During the summer of 2014, I checked off a big “to-do” item on my bucket list, attending the running of the bulls in Pamplona for the annual San Fermines Festival.
I also managed to not get gored or trampled while attending, which was a huge plus. San Fermines is a week-long celebration in the city of Pamplona, Spain, held in early July every year. 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 and seeing it on international news. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
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 great. This was 2014, iPhone cameras have come a long way since then! At the time, I was just thankful my phone was not destroyed during the citywide party.
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 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. Since we were only staying one night, we skipped booking a hostel and planned on just living the homeless life for a night with no place to crash. This worked out well since we all partied late and had to get up early to get a spot to see the run.
To accommodate not having a place to sleep, 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 run and then head to the station to go home.
Thousands of people partied ALL NIGHT, drinking from sundown to sunrise. It was so much fun – the energy of the crowds was amazing. Staying conscious was not a problem.
12 Tips to Survive the Running of the Bulls
1. Wear close-toed, comfortable shoes. There is urine, broken glass and garbage all over the streets. It’s disgusting and also unsafe to wear sandals. That being said, wear an old pair of 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. It helps you to complete your San Fermin outfit and gets you into the spirit.
3. Buy a bottle to pregame. Alcohol is expensive at all the bars during the celebrations. We paid 10 euro for a liter of Tinto de Verano (similar to sangria) that costs €2 in Toledo. Everyone drinks in the streets, so not having a hostel or private place to pregame is not an issue.
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) crap off yourself in the morning.
5. Be prepared to spend more than normal in Spain. Food is expensive, and more importantly like I said before, alcohol is expensive at festivals.
6. If you bring a backpack like I did, make sure it is super secure. Mine had zippers and ties and has a magnetic flap thing to close it up, which made me feel more secure carrying around valuables, knowing that the drunk people around me would not be able to access them.
7. Drink a coffee around 10pm if you can find a cafe or somewhere open that’s selling. I’m telling you, it goes ALL night.
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 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 you need to get to the fences much earlier for a view. We got our viewing spot around 6am. It was hard to see 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 the 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 different than the center or south, it gets cold at night, even in peak summer. 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 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.
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. It’s something I will never forget as long as I live. This festival is the perfect example of what I try to make my life motto: Do it for the story. And don’t get gored by a bull.