Stop the parade! The croc hunt must go on

June 9, 2011

It was Easter Holy Week and I headed over to the small village of Ortega about 325 kilometers (203 miles) north of the Costa Rican capital, San Jose.

My expectation for the trip was to cover the festivities of Good Friday from an entirely different angle from the way the rest of the world celebrates it.

This town has a Good Friday tradition: go hunt down a crocodile. A group of 30 men go in the river La Palma, pounding through the water in search of a crocodile. Meanwhile, a kilometer ahead, another group waits with nets to trap the big critter.

As this unfolds, hundreds of people from all over the country stand along the banks of the river to watch the hunt.

Six hours of burning sun and stifling heat of up to 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit) later, the hunters still hadn’t managed to close in on the croc. With each advance, the creature managed to escape, until finally one of the hunters shouted, “I found it in a cave, on the other side of the river!”

With renewed momentum the hunters charged toward the crocodile’s hideout.

I was completely dehydrated, without a drop of water left to drink. But I had to get that shot. With no other choice, I charged across the river and snapped photos of the big moment of capture.

The wait time was over two hours, as the reptile had crept deep into the cave, raising the stakes of the hunt.

Then at last, the hunters shouted “we’ve got him! We’ve got him!”

The men hoisted the large, live reptile up onto their shoulders and showed off their catch. They carried it to the center of town and placed it in a cage for all the villagers to see. The crocodile was released back into the wild two days later.

There was something odd about the celebration. In Costa Rica on Thursday and Friday of Holy Week it is prohibited to sell liquor. However, here in an otherwise devout Catholic village, the sale and consumption of alcohol on those sacred days was flowing freely, even in the presence of the police.

Like many traditional Costa Rican villages, Ortega is also known for its Easter processions. But this year, the parade hadn’t begun and I started to wonder why. So I asked Alvaro Cascante, the event organizer, what time the procession would begin and to my surprise his answer was as follows: “Here the procession is done once the crocodile is caught — he’s got priority. But seeing as it’s already 4:30 p.m., the procession is suspended because now we’re celebrating a tradition that’s 200 years old.”

Covering this event was interesting to me not only from a photography standpoint but here was a village defending and maintaining an ancestral tradition, without caring that the activities did not exactly agree with your proper Holy Week celebration.

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