A thousand pounds of stallion galloped toward me at top speed, mane flying, muscles rippling, ears pointed straight ahead on an apparent collision course with a large wall at the Vallarta Arena in Puerto Vallarta. At precisely the right moment the charro (a Mexican horseman) pulled up on the reins, stopping the horse suddenly as the crowd let out a collective breath. Several officials, dressed smartly in their finest Western wear, including finely tooled leather chaps, cowboy boots, crisp white shirts, short, close-fitting jackets, wide, colorful, silk bow-ties and ten-gallon hats, carefully examined the stopping distance from a chalk line in the dirt, measuring with care. A row of mounted fellow competitors lined the edge of the arena, including the youngest, a straight-backed boy of about 12 who looked like he was born on a horse.
I was experiencing the most traditional of celebrations of rural Mexican life, the Charro Festival and Competition (Campeonato Nacional Charro, Jan. 31-Feb 3, 2013), being held for only the second time in Puerto Vallarta’s new purpose-built Vallarta Arena, located about an hour from town. The completely covered 2,000 seat arena, equipped with modern bathrooms and bleachers, was built in 2010 to further the sport and host events such as the Charro Festival.
A bit of history
The American cowboy is an iconic symbol of the west so it’s easy to forget that the original cowboys were Mexican, who learned their skills from the conquering Spaniards, the original importers of horses into the New World in the 16th century. Everything from the attire to the lasso and all-important roping and bull-riding skills came to North America from our neighbors to the south.
The charro is a little different from the vaquero or ranchero (cowboy or rancher) of Northern Mexico in that they originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco and typically participate in a specific type of rodeo, the charreada, defined by particular clothing, traditions, social status and etiquette. The charreada is uniquely Mexican, a source of local pride in Jalisco. The national sport of Mexico, the charreada is regulated by the Federación Mexicana de Charrería and involves a circuit held in many areas of Mexico. Charreadas are held in the U.S. in such states as Texas, New Mexico, California and others, and sometimes U.S. teams compete in Mexico. The sport is promoted in the U.S. by the Charros Federation USA. The skills demonstrated in the modern day competition evolved from working-class ranching, but have progressed into a highly stylized blend of sport and art that requires the significant resources ranging from financial funding to adequate time to train for specialized events.
The competition is comprised of nine events, ranging from horse skills, roping, bare back riding, heeling and tailing, and is conducted in teams of three men. Unlike rodeos the events are judged based on finesse and grace more than time. The tenth event, the escaramuza, is a precision event for female teams who guide horses in a highly choreographed pattern. The women wear long, full dresses and sit side-saddle. In the U.S. animal welfare concerns have been raised about some of the charreada events, such as horse tripping, but advocates argue that this is a legitimate component of animal husbandry.
Campeonato Nacional Charro 2013
I appreciated the first event, reining skills (Cala de Caballo), where tricks included stopping the horse on command, going backward and spinning on its hind legs in a tight circle in one direction and then the other. It is one of the most difficult events to master, analogous to school figures in ice skating, and was very impressive to watch. I enjoyed watching heeling (Piales en Lienzo), where a lasso is thrown, catching the horse by a leg, but quickly letting it go. Watching teams of graceful horses easily loping around the circular arena was beautiful and the ram-rod straight charros were so precise in their movements, especially the top teams. I worried about the rider or animal in some of the events, such as bareback riding, forefooting and bull-roping but everyone seemed to bounce back without injury, demonstrating their proficiency and athletic skill.
The general horsemanship was impressive and the young 12-year old competitor, who was competing on his father’s team, was already expert in maneuvering his horse and had excellent roping skills though he wasn’t as efficient in lassoing the bull as other teams. I wondered how he became so competent at such as young age, but soon found out why.
I had the opportunity to talk briefly with a several charros, including Guillermo Salinan, representing the Federación Mexicana de Charrería, Francisco Ceron of Rancho La Biznaga and Francisco Rivera, the current national champion, who shared tales of commencing riding at four years old, performing at nine and competing at 12. They all began their training at a young age, which explains why they have so much expertise by the time they are teenagers. Their reasons for spending 10 hours a week or more practicing their skills varied, ranging from the desire to continue Mexico’s traditions, the companionship of the team and the satisfaction of mastering challenging skills. Not only that but they all looked like they were having fun.
A smattering of tourists was present at the event but the vast majority of spectators were Mexicans, many of whom were friends and family of the competitors. The large arena was clean, with comfortable stadium seats and the roof offered protection from the strong sun. Vendors sold soft drinks, beer and snacks, while food stalls along one side of the entrance plaza offered more substantial fare. Purveyors of western wear offered intricately worked leather saddles costing thousands of dollars, ropes that cost $400 and hats made from rabbit that went for U.S. $3,500—this is not a working class sport.
The announcer spoke Spanish for much of the opening day, but then realized there were some North Americans in the audience and began explaining the proceedings in English, which was a big help for those of us who were unfamiliar with the events.
Since the arena is so new it is not as well-known as other area attractions and though most locals had some familiarity of the festival, most that I spoke to had not been out there yet. Consequently it takes some planning to arrange a visit, though that is sure to change in the future. Currently visitors can get to the arena by hiring a driver for a half day for about US$50 or they can take the city bus from Central Puerto Vallarta on the Las Palmas route for about US $1. A reasonable time commitment would be three or four hours total as it takes about an hour to get there one way and one or two hours to view the events and take in the scene would be sufficient unless you are a rodeo aficionado.
The festival, which features a MXN $90,000 purse, is sponsored by a number of local businesses including the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board, Puerto Vallarta Municipal Government, Automotores Flova, Corona Extra, Tequila Barrabas, Tequila del Bueno, John Deere, RAM, Michelin, Comex, Hemoeco Renta, Taboo, ROO, OXXO and Coca Cola.
Outside the arena a ten-year-old boy dressed in cowboy boots and big hat easily handled his rope, swinging the lasso over his head in a natural rhythm while younger boys watched. A toddler grabbed the end of the rope and looped it around him in an early attempt to create a lasso. Maybe one of these boys who are growing up with a rope in one hand and a pommel in the other will become the national champion of the future.
For visitors who are looking for a traditional cultural experience, it doesn’t get much more authentic than the Charro Festival in Puerto Vallarta.
Campeonato Nacional Charro, held in late January/early February each year at the Arena Vallarta in Puerto Vallarta
Entrance fee: MXN $80 pesos per person (about US $8)
Charro festivals are held in several U.S. states bordering Mexico, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, Texas and South Carolina.More information can be found about U.S. events on the Charros Federation USA website and upcoming events and news are covered on their Facebook page.
Several airlines provide direct air service from San Francisco (SFO) to Puerto Vallarta (PVR), including Alaska Airlines and United. Prices for airlines departing from SFO are currently starting at around $500. Flight time is about 3.5 hours. Check Skyscanner for more information.
A visa is not required for citizens of the U.S. but you must carry a valid passport