The sound of gunfire rang through thick air that was previously occupied only by the buzz of anticipation. The crowd began to swarm as the lorries inched closer. I looked down to watch as a massive tire grazed just centimeters from my toes, then back up into the sunlight to see the silhouettes of three young Spaniards perched atop the truck as it screeched to a slow stop. The crowd was fervid now. Hands reached over my head to bang on the side of the truck and I followed suit, fully engulfed in the hysteria.
Seconds later the bed of the lorry rose like a beast into the sky, spewing her contents to the mob below. Adrenaline rushed, chaos ensued. A raucous hour passed, and amid gasps of breath I looked down; my feet no longer touched the ground, but were instead swaying listlessly in the slow-moving river of vine-ripened tomatoes. An acrid stench hung in the dense August air. My shoulders were pinned between those of two muscular, olive-toned young men, their eyes shielded behind swimming goggles.
The crowd pushed, pulled and writhed as a body of one. I mustered all the energy left in my body to launch the last tomato in my grasp into the crowd. The second canon fired, and as quickly as the mass chaos started an hour earlier, La Tomatina Festival came to an abrupt halt. Patrons dropped any tomatoes left in hand, and marched down the crowded streets of Buñol as locals sprayed water hoses from balconies overhead.
The annual tomato throwing festival did not fail to meet our expectations of one of the most intense, wild, adrenaline-inducing experiences one could imagine. Despite the immense physical force necessary to survive the fight in the main streets (the side alleys are somewhat more maneuverable), the festival is a must-do for adventure seekers. If you’re in Valencia during La Tomatina but don’t care to participate in the fight, it’s worth taking the train to Buñol to see the quaint Valencian village and the characters that pour in from around the world for the festivities. The beer is cheap and big, the crowd is high on endorphins and the city provides free entertainment for the onlookers.
Survival Guide: La Tomatina Festival
About La Tomatina
La Tomatina began as a legitimate food fight among a group of young boys in the sleepy village of Buñol on the last Wednesday in August 1945. Over the next few years young boys commemorated the event unofficially. It gained such popularity that within a decade the city began to orchestrate the festival in an organized manner. With the exception of some years during the Franco regime, La Tomatina has occurred annually for 70 years this August.
Today La Tomatina is heralded as the “World’s Largest Food Fight”, and participants hail from every corner of the globe. The week leading up to the tomato throwing fight is filled with parades, music, fireworks and a paella contest. Throngs of people begin pouring into Buñol’s Plaza del Pueblo as early as daybreak to get a prime location near the cockaigne pole, a tall greased pole with a ham leg attached to the top. At 11 am the first cannon fires, and boys grapple to get to the top of the pole. Once the ham is reached the tomato throwing begins, and does not end until a second cannon is fired an hour or more later.
When is La Tomatina
La Tomatina Festival occurs every year on the last Wednesday in August. The gun fires around 11 am and the food fight ensues for around an hour.
The festival was free until 2013, but to curb the rapidly growing number of annual participants the city now limits the event to around 20,000. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and participants will receive armbands that are required for admission into Buñol. To purchase tickets, click here. For tour information, check here and here.
Where to Stay
The population of Buñol is around 9,000, so accommodation in the village is extremely limited. Most festival participants stay in nearby Valencia and travel in early on the morning of La Tomatina. Valencia offers everything from budget hostels to five-star luxury, so you’ll easily find an accommodation to fit your budget and style. Tours are also available from Barcelona, Madrid and other cities, so adding La Tomatina to your itinerary from anywhere in Spain is possible.
Getting There and Away
Since ticketing began, a number of tour operators now offer a package inclusive of the compulsory entry ticket and coach transportation to and from Buñol. If you want to go on your own, you can drive or arrive by train. For the train, take the C-3 line from Valencia Sant Isidre station to Buñol. Tickets can be purchased day-of or in advance. For driving directions or directions from other cities, click here. Note that access to the urban area is closed to cars at 7:00 am, so arrive early if you do drive.
What to Wear
This is the most important information of all. First, you will throw away every article of clothing you wear to the festival, so don’t take anything you like. I don’t know what the tour group rules are, but if you take the train in you will not be admitted on unless you are wearing a shirt and shoes. That seems reasonable, except shirt get ripped and shoes slip off and float away.
I wore a cheap pair of flip flops and within minutes of the fight both were inexplicably gone. I knew I needed to have shoes for the train, so in the midst of the fight I grabbed any shoes I could find floating by. At one point toward the end I actually spotted one of my originals floating down the street, but it was out of arm’s reach so I kept the mismatched pair I found and focused on launching tomatoes. Shirt ripping is a thing that happens, even to girls, so prepare by wearing lightweight layers. Ladies should also opt for a sports bra over a bathing suit top.
Tomato juice gets everywhere, and it happens to sting when it gets in the eyes. A cheap pair of swimming goggles is highly recommended. People get really creative with headgear, so take some cues from past participants.
What to Bring
If you arrive by train you won’t have anywhere to store anything you bring, so minimization is key. We went before the days of GoPro, so all I had was a cheap Kodak disposable underwater camera. Even if you have an underwater point-and-shoot, it’s not a good idea to bring it, and certainly don’t bring an SLR if you plan to participate in the fight. I would only recommend a GoPro, and it should be strapped on securely.
Don’t worry so much about a change of clothes or towels. As soon as the gun fires at noon announcing the end of the festival, locals come out onto balconies and into the streets wielding water hoses and soap to clean everyone off. Your clothes will remained stained and the stench will linger on you, but your body will be clean. Dry out while enjoying a cold beer in the hot Spanish sun before boarding the train back to Valencia.
La Tomatina is an amazing experience, but it is not for the faint of heart. Though the new ticketing system restricts the crowd to 20,000, that is still quite a lot of people crammed into one tiny square and a few alleys. Once the fight starts it is every man for himself. You will be pushed and pulled in every direction, not necessarily intentionally, it’s just the nature of the fight. A few minutes in and everything is slippery, and it only gets worse as the tomato slush starts to accumulate, so keeping your footing can be a challenge. Expect to get hit by tomatoes that haven’t been crushed – it’s faux pas but it does happen.
- A ticket is required for entry
- Tomatoes must be squashed before throwing
- No glass bottles or any other objects that may cause harm are allowed during the festival
- Tearing t-shirts is prohibited (but it happens)
- Be mindful of the lorries and keep your distance
- Once the second cannon fires the food fight must end. Drop your tomatoes.
La Tomatina Festival is an experience not to be missed. Get ready to hate Roma tomatoes for the rest of your life! My best advice…just show up and have a great time!
Have you been to La Tomatina Festival? How was your experience? If you haven’t, would you go? Leave a comment below!