It’s almost 8AM and several hundred people, mostly men, are gathered in the street. They are dressed traditionally all in white with a red scarf. After some stretching, many gather to sing a prayer for protection to a statue of Saint Fermin. In a few minutes a rocket will be set off to signal the start of the event and for the next three minutes chaos is going to erupt on the street.
The running of the bulls in Pamplona is a yearly traditional event that has roots that go back to around the 13th Century. It is part of the festival of San Fermin, their patron saint, that lasts from July 6th to July 12th. The purpose of the event is because bulls need to be transported from the corrals to the bullring for the fight each day. The history of how this event started was that the owners once drove the animals to the bullring by running alongside them in the streets. Soon other locals joined them with foreigners appearing not long after. The current route along the streets has been unchanged since 1852.
The running of the bulls (or Encierro) starts at 8AM when a rocket is set off. It signals that the bulls have been released from their corrals. After that a second rocket is set off to signal that all the bulls and steers have left the corral area heading toward the runners. In total six bulls and six bell-tinkling steers meant to keep them in a tight pack charge down the street.
A double wooden barrier is used in the streets that are wide enough to accomodate the running of the bulls. This allows medical personnel and runners to enter and leave quickly while keeping the bulls on the street. Some streets are too narrow so doorways and other areas to duck behind are used.
The bulls will eventually pass by most of the runners and a third rocket will announce that the bulls arrived at the bullring. A fourth rocket will go off indicating that the bulls are now inside their pens. In all, it takes around three minutes for the bulls to cover 826 meters or ½ mile.
HOW TO PREPARE
The festival of San Fermin is an extremely popular event with people coming from all over the world. Many people participate in the running of the bulls and it evens gets televised. In order to get a hotel in Pamplona, it is best to reserve a room several months or even a year in advance. Also be prepared to pay double or even triple the normal amount. Luckily, there are several campsites and villages nearby that offer accommodations. They are relatively cheaper than staying somewhere in Pamplona and some offer free shuttle buses to the festivities.
Ezcaba has a campsite that is nearest to Pamplona, 6km away. El Molino is another popular campsite about 25km away. The campsites fill up for this popular festival and they offer accommodations from tents to bungalows. Most campsites provide bars, restaurants, showers and even swimming pools. Some campsites have live bands that play at night. So whether you stay in Pamplona or go back to the campsite, the party mood doesn’t stop.
There are 13 rules that the runners must abide by when participating. You must be over 18 years old to participate and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In fact anyone who appears in any inappropriate state that can affect their safety or others safety are removed from the run by the police. No objects can be carried into the running area and that includes cameras since no photos can be taken by the runners. Other rules prohibit calling to the animals, grabbing them or mistreating them in any way. Appropriate shoes and clothes must be worn too.
Every year, about 200 to 300 people suffer injuries in the running of the bulls. Typically, they are minor contusions due to falls and are not serious. Most of the time the injuries don’t result from the bulls, but from people falling around you that might cause you to fall. The streets can get crowded and since this festival gets more popular every year, the chances of a fall are increased. Keeping track of all the people around you, the bulls and the chaos that comes with this can be tricky. Avoid bottlenecks where the chances of an accident increase.
Since 1924, only 15 people have been killed in this festival. The latest being in 2009 when a Spanish man was gored to death. The authorities make sure to keep the festival safe though. The Spanish Red Cross has EMTs all along the route.
One of the most dangerous things that can happen on the run is if a bull become disoriented and turns around to run back down the course. There are herders watchful for this with sticks that prod them in the right direction if that happens.
After the runing of the bulls ends, the fourth and final rocket goes off. The bulls made the journey from the corrals to the arena where that afternoon’s bullfight is going to take place. Tickets for that are sold well in advance, but if you are lucky to get them than sit back in the stands and watch the fight knowing how dangerous they are up close. Even if you don’t get to see the bullfight than you will soon get to see another San Fermin tradition in Pamplona – the partying.