HAVANA (AP) – Mustached and goateed men with broad-brimmed hats and leather chaps mingle in the dust, drinking beer and talking on cellphones. A woman tenderly straightens the red necktie of a nervous teen as he prepares to mount a bucking bronco.
A man on horseback abruptly bolts through the arena and launches himself onto a young cow, headlocking it into the mud horns-first.
Cuba's eight-day international rodeo festival is half party and half a cowboy-skill showcase that would seem right at home in Nevada, Wyoming or anywhere else in the American West.
"You know that Cuba's national sport is baseball. In second place, then, are the rodeo stadiums," said Teresa Gonzalez, the Cuban rodeo's national statistics keeper. "Whenever there's a rodeo, across the whole country, the stadiums fill up."
Popular around the Americas, rodeo has its roots in the skills required of cattle herders in Spain and the New World. The word itself comes from the Spanish term for "roundup."
The roughly 60 participants competing in the event, part of the Boyeros Cattlemen's International Fair, came mostly from Cuba but also Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama.
There's still a strong cultural influence in Cuba from its one-time Spanish colonizers, and the rodeo featured all the standby traditional events: bull riding, calf roping, barrel racing, lasso demonstrations — and remarkable feats of daredevilry.
Between competitions two stunt riders raced around the arena on a horse, one standing upright atop the saddle as his partner dangled precariously to the side, a single hand clutching the pommel.
The quirkiest moment came in an event that could be dubbed "Dancing With the Equestrians."
Riders took turns coaxing their mounts to cut a rug to amplified music, with the winner eliciting laughter and cheers for a dance to reggaeton — the tropical music notorious for its steamy lyrics. Against the thumping beat, the horse gyrated its hindquarters in imitation of the suggestive, twerk-like dance steps associated with the genre.
Entire families turned out to watch, legs dangling over the side of the bleacher railing, beneath a black mesh screen that kept at bay the worst effects of the Caribbean sun.
"An event like this one is very important because it's the annual fair where the best (competitors) take part," Gonzalez said. "You couldn't even walk in the streets because there were so many people."