Running of the Bulls Travel Tips

Revelers run for safety during the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. (1006)

Revelers run for safety during the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

So, you want to do the Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona, Spain?

The first thing you need to know is the entire festival is EXTREMELY graphic with the half-ton bulls goring whoever they can. The bullfights. The excessive drinking. The protests. If you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you’ll be just fine.

Officially the festival is referred to as the Festival of San Fermin, but thanks to Ernest Hemingway and his book The Sun Also Rises, most refer to it as the Running of the Bulls. (It should be noted there is FAR more going on for the festival then just The Running.) Originally the festival was nothing to do with running of bulls down the street and it was just about the bull fights in the evening. However, some time back, as the people were walking the bulls from the fields to the bull ring, someone thought it’d be fun to run in front of the bulls – instead of behind. After a couple of years things caught on, some guy mentioned it in a book and the Festival of San Fermin would become one of the parties in the world.

To coincide with my 30th birthday, I decided to attend the 2009 Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and two years prior started planning where to be and how to get there. Once the hotel was booked it was on to flights. (The Festival was July of 2009. I booked hotel and flights in November of 2008.)

Airfare would have been over $1,000 per ticket (Chicago to Switzerland to Madrid) but instead I used frequent flyer miles to save on costs. As mentioned earlier, I booked our flights in November and had no issues with using airline miles. One of the other guys meeting up for the festival decided last-minute to join up and his flight was $800 (Chicago to Dublin to Barcelona).

In Europe, you can mostly show up at a train station and purchase tickets in the hour or so before you travel. This is not the case with getting to Pamplona for the festival. Make sure you get your train tickets in advance. (We bought them in Madrid the day before travel, and one train had no second class seats remaining, and the other train had no first class seats available.) We purchased our train tickets back to Madrid once we reached Pamplona.

We stayed at the Gran Hotel la Perla, which one side faces the Plaza del Castillo while the other side is on Calle Estafeta, which is part of the route the bulls will use. The hotel wanted their money — paid in full — at the time of booking through a wire transfer to their bank. The cost of a room with a balcony on the route was six times what the “off-season” price was. The six of us fit snugly onto our balcony. (Four others split two rooms at a hostel for 200 euros per night, with a shared bathroom.)

One account I read about the Festival of San Fermin was how many days to stay for the Running of the Bulls? The suggestion was four days/three nights. I think it was the perfect amount of time. We arrived in Pamplona the night before the opening ceremony (trying to make it for the Running of the Nudes), then left after the second bull run.

PETA leads a protest called “Running of the Nudes” through the bullrun route on noon on July 5th. It’s their way of drawing attention to the cruelty the animals face. (It seems to be a hybrid idea between protesting and the old saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”) We did not make it to Pamplona in time to see the nearly-naked folks run down the street, but everything I’ve read says it’s not a violent or angry thing by any means, its sort of the “Opening Act” to the party.

The festival begins on July 6th at noon in the main plaza of town, Plaza Ayuntamiento. If you want to be in the plaza for the celebration, arrive no later then 10:00 AM. Do not wear jewelry (this includes earrings, necklaces, bracelets, watches, etc.), nor should you bring along your purse or a backpack. Close-toed shoes are a must with all of the broken glass. (Glass bottles have since been banned from the opening ceremonies, but still, wear close-toed shoes.) Anyone claustrophobic should rethink about going to watch opening ceremonies from the plaza. Whatever you wear will get soiled with a variety of things.

At 12:00 a rocket is fired into the air and everyone holds up their red bandanas to salute San Fermin. At this moment, the crowd starts to dispel and now it is acceptable to wear your bandana around your neck (it’s normally worn around the wrist until the festival begins).

During the festival, a variety of things occur every day. The Toro de Fuego (“Fire Bull”) is a paper-mache bull with fireworks attached and runs the route of the bulls. Fireworks galore. Gigantes y Cabezudos (giant paper-mache dancers and over-sized heads) torment adults and children. Bands in the Plaza del Castillo. Throw in some time to drink and be festive and its very easy to spend three days merry-making and never really stop to sleep.

The bullrun occurs every morning at 08:00 AM from July 7th through 14th. The bulls start near the church on Cuesta de Santo Domingo, turn left on Mercedes (in front of the town hall), turn right onto Estafeta, left on Telefonos and into the bullring they go. There are six bulls are four hefers. If you’re not going to run with the bulls, be in position to watch along the route by 06:00AM at the latest. Bring a sweatshirt you don’t mind losing, perhaps a deck of cards to pass some time, and maybe something to read. The church on Cuesta de Santo Domingo is one of the best free places to watch from. If you’d like to watch from the bullring, there are monitors set up to watch the bullrun (televised nationally every day) before they get to the bull ring.

If you are planning on running, please be smart about it. There are websites out there which have pretty good information on the safest parts of the route to run, and what to expect. Time-wise, I never really saw a time-table of what to expect for the Running of the Bulls. Here’s what I saw while attending:

07:30AM the streets are cleared of the drunk people milling about. (I felt sorry for the people who were there ready to run, only to be cleared away by the police.) After the streets are cleared of people, debris and trash is cleaned up by the street sweepers.

07:50AM those willing (and sober enough) to run are allowed to take their positions on the route.

08:00AM a rocket is fired into the air to announce the bulls have been released to the streets. A second rocket is fired when the bulls reach the people. A third rocket is fired when the bulls reach the bullring. A fourth (and final) rocket is fired to announce all of the bulls are safely in the bullrun stable.

If you’re going to run, wear good running shoes and enter the route in the designated entry areas. Know that people are aggressive as they run; every “bull versus man” incident we saw was a result of a runner tripping over another runner and wiping out in front of a bull. (This is one of the reasons why I didn’t run. I knew I could out-manuever a bull, but the guy I saw shoving other runners out of his way was a concern to me.)

We paid fifty euros each ticket to a scalper to sit five rows from the back on the shady side of the bullring. The sunny side was chaos and fantastic to watch from our vantage point. The bull fight was not-so-awesome to watch, as anyone can win when it is eight versus one.

Overall, the Running of the Bulls was an amazing experience. At the bullfight, we sat next to an old Spaniard who filled us in on the goings-on for the festival. He ran with the bulls that morning and the previous twenty-two years as well. He said Pamplona was his number three party on the list, after Carnaval in Brazil and Oktoberfest in Germany. As for our party, it was an awesome experience and I’m so glad to have been a part of it. We didn’t run, but didn’t need to with a spectacular balcony overlooking the longest stretch of the route.

Random notes: Whoever you’re planning on going with, make sure they’re good, stable people. Don’t bring anyone who is a “bad drunk.” … Be prepared to spend some serious cash. … Be safe with your belongings. Use the hotel’s safe. Use a money belt. … Every bull dies every year. You’ll end up cheering for the bulls during the festival. … If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll have a slightly more difficult time finding food. … Red and white is the attire of the festival. Cheap white pants and white shirts can be purchased at several locations around Pamplona. Red scarves and bandanas can be purchased readily as well. … Don’t wear any clothes at the festival that you don’t want to get dirty. … has an information-packed website, but I wanted to write down some random things which I thought were good to know. Click your way over there when you’re done here (if you haven’t already been over there yet).

That’s our trip in a nut-shell; there are some pictures posted in the Europe travel gallery.  Make your trip your own adventure and take a lot of pictures along the way.

And send home postcards. Everyone loves postcards.

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