La Tomatina / My Golden Birthday

La Tomatina is the world’s largest tomato fight. It takes place in the village of Bunol, near Valencia, and has approximately 320,000 pounds of tomatoes and 25,000 participants.

Most people go as a guided day-tour from Valencia, but there are other options from all over Spain.

Part 1: Preparations

After accepting my offer to go to business school at IESE in Barcelona, Spain, I noticed that a fellow student – Cecil from Singapore- was organizing a party bus to the Tomatina festival. The date of the festival was August 28- my birthday. Actually it was not just any birthday, it was my GOLDEN birthday because I would be turning 28 years old on the 28thof the month. For this momentous day, I knew I had to do something special and this appeared be the perfect way to celebrate big. I had to skip one day of an optional 2-week Spanish class – a seemingly low price to pay for something supposedly as epic as this.

An event poster for the IESE group. This poster has the final updated schedule.

For just 65 euros, I would get a roundtrip bus ticket, an event t-shirt, and a locker. I also purchased goggles and cheap close toed shoes.

Bunol is approximately a 4 ½ hour drive from Barcelona so the schedule was to leave at 3:30 am, arrive at the festival at 7:30 and then return to Barcelona at 2:30.

A few weeks before, the schedule was changed to an 8pm departure the day before. This would give people the opportunity to party all night in Valencia before the tomato fight. In my mind, this was not smart as I figured tomato fights probably require a lot of energy and staying up all night is probably not a good way to be energized. But I was not the trip organizer (a rarity) so it was not my decision. I toyed with the idea of going with another company that left Barcelona at 3:30 am, but ultimately decided that the event would be way better with 55 friends- sleep be damned! I purchased a bed in a Valencia hostel dorm for a pricey 40 euros.

 

Part 2: An Interesting Journey To Valencia.

Our eclectic group met up at Cecil’s house at 7:30 on August 27thin preparation for our 8pm departure. The bus and a few people were late, so we left around 8:20.

The atmosphere on the bus was fantastic. Everyone was casually chatting and getting to know each other…except for the Indian students who were blasting Indian music, dancing and downing Jagermeister shots. To the bewilderment of the other students, they kept the party going the entire ride.While other students couldn’t sleep because of this, everyone respected the energy and were okay with the party (game recognize game).

Part of the group at a rest stop.

At midnight, we received two bombshells. The first bombshell was a surprise birthday shot of whiskey from the group. The second bombshell came from the bus driver- there was apparently a Spanish law requiring bus drivers to take 9 hours of rest between driving shifts on multiple days. That meant that he could not get us to Bunol before the 11 AM start. We tried to bribe the driver to take us earlier, but to no avail. After some research, Cecil and some other students realized that we could take a public train directly from Valencia to Bunol. The bus driver would then head to Bunol during the tomato fight and take us home as planned. We all agreed to meet at the train station at 6am.

With 20-kilometers to go, the bus driver then swerved off the highway and took surface streets the entire way into Valencia. This added 45 minutes to our drive. My guess is that he would receive some type of financial compensation for a shift over 5 hours.

We arrived in Valencia at 1:22 am, 5 hours and 2 minutes after we left Barcelona. Cecil passed out t-shirts and event tickets to everyone before we dispersed. About half of the group (including myself) went to pre-arranged lodging, while the Indians and Brazilians went clubbing. I fell asleep at 2am.

 

Part 3: The Pre-Fight Festivities

After sleeping just under 4 hours, I woke up at 5:50 am and headed to Valencia’s Estacio de Nord. There, I met up with almost all of the crew (a few people unsurprisingly fell asleep after the nightclub).

Estacio de Nord was quiet (for now). It appears we have beaten the crowds. We got on the 6:38 train which ended up being pretty full. We arrived in Bunol around 7:45 am.

The train station was about a kilometer walk from the festival itself – held in the center of town. Around the halfway mark, we exchanged our tickets for the official wristbands  and stored our valuables in a locker (the line was super long). At the lockers I met up with my high school friend Justin and his college friend Adeeb who are here as part of a larger Eurotrip. The meetup was planned.

Clean shirts

We all changed into our festival outfits. I donned an IESE group t-shirt, running shorts, the cheapest water shoes in Barcelona and goggles. All the items would likely never ben worn again. My cash was stored in a ziplock bag in my pocket. Some people took their phones in waterproof cases, but I did not trust the cases.

