Like all the Islands El Hierro celebrates Carnival time with three distinct weekends of Carnival in each of three municipalities. The first one is always in the district of La Frontera. What is different about Fronterais the event that takes place on the Sunday and Tuesday evening.
This is when Los Carneros take to the streets of Tigaday to wreak havoc for a few hours. Two statues stand on the main street to remind everyone of this event.
I’m told that the characters are loosely based on a mythological Roman God Faun. Research of this character tells me that he had the legs of a goat and a human torso. Not quite what Los Carnerosare?
The Carneros,or Rams, are all male and the competition to be one can be quite competitive. They all meet at a secret location (a shed in reality) in Tigadayto prepare themselves for the event. Here some of them dress themselves in sheep’s fleeces. They adorn the bare parts of their bodies, legs and arms in black boot polish. Wrap more bits of fleece around their wrists and ankles. Adorn their heads with helmets of fleece with ram’s horns or even the whole scull on top.
Around their waist they tie numerous cow bells. Each Carnero has a shepherd who dresses in hessian sacking and a grotesque face mask. Again they black their legs and arms with boot polish and wear strips of fleece around their wrists and ankles.
Then there is “El Loco” dressed similar to the shepherds but with bright orange hair and grotesque face mask. The job of “El Loco” (The mad one) is to make bloody curdling screeching noise and drag chains and a machete on the ground.
Just after 5pm the excitement starts to build. Many youngsters and anyone that’s slightly daft make their way up the main street heading towards the post office. All of a sudden there were squeals of delight and shouts of “they are on their way” and everyone ran past me towards the middle of town. It was a false alarm and everyone retraced their steps.
Then there was the distinct sound of cow bells ringing and I got my first glimpse of Los Carneros appearing over the brow of the hill. They were all strolling leisurely as a group towards the waiting crowd.
Suddenly they were off and split up, the so called shepherds keeping their rams on a tight lead, well for a few seconds anyway!
The crowd ran for their lives, some up alley ways others into local bars a group of young girls made for the local supermarket and found the doors closed. Then realised they were trapped. Los Carneros had their first victims. They took great delight in smearing the girl’s faces with boot polish. The ones that struggled and screamed the most got the most attention.
Then down into the centre of town were the road widens and most of the crowd were waiting to watch the spectacle. Los Carneros divided and conquered and it wasn’t long before most of the crowd were smeared in black polish.
A young boy was carried past me by his father. He had a little polish on his face but was crying hysterically and appeared terrified of the weird creatures running around him. The pack gave chase and a young lad lost his shirt in his desperate struggle to escape from the clutches of them. One young man was carried kicking and screaming slung over the shoulder of one of them. The crowd were cheering for him to be smeared in even more polish. They weren’t disappointed.
As I looked round I was confronted by one of the rams.
He obviously had no polish as I escaped being daubed. Around me no one else seemed safe, the camera operator for the local TV station had her face completely covered. The local newspaper reporter received the same treatment. Other local photographers had their bald heads smeared but their cameras were left untouched. Some tourists not realising the risks decided to take photographs of the men and received the same treatment, much to the delight of the local crowds.
The cow bells were ringing, the crowd laughing and cheering, screams from those being chased all made for an electric atmosphere. The Rams had split up and could be found all around Tigaday.
Back in town I found the young lad that had been crying before, surrounded by a group of about four of the Los Carneros. He was feeling braver and allowed “El Loco” to carry him. They ran a few hundred yards with him. Then he realised he’d made a huge mistake as he was gently laid on the ground underneath the scrum of bodies. He was smeared in more boot polish and had to agree to a high five before they would let him stand up and run back to his dad. He did not know whether he should be laughing or crying.
One advantage Los Carneros have over the crowd is that the rams and shepherds can see who you are. All I could see were a pair of dark laughing eyes staring at me.
As I enjoyed more of the fun and mayhem all around me I saw one of the so called shepherds wrestle a teenager down onto the floor. He smeared his face with a little polish. The lad swore at him and didn’t appear to be too pleased so another shepherd appeared with an open jar of polish. The lad was held down even stronger and more polish smeared over his head and face. He opened his mouth to swear at the shepherd again and ended up with a mouth full of polish. At this all three of them fell about laughing and the teenager ran off looking for a cloth to wipe his mouth out with.
Just as suddenly as the noise started it all goes quiet. Los Carneros have gone. I ventured out and had my picture taken next to one of the statues to prove to a young girl that it was safe and that it wouldn’t daub her with polish. She then asked me to pull faces for her as though I was scared. I was only too happy to oblige.
As I looked around me anyone just happening upon the scene would be wondering what on earth had happened. Just about everyone, from the very young to the very old had boot polish on their faces and clothes. There were young lads running round in shredded clothing and smeared all over their bare skin with boot polish. Young girls, phones in hand, taking selfies to send to friends. Everyone was happy.
Then when you thought it was safe to venture out Los Carneros ventured out again for one last mad dash of mayhem and chaos.
It’s a unique experience and I can say that no animal was harmed or injured during the event!