photo essay

Journey to the end of Zapote

by Leo Jiménez & Fernando Chaves Espinach

On this visual and sensorial tour, Fernando and Leo take us on an dreamlike journey through the popular festivities that emerge every December in the heart of

San José, Costa Rica

A child lets go of his mother's hand and sneaks through the legs of a crowd that boils like an anthill. Nobody stays still, not even for a moment, so the boy soon finds that he stumbled upon a different destination than what he expected. 


Several of us see him, but in such disorder, he is destined to be the protagonist of a brief and happy story like the other thousands happening at the same time. The boy has stumbled upon a dancer, a vernacular artist of Creole swing who stops her impossible pirouettes so as not to hit the small invader of the stage. The audience, gathered by her magnetic dance, applauds and laughs; given the fuss, the mother finally finds the boy and drags him away. 


The popular festivities of Zapote, that ragged anthill, emerge as from the earth only once a year, on December 25th, and serve as a bridge towards the new cycle. It’s rightly said thus, they finish around December 38th. 


They began around 1969, and some of their attractions seem brought from that year; that is part of the charm, because there is no such thing as fashion in Zapote, time doesn’t go by, we don’t change. Once you try the cotton candy, maybe at five years old, you return once and again to the same spot, the same frozen night without stars, hidden by the small fire of the roller coasters, carrousels and bars around the bullring, where animals are chased and life is risked. Such is memory, weak in the face of the magnet of pleasures. 


There are many ways to go through the labyrinth of San Jose’s festivities (the labyrinth, however, widens or narrows according to the year). Getting lost is easy, so you agree to meet your friends in front of La Caribeña bar, or if the crowd is too large, then far from the fairgrounds, in a bank or in a store on the main streets. 


Someone in the group knows, more or less, the direction they lead: towards the Tagada, which is always at the end of the turmoil. On the way, they will make three stops: the first one for beer, frozen and served in a plastic cup; the second one, for vigorón, happy encounter of several excesses; the third one, to be surprised that someone is willing to go on the high revolving hammer or on the "pirate ship", which sails to Zapote’s sky only to return suddenly to the dock of sand, beer, cumbia and bulls.

But finally they get to the most inexplicable attraction, or maybe the most primary of them all: the Tagada, a rotating disc designed for its occupants to jump, get beat, fall to the floor, roll... All in front of an aglomerated audience in front of the stage, beer in hand, children in arms, with the sour smell of the public toilletes and of others’ sweat attenuated by the icy wind. Some will dare to ride it, but the fun is to watch others suffer; sometimes, the pain comes extremely together with joy. 


It is only natural that such thing happens at festivities that function as a monumental scape valve. You go to Zapote to do and be anything. There is something from the past: bullruns, brought from another time when San José was less distant from the rural world. There is something from the future: an unprecendented mix of people who stirs together more eagerly each year, like the dancers attired in sequins, the drag queen cowgirls, the families that wouldn’t know what else is there to be done in December, and those which never came. A lesson of democracy around the glittered apples. An imperfect democracy, like any, that step by step can explode into drunken violence or unconstrained passion. 


Over the years, attending the Zapote festivities has become steadily more expensive. For a couple with two children, attending the bullring, eating and enjoying a while can be prohibitive. It is not unlikely that such inflation could eventually suffocate the festivities, but this has already happened before. Zapote inflates and deflates like a portable slide. 


No one would deprive themselves, however, from taking a peek at least for a little while at the most beautiful of San José’s landscapes. As a mirage, it can only be perceived at a certain hour and with certain light. As soon as it gets dark, with the sky fading into black, the neon from the little horses and the roller coasters lights up and floods the fairground, the luminous signs of “cantonese rice”, “pupusas” and “carnitas” boil like the oil in the pans. The car-watchers, with flashy colours in their hands, clump the visitors into the few streets, but almost everyone come by foot. 


In front of the Caribeña, a family covered in colourful jackets takes a photo with the village of tents in the background. Right on top of the bullring, for a while, the moon comes up. When it is already deep night and the sea of people flods the wooden floored tents and starts to dance and kiss, the kids ride the pirate ship and, with their eyes closed, feel a hollow in their stomach, right when they set sail up, up, up, until almost seeing everything, the red, the green, the blue, the bulls, the pork cracklings, life.



Leo Jiménez



Fernando Chaves Espinach


2017. San José, Costa Rica


Published in 2017

Volume 1, Issue 7


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