This weekend I checked off another “to-do” item from my bucket list, attending the running of the bulls in Pamplona for the annual San Fermines festival, and also not get gored/trampled while attending. San Fermines is a week long celebration in the Basque city of Pamplona, Spain, held July 6 through the 14th annually. I always knew I wanted to attend the event, see the running of the bulls and experience the insanity of the crowds after reading about it in Hemingway and seeing it on international news, but my preconceptions of what it would be like were so far off from reality.
NOTE: Due to the chaos of the crowds at this event, I opted to not take my nice camera to get footage of the event, thus all the pictures I have are from my iPhone, thus the quality of pictures in this post is not as good as normal. I´m just thankful my phone was not destroyed at any point during the citywide rager.
There are many different ways to “do” San Fermin, and it is likely that the way my friends and I chose to travel and experience the festival was not the best nor safest plan in the world, but we survived essentially unscathed and saved ourselves a lot of money. Because hostels and hotels are sparse in Pamplona, many people book places to stay in San Sebastian, but they are extremely expensive during the week of San Fermin due to high demand. Because we only were staying one night and it was likely we would be partying most of the night and would have to get up early to watch the running anyway, we skipped booking a hostel and planned on just living the homeless life for a night with no place to crash.
To accomodate not having a place to sleep for the night, we planned our train trip to arrive in Pamplona around 6:30pm and then leave the next morning at 11:30am. This way we could see the running, have enough time to get to the station without having to loiter around in the city completely exhausted.
It sounds crazy, but literally thousands of people partied ALL NIGHT, drinking from sundown to sunrise. Staying conscious was no problem. I felt overwhelmed a few times, as I had a backpack with all my essentials and people constantly running into me was a bit much after a few hours.
Things I learned/How to Survive
1. Wear tennis shoes. There is urine, broken glass and garbage all over the streets and not only is it disgusting, it is probably not very safe to wear sandals. That being said, wear crappy tennies shoes that you don´t mind if they get urine, broken glass, and garbage all over.
2. Wear a white shirt and buy the red bandana. White pants are also very popular, I personally did not buy them, but if you have comfortable white pants that can get trashed, you will fit in quite well. The bandana was 4 euro and we bought ours at the train station.
3. Buy a bottle to pregame. Alcohol is super expensive at all the bars, we paid 10 euro for a liter of tinto de verano (similar to sangria) that costs us 2 euro back in Toledo. Everyone drinks in the streets, so not having a hostel or private place to pregame is not an issue. One guy even put alcohol in a powerwasher and was spraying it on people near us while watching the running.
4. Bring kleenex, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. There was no toilet paper in any of the restrooms we used, and no soap generally either. The antibacterial wipes are nice for cleaning (literal) shit off yourself in the morning.
5. Be prepared to spend more than you probably want to. Food is expensive, and more importantly like I said before, alcohol is expensive.
6. If you bring a backpack like I did, make sure it is super secure. Mine zips and ties and has a magnetic flap thing to close it up, which made me feel more secure carrying around valuables, knowing that the inebriated idiots around me would not be able to access them.
7. Drink a coffee around 10pm if you can find a place selling them
8. Pace yourself. The crowds are extremely wild with very little police interference (if any at all) and being completely inebriated in such a situation could be very dangerous. I would recommend also traveling in a group of 5 or so.
9. Get to the running track EARLY. They release the bulls at 8am, but wait until 7 to scope a spot and you will be SOL if you wanted to actually see anything. We got ours a bit after 6am, and sort of lucked out and managed to be right up against the fence. It was still hard to see much as there were security personnel in front of us as well as people crammed up on all sides and on top of us, but it was better than if we would have been rows back. This rule also obviously only applies to people observing and not running.
10. If you decide to run, educate yourself on strategy. If you fall, DO NOT try to get up. Stay down and protect your head and neck. There are plenty of websites with information on what time to show up to the starting line and how to make your running experience somewhat safer.
11. BRING WARM CLOTHES! I cannot emphasize this enough. The north of Spain is much different than the center or south, it gets very chilly at night. I brought a light sweatshirt/jacket and yoga pants to change into and I was very comfortable throughout the night. My comrades who wore just shorts were freezing through much of the night and had to buy sweatshirts to warm up.
12. JOIN A PARADE. There are tons of random bands playing parade music, marching quickly through the streets, bulldozing over drunks and it´s rather easy to jump in and join the chaos. This was probably my favorite part and the most fun during the festival.
Overall, Pamplona for San Fermin was an experience of a lifetime, and I have no desire to ever do it again. It was extremely fun, but overwhelming and stressful at the same time. Definitely not my favorite thing that I have experienced so far, but also something I will never forget as long as I live, and it inspires me to dig out a copy of Hemingway´s “The Sun Also Rises” to re-read once I get back to the States.
San Fermin is definitely an example of what I try to make my life motto: Do it for the story. And don’t get gored by a bull.