Toro! Toro! (Pamplona, how to survive the bull run)

Madrid had been a blast and after several nights of partying with new friends it was time to move on to Pamplona to attend the festival of San Fermin.  The festival of San Fermin is most famous for its bull run where thousands of people gather together for a week long celebration of the famous saint.

Originally I had no plans to be at this festival, for my Europe excursion was not meant to begin till August, but in an interesting turn of events I found myself leaving a month early, just in time for the festival.

My day began with a sleepless night as I shared a bunk with a friend whose phone went off throughout the night, in a room meant for 4 but 6 of us stayed in.  Tired and hungry I stumbled into the bus where I passed out for a couple of hours providing hours of entertainment for my friends as my head tilted back against my seat with my mouth wide open. A ticket to Pamplona should run about 30-40 Euros.

The festival kicks off with an epic sangria fight, which unfortunately I missed, but I arrived that weekend which probably had the highest attendance due to it being the weekend. Highly recommend going for the start of the festival, after all why wouldn’t you want to be drenched in sangria with thousands of people.

As I awoke from my slumber, I began to see the traditional outfit worn during the festival. White pants, white shirt, red sash, and red pañuelo will either be the outfit you die in, or the outfit you had the greatest time in.

We arrived early in the afternoon and after dawning our outfits we joined in the festivities. The plan was to take it easy and pace ourselves but after seeing a sea of people passed out on any patch of grass they could find, and another sea of people raging, I thought to myself, “fuck, I’m not ready for this, oh well time to rally (pounds copious amounts of alcohol to the face)”.

The next couple of hours can only be described in a montage of drinking, bull fighting, dancing, applauds, roaring crowds, dance parades, death and more drinking…good times.  In my drunken state I was determined to walk the course the bulls were going to run the following morning.  I wanted to be a bit prepared, after all I didn’t come all this way to be gored by a bull, but there was no way I was going to miss it either.

Accommodation

Hostels and Airbnb are booked out months in advance so plan accordingly.  The rates are also much higher for the event so budget for that as well.  I was lucky to find an Airbnb for like $90 bucks a night.  I know expensive but so worth it.  You can also camp in the local parks or sleep in the bus station like my friends did.

The Route (El Encierro)

The route the bulls run is walled off so they can’t escape and it stretches just over 800 meters. The street is narrow, and paved in cobblestone. One thing nobody told me was that the Spanish wash the street prior to the race to clear it of any debris, so you’ll be running on wet cobblestone, good luck. The run ends in the arena where more fun is to be had.

pamplona-bull-run-map

The Runners

Runners are made up of nationals and foreigners. Once the run starts its every man for himself. I say man because very few females participate in the run. The Spanish also frown upon it and authorities might remove a female from the run, sorry ladies. Being to intoxicated and having any form of picture/video device to take selfies will get you excluded from the run as well. Fellow runners are also your other threat. They will push and trample you, anything to escape from being impaled.

Dead Man’s Corner

Dead man’s corner is a sharp right turn along the route. The most consistent advice I received was to stick to the right because the Bulls will take a wide right turn and smash anyone on the left side. I had originally placed myself at dead mans corner so to avoid it during the run. Bad idea, for the police will kick everyone out beyond this point. They try to manage the size of the crowd and will boot as many people as they deem fit. Best way to avoid this is to position yourself as close to the start of the run as possible.

The Run

I slept an hour before the run and was still drunk when I awoke. I had lost my friends the night before but we found each other prior to the run. It was 5am and the sun was creeping up over the horizon.  Note to future runners you don’t have to be up by 5 am for the run isn’t till 8 am.  I just wanted to ensure that I had a spot.  You should be fine if you get there right before 7 am.  I mentioned that I got removed from the race because I was positioned near dead man’s corner.  I pleaded with the officer to let me stay in but she said to me, “Regresa el proximo ano” (come back next year).  I noticed several of other runners hop the fence and work their way around the police to find another entrance.  I rallied the troops and we followed these renegades.

The Bulls
Bullpen

It was a mad dash towards the beginning of the race, the one place we did not want to be. We found an opening between the fence and once again we were participants in the race.  Two Canadians, an Australian and an American waited nervously for the first rocket to go off.  The first rocket signaled the release of the bulls while the second rocket signaled that the bulls had reached the crowd. A minute before the race the crowd intensifies and an eerie chant echoes through the street.  I later found out that this was a prayer to the famous saint.  It was eerie enough to frighten the foreigners as they began to take off.

Less than 100 meters from the start I stood alone as my friends said, “fuck this shit mate, I’m out”.  I was determined to see the bulls before I started running.

BOOM! The first rocket goes off.  I thought to myself, “Ok I have some time still, bulls aren’t that fast, right?”

BOOM! Second rocket goes off seconds later. “OH SHIT!”

I see the horns and pack of bulls spreading the crowd of people like Moses did to the Red Sea.  I take off with no single thought in my head.  I can hear, “TORO! TORO!” coming from behind me along with the ever growing sound of hooves stomping on the cobblestone.  Moments later I feel the rush of the crowd push me towards the fence where a group of people had fallen giving up any chance to stand up.  Instead they huddled on the floor protecting their head.  I leaped over them as several massive blurs passed my peripheral.  Just like that the race was over, and I jogged the remainder of the way into the arena.

At the arena I found my friend and we celebrated our dash from death.  The crowd in the arena cheered the victorious runners.  The gates are shut and an announcer comes over the loud speaker announcing the release of a bull.

After The Run
Right after the bull run in the arena

Wait! What!

A single bull is released into the arena. We spend the next couple minutes avoiding the bull before deciding to hop the fence, but as my friend and I make our escape a Spanish officer pushes us back in.  A simple grin is all he gives us.  We spend another 15 minutes avoiding the bulls that are released into the arena before finding an unguarded side of the arena for us to hop the fence.  For the rest of the time we become spectators and watch the crazy Spanish agitate an already frustrated bull.  This goes on for a good while.

The best advice I can give you future runners is………..run, simply just run.  Good luck.

If you find yourself in Spain during the festival, make every effort to make your way to Pamplona, I promise you won’t regret it.  I highly encourage participating in the bull run as well because it is an unforgettable experience.  Regardless if you run or not, the Festival of San Fermin is a must do and you will have a great time.

Till next time friends.