Dying for Culture: Bullfighting in Spain

Bull killed by bullfighters in spain

Have you ever visited a place expecting no more than your average tourist interaction but came away with something much more profound?

It happened when I visited The Gambia and it happened once again when I went to Ronda, Spain.

I went to this small Spanish mountain town to see Tajo Gorge. And I expected this post to be a neat summary, complete with eye-candy of the long-legged bridge that straddles the gorge. And I won’t disappoint – details about visiting Ronda are below. But after days of struggling with this write-up, I realise I can’t overlook my more significant experience in Ronda that started as a low-rumbling of discomfort before growing into a more significant stare at Spanish culture and then, closer to home – my own behaviour when I travel.

It began with Bullfighting in Spain

Tajo Gorge in Ronda Spain
Stunning Tajo Gorge – the reason I went to Ronda.

To most tourists (myself included), Ronda is all about the bridge. It was the sole purpose of my decision to travel from Malaga for a two night stay in the town.

My journey was, as ever, pre-cursored with sweating and stress as I almost failed to catch the mid-day bus (for information: physically man-handling the bus driver and getting him to escort you to the correct bus company ticket booth can make the difference between catching the last daytime bus from Malaga or not).

On arrival in Ronda, I continued my efforts to synchronise with the Spanish way of life by taking a small siesta. When I woke, I roused myself with merienda (an afternoon snack usual involving coffee or hot chocolate and a sweet treat) before heading out to explore the town – I wanted to see the gorge just before sunset.

However, as I made my way from my hotel into the old town, the first sight of significance I came across wasn’t the bridge, it was the bullring. The Andalucian-white, beautifully constructed, pleasing on the eye, bullring. So, I lingered to take some shots, trying in earnest to practice the tips I’d learned a few weeks ago when I was at photo school, but the chilling effects of the altitude took their toll on my un-gloved hands and I eventually stepped inside the small tienda (bullring souvenir shop) in search of heat. And that’s when the significance of bullfighting hit me.

History of Bullfighting in Spain

Bull Fighter in Ronda outside the bullfighting ring
Bullring in Ronda

To date one of my most embarrassing confessions, in terms of disclosing the tiny size of my brain, is that I thought that the book The Life of Pi by Yann Martell was based on a true story. When you’ve finished laughing…I confess I had an equally embarrassing realisation when I arrived in Ronda – I didn’t know bullfighting was still a sport in Spain. Sure, the association between bullfighting and country was strong in my mind but I thought it was an historic one that had been outlawed for the clear sake of cruelty, long before the Brits got the fox-hunting ban onto the statue books. How wrong I was, and what part of Spain better placed to put me right than Ronda.

If there is any town that can claim to be the home of bullfighting in Spain, then it’s Ronda. Skim-reading between intermittent dozing on the bus from Malaga (hey, I nap a lot when I travel), I knew that Ronda had one of the largest, most significant and oldest bullrings in the country. Silly me, I thought it was a building that had been preserved for posterity, the efforts just that bit more sophisticated than what the Italian’s had done with the Colosseum.

Bullring panorama in Malaga

To compound the extent of my ignorance, I’d already had the pleasure of a birdseye view of a similarly significant bullring when I arrived in Malaga. Again, I thought it was a building that had developed a second life – an arena for concerts seemed like a sensible progression; a place where brutality had once lived but was now preserved as a solemn reminder that we, in our age of enlightenment, didn’t live in those times any more…except in Spain, we absolutely do.

My revelation in Ronda sent me to the nearest café where I hit the internet. I needed to find out more, except part of me wishes I could go back to my initial ignorance; ignorance where I don’t keep seeing the visual of a beat-up bull with a sword in his head flashing through my mind.

Some bullfighting facts

Blood of the bull sangre de torro wine in spain

An animal-cruelty-free way to spill “blood of a bull”

Here’s a small list of the facts that struck me most strongly during my short stint of research before I had to close my laptop in anger and sadness:

