A Pilgrimage to Cowboy Country

By BobbyRica | August 23, 2011

Costa_Rican_Cowboys

Here’s our new member of the BobbyRica family. Her name is Samantha Jacobs. She recently visited Costa Rica and upon visiting our humble site, asked me if we still needed people to write about their experiences there. Who am I to refuse her generosity! So here it is, Sam! Tell your friends about us too!

When you hear the word “cowboy,” the first thing that will probably come to mind is a boot-strappin’, lasso-wielding, badass guy with a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over one brow. That’s the kind of cowboy you see in old Western films. But would you believe it if I told you that I was able to meet a few cowboys, the “last cowboys”, not too long ago, in Costa Rica?

costa_rican_cowboy_drinking-570x379

It started one Saturday evening, when my friend Jose declared that cowboys still existed.

“In my hometown, they do. Only we call them sabaneros.”

That’s when we decided to pack our bags and go on a short trip to Costa Rica; a “mini-break” to pay pilgrimage to the so-called “cowboy country” of South America. Jose lives in Guanacaste, a province in northwestern Costa Rica. He says that it’s the most sparsely populated province in the country. Guanacaste is very different from other popular Costa Rican destinations.

“You’ll love it here.” He said, as soon as we arrived in the small and quiet province. “A bit dry and hot, but pleasant all the same.”

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I have read about Guanacaste’s rich offerings: from beautiful beaches, pristine rivers, volcanoes and mangroves, and impressive vegetation, and wildlife. I was dying to explore it. But, no. We were there to see the last cowboys.

After a few hours of rest and a heavy lunch of arroz con pollo in Jose’s ancestral home, we set out to meet the sabaneros. Jose led us towards a cattle ranch, a fenced field with many horses and cattle grazing around peacefully under the hot midday sun.

“There’s one,” he waved at a man riding a beautiful thoroughbred. He seemed like he was in his early forties, with a tanned face and a wiry body. He was dressed in a work shirt, rugged jeans, wide-brimmed hat, leather boots, and a belt with a large metal buckle. He waved back.

cowboy

Jose told us that the sabaneros were very important to Guanacaste. Before, the province greatly relied on ranching and farming, so that the sabanero culture became deeply embedded in the traditions and way of living of the Guanacaste locals. Sabaneros, even if they think of themselves as simple workers, were well-respected. They even appeared in various paintings and books.

But as modernism and tourism arrived in the region, many sabaneros opted to “diversify,” leaving behind their ranches in favor of other tourism activities. I detected a hint of sadness in Jose’s voice as he said this last part.

frank-siteman-cowboys-on-ranch-guanacasta-costa-rica

A few more sabaneros arrived, and we watched them while they were working. Some looked as if they were barely out of high school, while others seem like they’ve been herding cattle all their life. The sabaneros rounded up dozens of cows bringing them through the gate in an orderly manner. They worked swiftly, with lassos hanging at their waist, moving so well atop their horses.

“We even had festivals dedicated to sabaneros,” Jose mused. “They’re called topes and mondaderas.”

In the topes, he says, towns all over Guanacaste congregate with a municipal band. The people will march into the street, until they run into cattle that have been driven by the sabaneros from the field towards the bull ring. The natives run through the streets, until the bovine goes to the plaza. As for mondaderas, this is where sabaneros compete to see who can ride on a bull’s back the longest.

We didn’t realize that it was getting late; the sabaneros were getting ready to leave, finished with their daily tasks. Jose promised that he would introduce us to a couple of sabaneros before we explore and leave the province.

luis-marden-cowboys-and-their-girls-pose-on-horses-at-a-guanacaste-cattle-fair

As we stood up to go back to Jose’s house, I snuck a look back at the sabaneros—the last cowboys. They were riding off, lovely and graceful silhouettes on their horses, into the beautiful Costa Rican sunset.

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