Heading into battle

We then took a big group picture, bought gigantic beers, and then headed into the festival itself. Along the way our group split up. I ended up with just Justin and Adeeb.

The three amigos

As we reached the center of town, our tickets were checked multiple times and we passed by multiple security checks by the Spanish army. Eventually, we made it to the town’s main street: a narrow one-lane street flanked by 3-4 story buildings on either side. This was our field of battle.

The street was packed. In front of the main church was a 10 meter (32 ft) tall pole covered in grease. At the top of the pole was a leg of Iberian ham. Theoretically, La Tomatina starts when someone grabs the ham.

At 9am, the people around the pole started forming human pyramids to get someone to the top of the pole. As the pyramids got higher, the top person would wipe grease off the pole. Anyone who was near the pole could take part. I even gave it a go….because why not.

The task of retrieving the ham was a very achievable one. Unfortunately, there was a huge lack of leadership and teamwork. Smaller people who could not lift much weight were climbing on the second level of the human pyramid. They should have been the fourth or fifth level. Additionally, some people had strong egos and wanted to have the glory of retrieving the ham themselves and unwittingly sabotaged the effort. In their effort to snag the ham, these amateurs pulled people down who were better climbers which caused the entire pyramid to collapse.

I am not sure how, but the pole action kept me entertained for two whole hours.

Then at 10:50 AM a cannon sounded…

 

Part 4: La Tomatina

The boom was loud and reminded me of The Hunger Games. This was our call to battle! The world’s largest food fight has begun.

However there weren’t any tomatoes and not having done any research, I wondered how the tomatoes would get here.

After 5 minutes, those questions were answered: a humongous garbage truck of tomatoes rolled down the street. In the bed of the truck were approximately 15-20 people throwing tomatoes at the crowd. I have no idea how the crowd parted but somehow the truck made it through the crowd.

Most of the tomatoes were squished. A hit from a squished tomato did not hurt and stained my shirt red. If a tomato was not crushed and fell on the ground, I could pick it up and throw it elsewhere. Because it was easier, I tried to aim at tall people because you could actually see them get hit.

By the end of truck 1, my shirt was about 70% tomato red. I already felt that this was wilder than expected.

One truck in.

5 minutes after truck 1, was truck 2. This one had just as many tomatoes as truck one. By the end of this truck my goggles were caked in tomatoes and it was nearly impossible to see. Additionally the ground was now full of unthrowable tomato mush. It was starting to get wild.

5 minutes later was Truck 3 where someone pegged me with a hard tomato. Then Truck 4 where Justin was able to hit one of the locals on his balcony. Then Truck 5.

Holy moly

At this point, my goggles, and every part hair and clothing was covered in about a thick layer of tomato gunk. The streets were covered in about 5 inches of tomatoes. The fire department and residents were pouring water into the streets. It was absolute chaos.

Somehow Justin, Adeeb and I all managed to stay together. Even though we couldn’t see, we decided to move through the madness. Eventually we reached a spot where the gazpacho was a foot deep!

Right around this time, Truck 6 rolled through.

Further down the street we found a truck full of people with hoses spouting into the street. At this point there were no solid tomatoes left so people resorted to throwing tomato mush.

Every now and then I would take off the goggles and observe the chaos. Wow! Just Wow!!!!!!

At noon, another Hunger Games cannon sounded marking the end. Immediately everything stopped and after a loud cheer from the crowd it was peaceful.

 

Part 5: The Aftermath

I saw my classmates just as the fight was ending and ran over to them. At this time, a TV crew came over and interviewed 5 of us. Later I would learn that we would be on Spanish national news!

Getting interviewed for Spanish national news.

Justin, Adeeb and I bought some paella and sat on the ground while the crowds filed out. Locals were offering to rinse and shampoo people for 2 euros but it was a long line. Instead, we found a small public fountain to rinse off in (dignity was thrown out the window a long time ago). We didn’t get close to clean, but it was good enough for the bus ride back.

I then trudged up to the bus pickup zone out of town. The bus ended up leaving at 3:30 and we arrived in Barcelona just after 8pm. The ride back was brutal but well worth it.

Overall, I felt that this was one of the best birthdays yet. Yes the schedule was crazy and yes the tomatoes were gross and smelly but the craziness of the fight overshadowed all the negatives. I would 100% go back and do it again.

Thank you to Cecil and all the organizers for making this amazing day come true.

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