A Pamplona Running of the Bulls Experience…in comfort

In the past few years, I’ve been using popular annual events to drive some of my travel destination ideas.  Pamplona for the San Fermin festival was one of those ideas.  But I’m the first to admit that I am at a point in my life that the hostel, festival-goer style of travel is not appealing.  I feel no shame in wanting to stay in an actual hotel, nice one preferred.  And, in the case of San Fermin, to be able to observe the Txupinazo (or Chupinazo) opening ceremony celebration without the threat of being covered in sangria, flour, mustard, or whatever is within reach of the drunk revelers and without the threat of being smushed in an insane crowd of people packed into a tiny square in front of the town hall is ideal.  I also would rather have a balcony overlooking Dead Mans Corner on the bull run rather than (1) having to deal with the bad behavior of others, still drunk from the night before, (2) trying to save spots on the fence or (2) having to run the gauntlet with the bulls in an extreme case!

Here’s how I experienced the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona in comfort

My research into tour providers was not too extensive.  I actually stumbled upon a few right away that offered balconies for both Txupinazo and the bull runs, but only one had a balcony that actually overlooked the square.  ESPN was filming from our balcony, so you KNOW it was the best option (of course I didn’t know that at the time).  The company is a non-profit called Run with a Purpose.  If you go to their website, you may be like me and find that it seems too good to be true. Accommodation within the Pamplona old city walls, balconies in the best spots, and 100% of the profits go to PersonalPhilanthropy.org, an organization created by Mark Regouby – founder of Run with a Purpose – to finance sustainable development projects in Latin America.  So you get to have fun and feel good knowing you’re helping others. The prices for their offerings are on par with other tour providers, so it really is the best choice.  Mark actually came to Pamplona when we were there, so I got some time to talk to him about his work.  Fascinating man!

Balcony is the beige building left of center, above basque flag

Our hotel was within walking distance of all the major points of interest for the festival.  Hotel Puerta del Camino was clean, modern, and the staff was very friendly and helpful.  If you try to find accommodation on your own – good luck!  The town of Pamplona is small, and the area inside the walls, especially in the oldest part of the town where you will want to be, has limited hotel offerings.  If you can find a room, you will be paying through the nose!  A lot of the younger crowd looking for very cheap options end up camping or just sleeping in the parks.  We witnessed the hardest of the partiers, who had been drinking since before Txupinazo morning and through the night, passed out the next day on any spare spot of green grass.

Calm before the storm

We walked around the night before Txupinazo to get a lay of the land because we knew we had to be at our building by 9am to gain access to our balcony, even though the ceremony started at noon.  This was not a bad directive, though, because even at 9am the square was starting to fill up.  We were all dressed in our festival appropriate white with red belts – no scarf though!  You cannot put the red scarf around your neck until the festival is officially opened by the mayor.  Scarves, waist sashes, and anything else you may want as a souvenir can be purchased all over the town.  San Fermin tourist merchandise stores were as plentiful as Starbucks in downtown Seattle!  

By noon, the square was utter chaos.  Be prepared for a lot of chanting, women being hoisted (willingly and unwillingly) onto mens’ shoulders and being pressured into lifting up their shirts, throwing of whatever is available (primarily sangria, but we saw a large stuffed animal be decimated and have its stuffing and limbs thrown around), etc.

Nearing the noon hour…
Pink = sangria; Yellow = mustard; Other = ???
Rockets launched to denote the start of the festival
Red neck scarves
One of my favorite photos
Txupinazo Chaos

After the rockets were launched, the confetti guns shot, and the basque band with their kazoo-like instruments played the official songs, it was time to wander around the city to begin the celebration.  It’s great that this is a festival that is still embraced by the locals, with even little kids dressed up in white and red (and oh how I love anything in miniature!). The small city streets in old town are crowded, especially around the entrances of the infinite number of bars serving sangria.  I walked away from Txupinaxo all smug with a clean white dress (unlike all of the people not in balconies) but was quickly initiated into the sangria-soaked crowd while trying to pass through one particular log jam of people on a narrow street.  We were fortunate to stumble upon the Comparsa de Gigantes y Cabezudos, a parade of 24 giant papier-mâché figures of a “court” of kings and their entourage.  You may also stumble upon a strange tradition, mostly for non-locals, during the Txupinazo celebrations – fountain diving at Navarreria Square.   If you dare, climb to the top of the fountain, jump the 15 feet back to the crowd, and hope someone catches you.  Since this is a Pamplona experience in comfort I’m writing about, you can probably guess that we did not participate in this annual craziness.

Basque Band
Mini San Fermin outfit

The first day of the running of the bulls (the Encierro) was an early one.  The bulls are released at 8am so in order to get to your balcony, you had to get to the building entrance at least an hour before. Our balcony was on the famous Dead Man’s Corner, known for being the spot on the course where the bulls do a 90 degree right turn down Calle Estafeta for the last 300 meters into the stadium.  This tends to be the spot for many injuries because the runners that have been waiting to do the last stretch with the bulls slow down the runners that are actually with the bulls, plus at this point the bulls are pretty angry.  There are typically six cows running with the six bulls in each run.  All of the bulls will be used in the bull fight later in the evening.  While I didn’t run with the bulls, so I can’t give any tips or tricks on how to run and stay safe, I can say I observed that the police are very strict about who gets to run.  Anyone that is remotely suspected of being drunk is tossed off the course.  In addition, you must adhere to the rule of being behind the start line in order to be admitted into the race.  Many “runners” were positioned along the course too early, and the police pushed the whole crowd down Calle Estafeta and off the course.  Runners behind the starting line are given a short amount of time to find their preferred starting positions before the two rockets are fired to indicate the bulls are released and the bulls are running.

Streets, morning after Txupinazo – I wish I could photograph the smell (urine galore!)
Say your prayers boys!
Police push runners down Calle Estefeta who were not properly lined up
Sometimes people are more dangerous than the bulls
Bulls and cows round Dead Man’s Corner
Bulls finish the last 300 yards into the stadium

Our run ended up being event free – good for the runners, bad for the viewers looking for some action! Later in the day, we decided to attend the bull fight.  It was definitely hard to watch, as an animal lover, but at the same time I had an appreciation for the history of the sport and the traditions – from the initial parade of matadors (toreadors/bullfighters), the structure of each fight, and the crowd participation and pep bands. It’s interesting to learn about the three phases of a bull fight.  In the first phase, the bull is released and the matador and his assistants manipulate the bull with pink capes so the matador can get a feeling for how the bull moves, what side he prefers to turn, etc. At the end of the first phase, the picador on horseback goads the bull into charging and attempting to gore his heavily padded horse, then takes a lance and jams it into the bull’s neck to weaken him.  In the second phase, the three banderillas stick up to six barbed stakes into the bull’s already injured neck.  Finally, the third phase is the matador vs. the bull. Some time is spent tiring out the bull, with the matador performing dramatic passes. The end of this phase comes when the matador gets his sword then attempts to kill the bull with one clean piercing of the neck into the heart.  Unfortunately for us, we only witnessed two clean kills out of six bulls.  The matador that made the two kills received the ear of the bull as a reward, then proceeded to throw it into the crowd.  Yuck! While the bullfight was definitely traumatizing, and I closed my eyes for part of it, I would still suggest that you consider attending a bull fight if only to better understand a small part of the Spanish culture.  Warning: the following photos may be offensive and show bulls in various stages of being tortured before ultimately being killed and dragged out of the stadium (no picador photos, I promise!  But there is some blood.):











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