How to Survive the Running of the Bulls

The ten best ways to have a great time at the Fiesta de San Fermin, without taking a horn or nightstick to the head.

runner falls

A runner falls on his back at the 'curva,' or turn.    Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

Bill Hillman Pamplona

The author in Pamplona

For those looking for the ultimate red-blooded adventure, the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona will be held July 6th-14th. You may know it better as the Running of the Bulls. During the course of the nine-day fiesta, the city closes off the cobblestone streets and lets loose the bovines for eight consecutive runs. The main events and the parties offer about as many ways to get hurt as to have fun. My first time, in 2005, was a bit of a blur. Since then, I've run with the bulls 35 times and figured a few things out. To make sure your first time is a little bit more rewarding, here's some advice.

10) Go to the Opening Ceremony, But Not Alone

Fiesta de San Fermin
A second before the Cohete and the start of Fiesta de San Fermin during the "Chupinazo" in the Ayuntamiento Plaza.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

The Chupinazo, the Fiesta’s explosive opening ceremony, takes place on July 6th. As the hour of high-noon closes in, young people by the thousands cram into the 50-by-50-yard Town Hall Plaza. Champagne and sangria burst into a sparkling mist above, and likely get knocked into your face by a clumsy band of young knuckledraggers. If you are slimly built, do not enter the Chupinazo alone. I’m a 200-lb. athletic guy, and with the squeeze its nearly impossible for me to breath. Every year, dozens of individuals pass-out and the crowd passes them overhead to Red Cross medics at the edge of the Plaza. During the final 15 minutes, a steady stream of these limp-bodies float past. Find a big group of large bulky types and make friends quick. Stand in the middle of them, then go with the flow when the sea of bodies start to rock and sway. Hang until the blessing by the Mayor of Pamplona, during which you should raise your Panuelo (red-handkerchief). The stick-rocket then assails into the bright sky and explodes and pandemonium erupts. Now it's time to tie on your Panuelo.

9) Eat in the Street

Calle Mayor, Pamplona, Spain
Revelers dance and sing on Calle Mayor as they follow the city band, La Pamplonesa, late in the day.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

The food and drink in the Plaza De Castillo are extremely expensive, and not exceptionally good. Grab a liter of San Miguel beer or a plastic jug of Sangria at a small grocery store and locate a sandwich shop. Ignore the cramped bars; instead join a random marching-band or impromptu parade. Also, wear durable shoes and expect them to be destroyed by the end of Fiesta. Public-male-urination and breaking bottles are Spain's second and third most popular pastimes during the fiesta.

NOTE: If you are taken in by a group of beautiful Pamplonicas (women of Pamplona) that are buying you drinks and dancing with you in the street. Congratulations! They are not going to have sex with you. The women of Pamplona are extremely religious and chaste, so just enjoy yourself while it lasts.

8) Jumping the Fountain

Statue at the Mussel Bar
Jumping off the statue at the Mussel Bar.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

First of all, let me just say, I’ve run with the bulls 35 times and I wouldn’t dare jump off the fountain. When the Aussies get to leaping from the extremely tall and difficult to climb 15-foot fountain, watch for a good half hour. This should scare you out of an attempt. If you must try—again, which I don't advise—don’t do it while drunk. Every year someone slips through those greasy, sangria-drenched Aussie arms, hits the hard stone street, and ends up in the coma ward at the local hospital.

7) Pick Pockets

Waiting for the encierro
Waiting for the encierro to begin.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

This is one of the world’s greatest and largest parties. During nine days of unbridled debauchery, performers, vendors, and some of the world's best pickpockets the world has to offer come here to work. I once had 300 Euros snatched from my pocket (granted, I drunkenly slept in a doorway). I also had my watch plucked right off my wrist and didn’t even notice (this time sober). No expensive watches. No wallets. Invest in a money belt (damn international fashion rules). And, watch out for this guy.

6) No Cameras or Videos

plaza del toros
Encierro entering the callejon to the plaza del toros.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

Last year I was running beside a guy who was filming with his fancy new chrome-cased iPhone, suddenly a tall bulky Spaniard ran past and smacked said instrument right out of his grasp. The expensive device splintered into several pieces on the cobblestones. I doubt he was able to put that back together.

