The Correlejas... not for the squeamish

It was Saturday 19th of June 1999. For some weeks now, roughly-printed posters around Cartagena had been proclaiming "Correlejas and Fandango". When my housemate Jason and Jorge, a Colombian teacher friend asked if I wanted to go with them to a bullfight, I demurred.

"I don't like the idea of killing animals for entertainment" I protested.
"There is no matador" said Jason, "just a load of people in the bullring taking a chance with the the running of the bulls in Pamplona".

It sounded like harmless fun, so I agreed to accompany them. Little did I suspect I was to witness something that will stay in my memory for the rest of my life.

The Plaza de Toros bullring was just a short bus ride from Centro, next to Estadio Pedro Heredia, Cartagena's main football stadium. Part of the ring's brickwork had collapsed. Men on horseback milled among the spectators queuing for tickets. There were two ticket windows: Sombra, or shade, or the cheaper Sol, in the sun. We opted for the cheaper seats, and sat squinting into the setting sun beside some massive speakers blasting the sounds of various local bands into the crowd. I wished I had a hat like the men in the Sol stands - many were prudently wearing hand-made vueltiao hats.

An angry bull was released into the ring where a couple of men on horseback struck the bull with lances to try and stir up some aggression. The horses were protected by thick armour of hessian and leather. Some other men with inflated truck inner-tubes took their chances teasing the bull before running back inside the fence of the ring, which had gaps in it big enough for a human to pass through, but too small for a bull. One bull jumped the fence to terrorize the people behind it, and scores of spectators had to run for their lives up over the rows of seats. Another got stuck behind in of the openings, and it took a team of half a dozen men to free it, periodically scampering away when another bull ran at them. When the bull did break free, he tore away half of the fence with his horns.

Most of the men in the ring were drunk, as rum is sold freely in the stands. Anyone who wished could enter the ring and take their chance among the bulls. I would estimate the crowd would have been about 10,000. Women and children in the stands danced to live music, cheering any contact between man and beast. The music being played is called Porro, a mixture of African, Sinú Indian and old Spanish tunes. As the afternoon wore on, and the audience became more and more inebriated with the rum and aguardiente liquor, the arena became crowded with would-be heroes. Some of the men used T-shirts and scraps of cardboard in place of a cape, but most went in without any such foil to distract the bulls, who would then charge for the men's bodies instead of the cape. One man faced a charging bull and looked certain to be gored when at the last minute he did some acrobatic footwork, and stuck two small tessellated lances in the bull's neck before somersaulting over the bull. He jumped up after the bull had passed and appealed to the crowd for applause, which erupted spontaneously. Some people threw coins to him, and a while later he was in the stands beside us asking for money for his bravery. I didn't feel like paying money to encourage such foolhardiness, but Jorge gave him 500 pesos.

Photos by Jason Parker

"You know this tradition dates back not centuries, but millennia, before the Conquistadores, before the Romans and Greeks, to the Minoans" said Jorge, a history teacher. "The very word arena means sand in Spanish."

Jorge told me the bulls were a particularly fierce breed, a semi-wild hybrid of Cebú - Brahman, renown for using its horns to defend its young from predatory jaguars and ocelots in the savanna. Most of the bulls had horns that grew out perpendicular to their heads, but one bull had horns that curved forward and down to face directly ahead. None of the bulls' horns were cut or blunted. The men in the ring knew that as a last resort, when an rampaging bull is about to gore you, lying prostrate on the ground meant the bull would often go right over the top of you, merely trampling you with its hoofs.

A man beside us opined that the spectacle was boring: "The Correlejas in Arjona had much more gore... " he complained.

He was being prematurely blasé.
A man of about 30 years of age in a bright pink T-shirt was not as quick as a sober man would be when the bull ran at him. He slipped over and was laying on his side when the bull drove his horns into his back. The man was slammed face-first into the ground, and he appeared to bounce a little. The bull moved on as did the attention of the spectators. Only when I saw a group of paramedics with a stretcher getting chased off the arena did I realize that the man was in trouble. Four drunks already in the ring lifted him, each by a limb,and carried him for a few yards before dropping him again when the bull approached. Eventually the man was lifted out of the ring, his head laying back, limp, his fluorescent pink T-shirt stained dark red.

"He looks already dead" I said to Jason, as he was carried just yards in front of us.

"No.. he's probably just unconscious" said Jorge.

The bulls were released and allowed to run riot until they tired, then rounded up and removed, replaced by fresh bulls. The entry of each new bull brought with it much cheering, and a flurry of men running in every direction. When darkness started descending, the arena was cleared of bulls and people, and a stage was set up in the middle. The Fandango was about to begin.

A Fandango, in a Colombian context, is anywhere there is public danicng and singing. Some Fandangos held in Cartagena's outer suburbs consist of closed-off streets where the whole neighbourhood drinks, sings and dances until dawn.
At one time, the Fandango was controversial enough to have been banned. The Bishop of Cartagena, Diego Peredo proclaimed it immoral in the 1700's, and the populace was so incensed that they called on the Governor, Pedro Messia de la Cerda, to overturn it. The controversy raged for some time until an edict from Spain declared it legal on the proviso that it is not performed on the eve of religious festivals. The Fandango that we saw did not seem in any way immoral: men, women and children, lighted candles in hand, marched in a slow procession anti-clockwise around the temporary podium, while a band played solemn music. The people softly chanted a song. The alcohol was still flowing when we three left the arena to catch a bus home.

The next day was Father's Day in Colombia and I read a one-paragraph story in the local newspaper that Ignacio Ochoa, a family man, was pronounced dead on arrival at Cartagena University Hospital after suffering a goring. That evening, there were slow-motion replays of his death on the TV news.

Glen David Short is a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing.


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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short