Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1926
After dropping our stuff off at the left luggage lockers at the bus station, we checked out the town. It looked like anarchy: trash, bodies everywhere, and the faint smell of vomit/alcohol/urine in the air quickly revealed how out-of-control San Fermin is. (However, credit to the municipal workers for keeping the city relatively clean with their constant efforts) We got outfitted in the traditionally white and red outfits, grabbed some drinks, and joined the crowd, meeting up with local Couchsurfers in the evening. Because the city was so packed, swelling to +1 million people from a normal population of 200K, I couldn't find accommodation but decided to camp it with a bunch of other Couchsurfers in Media Luna Park.
Running with the Bulls
After a restless night's "sleep" (lots of drunks, thieves, and miscreants), we were up at 5:30a to make sure we got a place in the morning's encierro (bull run). Apparently if there's too many people, the police cull the crowd, kicking everyone out in the latter half of the course. The nervous energy was better than coffee: people stretching, newbies (including us) trading tips of what we heard from experienced runners, police pulling drunks and problem runners from the run, more stretching, a low buzz from the crowd...
After the culling we lined up just past Dead Man's Corner at the start of Estafeta, which is just past the halfway point. I had smuggled my GoPro + monopod in my pants and another guy told me to keep it there until the first rocket went off. He said people start running after the first rocket so wait at least 30 seconds after the second rocket.
08:00. First rocket - bulls released.
Pull out the GoPro. Fidget with it.
Moments later, second rocket - all bulls out of the pen.
Shake out the feet, check the GoPro, counting to 30...
Already people are running by... jostling... bumping... screaming...
Suddenly people surge around Dead Man's Corner, on their toes and focusing their attention behind them. They turn and start running towards us with an urgency that clearly... OH SH*T, I JUST SAW HORNS! RUN!
It felt like I kept up for awhile, but in reality the bulls were gone in seconds. I calculated they should be running a 5-6 minute mile pace, so needless to say I didn't keep up for long, especially while trying to hold the camera. Soon after, the third and fourth rockets went off (first bull in the arena and all bulls secured at the arena, respectively). The fall from the adrenaline was only matched by the euphoria of not having been gored, trampled, or smashed. A light jog to the arena, past an unconscious body lying face-down in the street (good thing his friends formed a wall around him or he would have been trampled even worse), and it was over. People congregate in the arena where young bulls are released to chase and knock over corredores for the crowd's amusement. A tourist jumped on the bull's head and rode it about 50 m before getting punched off and beaten by the Spaniards. Apparently, they don't tolerate disrespecting the bull (jumping on it, pulling it's tail), and that's an easy way to get beaten. This fact really isn't advertised to tourists because through the week tons of tourists pulled the same stunt with the same results. I didn't enjoy this part of the festivities because people just swarmed the bull and in their rush to escape it they often pushed or stepped on you because they weren't watching where they were running. At least in the encierro, you run a straight path.
Day 2: I ran the beginning of the course this time, Santo Domingo (right side). While still exciting, the encierro lacked some of the novelty of the first run. I made the mistake spending too much time watching for the bulls after seeing a steer leap 6ft in the air. I tripped over another fallen runner, scraped my knees, and got a knee to the face from the runner behind me as he tried to hurdle over us. Needless to say, that run was disappointing.
Day 3: The middle of the encierro, Ayuntamiento and Mercaderes (right side). I didn’t take the GoPro this time- it was all about the run. I learned my lesson from yesterday and didn't look back. That's a bit of a rush, not knowing where the 600 kg (1300 lb) beasts are or how close they are to you. At one point, I spread my hands out to steady myself and felt the warm, scratchy hide of a bull running next to me. Ajo!
Running of the bulls was A LOT of fun! That was the sole purpose of the excursion into Spain, and we didn't really party much, choosing instead to sleep or hang out with people in the park. San Fermin would definitely be better with a large group of friends for the partying and atmosphere.
Click here to see videos/photos from all the runs on RTVE.es.
Photos from Pamplona.
Videos from Pamplona.
Here are the things I learned from the runs:
- People are dangerous. Watch out for them.
- Keep looking forward. People fall a lot, and if you trip over them, you risk getting trampled yourself. You can look back for half a second, but no more!
- If a bull gets separated from the pack, get out of there! That’s when they’re most dangerous.
- The arena entrance is a hazardous place (lots of people, the run bottlenecks, bulls have charged a lot of people there)
- It's worth it to spend a bit extra on the pants with zipper pockets.
Here are some tips for San Femin in general (assuming you're camping):
- Use the luggage storage! There's one in San Francisco plaza which is good for accessing at all times, and one in the bus station (only open 06:00-23:00). If there's a group of you, put the bags you don't need in the large storage locker in the bus station and the bags you do need (sleeping bag, toiletries, etc) in San Francisco plaza.
- The municipal bathrooms are generally better (stocked with toilet paper).
- Media Luna park is a nice shady park near the arena with plenty of water taps, a nice bathroom, and free wi-fi. But beware it has lots of thieves at night.
- Pickpockets will go through your stuff while you sleep. We didn't lose anything when we slept with our belongings inside our sleeping bags.
- You can get your food and alcohol cheaper in the markets south of Avenue Navarra.