San Fermin 2006

July 09, 2006 By: erik Category: Bulls, Partying, Photos, Spain, Videos 4,846 views

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I didn’t run, and I don’t regret it.

We caught the bus to Pamplona at 4:00 PM on Friday, July 7. Everyone stared at us as we waited for the bus, dressed entirely in white. There were a few other groups dressed like us too, obviously waiting for the same bus. In the bus, we were seated behind some college kids from California who were trying to play Go Fish with a deck of Spanish playing cards. It’s depressing how young college students seem now. A combination of uncomfortable seats and being seated next to a blaring speaker with a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie playing at full blast meant that there was no rest for us. About two hours into the three hour trip, the other bus traveling with us broke down and we had to spend 45 minutes at a rest stop while it was repaired. It was warm without a cloud in the sky, so we weren’t too unhappy at our picnic table.

Upon arriving in Pamplona, we completed our first task of buying a red scarf to wear. It was severely overpriced at eight euros, but a great souvenir. We now blended in perfectly with everyone else. The city was full of people in all white with red accessories: scarfs, belts, purses, etc.

Now, it was off to complete task number two, buying tickets for the encierro the following day. I kind of thought that we would be seeing a bullfight, but the bullfights happen in the evenings and we had to leave in the early afternoon on Saturday. The term encierro refers to both the running through the streets and the crazy people taunting the vaquillas in the bullring after the run. After waiting in a line for almost an hour, we finally had our tickets (5.50€ each) to get into the bullring the following day. Now, we were ready to party the night away.


Waiting in line. All the children down to a few months old were dressed in San Fermin attire.


This year’s bullfighting poster.

Before going, there was something I was unclear about. The bull run is through the ancient cobblestone streets of Pamplona, right? And the older part of cities is usually where the bars and restaurants are. But since the streets have to be perfectly clear for the run, I thought maybe they would have that street blocked off and the partying would be in another part of town a few blocks over. Surely they don’t do the run on a street that is full of drunken hedonists just a few hours before, right? Actually, they do.

The city of Pamplona has this festival running like clockwork. The encierro takes place at 8:00 AM. At 6:00 AM, they start putting up the barriers to isolate the run. The street is then cleared of debris (and there’s a lot of debris) and is washed down with water. Marga had heard stories of the police having little patience with anyone passed out in the street, kicking and dragging them with little care. In only two hours, they take a filthy urine-soaked street filled with broken bottles, plastic cups, and other garbage, and convert it to an international stage for the most famous annual Spanish tradition.

The somewhat festive atmosphere we found when we entered the streets.


Standing on the most famous street in Spain. That huge Pepsi cup is full of beer. That’s all of our luggage for the trip around my waist. We bought that bag for the trip. Red, of course.


Marga poses in front of the town hall where they fire off rockets to commence the festivities in the chupinazo. The cup looks bigger next to her, doesn’t it?


Strangers take the worst photos.


The moon came out to keep us company as the sun left for the night.

A friend had told us that something that many people did was go to where the bulls are kept in their long term housing and watch them run through the streets up to where they spend the night at the start of the run. So we walked the entire bull run in reverse, but the police had blocked off the route that the bulls would soon be taking to their temporary housing. Two young men who were also stopped by the police headed down another road, one of them saying, “I know another way,” so we followed them. We followed them down a hill, through a park, over a river, through a residential neighborhood, and finally decided that our assumption that their destination was the same as ours was slightly flawed. We turned back and soon saw a throng of people gathered around what looked like stables, so we headed over there. We saw when they released the bulls and the handlers chased them up the street. Having seen them run by us for just a split second, Marga said, “One of them has a tumor.” I guess you don’t work four years as an abattoir vet without becoming an expert in spotting bovine flaws.

Can you spot the tumor?

They made us wait for a few minutes until news that the bulls were safely contained came in, and then we followed the same route that they had taken up the hill to the town center. The trip that had taken us 30 minutes the long way shadowing two unsuspecting strangers took about 5 minutes this way.

In the streets all night, there was never more than five minutes between hearing a group of drunken Spaniards singing their World Cup song, A Por Ellos. “A por ellos” means roughly, “let’s get ’em!”. And even more popular was the same song, but with different lyrics:

Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol!
Venimos a emboracharnos!
Y el resultado nos da igual!

The last two lines mean, “We come to get drunk, and we don’t care about the result.” Slightly disturbing. Marga pointed out that replacing “result” with “hangover” would make a lot more sense, since you really do care about the result of your “getting drunk” efforts; you just don’t care about what happens after you get drunk. I guess the author wasn’t thinking clearly when he penned the lyrics.

