“I do the runs every year, but in 2012 I broke a few ribs doing it so I took a break in 2013. Now, I’m back again!”
“I got knocked in the head by a hoof today.”
*Pointing to the dry blood in his ears and cuts on his legs* “I was trying to take a selfie with the bull. What I got was a picture of it ramming me in the head.”
“The guy next to me got knocked out cold, totally unresponsive. I hope he’s ok. He was only six inches away from me. I guess I got lucky.”
These are some of the stories I heard during my stay in Pamplona, Spain for the San Fermin Festival. It’s a festival that most people don’t know by name, but almost everyone knows exactly what happens there. San Fermin is the festival where the running of the bulls takes place. It’s the festival where people who are all sorts of crazy decide to take an 848.6-meter run through the streets of Pamplona while a pack of six bulls chase after them.
The running of the bulls started out as just a way to transport the animals from one side of the city to the bullfighting ring on the other side. Now, it is an internationally known, 24-hour party that goes on for nine days. Don’t be surprised if you see people still drinking and dancing at 9 a.m. or sleeping on the streets in the official attire of San Fermin: an all white outfit with a red scarf around the waist and a red bandana around the neck.
The highlight of all the revelry is watching or participating daily as thousands of people risk their good health and maybe even their lives (yes, a few people have died doing this) in exchange for the adrenaline rush and the bragging rights that comes from running alongside such a powerful animal.
That’s the experience I was looking for when I booked my trip to Pamplona. I’m all about trying, seeing and experiencing new things for myself. After seeing the running of the bulls so many times in movies, on TV and online, I knew I had to take advantage of already being in Spain this summer to check this item off my bucket list.
San Fermin: Day 1
Alarm goes off. I wake up and go back to sleep.
Crap! That only felt like five minutes. I wake up for real this time and get ready.
My travel buddy and I leave the house where we are renting a room. We were supposed to be at the city center by six. The running of the bulls, or “El Encierro” in Spanish, starts at eight. According to our host some people start camping out on the barricades at two in the morning just to get a good viewing spot. There was zero chance of me doing that, so 6 a.m. would have to do.
We get to the city center and are greeted by the exact scene I was expecting to see. There are people drunkenly passed out on park benches. Some people are still drinking. Everyone has the munchies. One bar is inexplicably blasting 50 Cent’s first hit single, and of course everyone loves the throwback. More importantly, as our host warned us, all the barricades leading up to the bullfighting ring were packed. Not an inch of open space. Our quest continues.
We find a spot that looks promising. It’s a small pedestrian only street that leads to the main street where the bulls and the crazies will run. We see the barricades and they’re not full. There’s a lot of movement here so it could be the perfect area to stake our claims on a spot.
There are two barricades, and I see quite a few people sitting on top of the first one. Ha! Those fools! Little do they know that they aren’t allowed to sit there. The first barricade is for the police officers and paramedics on standby, and the other one, which is a few feet further back, is where the spectators are allowed to watch. It’s looking like the odds are going to be ever in my favor.
My travel buddy is too kind. Bless his heart, but he is too nice. I had the upper hand, and he gave it away by informing the people on the first barricade of their mistake. Usually I’m a really nice person. I whole-heartedly believe in helping out my fellow human being, but not today. My competitive side is coming out, and it’s making me mean. It’s a war out here, and I’m determined to win it with my brains and just a little bit of my brawn. It’s all about strategy.
I study the two-barricade system. The barricades are open now, but when the police come to close them, everyone in front will get pushed back, and I don’t want to lose my spot in all the shuffling around. I decide to hide behind the hinges of the second barricade. It’s attached to the wall of the building that frames the right side of this small Spanish street so when people start pushing, I only have to guard my left side.
The police line up and start to close the first barricade. The war begins. There’s a lot of commotion, a lot of pushing and even some yelling. I brace myself to defend my place, and I succeed. As the police close the second barricade, I cling onto it for dear life. Once it’s shut, I channel my inner Spiderman and climb the barricade, propping myself up on the top. I have a perfect view of the street. My travel buddy also grabs a good spot right behind me. He’s so obnoxiously tall that I don’t obstruct his view. Now, all that’s left to do is wait for the run to start.
A rocket goes off in the distance signaling the runners to get ready. The bulls are coming. A second rocket goes off to signify that the bulls are in the streets. For almost a minute I see people slowly jogging down the street in front of me. There’s no sense of urgency and no bulls. I see a few brave men waiting and watching for the bulls to get closer before they take off. They really want to run with the bulls.
