Adrenalin in the Streets: Crazy Fun at Mexico’s Pamplonadas

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 8.53.38 AMBy Carole Reedy

Who are those frantic guys in the streets waving handkerchiefs, rags, and t-shirts in front of living, breathing bulls? This is a pamplonada, a “bullrun” that occurs in many parts of the world, often here in Mexico at las ferias. Occasionally you’ll see a proper matador’s cape, but generally this festival is for rogue players.

Pamplona, Spain

As you may have guessed, these runs are bastardized versions of the granddaddy of all celebrations, the Pamplonada at the Festival of San Fermin. For seven days in Pamplona, Spain, every July 7-14, there is literally a running of the bulls at 8 am each morning through the streets. Big brave bulls run from their corral to the Plaza de Toros, where later that day in the afternoon sun they’ll challenge the matadors in the traditional corrida. Before the bulls are released thousands of men and women of all ages from all over the world gather in the streets, dressed in white shirts with red handkerchiefs at their necks, awaiting the bulls. At the sound of the bell the bulls begin their run, accompanied by the visitors.

Although the history is vague, the tradition goes back to the middle ages when the process was merely a part of moving the bulls from the corrals to the plaza. As time went on, it became a tradition and integral part of the festival.

As many as one million Spaniards and foreigners gather each year for the festivities in this small town. The focal point of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting and also wrote a nonfiction description of the art form in his Death in the Afternoon (a must-read for those interested in learning more about the Fiesta Brava).

Huamantla, Tlaxcala Most copycat pamplonadas take place in small towns in Mexico. Rather than actually running with the bulls, a few streets are fenced off where bulls are permitted to roam and “play” with the spectators. Don’t take it lightly. It is dangerous, and people are killed despite recent efforts at some type of regulation.

The most popular and famous pamplonada in Mexico takes place annually in Huamantla, Tlaxacala, and thus is called the Huamantlada. Many young men and a few brave young girls from Mexico City make the three-hour drive to partake in the festivities with the locals, Mexicans from many other parts of the country, and a small number of valiant risk-taking foreigners. Dressed in white shirts, red handkerchiefs around their necks, and armed with bottles of tequila and cigars, they are ready to “run with the bulls.”

Beginning at noon on the first Saturday after August 15, the streets in central Huamantla are closed to all except participants who have preregistered. Spectators watch from balconies and rooftops or just by peeking over the street barriers. Participants jump up and down, anticipating the release of the bulls who wait in mobile corrals. The bulls are released and the fun starts: the chasing, taunting, and in some instances imitating the matador’s smooth passes with a cape, shirt, whatever’s available. The event goes on often for two hours and is over when the last bull is coaxed out of the street and back into his pen.

This year’s Huamantlada left 19 injured (five women and 14 men) and two dead–people, not bulls. The Red Cross and medical help are available and local hospitals stay at the ready.

Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala

This charming capital city of the state holds a pamplonada that remains true to the event started in Spain. It takes place just one morning during their feria in the first week of November. The bulls run from their pens to the plaza, taking less than 15 minutes. It is more regulated and staid than the Huamantla event, but nonetheless fun and daring. There are fewer injuries, drunks, and deaths.

The state of Tlaxcala, the smallest in Mexico, is the center of bullfighting, known for an abundance of famous matadors, bull-breeding ranches, and committed fans. The citizens of Aguascalientes, another one of Mexico’s smallest states, may have cause to argue with this status as they too hail from a state that boasts brave bulls and matadores valientes.

Versions of pamplonadas pop up all over Mexico during the ferias in towns that can afford to sponsor the event. The lovely colonial city of San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, popular weekend getaway for wealthy Mexico City dwellers, used to be home of one of the most attended and popular pamplonadas in the country. Taking place each year around the numerous festivities in September, the event attracted upward of 100,000 people to the town. However, since 2006 the town has banned the event.

The reasons behind the decision are varied, but mainly center on the disruption that the event caused–the traffic and lack of adequate housing and sanitation facilities for the sheer number of visitors. Apparently the tradeoff of financial gain for businesses didn’t justify the disruption. In 2008, San Miguel was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and since then has not hosted a pamplonada. However, the nearby village of Salvatierra has adopted the activity.

Don’t confuse the pamplonada with the actual bullfight (corrida). Many aficionados of the corrida do not enjoy or participate in pamplonadas. The corrida is a highly structured, serious art form. The pamplonada is just crazy fun. Enjoy, if you have the nerve!

Carole Reedy is an aficionada of the Fiesta Brava and has attended, as a spectator, many pamplonadas.