and monkeys (sadly didn’t see any of the latter!).

The fabulous cycle route in Montería

It’s taken a bit of re-acclimatisation getting used to being back on the bike after nearly 3 weeks off. Weirdly it’s my hands (and not-so-weirdly also my bum), rather than my legs that need easing back into the riding. The continuous pedalling of riding mostly on the flat in a pretty static position probably increased the discomfort at key pressure points so I try to make a conscious effort to change positions on the bike fairly frequently. It takes about a week until I feel fully comfortable again.

La Fiesta Brava, Planeta Rica

I keep spinning along these roads until I reach a small town called Planeta Rica. I find a really great motel to stay in just out of town, which even has a pool and a bar. For a fiver a night, I get a room big enough to sleep four people, each in their own bed!

The pool at my motel – now I’m definitely starting to feel like I’m on a tropical holiday!

As I’m relaxing by the pool I get chatting to a member of staff and a group of blokes who are staying there. I ask them what they’re doing here (it’s a very random place – nice motel with a pool right by the side of a main road outside the small town….can’t imagine what would make a bunch of guys want to come on holiday here!). It turns out they’re actually locals from a town called Yarumal further up the valley, and they’ve come to Planeta Rica to watch the bull fighting (La Fiesta Brava) which is on now and is famous in the region. They’ve gone for the past 2 days and there are 2 more days left to go. It runs from 2-6pm each day. They ask if I want to join them that afternoon.

I’m not so sure about participating in bull fighting but decide to go given it’s clearly the social highlight of the year, and they tell me that it isn’t anything like the bull fighting in Spain. I’ll soon find out…

I get a ride to the ring on the back of the hotel owner’s motorbike. We’re going at 80 kmph with no helmets, in shorts and a t-shirt – like everyone here does – but I can’t help wishing I at least had my cycling helmet on! Feeling relieved, we arrive in one piece to a crowded stadium.

It’s quite a spectacle, even from the outside. All the men are dressed in their paisa sombrero hats with a ‘bota’ (cloth) slung over their shoulder that they use to wipe the sweat from their brow (I arrived at 4pm but it was still absolutely boiling, especially under the stadium’s tin roof). The women are dressed up too. This is definitely a large social event.

Loads of stalls set up outside selling sombreros and botas

As I enter the stadium, I see it’s ram packed with people. There are hawkers walking round with every Colombian snack and drink you can possibly imagine, and there’s plenty of rum-drinking going on. Before I even see into the ring I spot various men walking round with long, deep scars across their bodies, collecting donations – these guys were gored by bulls in years gone by. Some of the (now healed) injuries look like they must have been absolutely horrific. There are also a number of performers busking for coins. The acts range from pretty good to downright diabolical (and it appears Planeta Rica has its very own version of the Buxton Billerettes!).

Dicing with the devil

Who knew Spider Man could balance a beer on his head??!

All manner of food and drink making rounds of the stadium – here green mango with lemon juice and syrup

The bull fighting definitely was different to what I’ve heard of in Spain, and I will endeavour to explain, although apologies for my lack of knowledge of the proper terms…

Two things struck me immediately. First, the huge number of people in the ring, and second, that the bulls really aren’t kept out there for very long at all (good). The ‘fight’ or ‘run’ I think would be a more accurate description, happens in 3 phases.

First, a bull is released into the ring and the men on foot seek to attract and presumably tire out the bull, using a red cape. In Spain, these would be called Matadors who would be wearing ornate jacket. Here in Planeta Rica, there are a number of these guys in the ring, and it’s a more of a free-for-all. When someone does successfully attract and make a number of ‘passes’ with the bull, the crowd goes wild with ‘Olés’ to mark each one.

Second, ‘Garrocheros’ – horsemen – try to attract and lead/get chased round the ring by the bull. I was told it takes a lot of skill to control the horse and prevent it from bolting, whilst also staying close enough to the bull to keep the bull charging. The Garrocheros have long sticks with a nasty looking prod on the end, to keep the bull from getting close enough to gore the horse. There must have been at least twenty Garrocheros in the ring, so when they all set off riding round, it was quite a spectacle, with dust rising everywhere and a deep rumble of hooves.

