You might be wondering why we would profile Spain. There’s no malaria, Yellow fever, dengue, or Chikungunya and only a few fairly routine vaccinations to consider.
In fact, from a health perspective, Spain is low on the list of dodgy destinations. The one exception occurs during a single week each year in Pamplona, the historic capital city of the Basque wine-producing region of Navarra, situated in the country’s far north.
I’m referring to the fabled Running of the Bulls.
Encierra, as it’s called in Spain, is up there with Brazil’s Mardi Gras as a spectacle worthy of inclusion on everyone’s travel Bucket List.
Held from July 6-14, the event actually began as part of a religious celebration to honour the region’s patron saint, San Fermin. Later, it gained literary renown in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, considered by many to be his greatest novel.
These days the Running of the Bulls attracts tens of thousands of young fun-worshipers and adrenalin-junkies from across the globe for a week of hedonistic hijinks. (San Fermin, I suspect, would be less than impressed.)
It’s dangerous – no bull!
For many young travellers, it’s an irresistible challenge to join the event’s old hands aiming to outpace a the angry young bulls on a frenzied, four-minute, 825-metre run through city streets to the bullring where they are destined to be dispatched by matadors the same evening.
But, the event’s global fame obscures its inherently dangerous nature.
So, as much as I hate being a spoilsport, my advice is this: DO NOT TAKE PART.
Here are a few reasons why:
1 - Your chances of injury are VERY HIGH
Over the years, many runners have been permanently maimed or killed and Aussies don’t have particularly good ‘form’. In 2010, a young Australian, Nick Ward was run down by a bull and spent weeks in hospital with three broken vertebrae. In 2013, a young woman from NSW was seriously injured after being gored, suffering broken ribs and punctures to a lung and other organs.
2 - Being fit or fleet-footed won’t help
You can’t train or practice for this race. Regardless of how fit you are, being hemmed in by hundreds of other participants dashing in different directions to escape the bulls makes it easy to fall, and get trampled or gored – or both.
3 - For foreigners, medical treatment is ‘mucho’ expensive
You – or your family – will be expected to guarantee payment for any treatment before being allowed to leave. Medical expenses have been known to run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
4 - NO insurance provider will cover you.
If you deliberately put yourself in a dangerous situation, the conditions of your travel insurance policy are null and void. Simple as that.
Find a safe vantage point
Let’s face it. Lining up to outpace a dozen very fast, very agitated bulls is akin to being shot from a canon or diving into a tank to feed White Pointers without a cage!
It’s simply saner and safer to watch from outside the timber safety barriers. But, even then, you need to pick a safe spot to view the action.
It’s not uncommon for the rampaging animals to break through barriers, or understeering (so to speak) on corners and losing their footing on the cobbled streets. Around 300m from the stadium is the aptly named ‘Dead Man’s Corner’, where spectators have been injured and runners crushed by slip-slidin’ bulls that fail to negotiate the right-angled bend.
Even if you’re not running, the crowds are thick and boisterous, many lubricated with the Navarra region’s wines.
You need to keep your wits about you and a good grip on your things. Tightly packed tourists, distracted by the spectacle of the race, offer numerous opportunities for the practiced hands of pickpockets, while camera bags, backpacks, and fanny packs provide easy pickings for thieves armed with razors.
Pamplona parties – hard
After the bulls are penned and the injured stretchered to hospital, thousands of people from across the globe get down to the serious business of partying in Pamplona’s public spaces and streets.
The mixture of testosterone and alcohol can be more lethal than the horns of a charging bull. Of course, you don’t have to go to Spain to see tragic examples of that, but getting injured in a foreign country can be life-changing – even life-ending.
Do yourself a favour: drink responsibly, look out for your friends, and steer clear (sorry) of fights.
Australia’s Smartraveller website warns that some Australians have been known to jump off fountains during the festivities in Pamplona, resulting in severe injuries and deaths. It also reminds travellers that insurance will not cover fractures from fountain freefalls.
Smartraveller also advises that driving in Spain can be dangerous ‘due to traffic congestion in urban areas, aggressive driving practices, and excessive speed’ and suggests you read its road travel page. Australians who decide to drive in Spain are required by law to carry their valid Australian State or Territory driver’s licence, as well as an International Driver Licence.
Vaccinations and health issues
High standards of sanitation and hygiene make for low rates of Hepatitis A virus (HAV) in Spain. Vaccination is not recommended.
Unlike HAV, the Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is transmitted via infected blood or bodily fluids and is often recommended for overseas travel, particularly for single, young adults. (It may be worth considering a course Hep B vaccine or the combination Hep A-B vaccine, which provides highly effective, long-term protection – especially if you’re planning future overseas travel to developing regions.)
Routine vaccines: Vaccinations that should be current for every overseas trip include measles-mumps-rubella(MMR), diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, chickenpox, meningococcal disease, and seasonal influenza.
Rabies: Rabies is present in Spain and across Europe (most human cases in Spain in recent years have involved bites from dogs illegally imported from North African countries). Rabies presents a low risk for short-stay travellers. However, besides bulls, it’s wise to avoid contact with both domestic or wild animals and know what steps to take if bitten.
Traveller’s diarrhoea (TD): TD is the most common cause of illness for Australians travelling overseas and it occurs in developed and developing countries. To reduce the risk of TD, practice good personal hygiene, wash your hands after using the toilet and before eating, and make safe food choices.
Jetlag: Australian travellers lose 8 hours during the 16,000km journey to Spain. The symptoms of jetlag are usually more pronounced in older people and those flying west to east. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce jetlag’s effects.
Finally, if you get sick after visiting Spain, seek medical care as soon as possible - particularly if you develop a fever. And, don’t forget to mention your recent trip to Spain to WATCH the Running of the Bulls.
- Laurie Sullivan.
Get more advice on recommended vaccinations and other travel health issues for any destination from Travelvax Australia’s travel health information service on 1300 360 164.