I’ll make it simple for you. Don’t go to the running with the bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain. It’s one of my biggest travel regrets. I went in 2013 with First Festival tours because I thought it would be a fun trip to do with my travel buddy and an opportunity to make some new friends underneath the flying sangria and red scarves held high as we chanted “Viva San Fermin” together. And of course at the big event itself – running with the bulls. I was uneducated about the event. I didn’t do my research. Have you?
First of all, if you love animals you won’t want to participate in the event nor watch. The bulls are surrounded by tourists full of testosterone and sometimes even drunk as both animal and man run like hell into the main arena. The bulls can be injured during the run but it doesn’t matter, there will be a bullfight later on where most often than not the bulls are killed anyway. So you’re basically running with a dead bull.
Secondly, if you care about your own safety you’d pass on this event. People have died over the years during or after the run from bull gorings. And if you touch the bulls, even if just in self defence, the locals will NOT be happy with you. Oh, and they don’t like females running so don’t be surprised if your face meets a fist along the way. This is a local, cultural activity that has become a tourist attraction. Don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms by everyone.
The best memories that I got out of the experience were having a coffee and biscuit with locals that had opened their balcony to me for the event, camping, swimming and exploring with my friend and seeing the streets of Pamplona. As someone who now also tries to reduce their single use plastics, I wouldn’t be able to cope not only with the animal cruelty but with the plastic waste that is generated from this event covering the streets and main square.
Save your holiday dollars and annual leave for a different festival. They’re expensive these days! Running with the bulls is really not worth it for the brief thrill of dodging sangria in your white outfit. If you are genuinely interested in visiting Pamplona, I’d recommend travelling there in January to June or August to December to skip the lines for things to see, do, eat and drink with the million or so other tourists there in July for running with the bulls. I’m sure the locals would appreciate your interest and dollars at other times of the year!
Here’s my travel diary from 2013. Unedited so you can truly decide if this event is for you!
Day 1 Friday 5 July
My fellow Aussie travel buddy and I are at Primark in Oxford St buying last minute Running of the Bulls event essentials aka white shirt and shorts for the opening ceremony on Saturday in Pamplona.
After our shopping was done we headed out to Heathrow and had little bursts of excitement while lined up for the flight. There was a short stop in Madrid along the way and then finally our flight destination was Pamplona. Once we arrived at the airport we caught a taxi to the El Molino campsite about 20 minutes away. It was 10:30pm when we arrived and it was already dark with people partying. We registered with First Festival travel and were shown to our tent. To get it over with, we rolled out our sleeping bags and blew up our inflatable pillows in preparation for returning later after checking the place out and no doubt having a beverage to celebrate our arrival.
The party at this camp site was well underway. They had dancers there and everything! There were malibu and vodka with pineapple mixers on offer and soon even I got up and had a dance on the stage. During our first night I managed to break my bag strap, lose an earring and take our new kiwi friend to first aid after spotting that his foot was bleeding which he was sharing with everyone in every dance step. He was given a bandaid, not even a wash, and off he went! Saw the poor guy with a massive limp the next day and no memory of us.
Day 2 Saturday 6 July – Opening ceremony day in Pamplona
We woke up, got ready and found some bread at the campsite shop (literally a baguette with nothing in it – wishing we had selected the breakfast option as part of the First Festival tour package!) and waited for the bus. We were dressed in mostly white and had our little red handkerchief tied around our wrist ready for the ceremony at midday. The bus trip was not our friend. The bus trip into Pamplona from El Molino campsite is around 20 to 30 minutes and it felt like forever. Tip: it costs 50 euros to clean the bus if you’re ‘sick’. Mind over matter!
We stopped at the supermarket and bought some sangria and water. The place was packed. Everyone was buying sangria, eggs and flour to throw at everyone. Robyn and I followed the First Festival tour guides in to the Main Square which was the area that wasn’t going to be as packed as Town Hall. Not long after midday (slight delay due to some technical difficulties) the cannons went off and we all held our handkerchiefs in the air and chanted “Viva San Fermin” and tied the handkerchiefs around our necks. Then we soaked one another in sangria. Lucky for us we only got a small bit of egg on us. Not that it mattered anyway! We got amongst it! We then made friends with a bunch of Australians. We all held hands and led each other through the crowded streets of Pamplona (had a bit of a dance along the way!), sussing out where the bull run would be held tomorrow and trying to find the White Horse, the pub where the First Festival people were going to be meeting around 2pm.
