The Calgary Stampede of Costa Rica

Most people who come across a poorly made YouTube video of a trashy carnival in the suburbs of a Central American city would likely just hit the ‘back’ button and continue searching for a more standard/better adventure. We immediately decided we had to go.

The Palmares Festival is famous in Costa Rica for its rambunctious crowds, scantily clad women, horse parades, bull chasing, and brazen thieves. It didn’t even have a functioning website or updated Facebook page.

[This is where Stampeders are getting really pissed. How is this anything like the Calgary Stampede? I don’t know. I’ve never been to the Calgary Stampede. I just figure it has horses and people wear cowboy hats – just like at the Palmares Festival. Yell at me in the comments section below.]

I planned my outfit a month in advance, complete with gold hoop earrings and found the perfect trucker hat at a market in San Jose. I was ready. Except for some minor details: how to get there, how to get home, how to speak Spanish…details.


Our AirBnB host pointed us in the general direction of the bus stop, and we were off.

We were lost immediately.

I asked a woman at the bus stop, “Habla Inglés?” She did! Better yet, she wanted to practice.

We thought there was a decent chance she would rob us blind, but the lovely and kind Anna boarded the bus with us, ignored her own stop, and took us to the station where she put us on the bus to Palmares. She hugged us and wished us the best and just like a fairy godmother reminded us the last bus home was at 10pm.

The Palmares Festival grounds were as big as Palmares itself. We walked around the market tents, food stalls and carnie rides, and watched stupid young men get all riled up for chasing the bulls – the reason we were there! The ‘chase’ was more hilarious than dangerous, and we drank beers and cheered along with the locals, trying not to think about the poor bulls.

[WARNING: Commentator uses explicit language]

So our carriage/public bus wouldn’t turn into a pumpkin, we said farewell to the bulls about 9:30. We asked one of the 500 hundred cops where to catch the bus to San Jose and one pointed to a nearby bus stop. Five buses later we asked another cop if this was the bus stop. Turns out it wasn’t. He pointed up the dark road and said we would have to flag down the bus up there.

[Here’s where you begin to worry that body language, broken English/Spanish, and pointing may not actually get you where you need to go.]

A guy who worked for Coca-Cola doing recycling pickup at the Festival (according to his overalls) started speaking to us in rapid Spanish and my travel partner/life partner/non-Spanish speaking love of my life decided he was the guy to follow. So up the dark road we walked, and for the second time that day I was pretty confident we were going to be robbed.

We walked about 250 meters up the road and flagged down an oncoming bus. As it slowed, the sign was for another town and we waved it on. This happened 3 or 4 times, and a couple of the drivers pointed further up the road to the highway, as they zoomed by. At this point we were about 3 minutes from the clock striking 10 o’clock and we needed to get home from the ball.

We decided to chance it. Up to the highway we walked with our recycling friend past a deserted mechanic shop and found what could be described as a bus stop…I suppose…but there were two other guys standing there. That was either good, or it meant we were outnumbered.

By now the fun had worn off. We were cold, it was after 10, and we were coming to the realization that we may have to find shelter in this sketchy town that had already gone to sleep. Geoff was smoking like a chimney, and I was freezing in my jean shorts and giant hoop earrings. My trashy dress up joke now just made me look like a cheap hooker on the side of the highway.

With no hope left in our hearts, barreling down the road came a bus with the glorious words, ‘San Jose’, shining bright in the front window. The five of us jumped up and down and waved our arms, the bus skidded across two lanes of traffic, and screeched to a halt. (I don’t think the bus driver thought it was a bus stop either.)

We didn’t have the right change for the bus and I just began throwing bills at the driver. (Take it all, just get me home!) We got dropped off in some dark corner of the city, certainly NOT the original bus station. We grabbed a cab whose driver tried to rip us off with a ride around. We finally recognized a street close to home, jumped out of the cab, and with very relieved and happy hearts, made our way home.

Within the safety of our San Jose apartment that night, we sat on our balcony with beers, laughing hysterically about our adventure (read: our ability to survive despite our laissez-faire attitude and intense stupidity).

It’s a crazy, beautiful life.


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