The first rocket is a warning. It alerts the red-and-white-clad hordes that the bulls have been released from their pens. Participants embrace and wish one another “suerte”, or luck. A second rocket informs runners that the beasts – each weighing about the same as a small car – have begun snorting their way along the wine-soaked cobbles. Now the fun starts. Flashbulbs pop and national television cameras roll as a thousand brave (or foolhardy) souls leg it down the narrow 875 metre course, cheered on by spectators on balconies.
The San Fermin Festival attracts more than a million visitors to the city of Pamplona, in northern Spain, every year, from July 6 to 14. They shop, sightsee, eat and drink but, most of all, they come to watch the encierro. Each morning at 8am, six bulls and an equal number of steers stampede their way to the bullring, where 20,000 febrile fans are waiting. From start to finish, the spectacle lasts only 2½ minutes but for those who blink and miss it, the frantic dash is repeated every day throughout the festival.
Reasons for taking part vary. For young Spanish adolescents, it’s a rite of passage; a way of proving one’s manhood. The rules were changed in 1974 and, since then, a small number of women join the testosterone-fuelled throng each year. Then there are thrill-seeking tourists who add the event to their roll call of terrifying bucket-list experiences, along with shark cage diving in South Africa and negotiating a two-year lease with a Hong Kong landlord.
The most dedicated group are the veterans. Many are locals, addicted to the smell of blood and the high octane buzz. They run alongside a fraternity of foreigners who keep coming back for more; men like Americans Joe Distler and Matt Carney, who have gained respect by immersing themselves in the San Fermin traditions and rituals. Distler ran every year from 1967 until 2012 – no native of Navarre province can match him for longevity. And although bull runs are held in many Spanish villages and towns, it was another American, Ernest Hemingway, who immortalised Pamplona’s version in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises.
The old hands leave nothing to chance. Starting spots are staked out in advance; the superstitious gather on Calle de Santo Domingo and chant to an image of Saint Fermin in the seconds before the bulls are released. Others congregate at the 90 degree turn known as Dead Man’s Corner. Finding the right position in the pack comes with years of experience. Novices often sprint all the way to the bullring – the so-called “coward’s run” – while the bravest aim to jog just in front of the bulls for as long as possible without being gored. This is known as “running on the horns”.
There’s more to the fiesta than beef-based bravado, however, and much of it is family friendly. Sightseers pour into town for the concerts and dances, firework displays and parades featuring marching bands and enormous papier-mâché figures. And then there’s the bullfighting, of course.
If the crowds and commotion start to overwhelm, consider exploring further afield. There are dozens of Michelin-starred restaurants in the nearby Basque region; the Guggenheim Art Museum in Bilbao shouldn’t be missed; and the beaches, pintxos (tapas) and stylish sophistication of San Sebastian are only an hour away.
For every corredor who combines thorough preparation with speed, guile and humanity, there are a dozen sleep-deprived tourists with calimocho (red wine and Coca-Cola) coursing through their veins. For American college kids and British gap-year students, the run is seen as another extreme sport to sample – a rite of passage for backpackers. Inexperienced idiots tease the bulls, snap selfies and strip naked. Nowadays, the chances of being knocked over by an inebriated Australian are greater than the odds of being gored.
The encierro has begun to face increasingly fierce criticism, not least from animal-rights organisation Peta, which claims workers use electric prods and sharp sticks to work the bulls into a frenzy before they’re let loose to rampage through the streets at speeds approaching 25km/h. (Good luck with that selfie.) In all, 15 people have died from gorings since records began, in 1924, and each year, between 50 and 100 runners receive injuries of varying severity, from shattered bones and lost teeth to cracked ribs and concussion. Aficionados are unmoved by the protests and complain that foreign news coverage sensationalises the event with an “if it bleeds it leads” approach. Theirs is a long-standing tradition, they argue. So was foot binding.
If you’re still determined to take part, don’t forget to scrutinise the small print on your travel insurance policy. It’s unlikely to cover a razor sharp horn puncturing a vital organ. If you opt to watch the spectacle from a balcony, be sure to book early and expect to pay up to €160 (HK$1,425) for the best locations, such as overlooking Dead Man’s Corner. Tour blurbs don’t exactly err on the side of compassion, though: “Sometimes the bulls make the turn, sometimes they wipe out, sometimes runners get caught in all of the mess. We have a magnificent viewpoint of all this chaos.”
And despite the exorbitant cost, it’s all over in minutes. Except that it isn’t – there’s still the bullfighting to come. The same six beasts are taunted, beaten and jabbed with daggers until they’re weakened enough for a matador to step in and finish off the exhausted animals with a sword.
Animal-rights activists might make the headlines but sexual assaults on women, ranging from vulgar comments, harassment and even rape have been Pamplona’s dark secret. But perhaps not any more. The municipality has long downplayed incidents but, mindful of the festival’s high profile, video camera-toting police officers now patrol the streets in an effort to catch perpetrators. Fifteen men were arrested for sexual assault last year.
The authorities face an uphill task, though, as the fiesta is renowned for its “anything goes” attitude; particularly during the bacchanalian opening ceremony.