A por ellos, oe! A por ellos, oe! A por ellos, oe! A por ellos, eoe!


At about 5:00 in the morning, when everyone else was staggering gleefully around, this guy was standing perfectly comfortably atop a post. Marga predicted that he’d be running with the bulls the next morning.


Much better than a stranger could have done.

San Fermin in Pamplona

A panorama of the main plaza. The woman on the right probably bought 15€ worth of bread and meat, and brought a folding table to sell sandwiches for 6€ each.

The main plaza was full of people. I asked Marga what percentage of the partiers were Spanish, and she guessed 60%, but I think it was more like 90%. Definitely, as the night wore on, the Spanish percentage crept up closer to 99%. Still, you’d occasionally hear some American frat boy say, “Dude! I am, like, sooo drunk!”

At 6:15 AM, we started waiting in line to get into the bullring. No, that’s not actually true. I think the bulls preparing for the run were in more of an orderly line than we were. When the finally opened the gates to let us in, there was pushing and shoving, elbows everywhere. Eventually we got in and got to a great seat, right next to the entrance where the bulls would be entering. Then we had to wait for 90 minutes for the encierro to begin. Of course, there was singing. Every crowd has some leaders, and there were a few trying to start waves around the stadium.

The time waiting for the encierro to start was the worst part of the trip for me. I didn’t bring a jacket, and I was only cold during this period until the sun entered the stadium. My feet hurt and I was exhausted. Although I wasn’t at all drunk, I was certainly in no shape to be sprinting anywhere. The bull run doesn’t seem very dangerous at all, really. As I mentioned in the comments to my previous blog entry, it’s all about the illusion of danger. Marga, who, through her work in British slaughterhouses, has spent more time with cows and bulls than anyone I know, and she’s terrified of the bull run. When I commented that the runners are almost exclusively male, she avoided the easy “Women aren’t that stupid,” response and said that it’s probably because women don’t have any of the social pressure that men do to do the run. She says that if I really want to do it (and I think I do), then we should plan ahead and get a hotel room and sleep a few hours before the run. So we might do that next year.


The crowd applauded as the medics came out, carrying their first aid kits and stretchers, and took their place along the bull run.


There was music, of course.


There’s no doubt that we were on live Spanish television, being so close to the entrance. Each of the eight encierros every year are televised live. You gotta be up at 8:00 AM to see it, though!


This is probably what we looked like on our side of the entrance.


I bet you get some good pictures from down there.

Pamplona Bullring Panorama

A 6.4 MB panorama of the bullring.

At 7:58, people started running through the entrance into the bullring. These are the people that had lined the run, and just before the bulls are released, they jump over the fences and run into the stadium to get in without paying. The crowd started chanting, “Hijos de puta! Hijos de puta!”, which means, “Sons of bitches! Sons of bitches!” The non-paying entrants didn’t seem to mind. I just hope the cheap cowards don’t go home and say that they ran with the bulls.

Finally, the fire cracker signaling the release of the bulls went off, and the crowd got excited. There was a steady stream of runners, so it’s hard to know which ones actually ran the whole run. You could always tell when a bull was going to appear because the running got a little more frenzied.

The bulls make their entrance.


There were hundreds of people in the center of the ring.


Like the jews across the red sea, the last bull is shepherded across the ring.




And then they released the vaquillas…

Vaquillas are young heifers with padded horns. It’s kind of like nerf bullfighting. It lets normal people pretend to bullfight without getting hurt. You can be knocked down, thrown in the air, and butted while on the ground and still get right back up. In most normal encierros there are no more than a dozen people running around with the vaquillas, and the crowd applauds when someone does a particularly daring stunt. But in Pamplona during San Fermin, there are hundreds of people in the ring, and things get a little more dangerous.

During the first encierro of 2006, the day before we were there, a 31-year-old man from Charlotte, North Carolina, (not New York, as the media and I had previously stated) had his back broken and is now a paraplegic.

I only witnessed one incident that could be serious. Right in front of us, someone got hit in the back by the vaquilla and collapsed to the ground. He was completely unconscious. Despite concerned shouts from the crowd to not move him, some of the other participants picked him up and carried him to where the medical teams were waiting along the side of the ring. I know nothing of his current condition. It was pretty scary. If I do run with the bulls one day, I’m gonna go sit safely in the stands when the vaquillas come out.


Yay, the sun!




I really wanted the balloon to eclipse the sun, but I wasn’t that lucky. That might have been a great picture.

Here are a few vaquilla videos. Sorry about the camera work. I was watching the action, not the viewfinder.


