WASHINGTON, D.C., March 4, 2012 ― Puerto Vallarta’s mountainous terrain drops steeply to the beaches and azure waters of the protective bay of Banderas, creating the perfect spot to relax, sip poolside piña coladas, and forget the stresses of everyday life. There are doses of culture, however, beyond the bounds of those posh resorts and expansive Pacific views. One such opportunity is the local Charro Festival, which takes place each winter just inland from Puerto Vallarta’s coastal beauty.
Charros are the Mexican version of what we would call a cowboy in the U.S. Donning massive sombreros, worn leather chaps, enormous shiny belt buckles, and pearl button shirts with intricately sewn patterns, these dusty wranglers emerge from their ranches in the valleys and hills all over Mexico to compete for a chance at prize money, glory, and most importantly, respect.
The Puerto Vallarta Charro Festival plays out over four days and kicks off with an opening ceremony that gives visitors an excellent opportunity to learn the differences between American rodeo and the south-of-the-border version. According to locals, one major differentiator is the complex scoring system, which uses a judge’s points system, the time competitors take to complete the event, and sometimes the distance they ride to achieve their goal. Various calf and horse roping, bronco riding, lassoing, and speed challenges are staples. Teams from all over the country travel long distances with their horses to be part of these festivals that happen in several cities throughout the year. Announcers explain each event to the participants in English and Spanish, and most Mexican spectators are more than happy to educate the uninitiated tourist even further.
No trip to the Charro Festival would be complete without indulging in the local gastronomy – think Mexican street food on steroids. Half a dozen vendors set up pop-up restaurants under expansive shade tents and provide full service sit-down meals throughout the day and night. Adventurous foodies will be relieved at the departure from the resort buffets and more formal urban restaurants. The festival’s focus is the cattle industry, but being situated just inland from the Pacific, seafood is certainly a mainstay. Find fresh shellfish, Mahi, and succulent octopus. Delicacies such as boiled mussels seasoned with red pepper salsa or gargantuan burritos stuffed with black beans and a choice of meat ranging from carne asada to cilantro shrimp are superb. These meals are hearty, and when topped off with a tall beer, a diner needs nothing else.
Another staple of the festival is a meal-like drink called a michelada. This cocktail’s base consists of Clamato juice mixed with beer – usually Pacifico, Modelo Especial, or a range of cheaper options most tourists won’t recognize. Once the thick tomato base infuses with the cerveza, the bartender dumps unmeasured amounts of Worcestershire, Tajin (a powder combining red pepper and lime), Tabasco, and an unlabeled sauce that, judging from the smell, adds some gut piercing heat. Once all this is thoroughly mixed in the 32 oz. Styrofoam cup, a lid is fastened on top, and the drinker can opt to up the ante. A camarone (shrimp) version is available. In this incarnation, the maker places five shrimp on the flat lid along with cubed cucumbers and even more mystery sauce, then it is sprinkled with Tajin and a sixth shrimp is jammed into the tip of the straw – bloody Mary meets beer, meets ceviche.
Beyond the tastes of the festival, the in-ring entertainment is a feast for the other senses. The passionate Spanish cheers rise and fall to the action in the arena, while the bright sounds of the mariachi band perched in the corner maintain the festive mood between competitors. The visual pageantry and formality are as much a part of tradition at these festivals as the audible elements. Having practiced and preserved them for countless generations, the locals that throng to these events are proud to celebrate every element. With the combination of fried food aromas, elaborately decorated horses and riders, and the consistently whooping crowd, the experience can be an exciting sensory overload.
The charros themselves are heroes to their audience and the ornate outfits they wear are a symbol of that honored status. But when it comes to dress, the escaramuzas (female charros) take the cake. These rough and ready female riders take the term “colorful” to another level. Each member of the escaramuzas team at the Puerto Vallarta festival this year was adorned in a bright yellow and turquoise dress that seemed to explode out of the dusty brown arena they rode through, like a 3D image jumps off a movie screen. Upon closer inspection, each team member had the exact same outfit, complete with cowboy hat, boots, and even matching jewelry. They ride with all the dexterity of their male counterparts but do it with the added challenge of riding sidesaddle.
Once in Puerto Vallarta it’s not difficult to reach the festival and, although the Arena Vallarta is a 45-minute bus ride from the resort area, it is well worth the trip. The ride through picturesque farmland and small outlying communities provides a chance to soak up plenty of rural culture. Stay at the Sheraton Buganvillas Resort for an exceptional beach experience; the food options are fantastic and the front desk staff is happy to arrange transportation to and from the festival.
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