Why did I go to Pamplona to run with the bulls? Well, why not? It was hands down the most enthralling, alluring and electrifying festival I’ve ever been part of. Here’s my take and this is why San Fermin has to be at the top of your bucket list.
It’s 7 am and already a sea of white and red cloth litters the streets of the Old Town. Remnants of the night before are everywhere to be seen. The white shirts are already stained with beer and sangria, empty cups sprawl the streets and groggy heads fill the air. I’m not the only one feeling the onset of the night before.
Taking a wander down to the start line I can see the bulls grazing in their pen. They’re somewhat peaceful looking, perhaps blissfully unaware of the events that are about to follow. Averaging 600 kilograms, the enormity of these raging beasts starts to become a reality. Six full-sized bulls accompanied by six steers, horns bigger than my arms and torsos that would rival a small car. The fragments of leftover alcohol give me enough confidence to dispel any thoughts of cold feet. I’ve come a long way for this.
Veterans take the necessary precautions, stretching and praying while the tourists and younger generation marvel in the experience of it all. You can take your starting point at any stage over the 875 metres. The narrow and inclined start is for the experts and those wanting the biggest thrill. I’m not so ambitious and take my position about 150 metres from the start line, just before the first tight bend.
As 8 am approaches, the tension accelerates. Side streets and shop windows are bordered up, the city now a designated race track. The local police perform their duties, ushering out those too intoxicated or incoherent to run. Phones and valuables are stowed away, it’s just us, the 12 large bulls and 875 metres of cobbled streets. Anticipation and excitement echoes all over the city.
As the hour ticks over, a loud BANG echoes over the city. The gates are open, there is no turning back now. Nerves sweep through the crowd, excited smiles replaced by faces white with fear. The second BANG fires indicating the bulls have passed the start line. The nervous faces now turn to each other looking for guidance and we all enter a brief state of panic.
"THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!"
People begin to turn and break into a jog, quickly transitioning into an all-out sprint within a couple of seconds. Pushing and shoving ensue as the bulls approach, only about 20 meters behind now. The crowd edges toward the side of the street trying to create a safe passage, some getting caught right in the middle. The bulls are now just a couple of meters away from me. Crashing their way through the crowd, leaving behind a wake of carnage, panic and exhilaration.
Just as soon as they had arrived, they were passed by us. The chasing quickly became the chased as the crowds charge after the bulls, somewhat more confident now that those piercing horns were facing the other way. As I run down the course, I take note of the fallen. The paramedics are already on hand to help the injured. At least half a dozen people were down receiving attention.
I enter the arena where the bulls have now been ushered into their pens. All previous fear and doubt are cast aside. I had run with the bulls and it was one of the best things I had ever done.
If you think that is where the fun ends you are hugely mistaken. The bull run is for San Fermin Festival what the halftime show is for the Super Bowl; a hugely hyped addition to what is already a titanic event. The barriers are deconstructed, the boards over windows are removed, the bars are opened and the fiesta continues.
Pamplona sits in the far north of Spain, just 60 kilometres from the French border. The city of 200,000 swells to well over a million during the San Fermin festival. Spanning from the 6th to the 14th of July, the place transforms into a non-stop party. All day and all night, revellers enjoy the celebrations. Live music, parades, bullfighting, sport and fireworks are all just part of the action.
People of all ages spill into the streets of the charming old town, creating a vibe and atmosphere incomparable to anything I had previously experienced. You'll note everything from marching bands and drunk grandmothers to basement clubs and dancing on tables. All day and all night. The fiesta continues, right until midnight on the 14 of July when the city of Pamplona can finally rest.
Know Before You Go
Prior to arrival:
- There are a range of accommodation and tour packages available. As a solo traveller, I booked a room in a hostel and within a couple of hours, I found some mates for life. Whatever accommodation you choose, it’s best to get in early as Pamplona is not a tourist town and is not designed to accommodate over a million guests so options can be far and few between. It is possible to stay in a nearby city such as San Sebastian and bus into Pamplona, however.
- Although the festival spans eight days, two or three nights is enough to fully embrace and enjoy it.
- The standard attire is an all-white outfit with a red scarf which can be purchased when there. You'll be very out of place without it.
On the ground:
- Embrace the craziness and festivities that surround the event. It's wild and it doesn't stop - nor should you.
- Scope out the track and start line before you run. If possible, watch a run before doing it yourself. They are daily during the festival and kick off at 8 am sharp.
The run itself:
- Hopefully you've found your ideal starting point and had a chance to watch a run from a previous day. Don't panic if you don't have time though - I didn't.
- Take your position nice and early, I'd recommend getting there just after 7. Leave all personal belongings behind. Thank god selfies are prohibited and fines are implemented.
- Wait for the firecrackers. The first at 8 am indicates the bullpens are open, the second following shortly after indicates they have passed the start line. We are on.
- As dangerous and as intimidating as the bulls are, and they are, it's the other patrons that are the real cause for concern. With hundreds of people running for their lives, pleasantries and manners go out the window. Pushing and shoving are common place, falling on the floor is too. If you do find yourself on the ground, stay there. Get into a ball and wait for someone to tap you on the shoulder when it's safe.
- Stick to the sides and take the corners tight. The bulls will try and avoid you where possible so it's best to try and stay as far away from them as possible. They'll tend to run down the middle except for the corners where the 600kg brutes run a wide line.
San Fermin isn't for the faint-hearted. Every year, dozens are injured and in some cases, there are fatalities. Keep your cool, follow these tips and don't push the boundaries. That being said, this is one of the best things I have ever done! Enjoy yourself, embrace it all and tick this one off the bucket list.