  • Bulls are not aggressive animals despite the presentation that the matador is taking on a ferocious beast.
  • Bulls appear angry in the ring because they are subjected to days of abuse before the “fight”. This includes drugging and blinding the bull by putting vaseline in his eyes as well as blocking his respiration with tissue. Laxatives can be fed to him and needles inserted into his most manly parts, all designed to weaken and anger the bull before his fated performance.
  • It’s this chronic abuse that is the reason the bull charges into the ring. After days of brutality he is running for freedom. Ironically, the cruelty is just about to begin.
  • The bull suffers through three “acts” during the “fight”. It starts with the bull being stabbed and gouged in the neck whereby he slowly starts to bleed to death. Next he is stabbed with barbed instruments before, ultimately, being killed by the matador. This last act can take 2 or 3 slow and painful attempts before the bull is granted release from his suffering.
  • It’s estimated 250,000 bulls die each year around the world in bullfights and around 30,000 in Spain (CAS International).
  • Meanwhile, bullfighting in Spain is thought to generate over €1 billion in revenue each year.
  • The most common defence of bullfighting, horrifyingly, is…culture. Yet, in a recent poll, only a small percentage of Spaniards supported bullfighting
  • Spain is not the only culprit – Portugal and France are also guilty in Europe while several places in Latin America also allow fights to go on – unsurprisingly, these are countries that were colonised by Spain.
  • Texas is the only US state where bull fighting is legal.
  • The Spanish Canary Islands outlawed bullfighting in 1991 and the “sport” became illegal in Catalonia in 2012.
  • There are over 40 bullfighting schools in Spain where children are taught cruelty towards animals from as young as 9 years old.
  • There are over 1,200 state-funded bull ranches in Spain.
  • Between 2007 and 2012 bullfighting was banned from state TV in Spain because it was too brutal for children to see (though apparently not to train in the ‘art’). In 2012, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy lifted the TV ban.

I wanted to include a video of some bullfighting but after looking at pictures, I couldn’t bring myself to look at any moving images of the brutality. I also debated arranging a visit and interview at one of the bullrings, but again couldn’t bring myself to get any closer to this business and listen to the baseless defence of killing for culture.

It’s an animal rights infringement that is promoted from the top: “The day the EU bans bullfighting is the day Spain leaves the EU,” King of Spain Juan Carlos.

From bullfighting to bull’s tail

Rabbo de Torro dish in spain (bull's tail)
I still wince when I look at this picture – bull’s tail

I was shocked and physically saddened by the facts I discovered when I did my research. They were feelings that grew over the next few days as I moped around Ronda in the rain. The Tajo Gorge was undeniably beautiful but it was no longer the image that was most prominent in my thoughts.

Which was far from ideal given the dinner plans I had when I was in Ronda. Prone to experimenting with food when I travel, I wanted to try the local specialty while I was in the town – Rabo de Toro or bull’s tail. I’d been fed ox-tail soup as a child and I used to enjoy the flavour (I’m sure it’s where my love of strong flavours for items like marmite stemmed from). The soup I ate as a child was the rehydratable kind but it seemed like a natural progression to try bull’s tail in Spain.

restaurant with bull's head on the wall
Being watched by the animal I was eating was too intense.

Except, as I sat down for my three course set menu at Pedro Romero, one of the most famous restaurants in Ronda for Rabo de Toro, regret for my choice was already circling. As I stared around at the bullfighting paraphernalia that adorned every square centimetre of the walls, I couldn’t get the day’s revelations out of my head. And my static dining companion did not help – staring at me out of the corner of his eye, perched on high, nailed to the wall and confirmed to me as genuine by the waiter, was a relative of my night’s main course.

I rarely have a poor interaction with a meat dish but on this rainy Ronda night, with my newly-acquainted bull-friend (or rather the carcus of him) looking down at me, I simply couldn’t bring myself to enjoy my food. Bite after bite, I flung the flabby flesh around in my mouth keen for only one thing – it to be over. I hadn’t wanted my meal to be finished that fast since I’d diced with death eating fugu in Japan. After whittling the dish down to a pile of bones (another new fact for me – that the bull’s tail had a bone), I hastily paid and left.

Sadly, it wasn’t the only time I paid for my meal. I don’t know if it’s possible for your stomach to have an emotional or moral reaction to food, but on this occasion, my insides went into near instant battle with the bull I’d consumed. I’m sure no more detail is needed but for the next 24 hours I was in sub-prime stomach condition, and I couldn’t help thinking it was nothing to do with the quality or cooking of the food. I was convinced my conscience had rejected what I’d fed it.

Killing for sport: Trophy hunts in Africa or bullfighting in Spain

Let’s return to bull fighting for a moment. It seems beyond comprehension to me that in 2014, when we are so well developed, particularly in places like Europe and North America, that we still kill animals for sport.

There has been a lot of publicity and anger on the internet recently about men and women in developed nations heading off to Africa to hunt and kill animals. Those acts have angered me as they have so many others. But the (small) upside to those examples of brutality is that they are not the norm. They are not ingrained in our culture. So, by comparison doesn’t that make bullfighting worse?

