Attending the Running of the Bulls should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. It requires a lot of energy, little sleep, and lots of sangria so I advise everyone to attend while they have the endurance to make it through all of the festivities.
Running of the Bulls is part of the annual San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. The story goes that Saint Fermin was a Christian martyr that met his end by being dragged through the streets of Pamplona with angry bulls running after him. This lead to the present tradition of the week-long celebration of locals and tourists alike running through the streets with the bulls as they are let out from the corrals and through the streets to get into the bull ring. This tradition had caused deaths in the past (though not recently) and every year several “gorings” where bullhorns end up through various body parts of participants. And the rest of us watch …
The festival was intricately described by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises where Hemingway describes the beauty of the bull run and fiesta.
“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.”
― Ernest Hemingway,
I think this video sums up the first two days of this time-honored tradition:
Where to Stay
We attended as part of the Busabout Tours group – staying in nearby San Sebastian and taking the one hour bus ride every morning into Pamplona for the fiesta. (There is also a camping option, staying at a much closer location.) Tour groups that participate in the festival are scarce, and one of the guides later explained that many have stopped running trips due to the inhumane treatment of the bulls. The bull run typically involves taunting the bull but these bulls are also later killed in the bullfights at night (which we did not attend).
There aren’t many hotels in Pamplona (the city is very small) but you can stay at La Perla Hotel where Ernest Hemingway’s characters stayed (and Hemingway himself). But if you can find an apartment that overlooks the bull run route, that is an added bonus. Just renting a space to stand on a balcony in someone’s apartment can run you a few hundred dollars.
Traditional attire is to dress in all white – head to toe (we even bought white shoes). Shops in the area sell cheap clothing for tourists, especially since you have to plan for them to get ruined during the fiesta. A red scarf is also worn, but you do not tie it around your neck until the official start of the festival.
Opening Ceremony – “Chupinazo”
The first day of the festival there are no bulls – just sangria. In all white, everyone carries leather pouches filled with sangria (which is sold by the jug) and the entire day is full of sangria throwing, dumping, and squirting so that your full white attire ends up being completely purple. At 12:00 noon the mayor announces the start of the festival in the town square with a rocket and this is when the traditional red scarves are tied around your neck.
The main square, Plaza del Castillo, is where the party starts and there are plenty of cafes to hang out in (including Café Iruña where Hemingway ate). We stayed here for most of the festival but others were brave enough to explore Plaza Consistorial which is packed tighter than a mosh pit at a rock concert. This square gets wild and ribs can be broken just from celebrating too hard.
The party goes all day and all night so when we arrived the next morning, it was still going strong with broken glass crunching beneath our feet as we walked to the first bull run.
The First Run – “Encierro”
We arrived bright and early the next day to get to the stadium in time for the first bull run. As we walked through the square the debris from the previous day’s festivities covered the ground (although it was not there long – this city has their street cleaning down to a science). We waited a short time to get tickets to the stadium (6 Euros) to watch at the final destination of the runners. Alternatively, paying for a balcony spot or finding some space along the street to watch the run will give an onlooker great views – especially those that are watching along Dead Man’s Corner – the sharp turn that is the most dangerous for the runners.
At the end, all of the runners flood into the stadium and once the bulls are in, they let out smaller bulls back into the ring. (Some of the tourists weren’t aware of this and looked pretty panicked.) During this part the bull is taunted and often several more injuries are doled out to participants (including someone on our trip whose face got kicked by a bull).
This tradition continues for the next seven days, and at night there is the option to attend the actual bullfight. Just be aware, this can be a bit disturbing so it’s not for the feint of heart.
But in the middle of the day, when there are a few moments of calm, don’t forget to check out the beautiful city for what it is – this is a place classic novels are made of.