Stare down potential death at the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. (©Migel/Shutterstock)
Pamplona, Spain, is one of the last places to willingly risk death and every year thousands of people crowd into the city for the opportunity.
Being chased by bulls during Encirerro—the multi-day bull run event—is only part of the San Fermin Festival each year from July 7 to July 14 that promises partying like tomorrow won’t arrive.
“The energy in Pamplona is like nothing you’ve ever experienced,” said Mark Hellman Regouby, president of Running of the Bulls, Inc. “As a runner, you’re facing your mortality, and staring death in the face. It is a sobering prospect, and one that brings intense clarity of focus. I’ve run with the bulls four times, and still today, the hair on my arms stands up when I hear the rocket go off.”
While the intense energy of adrenaline-hopped participants spreads like wildfire, there are some planning tips and things to remember that will make any visit to—knowingly—be chased by bulls as much of a success as possible.
Event Rules and the Basics
There are some rules for the event that organizers won’t budge to accommodate. Breaking these cardinal rules will land participants in jail or slapped with heavy fines.
Those hoping to participate who are less than 18 years old have to sit out. Any participants who are visibly drunk or under the influence will be carted off the course for the safety of other runners.
Other rules include not hiding in corners, starting the run on the first half of the course and not running behind the bulls if they pass you. There are six bulls, bred painstakingly from honored ranches throughout Spain, that lead the chase followed by six steers or oxen to, ideally, keep the bulls from getting separated or turning around to injure runners.
Bull runs happen each day of the week-long festival and start at City Hall. Runners are expected to pass through the entry gate—no reservations or tickets are sold to this free event—between 6:30 am and 7:30 am, with the gate closed at 8 am.
Just before 8 am a Spanish chant sweeps over the participants, asking St. Fermin for his blessings during the run. Exactly at 8 am the first of four rockets goes off to let the crowd know that the bull run is starting.
An average of 20,000 participants watch and run the Encirerro each year, so the rockets are the organizers’ communication tool to cut through the noise. The second rocket that goes off is to tell the runners that the bulls have left their pens and are barreling through the fenced-off course.
Planning a Successful Run
Running ability and shoe choice play a small part in a successful and fun running of the bulls experience.
"For first-time runners, your road running prowess has almost nothing to do with your success," said Hellman Regouby. "It doesn’t matter how far or fast you can run if you don’t know where to be, what to look for and how to avoid the bulls."
One of Hellman Regouby's tips is to resist the urge to run on the first day you're in Pamplona for running. Instead, rent balcony space along the course and scope out the layout from above. Watching the action unfold in an earlier run will give participants a way to formulate a plan for their own run.
Keep in mind that this event means the city is bursting with either double or triple its typically population and weekends are the most crowded, with people coming from all over Europe for a weekend adventure. This means that balconies, accommodation and transportation need to be booked well in advance and accommodations will more than likely be several times higher than normal rates.
Where to Eat and Sleep During the Festival
Don't expect any down-time, unless it's planned into your itinerary, during this week-long event. Many people rent apartments and hotel rooms and the ban against sleeping in public parks—as some have partied too hard to make it back to their room—temporarily is less-vilifed by the Pamplona police.
Many of the local bars and restaurants serve cozy, Spanish dishes—try favorites like Saint Wich for cheap eats or Bar Gaucho and Bar Casa Jesus Mari—and during the San Fermin Festival, these local hotspots are working in overdrive to accommodate all the visitors in town to see the toros and celebrate Pamplona's local saint. There are also local bakeries that offer warm, crusty breads and delicate pastries perfect for an afternoon snack.
For a San Fermin Festival experience to write home about, stop by Cafe Iruna for a quick espresso like Ernest Hemingway did during his own bull running experience later chronicled in his book "The Sun Also Rises." Expect elbow-to-elbow counter service and crowded patio tables as visitors cram into the establishment for a picture with the Hemingway statue inside.
Attend San Fermin Festival Events
The festival is packed with live music performances and other entertainment, so take advantage of the city's lively spirit during the week of festivities. Many people crowd throughout the streets to drink and socialize as local bars and restaurants try to to seat patrons and keep up with the demand.