I will say right now that I’m not an expert on either bullfighting or African trophy hunts but in both cases I can see no benefit except for the sickening pleasure of those involved (I’ve heard arguments that the African hunts help control animal numbers, but I’m not convinced. I’ve heard no equivalent arguments for bullfighting).

I know that similar sports exist around the world – a bunch of people from my hostel took themselves off to see a cock-fight in Manilla – for the experience. I grimaced at their naivety, yet wasn’t brave enough to speak out. And, no doubt worse, I confess I patronisingly dismissed the practice as one from a nation that was too underdeveloped to know differently.

The spectrum of animal rights and responsibilities as a tourist

Lion sleeping in Africa
Lion cub trying to take a rest in the mid-day African heat

With this chain of thoughts progressing and as I lay there suffering the side effects of my Rabo de Toro, it didn’t take long before I started to think about my own behaviour towards animals at home and abroad.

In my mind, there is no doubt that bullfighting is a brutal, cruel, exploitative sport that has no place in the modern world where we surely should know better. The same goes for Africa trophy hunts, cock-fighting and the whole raft of illegal fights that are organised outside of the spotlight of the media (dog fighting in the UK comes to mind).

But how does this view sit with my own activities? With the exception of vegans who live the most puritan of lives in relation to our animal friends, the subject of animal cruelty, is, for most of us, not a simple subject nor one that has a binary right or wrong. For the majority, it exists on a sliding scale where the likes of bullfighting reside at one end and drinking milk at the other.

Without sounding like a new-age hippie, the more I travel and interact with nature and the world, the more enlightened I feel as to what is a good way and a bad way to interact with the land and our fellow species. And this ever increasing understanding is causing me conflict…because, I know where I should sit on that spectrum (living a life without contributing to or encouraging animal cruelty), but that is sometimes at odds with my reality.

A confession (or two) and a promise

hot dog, fries and smiley face ketchup
Hot dog and smiley face ketchup

I eat meat. But I don’t just eat meat, I love eating meat! So much so that when I can’t have it (my entire time in India), I craved it – actually in my dreams and sub-conscious as well as during my waking hours. Worse, I started to watch a documentary about the reality of mass animal faming in the USA (no doubt similar activities prevail in the UK), and I had to switch it off because it was too upsetting and, being hyper-honest, I was more comfortable with my denial of how animals are treated before they make it to my plate than with having to face the truth.

I’ve been fishing, several times. I’ve baited hooks and expressed excitement when I feel the tug of a catch. I’ve watched the fisherman gut and fillet my prize and turn it into lunch without a qualm (though, hypocritically, I was too squeamish and “animal loving” to do the killing myself).

I own leather handbags and have bought make-up without any idea as to how it was tested.

I’ve also done things in my travelling past I’m now uncomfortable with – I’m a huge animal lover and because of this I’ve always taken any opportunity to be close to them. While I may have been one of the few people to pat the mangy street dogs in South America, the irony of this so-called love for animals is that I’ve visited zoos and aquariums. I was delighted to be able to see an array of animals despite them being in cages and miniature swatches of swimming space, detained for my pleasure. I visited Tiger Kingdom in Thailand to be able to stroke a tiger. I wanted to get close to one so bad that I convinced my lazy conscience that the tigers were not drugged and their welfare (in a cage) was fine. Just last year, I went on a walk with lion cubs, again putting my desire to be close to the animals ahead of the fact that the cubs were being forced to walk through the mid-day African heat and climb into trees for photo opportunities. In fairness, I didn’t know they would be strongly encouraged to perform. Yet, in honesty that was down to my lack of research.

That walk in Africa was another significant point of realisation. I backed away from the group and made myself a promise to take more care of my furry friends and not encourage or support such tourist activities.

Yet it still doesn’t seem enough. I want to be better and while I simply could not and would not go to a bullfight, I’m struggling with the concept of animal cruelty because I contribute to it – if only by eating mass-farmed meat, not checking too closely the provenence of my eggs or interacting with animals without really researching the reality of their care and custody.

A large part of me wishes I would end this post with a pledge to go vegan and dedicate the rest of my life to promoting animal rights. I’m not there…yet, and, in honesty, I doubt I’ll ever reach that stage. If for no reason than I enjoy eating meat too much. But I promise this – to continue my efforts to be better in whatever ways I can.

