El Tope: Costa Rica’s Famous Horse Parade
There’s a beautiful tradition in Costa Rica that connects its people with their past and showcases the country’s horse culture: El Tope.
El Tope Costa Rica is a spectacular horse parade that brings together the country in a celebration of their history and culture.
Keep reading to learn more about El Tope—what it is, when and where it takes place, and all about its history and origins.
I’m also introducing you to the fascinating world of the sabaneros and their famed Pasos Finos horses.
What Is El Tope?
In Costa Rica, a tope is simply a horse parade. There are many different topes taking place across the country at different times of the year.
This Central American country has a long equestrian tradition. The organization of topes is the opportunity for different towns and cities to showcase their skills with horse training, as well as the spectacular pasos finos or “dance steps” that Costa Rican horses are famous for.
When and Where Does El Tope Take Place?
There are different topes along the year and throughout the whole country. Every time a town or city has its patron saint celebrations, there’s usually a tope included.
You can take a look at different Costa Rica’s holidays and celebrations in this useful schedule.
However, there’s one parade that’s the most important of them all and that is El Tope Nacional Costa Rica. This one is the largest tope and features the prized Costa Rican Saddle Horse, the Pasos Finos and the Costa Rica Pasos or Criollos—which are the specific breeds Costa Rican people are very proud of.
This tope takes place in San José, the capital city of Costa Rica every year on December 26th, kickstarting the Festejos Populares—a series of organized activities to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in the city.
El Tope Costa Rica, or San José parade, starts around 1 p.m. and covers about 4 miles along the Paseo Colon and Avenida Segunda, which are the main streets of the capital.
The event attracts thousands of Ticos, as Costa Rican people like to call themselves, that want to watch the horses live, while many more watch it on TV at home.
What Does El Tope Celebrate?
El Tope Costa Rica tradition held in San José celebrates the National Day of the Horseman in the country. There is a strong horse culture in Costa Rica and El Gran Tope Nacional is its most outstanding expression.
In a way, horses and this culture around them represent a link to the colonial past of the country, when most Costa Rican families depended on agriculture, owned farms, and made their life in the countryside as sabaneros—a type of Costa Rican cowboy.
Think of the gaucho culture in Argentina, or the cowboy in Texas, and you’ll get an idea of what this horses and sabaneros culture is like in Costa Rica.
History and Origins
Although there are different versions, the most widely accepted is the one that points to the earthquake that hit San José in 1871 and that destroyed the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Due to this unfortunate event, the Catholic Church organized a calendar where all nearby towns would organize their fairs by turnos or “turns” to collect money for the reconstruction of the Cathedral.
Once the fairs were over, the towns would send to San José a few ox-drawn carts carrying the materials they could get for the Cathedral. Then, the most important men would bring the money raised personally, riding their best horses. In return, the men from San José would also ride their finest horses to “encounter them” (or topar in Costa Rican Spanish) halfway through.
As a result, the best horses in the country would arrive in San José leading a “parade” with all the needed materials for the reconstruction of the Cathedral. With time, the Cathedral was finished, but the tradition stayed.
In actuality, the towns’ fairs are still called turnos even though they don’t send the money to San José for the reconstruction of the Cathedral anymore.
Traditions Related to El Tope Parade
As every other big celebration, there are a few specific traditions related to the El Tope horse parade. Let’s learn a little bit more about some of them:
During the different topes across the country, but particularly for the national one taking place in San José, the horse riders wear their best sabaneros outfits specially made for the parade.
This is an extremely important social occasion in Costa Rica and everyone wants to showcase their fanciest clothing.
Although originally women didn’t participate in El Tope, nowadays many of them ride along with the men. This has created a new and unofficial competition about the cowgirls or sabaneras outfits, as the whole point of the parade is to impress the crowd.
Keeping with the practice that gave birth to the tradition of El Tope in Costa Rica, these days the participants of the parade decorate colorful, hand-painted ox carts that remind everyone of the original topes when Costa Ricans came together to rebuild their Cathedral.
These ox carts are a thing to behold as they’re decorated by famous local craftsmen and advance through the streets of San José for everybody to admire.
El Tope Costa Rica is a beautiful parade that connects ticos with their past.
If there’s one favorite element from this extraordinary tradition it is the Pasos Finos horses doing their spectacular Spanish dance steps. Due to their grade of difficulty and artistry, they impress the crowd greatly.
Sabaneros practice these amazing tricks with their horses all year long in order to perform a great show for the national public. People both watch from home and fill the streets of San José.
Visit Costa Rica and Practice Your Spanish!
Costa Rica is a country of spectacular natural beauty and rich culture, of which El Tope Nacional horse parade taking place in San José, Costa Rica is one of the most amazing expressions. Visit Costa Rica during the month of December to discover how Ticos celebrate the Christmas season and see El Tope by yourself.
One of the main benefits of learning a second language is that it can make your trips much easier. Speaking Spanish is very helpful when visiting Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, as you can communicate properly with the locals, learn more about their culture, and make the most of your trip.
Sign up for a free class before your trip to Costa Rica. At HSA we offer flexible scheduling, tailored Spanish packages, and individualized Spanish lessons for adults with industry-specific options for work-related learning.
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