And so it was that the bulls, one after the other, were released into a vast, throbbing arena, to be faced down by a squadron of horsemen armed with long pikes, dozens of “manteros” with red capes, hordes of young men swinging sticks, plus a clown or two. The copious amounts of beer and the local firewater consumed by the participants seemed to give the bull a fighting chance.
“Right now, I’m hurt in the leg,” said Rigoberto Hernandez, 44, who has been gored 19 times after years dodging bulls. “But that is the way it is. This has been my art since I was born.”
The event is not a traditional bullfight but a corraleja (pronounced coh-rah-leh-ha), a huge, chaotic, pulsing Roman circus of the Colombian variety here in the cattle country of northern Colombia. There is no stirring contest between bull and matador, no highly ritualized artistry as in Spanish bullfights, no sequined outfits, no Hemingwayesque turn of phrase about death in the afternoon.
Indeed, there is nothing genteel about it.
“Here, there are no rules,” said Inis Amador, an organizer of Sincelejo’s corralejas.
Instead, a ring that could fit two football fields is swamped with anyone who dares take part, hundreds in all in a scrum before a creaky, makeshift wooden grandstand that seats 8,000, including rousing, old-time brass bands that pep up the crowds. In an afternoon, 40 bulls are released into this stew.
Those who see action dream of a big payday, local stardom and, at night, perhaps a dance with a pretty girl.
“I have so much adrenaline right now,” Jorge Luis Villegas, 26, said moments before rushing into the ring. “I want to triumph out there, go in with real courage and come out with the money I need.”
It is easy to see why — this swath of Colombia is a throwback to the past, a land of hump-backed Cebu cattle, powerful regional bosses and hard-bitten men who toil under a blazing sun, their dreams of a better life always just dreams. The one escape is a century-old festival, held here in this provincial capital and small towns across the savannah.
In a highly stratified society, it brings everyone together in one place — though the cattlemen and local entrepreneurs are in the stands, sipping strong drinks, while the ranch hands, day laborers and teenage boys risk life and limb in the ring.
The cattlemen in the stands throw 2,000-peso notes, about $1, into the arena to reward those who’ve shown bravado. But some of those who have really shined — by “toreando,” fighting the bull, cape in hand, as a matador would — can get hundreds of dollars over the corraleja’s spring season from wealthy sponsors.
“Thanks to God, I always do fine,” said Hernandez, who drives a motorcycle taxi when not sparring with bulls. To be sure, in a series of corralejas lasting a week, he had made about $540.
Some in Bogota, Colombia’s sophisticated capital, see corralejas as monstrous medieval-like spectacles that reflect poorly on a country trying to modernize. But Amador, who is also a historian, noted that the bulls here come out alive, unlike those who fight in the traditional Spanish-style display that attracts the wealthy in Colombia’s big cities.
More important, he said, is that it harks back to another time — and rouses up people here like no other event.
“People wait all year for this,” he said. “This goes to the soul of the plainsmen.”
The way Amador and some of the old-timers tell it, the corraleja traces its roots well back into the 19th century, when field hands took to building temporary corrals (hence, corralejas) and, cape in hand, began fighting the bulls.
“This was the way the workers, the farmhands, even the slaves enjoyed themselves,” Amador said. “They had fun just toying with the bull.”
And at a typical corraleja, there is a festive spirit, as the brass bands in the stands, with their tubas, trumpets and drums, square off to see who can be more rousing. Radio reporters from RCN and Caracol, Colombia’s two main radio networks, broadcast live, their reporters sitting amid the spectators. Men such as Carlos Cumplido Oviedo have a stake.
He owns the New Iberia ranch, where he raises bulls, and he had 20 of them at the corraleja. His standing, he acknowledged, would get a boost if his bulls were particularly ferocious. “What I am interested in is their nerve, that those out there defend themselves with the cape, in the whole spectacle,” he said.
Others, like Nadim Macareno, brought many of the horses, which, unlike horses in Spanish bullfights, wear no padding. “Sixty of my horses have been killed,” he said proudly. “The one with more dead horses is me.”
The participants also die from time to time. And they are more than likely to be run over or gored. That also makes men proud.
One 53-year-old participant, Luis Gumersindo Cuadrado, has been speared 56 times and shows off the scars from 2,425 stitches, many along his abdomen. Angel Chima, 59, shows off one particularly nasty wound, now healed, from when a bull’s horn entered squarely through his nose.
So that’s why Villegas, who at 26 reckons he has decades more fight left in him, has a drink before entering the arena.
“Just a bit to calm my nerves,” he said, “because, you know, men of steel only appear in the films, not in real life.”