As part of the New Year’s pilgrimage, Cartagena is a much-coveted resort. Hotels fill to capacity, restaurants overflow with families, couples, and packs of linen-clad males hit the ramparts to bask in the seasonal hot weather and spontaneous party atmosphere. While Cartagena welcomes the world, the nearby locals of Turbaco celebrate quite differently.
Every year corraleja tournaments are held up and down the Atlantic departments, most notably Sucre, Cordoba, Atlantico and Bolívar. A tradition, which spans back centuries when land- owners hosted popular bullfights on their lands and invited tenant farmers to the show. The Corralejas also form part of a cultural tradition, where pelayera bands composed of accordionists and gaita windpipers would play cumbia and porro in smaller bullrings.
Accompanied by two Colombian documentary filmmakers, we make our way out of Cartagena’s walled city to the industrial hinterland that is Turbaco. Decked in old field clothes and with multiple tripod bags slung over our shoulders we follow the crowds, bearing with every step, the brunt of a relentless sun.
The pandemonium of our corraleja starts before we reach the Turbaco arena. Music blares out from huge sound systems, the locals call “picó” – as in “Pick up” truck. Street food is everywhere consisting of beef and potato skewers, deep fried dishes, cotton candy and beer as the beverage of choice.
The bullfighting arena is a sandy pit, primitive, and hemmed in by tall, bendy tree poles and flat wooden floor boards impressively put up and taken down each year just for the weeklong event. I ask Ramón, one of the filmmakers, if it’s ever fallen down. He confirms, “Yes, it has. In 1980 a 3-story wooden arena came down killing a few thousand. But,” he adds reassuringly, “it hasn’t fallen in the past couple years.”
Corralejas de Turbaco is not just a celebration for the New Year, but a colonial tradition diffused from the Spaniards that seems to literally represent the class divisions that still exist between a white coastal elite and, well, everyone else. Paying customers sit safely above the field in covered bleachers while the majority of attendees are in for free either unable to afford the $10,000 pesos entrance fee; or because they choose to be part of the action below.
It’s packed under the bleachers with crowds pushing to view the excitement through the wooden beams. The ‘play- ers’ inside the arena jump onto these boards for safety and climb up away for the live bull that is constantly trying to maul them. There are 300 to 500 men at any given moment running wildly around the animal and tormenting him any way they can. The players, if you can call them that at this point, act ag- gressive and full of confidence only to sprint away and dive under the safety of a fence when the bull gets too close for comfort.
The crowds from the bleachers throw anything they can find at the stunned animal, including sticks of sugar and sometimes cans with money, enticing the drunken males to get closer to the bull to collect their sweet prize.
Runners in the field swing umbrellas, jump around flailing their T-shirts or try to traditionally bullfight with capes, usually stamped with political messages or advertisements. When the bull isn’t giving the crowd the desired show, cowboys on horses will encourage a short chase, and spear garocheros into the bull’s neck muscles.
Some of the players even carry a traditional banderilla in each hand and challenge the bull face to face, jamming the two decorated spears into the bull’s neck. The banderillas have a fish hooked point, which keeps the colorful spears hanging off the bull that will either fall off during a charge, or are taken out as the bull exits the arena.
The bull does eventually win, and if the men survive they are allowed to enter the paying section of the arena where they get money for their bravery. This is also a proud moment for the owners and breeders ‘ganaderos’ of the bulls and how they show off the strength of their prize cattle. The peasants are essentially paid off to fight their bulls, and if they don’t make enough tips to continue bull fighting, the ganaderos can’t prove the strength and worth of their bulls.
Ramon tells me he is surprised that no one died today. The dead are usually robbed on site and dragged out of the arena. As a spectator it’s hard not to cheer for the bull, anticipating his next stomp and victory. That seems to be the energy of this strange event. The crowd screams as a bull charges into an intoxicated crowd. But it’s hard to decipher who the real animal is prancing around this treacherous, dusty corral.