Bullfighting in Peru – a fair tourist attraction?
May 8, 2012 Leave a comment
Is it acceptable to watch a bull fight? In 2010, the tradition for which Spain is most famous was outlawed in the Spanish state of Catalonia. Other blood sports such as dog fighting, and fox hunting with dogs, were delegalised in the UK years ago. But in a country where bull fighting is still legal, is it ok to take part as a cultural spectator?
These were thoughts I contemplated as we drove to the outskirts of Arequipa in Southern Peru on an overcast Sunday afternoon in April. We were keen to see the real side of Peru – away from the main tourist attractions in the town centre – and felt fortunate to be in the town on the weekend of a main event.
As we turned the corner of a dusty road in our matchbox-sized taxi, we saw the arena for the first time. Unlike the bull rings in Spain, it was semi-circular with the flat side used as a drive for the cattle trucks. But in the stands were more people than I could have ever imagined. The whole place was heaving with Arequipeños: husbands, wives, children, grandparents, groups of young people. All there to enjoy a great Sunday out at the bull fight.
Many were wearing rodeo-style, wide-brimmed hats and had dressed for the occasion. It was impossible to find any space on which to sit in the concrete stalls, so we huddled near the ring edge where others were perched on upturned beer crates, slowly consuming the bottles of Arequipeña beer contained within.
The bulls entered the ring, but unlike Spanish fights, there were no toreadors. Instead, bulls here fight each other, much like a boxing match. The contest began with light-weight bulls, who at first seemed uninterested in fighting. Their owners circled around them, goading them on, but not in a physical way. Suddenly one bull would get a sense of what it was there for, scrape a hoof across the dirt and lower its head to lock horns with its opponent. In this position, they wrestled for a while, until one gave up and backed off, and the commentator called the winner. And that was it.
I was very surprised by how tame the event was. Could it really be that no blood was shed? That the hundreds of people watching the fight every weekend, and the countless others who tune in at home to see the event televised, didn’t want something more gritty?
It seemed so. Chatting to people in the crowd, we were told the bulls are never harmed. The locals have their favourites and want to see them crowned champion three times, after which the bull can retire. Extra interest is added to each round by side-lines betting, with spectators putting large sums on each round, but in a sociable and leisurely way.
One bull won his third championship at this event, and the occasion was thoroughly celebrated by everyone. A gold plate was placed on his nose, and he was led around the ring in a victory lap while the crowd sprayed beer on him like champagne. What would happen to him now? I asked our neighbours. Some said he would be looked after and treated well, but others said he would be slaughtered for meat. “There’s a lot of meat on him,” they insisted.
The bulls were outstandingly impressive. I’d never seen such huge animals. The heavy-weight category weighed in at about 1,000kg, and could barely be led by their owners. Even when they fought they moved slowly, and I couldn’t understand why they got angry enough to fight. “They are like us,” explained one of the locals. “We Arequipeños are friendly to visitors and very welcoming. But between each other, we are very aggressive. The bulls are the same.”
Something’s gotta give
There was one moment, in what was otherwise a surprisingly enjoyable day, which did shock. Two bulls were nearing the end of a session, with one looking stronger from the start. As his opponent turned to run away and signal defeat, the other bull’s horn managed to snag his skin. I watched in horror as the horn pierced through the hide like a piece of clothing on a thorn, and ripped the skin, exposing red muscle below. Strangely, there was no blood and the injured bull carried on walking away calmly as if nothing has happened, his uncovered limbs slipping in and out of view through flapping skin. “They’ll just stich him right back up,” explained one of the regulars. It was gruesome, but the crowd’s reaction convinced me it was a rarity and not the intention of the sport.
I left the arena feeling more positive about this type of bull fighting than I had expected. Perhaps there are bad practices going on behind the scenes, and if anyone reading this blog knows more about them, it would be good to have your comments. But it did seem genuinely that the bulls were behaving quite naturally and were being cared for. It was also a great way to meet locals and understand Peruvian culture – the contemporary Peru, not the Incan Peru many tourists discover. Something for visitors to Arequipa to consider.
A different story
In other parts of Peru, the picture is different. While in the capital, Lima, I came across an anti-bullfighting protest in a busy shopping area. Peru Antitaurino is an organisation that wants the North Peruvian practice of a bull and toreador fighting to the death to end. Its members are currently collecting signatures across the country to build their case that Peruvians don’t want to live in a society that thinks killing animals is entertaining. It will be interesting to see if, as in Catalonia, they are successful.