For all the controversy, this running of the bulls won’t be Pamplona’s last


The most dangerous party on Earth begins each year at midday on July 6th and keeps going without pause until midnight on the 14th

At 8am each morning, a herd of six Spanish fighting bulls will stampede through half a mile of streets from the edge of Pamplona to the corrals of the city’s bullring. The herd will then spend the day recovering until the bullfighting begins in the evening, as has happened every year since 1591.

Also running in those streets will be between one and three thousand people, in various states of drunkenness, sleeplessness and sheer terror.

Since records began in 1923 – which happens to be the year Ernest Hemingway first attended this ‘fiesta’ – 15 people have died running with the bulls, and every year there are dozens of serious injuries at what officially is called the Feria [Fair] of San Fermin, patron saint of Navarre in Northern Spain.

This year there will be added tension following the news that during the other great feria of the Spanish bullfighting season, San Isidro in Madrid, a bullfight last month was cancelled for the first time in 35 years after all three matadors sustained serious injuries.

If hardened professionals, who have faced over a thousand bulls between them, end up in intensive care, how are the thousands of first timers and tourists in the streets of Pamplona supposed to survive?

What’s more, the bulls in Pamplona will come from the famous Jandilla ranch belonging to Juan Pedro Domecq – for only the second time since one of Domecq’s bulls killed the young Spanish runner, Daniel Jimeno Romero, in 2009.

José Tomás with a bull rearing through a manoletina in Cordoba in 2009

José Tomás with a bull rearing through a manoletina in Cordoba in 2009

Ancient bloodlines and fresh blood are what bullfighting is all about. Aficionados are quick to point out that it is not called the bullfight in Spanish, but the corrida de toros, meaning ‘course’ or ‘race’. It is not viewed as a fight at all, and is written about in the cultural, rather than the sporting sections of the newspapers. As Hemingway headlined his first article on the subject after that Pamplona visit for the Toronto Star: ‘Bullfighting is not a sport – it is a tragedy.’

Spanish bullfighting came from the knightly jousting of bulls, which ended with a servant finishing the animal off, hence his title, matador, meaning ‘killer’. When the French Bourbons took the Spanish throne in 1700, they frowned on their nobility indulging in what they saw as a barbaric pastime, but the public appeal for the spectacle continued. As a result, the professional matador came into existence, beginning with Francisco Romero, born in Ronda in 1700, who hired lance-wielding horsemen called picadors to fulfil the knight’s role – and this remains to this day the first act of the bullfight.

Romero also hired assistant bullfighters called banderilleros, to place the banderillas – barb-pointed multi-coloured sticks – before the final act, el tercio de la muerte (‘the third of death’, which involves the matador facing the now much diminished bull with a sword in one hand and a red cape known as the muleta in the other.

It is this final encounter between the lone torero and the toro which stirs the crowd: a combination of statuesque elegance in the face of the charging animal and suavity of movement.

Because its purpose is not ‘winning’ – even if the bull were to kill the matador, another matador would kill it – bullfighting is seen as an artform. The matador’s role is to to effect ‘emotional movement’ and for this reason they are ranked and paid as much as they are. The greatest matador of the current era, José Tomás, has been paid as much as a million Euros for a single afternoon’s work.

However, it is also, in Hemingway’s words, “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death” and 533 professional bullfighters have been killed since 1700. José Tomás has suffered 15 serious gorings, including one in 2010 where he lost twice the blood content of his body: the doctors poured it in and it poured out through the wound. Just last week he was awarded an ear of a bull he faced – a trophy awarded by the crowd for excellence – despite having a broken rib from a bullfight in Granada the week before.

Today, the fight to keep bullfighting or outlaw it has intensified. Currently, it is practised in Spain, France, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru. The animal rights lobby group PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – calls it “an atrocity, not a sport” based on “an unfair fight”.

Devotees, such as Dr Gabriel Avalos, a Madrid-born teacher of philosophy and lifelong aficionado of the bulls, dismisses such criticism out of hand.

“Where is the fairplay for the 3 million cattle that are killed in the UK, of the 30 million killed in the US, 78% of which are factory farmed, the average age of which at the time of death is 18 months?,” he says.