Ok, that sounds rather nebulous, so let me try and define what I mean a bit better:

  • I’m going to restrict my ‘animal viewing’ to instances where the animals are in their natural habitat. Taking a ride with the Pacific Whale Foundation in Hawaii allowed me to see dolphins and whales playing together in their natural home, outside of captivity and free of threat.
  • Zoos and aquariums are off the visit list. Actually, I purposely haven’t visited a zoo in years – aquariums I’ve avoided when they have dolphins and turtles but now I’m going for an all-out personal ban.
  • I’m not going to promise to turn vegetarian but I will promise to think twice before every meal choice and consider where my meat and fish has come from. I’ve taken a few vegetarian meal options in the past week when the alternative was cheap and most likely poorly farmed meat. Not only did I not die from just eating vegetables, I’m sure this approach will help me eat better quality meat and fish products.
  • I will continue to shout in the street (until the police start to move in) at the people who shackle monkeys and birds to their arms in hope of trading money for a tourist photograph.
  • I’m going to do more research about animal welfare around the world and do a bit more to help protect our animal friends. I’m not sure what this looks like yet, so any suggestions welcome.

It’s not the longest list nor is it the most impressive. It’s also not a promise to be perfect. But it is a promise to be better.

Some might think that the natural corollary of my new found “wisdom” is a lesson in tolerance. Given my less than perfect past (and present) I should judge others less. After all, vegan’s afford me the favour of not criticising me for my meat eating and milkshake glugging (at least not to my face). So, should it follow that I’m less accusatory of people who attend dolphin shows, bullfights or kill elephants in Africa? It’s an argument. But it’s not one I accept. Those activities are too far on the moral spectrum even for even a meat eater to tolerate.

For more information and to find out what you can do to help, see: Stop Bullfighting, IWAB and PETA.

Useful information about visiting Ronda

And on a lighter note…

Ronda Old Town
Ronda Old Town

What to see in Ronda

As well as Tajo Gorge, there are a handful of other sights but none that rival the bridge and a wander through the old town. If you’re on a short timescale, one or two nights in Ronda would be sufficient. Beware if you’re visiting in winter – most of the sights are outside so the cold and wet mountain weather can have an impact on your stay. Pack good footwear because the streets of Spain are dangerously slippy when they get wet.

Getting to Ronda from Malaga

The best way to get from Malaga to Ronda on public transport is by bus with the company Los Amarillos. The bus schedule is somewhat sparse with hours passing between buses, so plan your day around it. Buses leave from the bus station on Paseo de Los Tilos near the Malaga Maria Zambrano train station. Don’t make the mistake I did: if you took the train from the airport to Malaga, you will have arrived at the Malaga Centro Train station close to the old town. The bus station for Ronda is nearby a different train station that is much further out of town. Walking from the historic centre takes around 30 minutes. If you have heavy luggage, I’d suggest a taxi. Equally, like many bus stations, it wasn’t located in the most attractive part of town so I’d also recommend a taxi for any journeys after dark. The bus trip takes 1 hour 45 minutes and is worth staying awake for – the scenery is beautiful.

Where to stay in Ronda

Ronda Paradore arches
Ronda Paradore Arches

There isn’t any hostel accommodation in Ronda but there are a lot of budget hotels. I stayed at Hotel Sevilla. It wasn’t the cheapest budget option but for a few euros more, it was an excellent way to get a four-star stay on a budget (using Trivago I got a deal at £33 per night and stayed two nights). The hotel wasn’t in the old town but was walkable within 5 minutes. If you’re really after luxury, the Paradore in Ronda looked imposing and luxurious but at more than €120 per night is not a budget option.

The Ronda to Algecerias Railway

Ronda Railway Station seen through tree branches
Ronda Railway Station

As well as seeing the Tajo Gorge, I was excited by the idea of leaving Ronda by railway. The journey had been described to me as possibly the most scenic rail route in Spain and it was, winding through the mountains, forest, past rocky gorges, olive groves and large swathes of countryside dotted with typical Andalucian white towns in the distance.

Of historical interest, the railways was a private project built by some rich Brits who wanted a rail connection with Gibraltar.

Although the train schedule is thin (e.g. I took the 9.18 a.m. train – the next one after that was in the afternoon), the journey lived up to it’s promise. For only €10 I got a 1 hour 45 journey of beauty – money well spent.

Have you ever had your conscience find you while you travel? Do you think bullfighting is a cruel sport or do you defend it? Any suggestions for how I can be a better tourists when it comes to my interactions with animals? Let me know your views in the comments below.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.