Each July, a million people pack the cobbled streets of Pamplona.
They come for music. They come for fireworks. They come for dancing and sangria. But most of all, they come for pounding feet, thundering hooves, and a chance to cheat death.
Welcome to encierro, the famous Running of the Bulls. For eight consecutive mornings, six half-ton Spanish Fighting Bulls and six steers rampage through the narrow streets of Pamplona’s old town. Some call it barbaric. Others call it lunacy. But for the rest, the amped-up festival is a celebration of colour, tradition, drama, and just the right amount of danger.
History Of The Bull
Believe it or not, the annual institution of fleeing half-ton beasts with swords protruding from their heads has religious origins. The earliest celebration of the festival of San Fermin took place in the 16th century to honour a martyred Catholic saint. The inaugural fiesta was a low-key affair compared to today’s unrepentant bacchanal.
In the next few years, dancing and fireworks were added to the celebratory line-up and the festvial was extended to last several more days. The first evidence of foreigners joining the fun is recorded in chronicles from the 17th and 18th centuries. By then, the religious focus had taken a back seat to music, dancing, drinking, and bull running.
San Fermin owes much of its current notoriety to Ernest Hemingway. The American author wrote about the festival in his novel The Sun Also Rises, prompting thrill-seekers from around the world to make the pilgrimage to Pamplona. Today the bull runs take place at 8am every morning from July 7 to July 14, and so many join the festivities that Pamplona’s population quintuples during the event.
“Runners are gored, bruised, and trampled. More than a dozen participants have lost their lives in the last century.”
Lay Of The Land
Make arrangements early if you plan to visit Pamps. Tickets for the bull fights sell out well in advance, and hotel rooms book early. Don’t expect much sleep even if you do successfully secure a room. The streets are noisy 24/7.
If you’re unable to find accommodations in Pamplona itself, try the nearby cities of San Sebastian, Vitoria-Gasteiz, or Estella. Note that it can be difficult to find public transportation early enough in the morning to see the bull runs, so this is only a viable option if you have your own vehicle.
Other alternatives include camping or joining the many visitors who simply sleep in Pamplona’s parks. Pickpocketing and theft are huge problems during the festival, so keep a close watch over your belongings.
The action follows the same route each year. The run kicks off with a steep uphill start on Cuesta de Santo Domingo. The most treacherous section is the closed curve leading into Calle Estafeta, the longest and straightest stretch of the run. At Callejón, the run’s penultimate point, the route narrows creating a dangerous bottleneck. The final stop is Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting stadium where successful runners can mingle amongst the beasts to celebrate their victory.
Safety In Spectator Form
Not all of us are cut out to be runners. If defying death isn’t on your holiday to-do list, you can still enjoy the Running of the Bulls as a spectator. A set of wooden fences is erected to block off side streets and direct the bulls. Spectators must stay behind both fences at all times.
Getting a good vantage point means getting up early (or staying up all night). The best spots fill up quickly. You’ll want to stake your claim by 6:30am at the latest, but some arrive two or three hours before that.
Onlookers with more upscale tastes can try to score a spot on a balcony overlooking the bull run or a comfortable seated place in the bullfighting stadium. If all else fails, head to a bar. The runs are shown live every morning on national TV.
Life & Death As A Runner
The encierro begins with runners singing a benediction at a statue of Saint Fermin, patron of the festival and the city, to ask for protection. Most dress in the traditional clothing of the festival: a white shirt and trousers with a red sash and neckerchief. Some carry a rolled up newspaper to draw the bulls’ attention from them if necessary.
At 8 am, the first of 4 rockets is set off to warn runners that the corral gate is open. A second rocket announces that all the bulls have left the pen. The third is fired when all bulls have entered the bullring. The fourth and final rocket means the bulls are safely in the bullpen and the run has finished.
The route is 825 m long and the run typically lasts between three and four minutes. In some extreme cases it has taken over ten minutes, particularly if one of the bulls has been separated from the group.
If you’re willing to put your life on the line, there’s no signup process and anyone over the age of 18 is invited to run. Just walk inside the fencing about an hour before the running of the bulls is set to begin.
Getting Out Alive
Just because anyone can participate doesn’t mean everyone should. Running with the bulls requires quick reflexes, a level head, nerves of steel, and a good level of physical fitness. With the party in full swing and the booze flowing freely, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the run is extremely dangerous.
Injuries, whether from the bulls or fellow runners, happen every year. Runners are gored, bruised, and trampled. More than a dozen participants have lost their lives in the last century. Glory and gore are inseparable in Pamplona.
By now you’re either shaking your head at the madness or dreaming of joining it. If it’s the latter, there are important safety precautions you must remember.
Get a good night’s sleep before your run. Both body and mind should be in top condition. That also means no drinking. Don’t attempt the run if you’re intoxicated or hungover – not only are you putting yourself at risk, but also your fellow runners and the safety personnel.
If you slip, stumble, get pushed, or fall for any other reason, ball up and stay down. You will be stepped on, fallen on, tripped over, maybe even kicked or trampled by bulls, but it’s still the safest place to be. Don’t get on your feet until police or onlookers let you know you’re out of harm’s way.
Wear appropriate clothing and footwear. Do not attempt to take pictures while running. Do not hold, harrass, or mistreat the bulls. Don’t run on day one. Watch at least one run from the sidelines or on TV. Talk to experienced participants. Everyone’s technique varies, but once you’re in the fray, you’ll be grateful for any guidance you can get.
Nothing will ever totally eliminate the danger of running with the bulls, but would you want it to? The danger is part of the fun.