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 bulls...like the running of the bulls
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
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.
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
"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
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
B A C K -
and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short