Travel Writers: San Fermin Festival by Jonathan Ratner

Running of the Bulls: The San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, the capital of the northern Spanish province of Navarra.


Location: Pamplona, the capital of the northern Spanish province of Navarra.

It had been part of the plan since my trip to Europe was only a vision. I checked the dates for the event, and it fell in line with my birthday. What a perfect time to participate in something great, I thought, a once in a lifetime opportunity. After witnessing my first bullfight in Madrid a month earlier, being somewhat disgusted and intrigued at the same time, July 6th arrived. It was the first night of Pamplona’s world-renowned San Fermin Festival, the Running of The Bulls.

I was to stay sober and awake all night, then run the following morning while my friend and travel partner took photographs of the event and my feat. Like most backpackers, we drank more than we should have and decided to run anyway. I hesitated to actually do it until my travel-mate decided to run. So there we stood, 200 metres from the start of the roughly 800 metre run that took us through the wild turns of Pamplona’s wet stone streets.

My photos (although officially not permitted) tell the story.

I have a skeptical smile on, and my friend reels in excitement. Seconds later, everyone around us has much more serious looks on their faces in anticipation of the challenge that lay ahead. As the gun sounded, we began to jog slowly. Information obtained at our chosen start point from an apparent veteran runner instructed us “we wouldn’t even see the bulls until we reached the bullring if we ran too fast.”

Half of my friend running wildly with others doing the same. Seconds after that photo, one turn, and only about 50 to 100 metres of running, I saw panic on the faces of those close behind us. I hollered at my friend running beside me, and rushed with him to the side, and we climbed up the bars securing a well-sealed store. Our feet were roughly 5 feet above the ground and by the time we looked down the bulls had arrived.

The last of the first 6 bulls fell behind, a sign that even I with my limited research new wasn’t good. After swinging its horns in the direction of us, and the few people below us, the bull gored a young American traveller beneath our feet. Reports I read upon returning home indicated that she survived a serious wound through her upper thigh.

Her bloody body on the ground, and others giving immediate help with horrified yet sadly unsurprised looks on their faces. We kept running as 6 or more bulls were on their way, now comprehending the immediate danger. After a 100 or 200 metre sprint we found an open doorway to hide in, as the final bulls ran by. The adrenaline rush will have me satisfied for years.

Spectators are known to hit the hands of participants trying to climb out of the running path or bullring wanting escape. The route itself has few opportunities at all to escape into the rowdy crowds watching. While the odds are that the bulls will run by you without harm, many get dragged, some get gored, even killed. The run goes on.

Taken now by my friend, of me clearly having lost the spirit of my birthday and this gigantic party. I happen to stand in front of the same point where we began the run; in the streets we wandered the night before, with our breakfast baguette in my hand, and a very unhappy look on my face.

Bullfights and the ‘Running of the Bulls’ are without a doubt intriguing parts of Spanish culture. People of all ages filled the streets and partied all night. Music blared everywhere; people in red and white drank in the streets while embracing both friends and strangers. Significant sobriety is a must for runners and any first-timer needs to watch once first. By the way, the only time the music does stop at San Fermin, is for those few minutes at 8am every morning for the run.

Visit Jonathan Ratner’s website with more travel stories and enchanting photos of dogs from around the world.

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