Running of the Bulls in Pamplona: Tips and Info
Running of the bulls in Pamplona takes place every year during the San Fermín festival. The festival is crowned as Spain's biggest street festival -nine days of nonstop celebration, drinking, dancing, and fun. You can imagine the crowded streets, the lines at the restaurants and bars. Many sleep in the parks and even on the streets. And the streets are filthy - the dirt, the garbage, the smells - are overwhelming.
Running of the bulls, or encierro, is on every morning of the festival at 8 a.m. Arriving early is a must as some streets are cleared and blocked for the bull runs at 7:00 a.m. When you arrive in the early hours when it is still dark, you are greeted by a city that has been partying all night.
The streets and balconies are filling up with people dressed in white and wearing the traditional red scarves. The balconies, rented out by the locals, provide the most comfortable and impressive view of the running of the bulls. We were lucky to get a balcony at the corner of Mercaderes and Estafeta Streets, at the famous curve where the bulls and the runners are forced to slow down and make that precarious sharp right, and then race up Estafeta.
It is fun to watch the before-race preparations…the medics getting ready, the police reprimanding those who have not recovered from their all-night partying, the runners stretching and sharing tips with each other, the cameramen, the photographers.
What motivates the runners? Machismo? Vanity? Each day of the nine-day fiesta, runners test their luck and skills. It is dangerous, it is fast, and accidents happen. It is a bit terrifying to see the men and the bulls racing together, the beasts with their animal instincts. The sights and sounds can be unnerving to the bulls who have been roaming freely until they have been bought to Pamplona.
Running of the bulls
At 8 a.m. sharp the bulls are released from their corral. Here they come! They are so fast and no human can match their pace. It can get chaotic. The bulls instinctively run together in a herd, but they can get separated. Once separated, their instinct will be to protect their territory and to attack everyone who is nearby. Only very few runners know what they are doing, and most are inexperienced and dangerous to themselves and to the others. The adrenaline runs high and mistakes happen. Every year dozens get injured and the local TV station gives each morning “the balance of the injuries.”
The pastores, experienced bull herders are identified by long sticks in their hands. The bulls are accompanied by the steers and oxen, animals trained to herd the bulls. Many of the runners are carrying rolled-up newspapers to swat the bulls if necessary.
The running of the bulls has been a tradition for centuries and started as a religious festival to honor the patron saint of Pamplona, San Fermín. Even today, runners ask San Fermín for protection and guidance before the run.
The festival was made famous outside of Spain by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 classic “The Sun Also Rises” which transformed a small provincial party into an international event. The atmosphere in the city and the contest between man, bull, and death made a great impression on Hemingway.
Today, it is mostly the tourists who keep the tradition alive and it remains one of the most controversial events to take place on European soil.
TIP: It is not necessary to stay in Pamplona to enjoy the festival and the running of the bulls, especially is drinking and partying is not your thing. Pamplona is an easy day trip from San Sebastián, only an hour and a half away (just leave early!).