About This Festival
Three Fiestas in One
With a million revelers visiting from all over the world and a dozen bulls in every run, the streets of Pamplona provide the backdrop for a festival with a nearly mythical reputation, la Fiesta de San Fermín.
San Fermín originated as a weeklong celebration to honor Saint Fermin, and actually blends three fiestas: the feast day of San Fermín, an ancient trade fair, and a bullfighting festival. Saint Fermín was said to have been dragged to death by bulls on the very same streets of Pamplona. Be careful not to meet the same end!
Since the 14th century, local locos (also known as Mozos) have run with the bulls. It all started when cattle herders “ran with the bulls” down narrow streets on the way to the markets. Mix in some Spanish bravado and a dose of showmanship, and the runs were transformed into a competition where herders would try to outrun the bulls and exhibit daring acts of bravery. The first official event occurred in 1591 on the 7th of July, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Rockets Mean It's Time to Party
The San Fermín festival begins with the launch of the Txupinazo rocket at midday on July 6 in Pamplona’s Plaza Ayuntamiento. An ecstatic crowd waits for the countdown with champagne bottles and red wine: three, two, one, fiesta! This is the official blastoff to nine consecutive days of partying. Every day includes a bullrun, a parade of the gigantes or cabezudos (big headed giants), a bullfight, fireworks and more fiestas than you can shake a bull stick at.
A series of four rockets marks the run: the first is the start of the race; the second signals the bulls are in the streets with two herds of tame steer that serve as bull guides; the third means the bulls have entered the bullring; and the final rocket signifies the bulls have reached their pens. When the first rocket goes BOOM, chaos ensues as one of the maddest footraces in the world begins.
The Encierro — The Bull Run
The run itself is a half-mile course down a narrow cobblestone road that leads through the town to the bullring. Runners ask Saint Fermín for protection and make a daring dash to the ring. If you fall during the run — duck, cover your vitals, pray to Saint Fermín and try to get out of the street because you could also get trampled by other runners, in addition to the bulls.
What You Came For: The Start
Early in the morning, every day from July 7 to July 14, nervous crowds dressed all in white with red sashes and red bandanas await the sound of rockets. Despite the parties, wine and rockets, this is what you’ve come for, either as a spectator or participant, depending on which side of the fence you’re standing on. The course is blocked off with a double wall. If you’re on the spectating side, get there very early; if you’re on the running side, you won’t want to linger, especially on the turns.
For those running in the San Fermín festival, the only official entry point to the run is at the gateway to town hall from 6:30 am to 7:30 amIt’s wise to walk the racecourse before doing the run so you can scout out the dangerous spots and plan how to sneak off the street if there’s a pileup of people there. Come 8 am - you’re either in or out.
825 Meters of Mayhem
The race was born out of practicality, as the pastores (easy to spot with their long sticks) had to transport the bulls from the pens to the bullring. Now they just have more company, a whole lot more. With the blast of the first rocket, the bulls are released into the streets and the run begins to the roar of the crowd chanting, “Viva San Fermín! Gora San Fermín!” and hoofed bulls storming out of their corrals. They catch up to the runners quickly.
There’s a famous hairpin turn that’s notorious for carnage, a bend in Estafeta Street halfway through the race. It’s best to make a mental note of this and swing wide. Its nickname is “Dead Man’s Corner,” and there’s good reason for it.
Into the Bullring
The final stretch leads toward the entrance to the bullring, the last leg of the race and perhaps the most dangerous. This bottleneck is not the place to be racing the bulls to the finish, but few things can match the exhilaration of running into the roaring bullring with a dozen bulls hot on your heels.
Once in the bullring, the pastores direct the bulls back into their pens. While this is the unofficial end of the race, some runners just haven’t had their fill. A few minutes later the bulls are rereleased into the ring with the remaining runners in an unofficial “bullfight,” where the odds are stacked in favor of the bulls. With rolled up newspapers acting as swords, the would be matadors often find themselves on a one way trip out of the ring on a stretcher when facing the horns of a tired and angry bull.
After the run, the tradition of bullfighting takes place, which is not for everyone. In recent years, several animal rights groups have voiced public opinion against this event. They cite the tradition of bullfighting and the taunting of the bulls as cruelty to animals. There’s even a Running of the Nudes jog on July 5 each year as a way to increase awareness of the bulls’ plight. We’ve run the streets of Pamplona and the odds do seem to be in the bulls’ favor, at least until the bullfight. But, we’ll let you be the judge.
If you survive the run, get a serious buzz by midday, take a siesta, and party all night long. You’ll be ready to get jacked up again on this adrenaline rush the next morning.
Play by the Rules
The running of the bulls is dangerous yet alluring, especially after drinking all night. If you do decide to run, run fast, get some sleep, be sober (at least until the bulls have passed you), wear good shoes and be lucky. You must be over 18 years old, must always run forward and never incite the bulls. More than 15 people have been killed since 1925, and hundreds are injured every year.
It’s much safer to be a spectator. Bring a camera - the combination of crowds, colors and ancient buildings on narrow streets is visually intoxicating.
Pobre de Mi
A candlelight performance of the song “Pobre de Mi” closes the San Fermín festival, a fitting end. Drink one last glass of vino and soak up the parting ambiance of the candlelight and fireworks. “Pobre de Mí, Pobre de Mí, que se han acabado las fiestas, de San Fermín.” Poor me, poor me, the fiestas of San Fermín have finished. It’s a sad moment for some and a welcome relief for others. Adios until the next year.