Be at the Chupinazo
San Fermín Day 1
Start time: 5:30 a.m
San Fermín is the official name of the fiesta that the Running of the Bulls takes place. The actual bull run is only one part of the week-long party in Pamplona-Iruña, Navarra from July 7-14th. Pamplona is about a two-hour bus from Bilbao, making it a perfect weekend get-a-way.
I had been waiting for this event since I set into motion my initial plan of moving back to Spain. Almost immediately after buying my plane ticket over, I reserved a campsite with a company named PP Travel, located 10 km from the city center. Why camping? San Fermín is one of the largest attended parties in the world. It's not cheap unless you're sleeping on the ground, which people do. You can expect to pay a few hundred per night, which might be 20 euros any other time of the year. Unless you find a place last minute, I had a friend who found a room for 80 euro a night. Also, I figured it would be a great atmosphere to meet new people. Plus, I assumed there wouldn't be much sleeping involved (incredibly true).
My bus left Bilbao at 7 a.m. Where I live; the metro only comes every 20 minutes. So travel days typically start pretty early when I need to take the bus or a plane. Therefore I needed to give myself an hour and a half in the morning, waking up at 5:30 a.m. Timeframes on these posts will highlight the insane lack of sleep I got over the past four days and three nights.
On the bus to my surprise, I met two Aussie expats friends, Pearl and Bryan. Bryan also actually lives here in Bilbao as well. The three of us ended up hanging out until the afternoon.
As soon as I got off the bus, I had realized I made my first small mistake. The previous day I ran all around Algorta's "China shops" looking for plain white t-shirts, shorts, a red bandana, and waistband. I was able to find three shirts and red bandana/sash back in Algorta, but couldn't find pants. So I hoped I could buy the classic white pants in Pamplona
It came to about 23 euros. On every corner, you can find a shop or street sale for your San Fermín get-up. Like in many tourist traps, don't buy what you need at the bus station. It will always be more. Here's where I made my mistake. Depending on where you go, a full package will cost you 14-16 euros. The bandana and sash will also have the official crest of the city.
I parted ways with the Aussies to check into my campsite, and that's when mistake number 2 happened. I got on the wrong line 4 bus; there's two. Of course, I didn't realize this until the last stop when I was close but not exactly where I needed to be. It would have been a long hike to walk the rest, and for this day, check-in closed from 10-4. There wasn't much else I could do, so I had to manage the opening ceremony with my backpack. I do not recommend this. If you are claustrophobic, agoraphobic (fear of crowds) or do not like being wet and sticky, I would not go as well.
I met back up with my Aussie friends and a new member of the group, Carlos, at the famous Iruna Cafe after taking the bus back to the center. It was made famous by a writer you might know, Ernest Hemmingway. He was a frequent customer here and referenced it in his book, The Sun Also Rises.
On the first day of San Fermín, thousands flock to the Ayudemento (Town Hall) Square for the lighting of the Chupinazo (a giant firework) to officially kick off the fiesta. It is wild. It happens at noon. If you are in this zone, be prepared to be soaked. Also, head there early. But be warned. People will be sloshing and tossing wine, sangria, water; you name it up down and sideways. It's not for the clean freak. We avoided the main zones where people were doing this, but a few times, it was impossible. Thankfully I didn't get drenched. People will also then wear their sangria dyed(previously white) shirts and pants with pride for days on end. Close to noon, everyone in the area raised their red bandana high into the air. The mass went berserk at the stroke 12, following the lighting of the Chupinazo. If there weren't so many people, I would have ended up on the ground.
After the Chupinazo, we spent the afternoon walking through the heaps of people from bar to bar. Thankfully unlike lodging, the beer prices do not change. It was cheaper than some places in Bilbao. In Pamplona, you can get a caña for only 2 euros. We came across a square with a fountain with a man at the top. Of the many non-written rules on how to celebrate San Fermín, this is one of them. Do not jump from the Navarreria Fountain like this guy.
Marching around the streets, you will see and hear many groups of people playing various drums and flutes.
As 4 p.m approached, I said my goodbyes and headed to the Ezcaba campsite, making sure to take the 4-O(the correct one) versus the 4-V. I channeled my inner Hemmingway when I realized I still had a small hike from the bus stop to my final destination. I was in the middle of the Navarran countryside and walking on the side of the freeway. I looked down at one point to see the symbolic shell of the Camino de Santiago.
The campsite had fantastic facilities. It had a restaurant, bar, pool, and clean bathrooms.
There were three different companies for camping here, and thankfully, it appeared I choose the right one. I would 10/10 recommend PP Travel and might book future events with them. The staff was very friendly and helpful when checking-in. With a large cup of sangria in hand, bathing suit now on, I knew this would be a weekend to remember. Throughout the day, I soon realized, while making small talk with the fellow campers, I was one of two local expats. It was weird. Since I left the U.S seven and half months ago, I haven't interacted with so many people from North America. Everyone also thought I was crazy that I came to San Fermin and was not planning on running with the bulls. If you have been following along, you will know, I ended up running. But I want to make it clear; it was not the plan.
I think I can now say I've officially assimilated into the culture here in Europe and Spain. Even though my Spanish is not the best, I was one of three who could speak. It was also uncomfortable being around so many Americans. Since I was "a local" actually living in Spain, for the first time, I was felt like an outsider because everyone else was traveling.
For many, it was their first-time traveling and on the "Euro-circuit." They were on their once a year two-week PTO, trying to experience Europe. I met some pretty interesting people, and everyone had a story. There were a few people who had just quit their corporate job. There was one guy who had recently been heartbroken, in the worst way. I met a girl who spoke Spanish and living here in Spain, was also an expat, blessed with dual-citizenship.
Instead of going back to the city to party, I chatted and drank with the small group of fellow Americans through the afternoon and night. Knowing it was going to be an early morning, and it had been a long day, I tried to get to bed at a decent hour. Well, that didn't happen. There was a terrible concert put on by the main campsite. To make matters worse, it didn't end until around 2 a.m. Between the awful music and air mattress, I must have fallen asleep shortly after between 2:30-3 a.m.
Be curious. Be courageous. Be chivalrous.