GUAXUPE, Brazil (Reuters Life!) - From close up you can hear the rasping breaths of a 450-kilogram (990-pound) bull as it bucks and whirls under the bright arena spotlights and struggles to unseat its plucky rider.
Stand even closer to the rodeo and you might get a showering of grit scooped up by a large hoof and flung through gaps in the sturdy metal railings.
Guaxupe is a sleepy agricultural town in Brazil renowned for its yearly ten-day rodeo festival that brings together some of the country’s most skilled professional cowhands and popular Brazilian country music singers.
The town is in southern Minas Gerais state, the heart of Brazil’s coffee growing region, and home to the world’s largest coffee cooperative, Cooxupe.
“It’s the craziest week of the year,” said Ana Paula Chagas, a resident and employee of Cooxupe. “We are mid-way through the coffee harvest and everyone has money to spend.”
The rural festival in Guaxupe underscores the vast cultural differences across Brazil’s enormous land mass. From abroad, the country is often stereotyped as a destination for sand, samba and caipirinhas, but it is also a land of tough working cowboys and millions of passionate country music fans.
The scenes in Guaxupe wouldn’t look out of place in rural areas of the United States. At the Guaxupe festival, cowboys compete on broncos and bulls, and have to remain mounted during at least eight seconds for judges to grade their effort. Their concentration is palpable as they stretch, cross themselves and slap the animals’ flanks in preparation for the giddy ride.
They are protected by leather overalls and a neck pad that prevents whiplash. As the animals are released from the pen, the riders’ biceps bulge as they throw their weight around to try to stay centered.
During the day, dusty pickups roar around the cobbled streets blaring out sertanejo, or Brazilian country music, from massive speakers roped down in the beds of the trucks. Men in leather cowboy hats and scuffed jeans pack the town’s rundown bars and drink ice-cold lager ahead of the evening show.
As the sun sets, the arena rapidly fills and expectant faces watch the bulls and horses readied for the event in metal animal holding chutes. The horses look out eagerly at the crowd with pricked ears, while the thickset bulls stand dejectedly with glazed eyes and runny noses.
It is vital to fall off the right side of a bucking bronco. On the wrong side, the weight of the rider traps his hand in the tight leather glove jammed into the saddle’s metal pommel.
The winner of the bronco competition is dragged by his horse for the length of the arena, his feet trailing in the sand just ahead of his mount’s thundering hooves. For an agonizing few seconds the crowd is silent and then buzzes with admiration as outriders release the cowboy and he is led away, limping and grinning, by two paramedics.
After the last of the animals is penned up for the night, security guards throw open the gates to the arena for the night’s concert. Zeze Di Camargo and Luciano are an immaculately dressed, best-selling country music duo that sings about lost love and unobtainable women. The throng knows every line of the music and joins in with gusto.
Occasionally there is a ripple in the crowd as the cowboy swagger boils over and punches fly in the closely packed stadium. There are quite a few fights during the night, according to a fireman manning a first aid post.
Editing by Todd Benson and Patricia Reaney