“The fighting bull lives wild in the forests to build muscle, foraging and fighting his brothers for dominance so he can perform in the corrida and he does this for five years, and dies adrenalized and fighting in 20 minutes in the ring. For him, it is a combat, yes, and he does not know he can never win. How long do his meat cow cousins stand queuing, smelling the stench of death in front of them? The doctors now tell us we don’t need to eat meat, so why do those animals die? For our entertainment, as does the fighting bull, but before he enters food chain, he lives like a king, and dies, venerated like a god.”

Juan José Padilla about to place the banderillas in Seville in 2009 - Foto Credit Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Juan José Padilla about to place the banderillas in Seville in 2009 – Foto Credit Alexander Fiske-Harrison

It is not just the welfare of the animals which is questioned, though, but also its affect on people. In 2006, the then socialist government of José Luis Zapatero banned live transmissions of bullfights on Spain’s public broadcaster TVE. That same year, a Gallup poll showed that 72% of Spaniard’s had “no interest” in bullfighting, and this decline seemed to reach a high point in 2010, when the regional parliament of Barcelona voted to ban corridas throughout Catalonia.

However, the overall picture is more complex. In 2007, at the height of Spain’s financial boom, there were 2,644 major bullfights in Spain – more than ever before in Spanish history – and 5,000 minor ones, making the activity a €2 billion a year industry employing 250,000 people.

The numbers have declined to almost a third since then, although whether this is from a fall in popularity or the absence of expendable wealth on entertainment during a historically bad economic crisis is unclear. PETA cites the 2006 Gallup poll but not the Gallup poll from two years later in 2008, when that figure was back down to 68%, the same figure Gallup found in 2002.

Crucially, many Spaniards saw the Barcelona ban as driven by separatist politics rather a concern for animal welfare, not least because Catalan nationalist parties argued the bullfight had been forced on them as a culturally unifying influence under the dictatorship of General Franco. When the left-wing newspaper El Pais commissioned a poll on the subject following the ban, it found that although 60% of Spaniards didn’t like bullfighting, 57% were against banning it.

It was in part because of this that the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy has not only returned bullfights to Spanish television as of 2012, but last year classed it as a “protected cultural patrimony”, federally precluding any further regional bans.

We have been here before. In 1771, the Bourbon King, Carlos III, banned it outright, although his successor repealed the prohibition in 1805. The last Bourbon – or rather Borbón – King, Juan Carlos I was a devoted aficionado who had even faced small bulls in the ring himself as a young man. Whereas his son, the recently crowned King Felipe IV has made no public statements on the subject, and has not been seen at a corrida since 2009 when he took his father’s place in the Royal box in Madrid.

King Felipe is wise to remain silent. There are plenty of others voices, on both sides of the argument, who will want to be heard.


Alexander Fiske-Harrison

British author, journalist, conservationist, bull-runner and former bull-fighter Alexander Fiske-Harrison

British author, journalist, conservationist, bull-runner and former bull-fighter Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a British author, journalist, conservationist, bull-runner and former bull-fighter. He grew up in England before moving to Spain. He studied large mammal biology and animal behaviour at the University of Oxford. He also trained as a bullfighter in Andalusia with matadors including Juan José Padilla, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez and Eduardo Dávila Miura.

His book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011, and his story of Pamplona, ‘Les Invincibles’, was shortlisted for The Hemingway Prize 2016 in France. In Spain he has been invited speaker at the Foundation of Taurine Studies, at the University of Seville and for the Ambassador of Spain to the United Kingdom. He has written and spoken on the world of the bulls for national and international media including The Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ magazine, the BBC, CNN, and the Discovery Channel.

He first ran with the bulls in Pamplona in 2009 and, with the exception of 2010 – when he was occupied with bullfighting in Andalusia – he has run every year since in the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, of San Fermín, as well as those of other towns across Spain including San Sebastián de los Reyes (Madrid), Cuéllar (Castile and León), Tafalla and Falces (Navarre).

From the forthcoming book The Bulls Of Pamplona, edited by Fiske-Harrison, and co-authored with John Hemingway – grandson of Ernest – Capt. (Ret’d) Dennis Clancey of Running Of The Bulls Inc., Joe Distler, Larry Belcher and the photographer Jim Hollander, with contributions from Beatrice Welles – daughter of Orson – Spanish and Basque bull-runners such as Julen Madina, Jokin Zuasti and the Mayor of Pamplona.



