Peruvian bullfighter Andres Roca Rey (Photo by Cris BOURONCLE / AFP)

From Lima with love

Around the world to watch the bullfights

Artillery Row

I have just made a 13,000-mile round trip to watch a bullfight. I’d like to tell you that I also went to admire the exquisite latticework of Lima’s 18th century balconies, to savour the city’s matchless cuisine, to linger reverently in its Viceregal churches. Doing so would make me come across as a more rounded human being. But the truth is that I went for one weekend and for one matador.

And what a matador! Andrés Roca Rey is the world’s Número Uno, the first Peruvian ever to claim the top spot. Eighteen months ago, interviewing him for this magazine, I wondered whether he could rise any higher. He was already the torero of the moment, combining easy grace with suicidal courage. But this summer in Spain, he went up another gear, triumphing in plaza after plaza, culminating in an extraordinary performance in Bilbao. Despite being badly knocked about by both his bulls, he came back with such unhurried elegance that with a unanimity I have never known before, the critics proclaimed it the corrida of 2022.

Peru, like many less developed countries, gets excited when one of its citizens achieves recognition overseas. Even those Peruvians who have no interest in toreo know about Roca Rey — rather as English people who know nothing about cricket know about Ian Botham. To watch the return of the national hero to the ring where he began his ascent — that, surely, was worth an 18-hour flight. 

Plus, Roca Rey was appearing alongside El Juli, the greatest matador of the past 25 years, a man whose telepathic ability to know what a bull is going to do before the bull itself does, creates a unique dance on the sands. Roca Rey’s rise has led to a fruitful rivalry between the two toreros. El Juli, the king of smooth, the incarnation of effortless superiority, has been prompted to revive some of the flashier capework of his youth.

The most keenly anticipated corridas are often the most disappointing

The bulls, too, were promising. A string was being flown out from the ranch of Puerto de San Lorenzo in Salamanca, sturdy exemplars of the Atanasio breed, the second most commonly seen caste after the near-ubiquitous Domecqs.

Then again the most keenly anticipated corridas are, as any aficionado will tell you, often the most disappointing: “corrida de expectación, corrida de decepción”. I briefly wondered, chewing on some limp airline tortilla, whether I was engaging in a hilariously foolish waste of time and money (quite apart from the cost of the flight, Lima’s bullring is the most expensive in the world).

My anxiety deepened when, on landing, I learned that of the eight Puerto de San Lorenzo bulls to have begun the flight (a corrida involves three matadors each facing two bulls, with two more kept in reserve in case any of the six is lame or otherwise invalid) five had died en route

The thought of those five aristocrats perishing in some squalid box filled me with horror. If you can’t see why it is worse to die in a dark crate than by having a sword thrust between your shoulders, you have never watched a corrida. The entire rite is built around the death of the most regal of animals. Aficionados want to see the sacrifice accomplished with courage and dignity, by a man worthy of officiating. When a fighting bull dies ignobly, they feel not so much cheated as violated.

My doubts evaporated the following afternoon as I made my way to the 257-year-old Plaza de Acho, the greatest bullring in the Americas. Bullfights in Lima are always special, but the buzz that Sunday had a different quality. You could sense the excitement everywhere — among the touts, the anticucho sellers, the lines of police. Crime in the Lima borough of Rímac is normally rife but that day even the muggers and pickpockets were more interested in getting hold of tickets.

Lima brought forth the fatted calf for its famous son. Before the opening parade, we were treated to a performance of the national dance: the marinera, performed both on foot and on that other national symbol, the Peruvian pacing horse. Bands from the army, navy, air force and police played marching tunes. Then 14,000 voices belted out the national anthem. Afterwards, high on the patriotism of the moment, they chanted against Peru’s Leftist president, Pedro Castillo.

A modern bullring, like a Roman amphitheatre, is a forum for public grievances. I happened also to be in the Plaza de Acho in November 2000, when word came through that Alberto Fujimori, the effective but corrupt autocrat, had resigned. It was fascinating to watch the news rustle through the stands. The Fujimorista crowd noticed a Congressman who had been accused of taking a bribe to vote against the president. Without any pre-arrangement, they began tossing coins at the poor fellow until he was driven, puce with rage, from the ring.

One of the reasons that Spain was so traumatised by losing the American war in 1898 is that news of the surrender arrived whilst Madrid was at the bullfights. A whole generation of writers and intellectuals came to associate that defeat — still referred to as El Desastre — with the fiesta. Many of them became abolitionists, arguing that ending bullfights would help Spain catch up with its Anglo-Saxon rivals.

But I digress. Lima was, in Michelin terms, “vaut le voyage”. The three surviving Spanish bulls were brave and earnest. The three Peruvian substitutes less so: lively at first, they turned sulky and diffident. It was disappointing. Peruvian toros bravos, especially those bred at altitude, often have more lung capacity than their Spanish cousins, giving them greater stamina. This batch, raised near Lima and of Domecq descent, showed little of the grim determination that Peruvian fighting stock can display.

What must it be like to take your first appearance alongside two Olympian figures?

If the bulls were mixed, the matadors were not. All three were determined to dazzle, and all three did. El Juli, who started his career in Mexico to get around EU child labour rules, knows when to adapt his style to New World tastes. He was still controlled and economical, but he used his two-handed capote to give us some of the ambitious sculpture that was part of his early repertoire. 

El Juli first triumphed in Lima in 1998, winning the sought-after Golden Scapular (a heavy devotional medallion given to the best matador of the season). He is intimately familiar with the public’s taste. Limeños like to see passes given from a kneeling position — something that the grander Spanish rings regard as verging on vulgarity. El Juli literally genuflected to the local aesthetic, giving a beautiful and lively pass known as a molinete de rodillas. He killed his first bull clumsily (his one fault) but his second perfectly, cutting two ears.

Roca Rey continues his stratospheric ascent. His courage has always been other-worldly, and he verged for a time on tremendismo, preferring spectacular feats to low, slow, controlled passes. No one calls him a tremendista now. His courage finds expression in his readiness to offer classical series to even the most cussed bulls, and to do it so close to the horns that he is forever being caught. He cut three ears.

What must it be like to take your alternativa — your first appearance as a full matador — alongside these two Olympian figures? Arturo Gilio, the 19-year-old son of a bullfighter, was the first Mexican to take the alternativa in Lima the Acho’s two-and-a-half centuries, and he wanted us to remember the date. Knowing the local fashion, he gave one of the longest series of passes from his knees that I have seen. He was brave, flashy and frenetic, losing an ear on his first bull through faulty swordwork but deservedly cutting one from his second.

Six ears, intense human drama and at the end that cathartic release that you only get these days from good corridas (or just occasionally, good productions of Shakespeare’s tragedies). 

Afterwards, Lima’s toffs gathered to award Roca Rey the Golden Scapular — the fourth time he has won the trophy.

“Did you really come all this way just for the one corrida?” the matador asked me.

“Yes, maestro. Can you imagine if you had been shite?”

He stared at me in polite bafflement. Thirty years of watching bullfights, and I still forget that British sardonicism doesn’t travel.

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