Navigating The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain

At sixteen years old I spent a celestial summer vacation as an exchange student in Bilbao, Spain.  Through AFS (American Field Service), I sojourned with a Basque host family who helped me navigate my virgin voyage abroad. Eagerly I immersed myself in Spanish language and culture.  Although my Iberian junket wasn’t all filled with rainbows and unicorns, I did spend a memorable weekend at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain.  Undoubtedly I learned some interesting little known facts about this unique San Fermin festival.

Navigating The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain

The Running of the Bulls. The San Fermín festival - with its famous "Running of the Bulls" - used to be celebrated in autumn. However, in 1591, the Pamploneses decided they were sick of the rainy fall weather and decided to move their Patron Saint day to July 7th. (Photo courtesy of latimes.com)
The Running of the Bulls. The San Fermín festival – with its famous “Running of the Bulls” – used to be celebrated in autumn. However, in 1591, the Pamploneses decided they were sick of the rainy fall weather and decided to move their Patron Saint day to July 7th. (Photo courtesy of latimes.com)

The Background of the Running of the Bulls

Before I delve into my fabulous weekend dodging the dangers of San Fermin, allow me to share some details of this peculiar tradition.  Annually between the dates of July 6th-14th revelers run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain in celebration of San Fermin, the town’s patron saint.  For centuries along an 826 meter (half a mile) course down cordoned-off cobbled stone streets, eager merrymakers over the age of eighteen line up in anticipation. 

Then organizers release six bulls and four oxen who dart behind, over and among the courageous participants.  Although no official records exist of actual partakers, approximately 1.6 million attend the festival.  On average dozens finish gorged but alive.  Amazingly only fifteen participants have perished since official record keeping began in 1910.

During the festivities revelers don white shirts and trousers with a red waistband and neckerchief.  Some say the outfits honor the patron San Fermin with white and his martyrdom with red.  Others attribute the colors to the butchers who began the tradition.  Nonetheless, to me the red represents the blood of those maimed and the white, the fear splashed across their faces as the blood drains to their extremities.

The Running of the Bulls. The festival, which may date back to the Middle Ages, has been celebrated annually since 1592. (photo courtesy of elpais.com)
The Running of the Bulls. The festival, which may date back to the Middle Ages, has been celebrated annually since 1592. (photo courtesy of elpais.com)

How I Was Invited to the Running of the Bulls

Fortuitously my Spanish host family in Bilbao lived a short two hour drive from Pamplona.  So when my host uncle and his friends invited me for a weekend of reveling at the famed Running of the Bulls, I responded with a resounding “yes”.

Most notably we never actually planned to dash down the course with these colossal creatures.  Instead we elected to watch from the sidelines.  Normally inebriated foreigners battled these one thousand kilos (two thousand pound) behemoths.   On the other hand, we just went for the soiree and spectacle. 

Yet when my host uncle picked me up half-drunk already I panicked.  I realized the practical choice was to stay home and not drive with someone who was impaired.  However in my sixteen year old brain, I reasoned he knew better.  And since no adults protested the proposal, I acquiesced.  Ultimately I chose the risky and adventurous option, and buckled myself in for the ride.

The Running of the Bulls. Pamplona or Iruña is the historical capital city of Navarre, in Spain, and of the former Kingdom of Navarre. (photo courtesy of www.crew-center.com)
The Running of the Bulls. Pamplona or Iruña is the historical capital city of Navarre, in Spain, and of the former Kingdom of Navarre. (photo courtesy of www.crew-center.com)

Little Know Facts about the Running of the Bulls

First, participants run while drunk and operating on little to no sleep.  This is because they spend the entire evening consuming copious amounts of alcohol in one of Pamplona’s many bars.  Reason is repressed once all inhibitions have been drowned in booze.  Then in the early morning hours partiers with impaired judgement and debilitated bodies fling themselves in front of brisk beasts.

Second, the course ends in the Plaza del Toros (bullring).  This is where organizers store the larger bulls, leaving the less deadly oxen behind.  Now less adventurous attendants can jump into the ring to enjoy the “safer” Running with the Bulls experience.  Essentially this means running around and taunting oxen to chase them.

Third, did you know bulls complete the course on average at 24 km/hr (15 mph)?  Sadly the average running speed for humans is less at only 21 km/hr (13 mph), which helps account for some injuries (besides the unexpected like tripping).  Thankfully I stayed sober and did not run.  I enjoy my life and limbs.

The Running of the Bulls. Great American writer Ernest Hemingway loved Pamplona for this spectacle which is part of the popular festival of San Fermin, as he loved bullfighting in general, and this town is one of its centers. (photo courtesy of variety.com)
The Running of the Bulls. Great American writer Ernest Hemingway loved Pamplona for this spectacle which is part of the popular festival of San Fermin, as he loved bullfighting in general, and this town is one of its centers. (photo courtesy of variety.com)

My Experience in Pamplona, Spain

Thankfully my host uncle, his friends and I arrived in Pamplona in the late evening in one piece.  We then proceeded to bar-hop till the early morning.  Essentially I downed 5 beers the whole night while my counterparts matched me three to one.

At one point I broke away from the mayhem, and napped on the sidewalk for two hours.  Apparently I felt safe in this microcosm of like minded spirits.  Afterwards somehow I managed to meet up again with my group to watch the merriment.

Near to 8am we lined up along the outside of the wooden makeshift fences and watched the tired and hungover run for their lives in front of these busty bulls down narrow passageways.   Thankfully we avoided seeing any gorging.  A few fell but nobody was injured.

The Running of the Bulls. Pamplona has a constant, steady flow of visitors, many of whom are pilgrims or hikers doing the Camino de Santiago (Route of St. James) (photo courtesy of boston.com)
The Running of the Bulls. Pamplona has a constant, steady flow of visitors, many of whom are pilgrims or hikers doing the Camino de Santiago (Route of St. James) (photo courtesy of boston.com)

Looking Back at My Weekend in San Fermin

Shortly after my weekend in Pamplona I would later send an ill advised postcard to my mother boasting of my weekend in Pamplona.  I also included my public nap.  In retrospect I lacked tact and empathy.  Certainly she did not want to hear of her sixteen year old son’s weekend of dangerous debauchery amid a drove of cattle across the almighty Atlantic.

Regardless, I’m thankful to have witnessed the Running of the Bulls as a teenager.  Because now as an adult I value merits like sleep and longevity.  Although I might visit Pamplona in the morning to witness the run, I certainly would not stay up all night and party.  As illustrated by my nap, even in my youth I much preferred bed over the bar.

Have you ever been to the Running of the Bulls or any other Spanish festivals?

Please let me know in the comments!

Happy travels,

Matt Weatherbee

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Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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1 Comment

  1. July 12, 2018 / 7:53 am

    Way cool! extreme sports! I appreciate you penning this article and the
    rest of the website is very good

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