Correda de Toros (y Tapas): Running with the Bulls in Pamplona

Starting our trip with a bang..and a hell of a gut check. San Fermin Festival, or more commonly known as the Running of the Bulls, always jumped out to me as something I would have to try. When we found ourselves in Spain at the start of San Fermin, we knew there’s nothing that can make us miss it!

To say that running with the bulls was one of the most intense three minutes of my life would be a pathetic understatement. From the opening ceremony to the blasting of the horn, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer adrenaline of having six champion-bred fighting bulls racing towards me.

After bonding with two of my Airbnb roommates, Vinnie and Adrian, over copious amounts of sangria, hastily acquired tapas, and cornrows, during the opening day debauchery, we decided to head in together. Waiting was the worst part. Between the crowd, nursing hangovers, and the general ‘oh shit, it’s about to go down’ feelings in our guts, it was a long wait broken up by strategizing, small talk, and watching a group to our left snort lines of cocaine.

At the first rocket blast we jogged to a spot about 200 meters in, making a judgement call and bypassing a bend in the road aptly named ‘Dead Man’s Corner’. For the next few moments the crowd drifts uneasily forward, jogging as well as you can in a packed street. You would assume that people would be in a rush to get to the end and stay as far ahead of the bulls as possible. But we were warned that if you try to cheat the bulls and enter the arena before them, it’s not the bulls you have to worry about.

It seems like hours pass as you look forward, glance back, skip sideways, to avoid having a horn emerge out of the crowd right behind you. At this point groups are still together, couples hold on to each other, strangers nervously laugh together. Myself, Vinnie, and Adrian all make (empty) promises to stay together and pick each other up when we fall.

And then bulls round the corner. Pure chaos. With the crowd so packed it’s hard to see what’s happening as you see the crowd 20 meters behind you glance back one last time before exploding into a full sprint. As the bulls charge through the crowd, people are doing whatever they can to get out of the way. Jumping on shoulders, shoving others out of the way, scrambling to find room in a doorway or a spot in the barricades to make a quick exit. I was slammed repeatedly into a wall only to be pushed back to the middle by the sadistic bastards on the sides. Maybe they had the same thought I had, “better him than me.” It’s hard to remember what else was going on while I zigged and zagged through the crowd, trying my damnedest not to get caught in a corner or trampled by members of my own species. I looked to my right just in time to see the first bull charge by, looking calm as all can be as the crowd scrambled aside. Some brave, or very stupid, runners decide to take their chances and put themselves right in front of the animal, risking a goring or a hoof to the back for a profile picture. Congrats man, you earned it.

And then the bulls are past, and we’re running into the arena.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t on the verge of tears (of joy). When I finally found Vinnie and Adrian it felt like finding long lost friends, as we went in for the high-five, but ended up hugging it out over the next few seconds.

Our reunion was cut short when the arena floor erupted in chaos as a bull was released into the arena. What followed for the next 40 minutes was an added mixture of excitement and terror, as one by one each of the bulls that we just said goodbye to were released into the arena to have another go at us. Runners pumped full of adrenaline and recently convinced of their own invincibility took turns taunting the bulls, running by for pictures, or attempting to ring their countries flag on their horns before getting tossed to the ground. Vinnie and I took a couple quick passes, but decided vacation isn’t as fun in a wheelchair.

The next great tradition of Spain and the festival, the “correda de toros”, the bull fights, was an experience all of its own. Prior to buying the tickets, we were already a little hesitant, not being huge fans of violence towards animals. But having talked with many other festival goers and residents of Spain, we were told not to see it as a spectacle, but as a way to honor the bull for it’s strength and courage. Now, I’m not going to say anything against the tradition, but after one fight (of six) we decide that it wasn’t the sport for us. It may be because I had a preconceived notion that the bull stood a fair chance that was shattered within moments (sorry, but the bull doesn’t have six close friends to help and a spot to hide when he gets scared). 

With that said, the people of Pamplona are extremely friendly and generous, and did their best to ensure we walked away with good memories. A friendly couple to our left did their best to communicate to us (with our limited Spanish) the significance of the fight and what it means to them. Before we knew it, we were having food and drinks handed to us from every direction, and were listening to stories of when they were younger and ran with the bulls.

The festival itself was intense, and the party never stopped. 8am or 8pm, it made no difference. Over the next few days we spent our time watching children run from fake bulls, enjoyed open air concerts, got attacked by the firework bull (a man in a bull cart blasting the streets with sparklers), and watched some great fireworks.

While San Fermin and running with the bulls was an incredible experience, it was also great to share the experience with some new friends we met along the way. Being our first Airbnb shared with other travelers, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We first met Adrian, an awesome guy and fellow American who decided to take this trip despite the fact that his friends bailed on the trip at the last minute. Thankfully Adrian spoke a good bit of Spanish, for which I will be eternally grateful. Later that night we met a great couple from Australia, Vinnie and Ashlee, who were wrapping up their own 5 week European vacation. Right away we knew we had to pick their brains to get ready for our trip to Australia. After a couple of days spent enjoying the festival, pools, and late night conversations, we can’t wait to stop in for a visit when we get to Perth.

Matthew & Stephanie

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