The White Horse was ridiculously packed so after the effort of getting there we made our way back to the centre. We didn’t make it very far before half the group made friends with some locals. We went to join them and I had a Spanish guy suddenly pouring me a San Miguel! But we were keen to head back to the campsite and relax in the pool so a few of us said goodbye to the others and attempted to find the bus stop. Fail. The bus was leaving at 4pm and we had left around 3:30pm. Well we got lost and in the end just found an ATM, wandered through some markets and found a shady park to relax in. We finally moved around 8pm. Such a beautiful park! And hunger had well and truly set in!
We found a very meaty looking food place nearby. The guy out the front even offered the boys if they wanted to go hunting later that night! Was my first time eating pork ribs. We were all still covered in sangria which meant ‘no worries’ when we spilt some more over ourselves by accident. And after all that we missed the last bus back to the campsite at 10pm so went to find a taxi.
It was a 5am start in the morning so after a bit more chat and frivolities it was time for bed.
Day 3 Sunday 7 July – Bull run day!
Was tough to get up this morning! It was cold during the night and our heads hurt a little bit. When we arrived at the bull run event, our tour guide introduced me to a local that was hosting me on his balcony. I was separated from the others in my tour as they were led to a different balcony together, including my friend that I was travelling with. We weaved in and out of the barricades that were set up for the run, and at one stage we were walking the path where the bulls would soon be running. I was up on the balcony at 7am. The bull run was due to start at 8am. I found myself in a local Spanish apartment with no other tourists or anyone who could speak English. Umm hola! They were friendly, made me coffee and had lots of treats prepared. It was very lovely. I was hanging out the window with my coffee and biscuit looking at all the people in the crowded street ready to be trampled, and saw one of my friends that I didn’t know was there! Waving! I went over to the balcony on the other side of the lounge room and spotted our Aussie friends from yesterday. I was really nervous for them! A few times people were being stupid and pushing the crowd. It was like watching dominos as they all swayed and tried to stay upright.
Soon it was 8am and the cannons went off! Everyone started to run. I could see the bulls running behind them. But our new Aussie friends were around ‘dead man’s corner’ and couldn’t see the bulls coming. I was trying to wave at them to say GO! But they didn’t see me… they obviously wanted to run with the bulls otherwise they would’ve joined everyone else in their fleeing! After they were out of sight, one of the Spanish guys tugged at my shirt to come inside and watch the rest of the bull run on the TV. It showed a few people piled up on one another and one guy panicked and grabbed the bull’s horn. Note to anyone who ever does the bull run, don’t ever touch the bull or you could literally be beaten up by the locals. I didn’t see anything happen to the guy on TV but I am told it happens.
So after five minutes it’s all over. I relaxed on the couch until the main guy who led me there agreed to help me get back to the 9:30am bus. I needed to go back to the campsite for a sleep! I made it back but no sign of my friend. So snooze time for me in the tent under the hot sun until she arrived back. There were a few busloads to get through. I must’ve been on one of the first ones. I later heard one of the girls say they’d been punched in the face by a local at the start of the run. Apparently they strongly oppose women participating!
We slept in the shade around our tents for a few hours. Then went to the pool for a drink and a swim. Later we went for a walk down to the river. It started getting dark. Two Canadian guys ran and jumped in the water. I was feeling brave enough to join them but then kind of chickened out. I was standing at the end of the pier with one of them and we counted 1 – 2 – 3 with what I assumed was a plan to jump together. Then! He just pushed me in and didn’t get in himself. I quickly scrambled back up the ladder because being in dark water at the very final stages of sunset kind of freaked me out! A few other people came down and chatted with us before we moved on.
On our way we met some people who said they knew where we could find a hidden weir. So off we went through a bush and found a pier with rushing water and mountains that kind of looked like they had snow on them in the dim light. After admiring the view for a while, our adventure was over for the day as we could no longer stay awake!
Day 4 Monday 8 July – Last day in Pamplona
We tried to get up at 5am to go into Pamplona again today on the bus but couldn’t physically get up. All the party goers had kept us awake until not long before 5am. So today we just chilled around the pool, checked out the weir during daylight and talked about the last few days. We got ready and started waiting for a taxi around 2pm. It was madness trying to get a taxi along with everyone else. We managed to get on a 3pm bus into Pamplona and then a taxi to the airport. Or should I say, aeropuerto de Pamplona. The flight was really delayed and we thought we were going to miss our connection in Madrid. Almost did! We ran about 1km through the airport and just made it onto our flight. The best part about that was the plane took off almost straight away and we were back in London in no time. Got home about 1am. Don’t want to go to work tomorrow! Or today rather!