Someone gets thrown in the air.


After the encierro was over, we walked the debris-filled streets as the sun was slowly warming the ancient city. We stopped for the most typical Spanish summer breakfast, churros and chocolate. After breakfast, we lay down in the grass in a small park where there were already quite a few exhausted young bodies strewn about. We woke up from a light slumber a few minutes later and began walking the streets again.


There was garbage everywhere.


And it’s not that people litter, necessarily, although that definitely happens. The cans and dumpsters were all overflowing.


This street will be clean by the afternoon.


A garbage cleanup crew. On streets like this one, the stench of urine is pretty strong. People peeing on corners and walls was a common sight the night before.


One of the many marching bands takes a break as the street cleaner drives by.


What a wonderful invention.


On our walk, we found place where we could look down at the long-term bull storage where we had been the previous evening.


These bulls will die this week…


…but not before terrorizing some crazy primates dressed in red and white.


After then street cleaners passed, the streets were spotless and smelled just fine. Amazing. Tomorrow they’ll do it all again.


Returning to the main central plaza, we sat down at a table in the shade and ordered a liter pitcher of sangria.

I was delighted to see this elderly woman in a wheelchair having such a good time. Her companion, obviously a paid employee, wasn’t enjoying herself so much.


This young Englishman bought her a hat off a street vendor and asked the señora to dance. She seemed delighted.


Sugar residue at the bottom of the sangria pitcher.

Sitting there, now fully awake, in the warming plaza watching marching bands go by, sipping an icy traditional Spanish beverage, was just divine. After an hour of relaxing there, it was time to head for the bus stop.CIMG1972.JPG

I had been mildly disappointed that we hadn’t yet seen any cabezudos, when one snuck up behind us. There are less scarier things that can sneak up behind you.


They’re even creepier when the guy inside isn’t operating the eyes properly.

We stopped for a sandwich in a bar called Bar Arrasate. “Arrasate” is the Basque name for Mondragon, Marga’s home town. Everyone on the bus home passed out immediately. I didn’t really fit in the seat, so my legs were dangling in the aisle. I was in and out of uncomfortable consciousness for the last thirty minutes of the trip, having slept the first two hours solid. After a much needed shower, we went to bed and fell immediately asleep.

I dreamt of bulls and cobblestone streets.

  • Paul

    Great report, pictures, and movies! It sounds like a night to remember. I like the idea of making a decision whether to be in the street or not only after having some sleep. I have two questions. First, why do you Spaniards party so hard? Second, what is your justification for supporting what some call cruelty to animals?

  • First, why do you Spaniards party so hard?

    Hmm… Why not?

    Second, what is your justification for supporting what some call cruelty to animals?

    Well, you have to look at it like this. These bulls are especially raised for this singular purpose. If bullfighting was banned, they would cease to exist. Bull husbandry a huge industry in Spain. They live great lives. It’s really only their last 15 or 20 minutes of life that are stressful. The particular breed that they are isn’t good for milk or meat. They are allowed to roam freely in their pasture and are fed better food than the “let’s make them fat” stuff that they feed the meat-destined creatures. The entire industry gives jobs to hundreds of people and puts food on their table.

    Is stabbing a sword all the way to the hilt into an animal and waiting until it dies of internal bleeding after taunting it for 15 minutes cruel? Sure it is. But those bulls owe their very existence to the tradition.

    It’s like chickens and other cows are bred for the sole purpose of slaughter. If we all stopped consuming them and became vegans, those animals would cease to exist. You can choose to make use of their death, and by doing so, give them life, or not breed them at all.

    Personally, I would rather have a horribly gruesome death than not exist at all.

    Until you’ve seen a bullfight in person, I agree, it all looks pretty black-and-white. But after experiencing the atmosphere and emotion of a good bullfight, it all turns gray.

  • Paul

    I like your answer to #2. Let me try again on the first. I think Spaniards party (drink and laugh in groups) more than Americans. Agree? If so, do Spaniards party hard, or do Americans party weak?

  • Uncle Neil

    I have been re-painting my house, barn, and all our buildings. Climbing 12 feet up my ladder and balancing gets my adrenaline going. I also fished from shore in my backyard and caught five rainbow trout for dinner. I have five large gardens, well taken care of, and lot’s of vegetables to go with the fish. High temperature was very pleasant in the 60’s F and is supposed to cool well into the 40’s F tonight. Good sleeping weather with the windows open. In contrast I did not come within a half a mile, or more, of any other humans other than Barb which is a normal full weekend.

  • I think Spaniards party (drink and laugh in groups) more than Americans. Agree? If so, do Spaniards party hard, or do Americans party weak?