Suddenly, there’s some cheering from the spectators watching from their balconies. The pace of the runners speeds up. A slew of expletives are shouted from the street. I hear the sound of cowbells approaching. In a split second there are bulls in my view surrounded by people not only running alongside them but also trying to touch them. Within less than a minute they’re all gone.
That one minute was exciting, but I must admit it was also slightly anticlimactic. Had I been positioned on one of the barricades with a straightaway view of the street, I could’ve seen the bulls running for more time, and it would’ve added some more thrill to the experience. Nevertheless, it was still quite the sight to see, and I am very grateful for the great spot I got, especially considering the time I showed up.
Pay special attention to minutes 0:35- 1:15 and 2:40 -3:15
We begin to wander the streets in search of food and fun. As the sun continues to rise so does the volume of the parties happening on the streets. On every street there is either a stage set up for an officially sponsored concert or all sorts of street performers entertaining the crowds of festivalgoers. This medieval city is alive with music.
With all the drinking and debauchery that goes on during the San Fermin Festival, people often forget that it’s technically a religious celebration. The San in San Fermin does mean “Saint” after all. So, we walked over to the city hall to see a different side of the festival. We watched the procession of San Fermin, which followed the usual protocol of any Spanish procession honoring a saint. An ornate statue of the saint paraded around the city center while a band followed closely by playing lively music. What makes the San Fermin procession different are “The Giants and The Bigheads.” They are giant wooden replicas of kings and queens that dance through the streets while their royal subjects dressed in costumes that have (yep, you guessed it) very big heads, walk throughout the crowds smacking everyone’s heads with a foam ball attached to a stick. It’s a strange but fun tradition to watch.
It was at this procession that my travel buddy and I met the guy who broke his ribs, the one who got hit by a hoof and also the one who saw someone get knocked unconscious. We befriended them, ate with them, and drank with them all day. Despite their crazy stories, they came dangerously close to convincing us to run with them and the bulls the next day. In the end, my travel buddy and I decided the risk just wasn’t worth the reward. As my brother so delicately put it when I told him the story, “If the bulls didn’t kill you, mom would’ve done it herself!”
San Fermin: Day 2
Day 2 at the San Fermin Festival was a calmer one for my travel buddy and I, but it was just as interesting. Early that morning we went to the bullfighting arena to watch the second and arguably more dangerous part of the running of the bulls. A part which we had no idea even existed until we got to Pamplona. From inside the arena we were able to watch on a big screen as the bulls and the runners went through the route that would eventually lead them to the arena. Once the bulls were inside they were led directly to the corrals where they would wait until it was time for the afternoon bullfight.
What happened next surprised me.
With an arena full of runners, they let a bull loose into the crowds. It was a smaller bull than the ones that had participated in the run, and the tips of its horns were taped up, but that bad boy still did some damage. The bull ran in circles veering its head around trying to ram into anyone standing nearby, and it succeeded several times. While the bull ran around the arena, the runners made a game out of trying to slap the bull’s butt, but that was the only kind of physical contact allowed. Anyone who tried to pull its tail or grab its horn was immediately met with boos from the crowd and maybe even a punch in the face from a fellow runner if the boos weren’t enough warning to stop. After 15 minutes, the bull was led inside and the runners were given a two minute break before another bull was let loose. This happened four times.
I must admit that this part of the festival left somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. I am very good at taking part in other cultures without passing judgment, but there was something about this that felt strange to me. First of all, I felt bad for the bull. I’m no Dr. Doolittle, but that bull looked scared and confused as it turned in circles and circles trying to defend itself by attacking one or more of the hundred plus people that surrounded it.
I also felt as though I was transported back to the time of the Roman Coliseum when watching people get hurt or even killed was considered entertainment. Every time the bull hit someone, the crowd would go crazy yelling and cheering. When a bull wasn’t doing a “good job” of hitting people, the crowd would start chanting, “Otro! Otro!” which roughly translates to “Other” or “Another.” It all just felt like going back to a dark, and base part of humanity that enjoys seeing other people in pain. There was a little girl sitting next to me who was about eight or nine-years-old. Seeing her get excited and yell, “Olé” when a bull flipped a man over on his back, just didn’t sit very well with me.
I can’t sit here and tell you that I am 100% against what I saw that day or bullfighting in general because I am still formulating my opinion on the topic. Contrary to popular belief, there are many Spaniards who are against bullfighting and the running of the bulls. It’s even been banned in some parts of the country.
What I can say, however, is that despite the strange feelings that day two gave me, I had a really fun time at the San Fermin Festival. I can finally say that I have seen the running of the bulls in person, and it was a great experience. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m all about, seeing and experiencing everything this awesome planet has to offer. San Fermin is checked off my bucket list, and now I’m off to the next item!