Running With The Bulls in Pamplona

Paging a Mr. Hemingway..?  Have you ever looked into a person’s eyes and just seen pure fear?  I’m talking about seeing the eyes of an animal here… just in human form. You can see into their eyes and know that any semblance of rational thought has left the building and the person is operating solely on animal instinct.  You know that look right?  Now just imagine being trapped in a street with hundreds of those people running straight at you and you’ll have a pretty good idea what running with the bulls in Pamplona is actually like.

First, the basics for those of you who don’t know (and I didn’t before I got here).  The running of the bulls is the main attraction of Pamplona’s San Fermin festival… a nine day orgy of non-stop (literally) partying.  San Fermin officially runs from noon on July 6th through midnight on July 14th.  The running of the bulls (encierro in Spanish) is held at 8:00 am (yes, in the morning) every day beginning on the 7th of July.  6 bulls and 6 steers are let loose from a pen located just outside the old city walls, and they run through the city to the bullring located on the other end of the old city.  The 6 bulls will all be killed in the bullfights that take place later that day… the steers (castrated bulls) are used to help guide the bulls into the ring (and the same steers are used for every encierro).  All in all I’d say the course is about half a mile long and the whole running part of the event takes about 3 minutes.

I basically came to Pamplona on a whim… I had decided that I wanted to do the Camino de Santiago, and the route ran right through Pamplona… and given that the timing seemed to be working out, why not come and and see what this whole San Fermin thing was about right?  Exactly.  I somehow managed to find a room in an apartment with a Colombian family right in the middle of the city center (and right on the actual route of the Camino de Santiago as it goes through Pamplona) on the day I got there (everyone I spoke to told me I was crazy as they had booked their accommodation a whole year in advance and that everything was sold out and blah blah blah… thank you impeccable timing and not relying solely on the english speaking internet).  So I showed up the afternoon before (the 5th of July) San Fermin was to start and… well… have you ever seen the news shots of a town preparing for a hurricane… with everyone running around scrounging for supplies and boarding up their windows?  Well, the exact same thing was happening, except the supplies were extra cases of wine, sangria and beer, and all of the businesses that didn’t sell souvenirs, food or alcohol were literally boarding up their storefronts to close for two weeks.  It was, basically, absolute chaos.  I settled into my apartment, bought two San Fermin uniforms (white pants, white shirt, red bandana/scarf and a red sash) and hit the town to see what was happening… which, in true spanish fashion, involved a huge outdoor dance party in the town’s main square that went until dawn (note again that San Fermin has not even started yet).

Is a hurricane coming through?

The pre-party.

I really had no idea what the next day would be like.  I got up, put on my San Fermin uniform, ate some breakfast and headed out to city hall at about 9:30 (which was where the official start of San Fermin kicked off at noon).  First, the streets were just absolutely packed with people…all dressed in the same clothes… and all drinking heavily.  There was actually a very joyful vibe in the air… music was playing everywhere, dancing in the streets, etc.  I grabbed myself a liter of sangria and made my way toward city hall to find this happening:

Whoa… I was not prepared for this level of ridiculousness this early in the morning (this is before 10 AM mind you).  All that pink you see on everybody’s clothing… that’s wine, cause everyone (including myself) tosses wine in the air and pours whatever they have (when they’re not drinking it) onto passersby.  At 10, I decided it would be a good idea to go back to my place and empty my pockets of anything valuable and damageable… so sadly I have no pictures of the rest of the day, but here’s a shot of me just before I dropped my stuff off (a respectable level of cleanliness that would not last another five minutes once I got back to city hall).

I’m pretty sure you can imagine what took place for the remainder of the day… every street and venue was jam packed with people, roving marching bands wandered the streets and played all day and through the night, people dancing everywhere, people pouring various liquids off balconies onto the crowd below, people jumping off things into the crowd… etc.  It’s pretty safe to say that if you don’t like crowds, drunk people, or the combination of both, the opening weekend of San Fermin is not for you (it did calm down a bit after the first weekend, but only really in terms of crowd size, not in terms of partying all night).  During the day I ran into a group of Americans whom I hung out with, and once they left I managed to find a group of Pamplonan locals that took me a bit out of the fray where I partied the night away until 3:30 am.  I got up at 6:30 AM to try and find a good spot to watch the first encierro that morning… and if you’ve ever seen Bourbon street in the early morning during Mardi Gras you’ll know the scene I saw when I woke up… basically, utter devastation… people passed out everywhere amongst giant mounds of garbage and a surprisingly large number of people who managed to stay awake (and drunk) all night.

So I found a good spot, watched the first running of the bulls, then went home, ate and slept until about 2 PM.  Wash, rinse, repeat and there’s San Fermin.  Done and done.

