The Running of the Bulls is one of the most iconic festivals in the world. Deeply rooted in religion, the event has long since become a raucous celebration that hinges on rockets, a few horned animals and centuries-old tradition. Every year, more than a million people from all corners of the earth flock to the Spanish city of Pamplona to experience the madness firsthand. The party-like atmosphere lasts for nine days and provides visitors with plenty to do, but what they really come to see is of course, the bulls.

The Running of the Bulls is the centerpiece of the Festival of San Fermin. According to tradition, San Fermin was the first martyr of Pamplona and the patron saint of the region of Navarre. His actual existence is seriously questioned by historians but that doesn’t keep the festivities from happening year after year. The event take place annually from July 6-14 and transforms the usually quiet streets of the ancient city into crowded chaos.

What to Expect

The celebration begins in the square outside City Hall on July 6. After the Mayor sends his greetings to the group, hundreds of bottles of champagne are uncorked and heedlessly sprayed into the crowd. This is where the madness begins. Cries of “Viva San Fermin!” ("Long live San Fermin!") rise up from the packed plaza as the fuse of the first rocket is shot into the sky.

The rocket signifies the opening ceremony, but is by no means the last. The next morning and every morning after, hundreds of thousands of spectators dressed in red and white will assemble on their respective street corners and balconies at the crack of dawn, anxious for the next one to explode. They wait in eager anticipation at precisely 8 a.m., announcing the bulls are to be released from their pens. The main event, called the Encierro, sees the animals charge through the streets of the old quarter, surrounded on every side by masses of people. For the runners, the rocket is a warning to get ready. Like a surfer intent on catching the perfect wave, the runners stand momentarily in the bulls’ path, awaiting the ride of adrenaline. Goosebumps tingle as they are only able to hear the rapid beat of their heart amidst the crowd and chaos. When the pounding of their hearts turns into the pounding of hoofs, they know it’s time to run. For 6-8 seconds they fly down the street in front of the stampeding animals before instinct forces them to dive out of the way of the bulls’ deadly reaches. It takes the six bulls under four minutes to travel the 825 meters to the ring where they’re kept until their fight later in the evening. As quickly as the frenetic activity began, it ends. Portions of the barricade come down, shops reopen and everyone retreats indoors to re-watch the race on TV.

At midnight on July 14, revelry-makers gather once again in front of City Hall. Instead of emanating anticipation and excitement as at the beginning of San Fermine, the crowd lights candles and moans, "Pobre de Mí!" "Poor me, the Fiesta de San Fermín has ended!"

How to Do It

Technically anyone over the age of 18 is allowed to run with the bulls without any sort of ticket or entry requirement. That being said, if you don't follow the rules, the police will quickly remove you from the proceedings. No alcohol, electronics (read: cameras), high heels, or flip flops are permitted, and you definitely can't touch the animals. While it is without a doubt one of the most exciting events in the world, participation isn't without risks. Visitors who find it amusing to provoke the bulls often find themselves far too close for comfort to the angry bulls. Bull "shepherds" called pastores are on hand to maintain some order, but the event is never without some casualties. Know your own physical limits and if this is something you think you can handle. Enjoy the experience, but for a safe trip, be sure to follow all rules and guidelines. If you'd rather remain a spectator, the bullfight at night may be more your speed. Or, perhaps plan a trip to the Running of the Reindeer in Alaska.