The Pamplona Bull Run: Historical Background and What to Expect

The beginning of July marks the start of the celebratory San Fermin Festival, and with it, one of its most anticipated week-long events: The Bull Run. Note: There are a few Bull Runs throughout multiple cities, but the main one occurs in Pamplona. The Pamplona San Fermin Festival lasts 9 days, beginning July 6th and culminating at midnight on July 14th, but the Bull Run occurs at 8AM daily from July 7th through July 14th.

History of San Fermin & The Bull Run

The saint: The 9-day Sen Fermin festival honors San Fermin, Pamplona’s patron saint. San Fermin was said to be decapitated in 2nd century due to his faith – the red bandanas tied around everyone’s necks are reminders of said decapitation.

The dress: bull runners and pedestrians alike will wear the customary white pants (or white jeans), white shirts, a red scarf tied (a panuelo) around the neck, and a red sash (a faja) tied around the waist. The waist sash is optional; it’s the neck scarf that is worn by everyone.

San Fermin’s popularity: it’s said that Ernest Hemingway is the one who put Pamplona’s festive Bull Run “on the map” when he visited and witnessed his first Running of the Bulls in 1923; inspired by the spectacle, he wrote The Sun Also Rises, stating that he “enjoyed 2 wild animals running together – one on 4 feet, one on 2.” As a result, Hemingway is celebrated as a Pamplona native.

The Pamplona Bull Run

We cannot start our explanation of the Bull Run without making it very clear that it is very dangerous. Many people are injured daily (though often minor), and deaths are an unfortunate sporadic occurrence. If you want to watch the festivities, find a balcony! You are not safe on the ground.

With that being said, onto the fun stuff…

The bulls: the breed used for the bull run are called “El Toro Bravo” – translated literally to “the brave/fearless bull.” They’re surprisingly athletic for their size – they run the ½ mile route at a 4-mile pace – it takes them only 2.5 minutes for them to complete the run, and they actually run disproportionately faster than humans on an incline. A different herd of bulls runs every day – they’ll be listed in that morning’s paper.

The steers: the “clean up steers” that have cowbells around their necks are released after the bulls to temper the herd, because they’ve been with the bulls leading them from pasture to pasture their whole lives. They’re for the bulls’ and the runners’ safety, and aim especially to reduce the chance of a suelto – or lone bull.

A lone bull is a danger to everyone – if you ever see a bull standing around, looking confused, get away ASAP – it’s not  a photo op! The bull is lost, and therefore in distress – and there is no way to determine how it will act (usually aggressively to mark its territory).

The runners: some will train for this all year, while others join in on the run as an extension of their nightly festivities, still drunk. The uniform is not mandatory, but the white pants, white shirt, and red sash and neck scarf are traditional. As a runner, however, they should always be tied in a slipknot so that if they get caught on something (like a bull’s horn), the runner can escape freely. Runners should carry some form of ID – even just your name written on a piece of paper – just in case of injury.

The run: nobody runs the entire route – even experienced runners will only choose a section. A seasoned bull runner’s goal is to run as long as possible directly in front of the bulls’ horns – this is referred to as running on the horn.  A beginner bull runner’s goal is just to not get hurt.

The run is free – you don’t need to sign up anywhere or register for anything. You just have to be at the starting location between the Town Hall and Santo Domingo by 7:30AM. Right before 8AM, the police will release you – you can run wherever you want.

Do not carry a camera – it’s illegal, as it’s a danger to yourself and others. Don’t worry, there are literally thousands of photographers high up on balconies throughout the whole run – you can go into any photo shop after your run to find yourself in a photo.

Do not touch the bulls – if you’re running close, of course, sometimes it’s accidental, but doing so will disorient the bull and cause danger. There are actually specific people placed along the route – Pastores – whose job it is to hit people with a stick if they try to touch the bull. They also help guide lost bulls.

Firing off: the run starts a few minutes before 8AM, when the 1st rocket is released into the air, releasing all the bulls. Once all bulls have been released, a 2nd rocket goes off to signal that all the bulls are out – after which, the “clean up steers” are released.

The run route: the entire route is about 850 meters long:

  • Starts at Corralillo
  • Extends through Calle Santo Domingo, which is referred to as La Cuesta (“the slope”) – it’s 280 meters entirely uphill. Remember, this is where the bulls are able to run faster than humans – not a good place for inexperienced bull runners!
  • Continues through Town Hall Square, where the ground levels off – good for beginners – but then enters Ayuntamiento, nicknamed La Curva – it’s an intense curve that feels even curvier when taken at speed. Do not call it “dead man’s curve” – you’ll sound like a total rookie, and besides, nobody’s ever even died there.
  • Passes through Calle Estafeta, which is the longest portion of the route, and where the bulls start to tire out and slow down, making it an excellent portion for beginner runners.
  • The final segment runs through Telefonica, ending at Plaza de Toros, where you’ll run through the Callejon (red door) and onto the sand of the bull ring.
  • Once you’re on the sand, you’re still no safe! Run left or run right, but run straight into the stands. If you stay on the sand, you’re considered a valiente, and people will throw things at you!

After the run:

Additional rockets are fired to signal the end of the run. Whether successful at the run or not, everyone will consume the celebratory drink of chocolate milk with cognac (though some will argue that regular vanilla milk with cognac is better). The run is really, really over when you see the barrios (barriers) being taken down from the shop fronts along the street.

We’re not sure about you, but we’d rather kick back with a glass of Spanish wine and tapas and watch the bull run on the screen than get anywhere near it!

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Socarrat is a Spanish restaurant since 2008 offering a wide variety of tapas, paella, sangria and an extensive selection of wines with three locations in the heart of Manhattan.


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