Fiesta de San Fermin: tips for experiencing the running of the bulls

Location: Plaza de Toros, Pamplona, Navarra, Spain

Dates: 6-14 July

Level of participation: 5 - run with bulls or drink enough to kill a horse

Romanticised by Ernest Hemingway, Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls is an unbridled outpouring of the passion that pumps rudely through the Spanish character. As part of the festivities dedicated to the town’s patron saint, San Fermin, hundreds of ‘runners’ sprint along 800m of track in front of a six-pack of raging bulls.

Every year, without fail, there are injuries and even the odd fatality in the early-morning runs. The official website described 2007’s final run as ‘fast and clean’ because ‘only’ three participants required medical treatment, one for a goring.

The encierro (bull run) began when some bright sparks started running alongside the horned beasts as they were herded to Plaza de Toros for the bull fight. Beginning at Corrales del Gas, where the bulls are kept, the dash through central Pamplona is unsurprisingly swift, taking about three minutes.

With the bulls charging at up to 55km per hour, it’s impossible to outrun them for the whole course, so runners tackle sections before jumping out of the way. This seems like a great plan until the bulls get separated or one turns round to have another crack at its terrified quarry.

The two scariest sections of the run are Estafeta, the stone alley with only doorways to take refuge in, and the narrow entrance to Plaza del Toros. It’s a regular bottleneck for fear-crazed runners and their snorting pursuers. A big danger here and elsewhere is pile-ups, where runners fall over and create a human barrier for the poor sods behind them.

All in all, it’s a good idea for runners to scope out possible pitfalls and escape routes before the action begins at 8am, and to flick through the multilingual survival guide handed out by the organisers. Before the rocket is fired, signalling the release of the bulls, stewards circulate the track and persuade inebriated runners not to make the biggest mistake of their life. Drunkenness has often been a contributing factor in the 200 injuries that have occurred since 1924, because the other terrifying aspect of the fiesta is the partying. As primal as the encierros, the attendant knees-up kicks off the night before the festival officially begins, and continues without abate until the local sangria supply is exhausted or Pamplona has passed out in the park.

The debauchery includes statue leaping in Plaza de San José - into the comforting arms of a mob of drunken strangers - and a food fight involving eggs, flour and, of course, the odd alcoholic beverage.

The Running of the Bulls remains a controversial festival and the World Society for the Protection of Animals has plenty of information on campaigns to end bullfighting and links to Spanish organisations like the Asociación Defensa Derechos Animal.

Essentials: pick up a traditional red-and-white Basque outfit or, if you can’t spare the euros, strip for the Running of the Nudes protest against bullfighting.

Local attractions: visit (but don’t jump from) the statue of ‘Papa’ on Paseo de Hemingway. A fearless encierro runner, Hemingway set part of his breakthrough novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) at the fiesta.

More info: www.sanfermin.com

See other top festivals in July here.

This article was updated in June 2013.