Hmm… what’s that you say… you want to know if I ran with the bulls?  And what is was like to do so?   And that’s the only reason you’ve been reading the amazingly long and detailed blog post until now?  Ha ha, fair enough.  First, watch this video of the encierro from July 8th (I watched this one):

Notice two things… First, notice that once you’re in the actual roadway (i.e. where the bulls be running) that there’s really no place to get out even if you really, really want to.  Second, pause the video around the 1:33 mark (go ahead, I’ll wait)… what do you see?  Definitely not a bull, that’s for sure… and how long was it until the bull actually appeared before you could tell where he was?  So, for me, that’s the thing with the running of the bulls… for the record I did the bull run on the 9th and 10th of July… once you’re actually in the street and the bulls are running, it was actually hard very to tell when they were coming because you were busy dodging hordes of fear-crazed people running directly at you.  Not that the bulls aren’t scary (because when you see one up close with no barrier between you and him they definitely are), but the people are just as scary… I’ve never actually seen that many people with fear-crazed eyes/animal brain taking over in one place before.  That’s one of my big takeaways from the running of the bulls memory-wise.  I honestly wish I had some great video of me running in front of the bulls horns for 20 seconds to show you guys, but both times the bulls just ran right by me… they were right next to me before I even knew it and gone before I could react.  D’oh.  One thing they don’t tell you is that a lot of those guys running in front of, and next to, the bulls are folks who have been doing this for a long, long time… and they know where to start, when to run and have loads of experience knowing when the bulls are coming.  I’m sure that is part cop-out rationalization on my part and there’s some 25-year old Australian guy who ran in front of a bulls horns for one minute without ever having seen the running of the bulls before… but I doubt it.  So there’s my exciting running of the bulls story… not so exciting right?

Well… not so fast.  I don’t think I’m that lame (although several of you reading this may think/know otherwise).  Pause the encierro video above right at the end… where it shows the bullring from above (around the 2:43 mark)… so what they don’t tell you about the running of the bulls is what happens after the bulls are corralled into their pen (behind the bullring).  See all the spectators in the stands… they’re there for a reason.   And see all the people milling about actually in the bullring… they’re in for a surprise (or at least I was as I didn’t know what was about to happen when I followed the bulls into the ring).  The authorities in charge actually close the doors of the bullring and let each of the bulls out one at a time to wreak havoc on the people in the bullring… yes, you just read that correctly.  The bulls are let out one at a time to run around the giant crowd of spectators huddled together in the bullring.  Let me tell you… s%^t got crazy.  Here’s a short video showing one of the bulls in the ring on 7th of July.

Absolute insanity right.  The whole thing took about 45 minutes as each bull is let out until they appear tired (and getting them back in the corral can be an event in itself).  I saw several people just get absolutely destroyed by bulls right in front of me… the video does it justice I think.  However, I think you can see it in the video, after the initial feeling of pure chaos, you can kind of see a pattern developing for how the bulls act… so if you can ignore the crowd (which is just as wild-eyed as they were during the actual run), you can get close enough to the bull to play with him a bit.  So I’m proud to say that I got close enough to touch one of the bulls… did I dance in front of him, or grab his horns, or jump over him (yes, I saw one dude jump over a bull)… definitely not, but I did touch one bull.  I spent the rest of the time trying not to get run over by people until the last bull was re-corralled.  And I did not repeat going into the bullring my second time… felt I tempted fate enough there.

So that’s running with the bulls in Pamplona.  A couple of random notes for fun: Apparently lots of cities and towns in Spain actually have runnings of the bulls as well, Pamplona’s is just the most famous.  For all my talk about fear-crazed spectators, every time a bull would go after one person (i.e. get someone on the ground and keep trying to push/gore that person) loads of people would jump in and try to get the bull off that person (at great risk to themselves obviously)… there’s some comment about the good/evil nature of humanity there that I definitely won’t touch here.  If you’re a Hemingway fan than Pamplona is definitely for you.  Most of the hard-core partying tourists show up for the first weekend only, and San Fermin is much more mellow with a very Spanish vibe for the remainder of the festival.  Pamplona allows people to camp in their city parks for the festival…so there’s just people sleeping everywhere during San Fermin.  Also similar to Mardi Gras (at least in my experience), once you get away from the main plaza/streets there’s a much more relaxed partying going on (and plenty of other events… parades, fireworks, markets… etc.).  A couple of random photos:

A common sight.

My spectacular attempt to get a photo of the bulls running by while in the street with them.

A shot of one of the tamer roving marching bands… from my balcony… at 3 AM.

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