Dancing with death: A bullfight in Bogota

Bullfighting in Colombia is popular but highly controversial; watched by the country’s upper classes, it is opposed by many people as a vicious, cowardly sport. Fights take place at arenas across the country during the season, which runs from January to February, and a law passed in 2004 protects the sport, declaring bullfighting to be “an artistic expression of human beings.” This was challenged recently by protesters who stripped naked in front of Bogota‘s Congress building in March this year, to campaign against what they see as the law’s protection of an elitist bloodfest.

Anything with this combination of controversy, alcohol and gore is strangely intriguing to me. Hiding behind the “try anything once” mantra of the well-intentioned tourist, I decided I could leave my morals behind and watch a show at Bogota’s famous bullfighting arena.

Plaza de Torros Santa Marta has been the home of Colombian bullfighting since it was opened to the public in 1931. In the last 80 years the iconic arena has hosted some of the greatest matadors the world has ever seen. On the sunny February afternoon that I made my excursion into the world of bloodsports, a group of about 100 protesters were gathered outside the stadium, but their chants about death and cruelty were largely ignored by the Bogotans walking into the arena’s grand Moorish entrance.

The battles that day were between bulls and “cavaleiros,” men on horseback. These brave men, riding down-right crazy horses, pranced around the ring, using “rejones de castigo,” punishment spears, and “rejones de muerte,” spears of death, to taunt the bulls before placing the mortal blow.

Two of the cavaleiros showcasing their skill, daring, and tight velvet uniforms hailed from the bullrings of Spain. First into the arena was a smiling Sergio Dominguez, who strutted past the stands, stirring the crowd up into a frenzy of cheers and shouting.

When the first of the bulls was released, Sergio sprang into action. Toying with the beast, he stabbed it repeatedly with his “punishment spear”. But the crowd began to turn against the Spaniard when he repeatedly failed to deal the death-blow. Cries of “muy regular” – “very average” – rang from the seats behind me, as the cavaleiro was forced to dismount and use his descabello (a sword with a cross piece at its tip) to sever the bull’s spine.

As the sun sunk below the arena’s upper levels, the copious amounts of aguardiente (a sweet Colombian liquor) consumed by the crowd began to make itself felt. The next Spanish matador felt the brunt of the crowd’s drunken rage as he too failed to unleash a death blow while riding his horse. Coarse heckles came from the tipsier sections of the audience, meeting disapproving glares from the more refined.

But the crowd’s mood improved with the entrance of local boy Jorge Enrique Piraquive, who received easily the loudest cheers and most hats and roses thrown from the stalls. Piraquive was the only fighter of the day to properly dispatch a bull while seated on horseback, to the delight of his now thoroughly drunk fans.

I was thankful for the numbing effects of the aguardiente as horses dragged the final bloodied bull carcass through the arena’s sand. Leaving the arena, the only remnants of the protest outside were a few riot police shields leaning against heavily armored trucks.

The activists may have moved on, but the argument is far from over. Organizations like Anima Naturalis campaign for an end to the sport and encourage people to do what they can to stop the deaths of “thousands … of innocent animals” every year, while a Bogotan anti-bullfight Facebook group boasts nearly 5,500 members.

For me, it was an afternoon unlike any I had experienced, but it will definitely be my last at a bullfight.

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