During this time, the ‘Costeños’ in the ring (Costeños basically just means local ‘coastal’ people) would leap up on the flimsy wooden panels along the side of the ring, or pull themselves down on dusty ground underneath it spectator stands, to avoid being gored or trampled by the bull. When a bull was successfully led round the stadium for a lap or two, (which was more often than not a non-event as various bulls figured out it really wasn’t in their interest to participate), the crowd would be on its feet, and rattling the corrugated iron roof with their hands. The whole structure of the wooden stadium would wobble under the weight of all these people moving about. Now I know where the phrase ‘bringing the roof down’ comes from!

Third, the ‘Costeños’ would get more involved. They mostly seemed to just be very drunk (you’d probably have to be to be stupid enough to put yourself in a ring on foot with a charging bull). They’d plonk themselves in the middle of the stadium and try to attract the bull to charge, presumably for the thrill of the chase and ability to tell tales of ‘bravery’. By this stage, most of the bulls had lost interest and just looked confused. It was pretty sad to see as they were continually taunted into action. Occasionally, about one in every five times, a ‘Banderillo’ would run across the path of the bull, leap up and stick the bull with a long coloured stake. Doing that clearly did require skill and courage, but it was that action which would leave the bull bleeding and was the most distressing part of the spectacle to watch.

In Spain, the Matador would now go for the kill and try to spear the bull through the heart with a sword, but at least here in Planeta Rica, this is where the spectacle ended. (I wondered if it’s perhaps illegal in Colombia, but haven’t been able to confirm that). ‘Vaqueros’ (cowboys) on foot in yellow t-shirts would then lasso the bull and pull on the ropes to lead it out of the ring.

The whole ‘running’ of one bull would typically only take about 5 minutes, and the majority of that time would be trying to get the bull back out of the ring once it was worn down and refusing to move. Many of the bulls refused to engage and were swiftly removed. Maybe one in every eight would retaliate and bring the danger and excitement the crowd was after. Very shortly after each round, another bull would be brought out. I’d think at least 30 bulls were used in just that one afternoon.

‘Matadors’ (but who don’t ‘kill’ here) use their red capes to make repeated passes with the bull

Garrocheros before a run – they were constantly practising intricate footwork and sharp turns with their horses in between rounds

Garrocheros leading / being charged by a bull round the stadium – spot the empty saddle where one rider was unseated and trampled by this bull

The final drunken free-for-all – cheap thrills that didn’t always end well (read on). More and more Costeños entered the ring as the afternoon wore on and more whisky and rum was consumed. (The bull is still raging here, top-left).

Spectators jump up onto the sides or slide under the stands to avoid being gored as the bull charges past

After a few minutes the bull is lassoed and pulled out of the ring to live the rest of its life as a stud

Garrocheros wait eagerly for the next bull to be released

You can watch some videos of the mania of La Fiesta Brava to get a flavour of the atmosphere here!:

And so the ‘fight’ rounds continued much like this for a couple of hours. But then the most shocking part of the day happened. One of the general public on the ground taunted a bull to get it to charge. It was obvious he was just a regular young guy, emboldened by a few drinks. The bull took the bait and charged him. After chasing him for a few yards, the bull managed to gore the man in the back. The man turned and tried to put his hands on the bulls head, to stop it from charging further, but the bull gored him right through the chest and threw his body up into the air. Blood visibly sprayed from the man’s chest and I can only assume the horn punctured his heart. His body fell crumpled to the ground with no movement whatsoever. The bull trampled straight over him and continued its charge.

It was clear the man was dead. Some of his friends grabbed him by the feet and dragged his body through the dust off to the side.

It was shocking to see and I felt pretty sick, but the most shocking part was that as soon as the bull was removed from the ring, a new one was released for the entertainment to continue uninterrupted. Life and death was clearly an accepted part of the spectacle, and came without ceremony, unlike injuries or worse to the famous matadors in Spain. Part of me quietly congratulated the bull for getting revenge for the taunting that he and all his predecessors had suffered at the hands of the people in the stadium, and for the entertainment of all of us in the crowd. But mostly I just felt sorry for the family of the guy who was killed – he probably only went into the ring because of the dutch courage he got from being drunk and clearly didn’t know what he was doing.

The man here in grey taunting the bull was gored and killed by it just moments later. I was startled to find this photo of him on my phone later on.