5) Don't Show Up Drunk

Spanish policeman
A policeman forcibly moves a man trying to stay in the space between the two 'vallados' or fences.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

Aside from the obvious reasons for not being inebriated, here's another one. Police remove the visibly drunk from the bull-run course. Other things they don't like? Ridiculous costumes and hats. So, yes, leave the giant banana outfit and foam pirate hat at home.

4) Arrive at 7 a.m. and Stand in the Right Place

Spanish riot police
A line of Spanish riot police direct would-be 'runners' off the street.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

Running of the Bulls Route
Running of the Bulls Route in Pamplona

The run starts at 8 a.m., but you'll want to get there early. You must wait in the "good zone" (see map). Police lines form at both ends of the good zone. At 7:30 a.m. another police line forms just past Town Hall, and this line begins a slow methodical walk along the course to the Bullfighting Arena. They pick their biggest, craziest, and most sadistic police officers for this task. There’s always around a thousand bozo tourists standing in the "bad zone," foolishly expecting to run. The police push all of these would-be runners back with their huge, glossy black nightsticks. Any big mouthed tourist who protests gets an abrupt wake up crack to the skull. Those who continue to resist get beaten exponentially harder and then dragged off the course by their ankles. A gate swings open at the two intersections along Estafeta Street and every single bozo tourist gets pushed off the course. How do I know? This happened to me in ‘05, my rookie year. The police line breaks at ten to eight, and you can walk up the course to any starting position you want.

3) Don’t be a Vallente (Brave One)

Running into Bullring
Spanish riot police on the "vallados" just at the entrance to the bullring as they keep the "valientes" running into the ring.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

If you really want to run with the bulls, you need to look at a map and pick your starting position. They have four legs. They’re faster than you. If you do run, you'll only keep up for a short distance. Arrive at your spot (see number 4). At 8 a.m. there are two stick-rocket-bursts. After the second, you know all the bulls are in the street. Now, wait. Depending on where you are along the course it could take up to two minutes for the herd to reach you. When you see the flicker of camera flashes up along the balconies and feel the rampaging crackle of hooves rattling the ground beneath you, then run. May God be with you. Run too early and you’ll end up entering the white sand arena minutes ahead of the herd, where you'll get pelted with hunks of bread and vegetables and showered with mocking laughter by everyone in the 20,000 seat arena. As the crowd chants Vallente, you'll understand that the Spanish have a wry sense of humor.

2) Don’t Touch

The 'pastores,' or herders
The 'pastores,' or herders, walking down CalleEstafeta with their long sticks as they inspect the "encierro" course.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

In T.V. footage you may have seen men stationed all along the course wearing green, three-button, collared shirts with Pastores written across the back. Pastores translates to shepards. Like shepherds, they carry thin, 5-foot-long willow canes in their hands. Those canes draw blood in bright explosive spatters. If you touch a bull the Pastores will not hesitate to swing that cane down and splay open your hand. Unfortunately, that probably won't be the end of it. It isn't unheard of for every Spanish runner in the general vicinity to stop, turn around, and beat someone down to the cobblestones. This is their tradition. You are a guest at their party. The bulls are sacred to these men. Respect the bovine.

1) Sol Party

Pamplona Bull Fight
The bullfight begins promptly at 6:30. In the penas.   Photo: Copyright Jim Hollander, not to be reproduced in any form

During the bullfights, you'll want to hang out in the Sol section. As you've probably guessed, Sol means Sun. These are the cheap seats, and they’re a whole lot of fun. The Pena’s (communal groups) all hang in the Sol Section. They chuck food, splash sangria, sing, play drums, and blow horns for the entire two hours of bullfighting. If you want to actually watch the bullfights, sit in the Sombra (shade). If you want to have the time of your life, sit in Sol. Wear clothing you are prepared to trash afterward. Do not bring any electronics as they’ll be destroyed by Sangria. Also bring food and drink. You’ll need to hydrate, and possibly retaliate.

For more photos of Fiesta de San Fermin, check out Jim Hollander's web site.

More Travel