The San Fermin Experience: Running With The Bulls
Standing between Mercaderes and Estafeta, the most dangerous turn of the course, I got cold feet and decided I would opt for a 1.5 liter beer rather than participate in the treacherous, injury prone spectacle. The race begins with a shot from the starter’s gun, triggering the release of 6 immense bulls plummeting into a thick crowd of tourists and locals alike, adorned in red and white. The majority are there merely to seek an adrenaline rush while others just to follow tradition. This formidable sprint ends half a mile later in a stadium filled with spectators, also decked out in the traditional red and white, to cheer on and congratulate the runners for having made it. They won’t know about injuries and sometimes, even deaths for an hour or more. This is the famed Running of the Bulls.
For many the race is the highlight of San Fermin, the festival that takes place annually in Pamplona, Spain. But arguably, it’s all about the non-stop parties during the two-week phenomenon. If you haven’t read about it in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, then to really grasp the idea behind the festival, you must understand it’s history or at least understand that Spaniards have the art of partying mastered and the bull stereotype is real.
Why I Went
My mother always spoke of my Grandmother’s trepidation about going for walks, during her visits to Barcelona, when I was a child. Everytime she had to turn a street corner she would agonize out loud about the possibility that a raging bull would await her when she rounded the corner. This story always cracked me up, especially since bull runs had been banned in Catalunya for years. This story coupled with the few bull runs I had watched on TV probably helped fuel my curiosity. Why were these “idiots” putting their lives on the line to beat bulls to a finish line? I would wonder. Fast forward to spring Barcelona 2014, a bucket-list conquering friend texted me about attending the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, it just made sense, hadn’t done it, and I was after all Conquistadora Careese.
What to Expect
You can read the facts and history here. I got different advice about the Festival from my Catalan friends in Barcelona. My host dad told me it was a huge party; I wouldn’t be sleeping and I’d need to stay in Pamplona for at least 3 days to really experience it. To get there I used BlaBlaCar from Barcelona while my friend took a flight to Barcelona from LA and took then the renfe train to Pamplona. During my rideshare journey my driver, conveniently from Pamplona, begged me to tell him I wasn’t planning on running “It started because a bunch of stupid village people got bored...years later bored tourists wanted to try it too”, he said. I assured him I wouldn’t. The other two people in the car with me were two Italians, apparently oblivious to the impending bull run; they were there to party. As we arrived in Pamplona it became evident as all the people were walking around dressed in the traditional white clothing with red scarves tied around their necks. Storefronts displayed mannequins dressed the same. I pushed through the throngs of white clad red scarved revelers as I headed to go meet my friend at our AirBNB booked flat.
To keep up with the Basque tradition my friend and I quickly found a bazaar where we hurriedly bought and donned our own red and white attire and took to the streets. We soon noticed a recurring theme: Drummers, dancing, Sangria, sangria, sangria and glimpses of beer. Oh, and nausea inducing whiffs of urine. Quite the party! Naturally, it was necessary to buy a couple liters of sangria. My white shirt was stained red with the spiked wine in less than 15 minutes. Each bar on each street had transformed into a nightclub blasting pachanga, reggaeton, rock, etc…filled to the point of people dancing in the wide entrances onto the streets, just fabulous. At this festival you meet people from all corners of the world and everyone parties together as if they had been longtime buddies celebrating accomplishments. Each block had vendors and in the squares bands played live tunes to the mass of party goers. Immensely fantastic to experience. These parties continued into the early hours of the morning an hour before the Bull run began.
After the 8AM Bull Run and following events, the parties continue, more people pour into the city and join the friendly crowds to drink sangria, eat sandwiches and dance their hangovers away. This is a good day to join a tour group, I recommend Pamplona Posse. They explain the History of the festival and particularly the run, walk you through the course of the run, giving advice on how to complete it successfully. A particular section of the course has a 90 degree turn which may make you reconsider running. My friend and I went with this tour company and reaching this section sparked the telling of a story of an American being fatally gored at the age of 21. As expected, they us warned not to drink the night before the run. On that note I immediately stopped at the first street vendor to buy a 40 of San Miguel, this would ensure I wouldn’t catch any last minute ideas to participate.
6AM is the best time to wake up and find a great position for the race. My travelmate popped up and got ready promptly, completing his look by snapping a GoPro camera on his head. Now what you don’t want is a rainy day for the run. We set out into a disappointingly drizzly morning to find a good place for him to start the run. The streets are filled with booze and people STILL partying after a sleepless night of boozing.
They were warned by police to clear the course. Wooden gates barricaded the crowd from the runners. Others looked down from overly-priced balconies they rented. I wished my friend good luck as the thrill seekers begin stretching and warming up. A sense of anxiety overwhelmed me as I scampered off to the safe side. Who’s to say these beasts won’t break through the wooden beams? I gave the stink eye to someone on a balcony.
As 7:40 approached everyone was feeling the tense energy and anticipation of onlookers. I spotted our tour guide getting ready to enter the course asked him if he was nervous, to which he of course replied no, and wished him luck.
7:58, a few runners panicked and jumped under the wooden gate to escape the race. 8:00 gunshot seemingly endless seconds of unrest and the bulls appear! They were humongous!!! I watched as one of the charging bulls slipped, fell, then slid 10 feet or so before getting back up join his comrades. After the brief sighting I sped walk to the bullring where everyone on the course ends the chaos. As I entered the ring 7 or so minutes later it was filled with spectators cheering on the runners as they harassed smaller bulls. The big bulls had already been herded into a separate underground area where they began to unbeknowingly await their tragic bullfighting fate later in the day. I felt great sorrow for the small bulls and began regretting my participation in the event. I started getting tinges of satisfaction when runners were tossed the ring or in the air by the rightfully upset bulls.
I found my friend and he talked about his emotions during the run, he explained to me that all he saw was a crowd of people rushing towards the ring pushing and shoving. He also noted that someone got hurt at the end but wasn’t sure to what extent. Sleep deprived and complacent we gathered our things, sat down for tapas, and headed out to the bus station to return to Barcelona. A day later we discovered our tour guide, a bull run expert, was the one that was hurt in the run, a bull gored him through the thigh. Ouch!
Should you go?
This festival is one hell of a party but watching animals being taunted is quite unsettling. If you’re a thrill seeker and want to try something extraordinary I recommend this festival to you. There’s nothing like a non-stop party in the middle of a small town, especially in a country like Spain, you won’t be disappointed. If you want to take advantage of this festival and stick to a budget, book accommodations a month or so in advance using airbnb or booking.com. Google a nearby supermarket to buy alcohol, if you drink, and groceries to prepare your own food. It will save you a lot of money, trust me. Don’t hold back during the parties, people come to have the time of their lives and will only judge you if they notice you holding back. As with any other travel destination, make friends, they many times become lifelong travel partners. Even if you aren’t running, get to the race early for a good spot or rent a balcony. Lastly, if you’re going to run bring running shoes and speak with experts for advice, make sure you learn the course before you run it. Don’t be a stupid tourist if not for your own sake, for the sake of our naive reputation.
What’s the best festival you’ve been to? Is San Fermin on your bucket list?
Careese has a voracious appetite for exploring the peculiar and unknown. Pursuing entrepreneurial ventures and traveling globally, she thrives on uplifting and inspiring others. Web technology, afro-latino dance, and holistic health are her greatest passions. Follow her work at www.conquistadoracareese.com