The drama continues

The next day I carried on my way, the events of the day before on my mind. Was it wrong of me to participate in what is essentially a cruel spectacle? I felt quite guilty. On the other hand, it was undeniably entertaining to watch. But most of all, I was thinking how horrible for the family of the man who died. I’d read up in my room that night that there is increasing resistance to bull fighting in Colombia, and some departments have already banned it. From what I could understand, cities with a stronger colonial Spanish heritage such as Medellín and Bogotá did kill the bulls, so perhaps that’s why. Whereas for the more ‘rural’ version in Planeta Rica, arguably somewhat less inhumane for the bulls at least, the stadium was absolutely heaving. I couldn’t see them giving up this tradition by choice any time soon.

A climb of over 2800m from sea level up into the Andes was looming shortly ahead of me. My bike was still feeling heavy from the camping gas, and I was wondering how well I’d manage. For now, the road was getting increasingly ‘jungley’ as I followed the Rio Cauca (one of the most significant rivers in Colombia) for a while, as it led me towards Medellín.

View from the banks of the Rio Cauca

I reached the small town where I’d originally planned to stop for the night, but decided to push myself and keep going, to find another place further on. A great thing about Colombia is there are rest stops every 10km or so so you can stop whenever you like, or so I thought. As I passed 100km I thought I’d look out for a place to stop, and that’s where it became interesting.

El Paro del ELN

Generally, huge progress has been made in Colombian politics the past two decades, with the government and FARC – one of the two main Colombian guerrilla groups – brokering a successful peace deal. This is a significant element as to what now makes it possible to cycle through the country without hindrance or fear of kidnapping. The government also signed a temporary peace deal with the ELN (the Marxist group ‘Ejército de Liberación Nacional’ – the National Liberation Army) back at the end of 2017. This ceasefire however was only short-term and expired in early January 2018, just as I arrived in Colombia. The ELN immediately resumed its attacks on the Colombian military and by bombing oil pipelines.

Cycling along these jungley Colombian roads, I’d been blissfully unaware of any activity in the country until today when I tried to find a place to sleep for the night. I was told through closed door grilles that there was an ‘ELN Paro Armado’ (armed strike) underway, and all shops, restaurants, motels, hotels etc throughout the country had to be closed. All key transport routes were also closed to lorries and buses. This included the main road I was currently riding along towards Medellín, as well as the river running beside it. I had thought that the road had been pleasantly and unusually quiet over lunchtime but had had absolutely no inkling as to the reason why.

This printed notice of the ELN armed strike, which I was shown in a local shop, had been distributed along the road on sheets of paper. This says that the ELN were protesting against state-sponsored terrorism (use and funding of private paramilitary groups), increased persecution of popular leaders and criminalisation of social protest.

Asking around, I had a similar eye-opening experience as with my time in rural Chile when I’d asked people there about General Pinochet. I had assumed the vast majority of Colombians would be completely against the actions of the ELN, but in these relatively poor small towns along the main road, there was a little (although not significant) sympathy for the cause. The general view I heard seemed to be that there was huge optimism for the future in Colombia, but there was still frustration with the ongoing levels of corruption in the government and a desire for Colombia’s MPs to be called into account. This anti-government frustration seemed to be the overriding sentiment, rather than any particular support for the ELN itself. In fact from what I could piece together, most of the locals though the ELN enjoyed creating political instability as it suited them whilst they continued to run their money-making enterprises in businesses such as the drugs trade.

In the meantime, the strike was met with a shrug of the shoulders and an expression of hope that it would finish the next day, but a repeat of the message that it still wasn’t possible to put me up for the night as that would be against the terms of the strike. I was also told to get off the road before nightfall (6pm) as it could become dangerous.

I continued along the road, knocking at the door of each motel or trucker stop I came across, and starting to feel a bit tired by now. Each one turned me away. I had my tent which would have been fine to sleep in, except there was very little land between the sheer rock face at the side of the valley and the river’s edge, so I hadn’t seen any suitable spots out-of-sight to pitch it.

Luckily for me, after a number of failed requests, I met one couple with a trucker stop who took pity on me and showed me a room where I could stay. It was pretty simple and the beds were definitely solid, built on a concrete base, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain! And finally, with all the street food places shut, the camping gas I’d been lugging around all this time came to my rescue whilst I cooked a classic pasta and sauce for dinner (which unfortunately tasted pretty revolting as it transpired the herbs I’d bought at the supermarket were some kind of bitter oregano and not the usual stuff).

My trucker stop for the night – simple, but grateful to find a place to rest my head!

The lovely couple hours helped me out, chilling by the river in the shade of the trees

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