Alexander Fiske-Harrison in the arena. Foto Credit: Nicolás Haro 2010 



Alexander Fiske-Harrison running with bulls in Pamplona and (illegally) touching one - Foto Credit Reuters

Alexander Fiske-Harrison running with bulls in Pamplona and (illegally) touching one – Foto Credit Reuters

What To Do After the Bull Run

Whether you’ve just run with the bulls or watched from a Pamplona balcony, you have not only just taken part in a long-running tradition unlike anything else in the world but you have no doubt also worked up a quite an appetite. Here’s what you do next:

Don’t miss the chocolate con churros served at many places on Estafeta street!  We guarantee you’ll be dreaming about these when you return home. If you don’t know what they are, just trust us and order one, or two, or three, or four – you won’t be disappointed. You’ll also want to pair your churros with a coffee: Cafe Solo (very good normal coffee), Cafe con Leche (with milk, kinda like a latte), Cortado (espresso with very little milk), Carajillo (with alcohol), or my favorite, Cariajillo de Baileys (Coffee with Baileys Irish Cream).

What To Do After the Bull Run

After the bull run, the trash and debris that littered the streets from the all-night activity will soon be cleared away and then the Proccesion of San Fermin will take place at 10:00 AM. No matter how much you need to sleep, make sure you find your way to the plaza just outside the Hotel Palacio Guendulain. There you will witness the locals, cleanly dressed and paying tribute to San Fermin with the Gigantes (whirling giant statues) on parade, listening to the sounds of the Pamplona Choir singing the Jotas (traditional songs) as they echo throughout the city. You’ll begin to appreciate the history and magic that is Pamplona in Fiesta.

Learn more about what to do during your Running of the Bulls adventure by looking at the San Fermin Festival Official Schedule of Events.


How to Participate in Running of the Bulls

Before sharing our insider advice on how to participate in Running of the Bulls, it is important to first understand the history of the Bull Run.   The Running of the Bulls tradition was originally born from the necessity to move bulls from outside the city of Pamplona to the bullring in the center of the town, something that’s been done since the 13th century. The San Fermin Fiesta has been held every July since 1592 and it’s not completely clear when citizens began running in front of the bulls but there are records as far back as 1787 indicating that the tradition was already long established at that point. Interestingly, the route the bulls run has only changed slightly since 1852.

How to participate in Running of the Bulls

Ready, Set, Run!

First it needs to be said, nobody should ever consider running while they are intoxicated. So if you are still out drinking when the sun comes up, we highly recommend having a designated runner :)

If you are set on running,  you’ll need to gather in Plaza Consistorial near the starting point of the route: Position yourself somewhere at the end of Santo Domingo Street, in front of the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall), or the beginning of Mercaderes street by 7:00 AM. We recommend getting there early! Don’t just follow the crowds. Sometimes you’ll see people all along Estafeta Street stretching out and preening as though they’ll be running. The police however make a sweep all the way down Estafeta Street prior to the run. Anyone in this area will be disqualified and forced off the street.

The Bull Run begins at 8:00 AM and the runners chant three times to a small statue of San Fermin – placed in a niche in the wall on Santo Domingo Street. Then the first rocket goes off, letting the runners know the bulls have been let out of the corral. You will hear the roar of the crowd and the echo of the bulls’ hooves on the cobblestone streets as the excitement moves in a wave past you. The second rocket signals that all the bulls have left the corral and the third rocket signals that the run is over.

If they don’t stop to gore people, the bulls can make the trip down the 825 meter (.51 mile) stretch of narrow streets in 2 to 5 minutes. Of course, the process takes much longer if the bulls stop to notice a runner and target him. At the end of the run, in the Plaza de Toros, they release Vaquillas (young cows with capped horns) into the bullring to toss participants around and amuse the crowd.

If you are wondering if the event is dangerous, it is! Since 1925, 15 people have been killed during the event – most recently on July 10, 2009. Every year between 200-300 people are injured during the run although most are bruises and scrapes due to falls and not the result of gorings from the bulls’ horns. If are not too queesy, here is a bull run video from 2013 you can watch that shows just how dangerous running of the bulls can be.

Now that we have given you the danger disclaimer, it is also an important to note that the bull run is considered one of the most integral parts of the San Fermin Festival and viewed by many in Pamplona as one of the last traditions that represent the true spirit of the region.

Let us know if we can serve you in any way as you plan for your adventure.