    I think that Spain, and Europe in general, really, has much more of a custom of people going out to bars with friends. Almost no one drinks alcohol at home, and you will never be invited over to someone’s house for a few drinks. Although, if you are invited over for something else, you will be offered something.

    This cultural difference is no doubt due to many factors, but one major one is the geographical layout of where the bars and the houses are. If you wanted to invite some friends out to Bar A, Bar B, and then Bar C, in the US, you’d all have to drive to A from your individual houses/jobs, then you’d all have to drive, probably in your individual cars, to Bar B, and again to Bar C. That just doesn’t work. I could hit a nine iron over three bars from the roof of my building.

    Spanish children from the age of 15 spend time out in the streets from midnight to 4am in little sexually homogeneous groups1 of four or five on Saturdays. They can’t officially order alcohol from bars (although it’s very rare to see anyone get carded), but they can enter them and dance. This is what they do for fun. I suspect that most teenagers only see the interior of their friends’ houses when they stop by to pick them up on their way out.

    Imagine if, in Morganton, there were 7 bars between the old post office and the old courthouse that were open from 10pm to 4am at night with pop music blaring and they let minors enter, and 18-year-olds buy alcohol. Then imagine if 60% of the town’s population lived as close as Morehead Street, but that there were buses every hour that went down Bethel Road headed towards a bus station that was where the rec center is. That place would be packed with people of all ages!2

    That’s what’s available in Spain, and that’s what people do. It’s not that the Spanish are different people than Americans, it’s just that, over time, for many reasons (many of them geographical), a bar culture has developed. People go for the companionship and the music; the alcohol is just lubricant.

    What I witnessed in Pamplona was just like a normal Saturday night in any city in Spain, only magnified a little bit with the euphoria of a festival with bands and thousands of people.

    1These groups are called cuadrillas, the same word for the group of apprentice bullfighters that help the main bullfighter in the ring.

    2Especially if it was culturally accepted and not declared to be the work of The Devil in the churches the next morning.

  • Uncle Steve

    I agree that Bullfighting, if you study it from pictures and words, or possibly even verbal descriptions, can very easily and very much sound like what you would think of as ‘cruelty to animals’.

    I had that very impression myself, until I saw a bullfight in person. I then thought differently.

    I’m sure further words I could put together wouldn’t (and probably shouldn’t – you should force yourself through seeing the first bull’s entire performance once, and then decide for yourself) change your mind, there are a few points to consider beyond Erik’s already good answers:

    – The bull is never teased or treated with disrespect, ever. If anything, he is revered more than most of the homo sapiens present.

    – It isn’t like continually overpowering and/or physically chastising type of stuff is going on; like when you potty train a dog, or when people do abuse animals.

    – The bull is stabbed from the top a few times for the purpose of slowing/stopping the bull’s ability to raise his head. This seems to be the sole advantage granted to the human matador in the arena with him. This custom goes back much longer than the United States has been in existence, so I’ll give it some wiggle room until I know more – my opinion…

    – When the bull is stabbed, it is a more humane method of death than much of the animal deaths that happen during big game sport hunting seasons.

    I don’t mean to start a debate on killing things, but maybe you started it Paul – I’m just sending my 2 pennies up and over Canada…. to you guys (*way* over Canada to you Erik).


  • Liyan Wang

    Hello, I am Liyan Wang, a student of The Ohio State University, USA. Recently, I am doing a research paper on Why do so many people go to the San Fermin. And now I need some information to support one of my opinion. So, could you please tell me something about the traditional reasons that push people to the festival, like the disposition of spainish men, the traditional spirit of spain that is involved with the San Fermin.or you may tell me more about the alcohol celebration. Be sure to leave an identity, like your name, your position( expert, professional, professor…etc). because I am going to use your words as a source of my research paper and will use APA citation style. I am waiting for your reply, Thank you very much! My email address is [email protected]

  • Anonymous

    This was an excellent post.  You’ve pretty much summed up the entire fiesta…just repeat for 9 days and that’s San Fermin.  Oh, and I like that “leaning ayuntamiento” photo!  A new tourist attraction maybe?  😀

    So, when are you planning on doing your run with the bulls?  Or have you changed your mind after all?  😉

  • Anonymous

    This was an excellent post.  You’ve pretty much summed up the entire fiesta…just repeat for 9 days and that’s San Fermin.  Oh, and I like that “leaning ayuntamiento” photo!  A new tourist attraction maybe?  😀

    So, when are you planning on doing your run with the bulls?  Or have you changed your mind after all?  😉