Picking up random girls, getting dead drunk and risking one’s life with running bulls – just your average Mexican party.
Once in a lifetime, if a man is lucky, he will experience a truly extraordinary party. It should be an experience that he will look back on for the rest of his life as the standard for any other party. For me, it was the San Miguelada, Mexico’s mini-Pamplonada, a celebration of extreme drunkenness and huge, raging, surprisingly long horned bulls.
It takes place for one weekend a year in the small Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, where for most of the year thousands of retired gringos spend peaceful days sipping coffee in overpriced cafes, reading books or volunteering for some certainly worthwhile charity. For one weekend, however, all of that changes and the town is literally invaded by 100,000+ drunk, raving Mexican tourists and a long parade of huge bulls, specially bred for rage and destruction.
My aunt lived in San Miguel de Allende, and I had been visiting her for a short period before I eventually settled in the small city of Guanajuato, where I had been trying to scrape out a living as an English teacher, living in a filthy, bare apartment and eating beans and tortillas every day to be able to afford nights out at the bars. One day before class, I read an email from my aunt telling me that I should come back to San Miguel for the weekend of the party and that I could stay in a house that she was the caretaker of, right in downtown. Indeed, she wrote, I should invite a friend. I accepted the extremely generous offer and immediately informed my long suffering boss, a curly haired girl from Utah that I wouldn’t be working that weekend.
By the time Thursday night came around, I was already beginning the festivities. I found myself walking around late at night going from bar to bar in the search of my principle goal in life: girls. After some effort and expense, I found myself at the hottest, most expensive nightclub in town eying a beautiful young Asian woman with a skirt pulled way up high on her thigh.
Mildly drunk, I approached her and asked, ‘Que idioma hablas? Ingles o Espanol?’
‘What? No… es-pan-ol.‘she replied, confused.
‘I speak English,‘I laughed, ‘Where are you from?’
She smiled now, and as I took a seat next to her, she leaned toward me. ‘I’m from California. You?’
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, and I could see she was pretty drunk, perfectly drunk, by my standard at the time.
‘Ohio boys are shy. You’re not shy at all…’
‘So where am I from?’
‘I don’t know, but you’re not from Ohio.’
‘No… you’re right. I guess I’m Mexican, haha.‘We were both laughing at the idea, drunk horny nervous laughter to fill the gaps in the conversation before it can get to the real point of all this effort: sex.
‘Do you have a cigarette?‘she asked.
‘Nah, I don’t smoke, but I’ll ask someone.’
I stumbled around asking random people for cigarettes, and eventually ended up just buying a pack. When I got back to the table a Mexican guy was trying to talk to her. I stepped past him and handed her the cigs.
‘Oh, thanks,‘she said with a smile when she saw me again. The Mexican guy glared angrily at me and asking what I was doing. I translated to the girl and she said with a smile and a little wink, ‘just tell him I’m your girlfriend.’
‘Yeah, alright,‘I turned to the Mexican guy, who seemed deeply offended. ‘Soy su novio, amigo.’
‘Ahhh… lo siento…‘and he turned and left, while I took my seat again, this time much closer. Our conversation continued and I found out some basic, essentially meaningless information like her first name and what she was doing in Mexico before we decided to leave the bar.
As we stepped into the dim, romantic lights of the street, I put my arm over her bare shoulder. Not long after, I stopped, holding her little body in my arms and she moved her hands over my chest feeling the hard tone of my muscles. I kissed her softly as I leaned her to her side, holding her in my arms to keep her from falling. The one kiss turned into several more, more intense and sensual.
It was a short but extremely steep hike through the tiny walkways leading up to my apartment and I led her in believing we were alone. It was filthy. My roommate, a metro-sexual Quebecan separatist, was leaving the same week and refused to clean anything. We had recently bought literally a pound of weed and it sat piled on a plastic table in the kitchen, next to 15 ready-made joints and half a dozen empty liter bottles of beer. I sat at the table and asked her if she wanted to smoke, producing my masterpiece, a 10 paper, ounce-sized super-joint the size of a cigar. She laughed when she saw it.
‘I’ve been saving this for a special occasion, you know…’
‘Yeah, I believe it,‘she laughed and I could tell she was still quite drunk.
I lit the joint and after a few hard cigar puffs the apartment filled with smoke. Within minutes, we were having crazy, contorted sex on the weed-strewn table, then the seedy, bare mattress on a wooden box that I called my bed. She stayed until morning, when I walked her down to the street to wave down a taxi. She was going to San Miguel for the party, too, but I didn’t imagine I’d see her. We kissed and she was gone, and I returned to my hideously filthy little Mexican bathroom to wash the sex off my body with cold water.
Later in the afternoon, I found myself sitting on the balcony smoking a joint and looking over the city when a Mexican friend who lived in the apartment just below me came out to join me.
I greeted him in the best Mexican Spanish I could muster, ‘Eh, como estas, guey?‘Offering my hand in the slide and punch style of Mexican handshakes.
‘Ahhh, no sé, guey,‘he replied in a throaty, early morning voice, though it was well past noon.
‘You wanna smoke?‘I asked, offering him a four-paper ridiculously oversized joint. He laughed at the size of it and shook his head.
‘No, guey, no fumo eso,‘he laughed.
‘Hey,’ I declared, a reasonable idea cracking through my foggy mind, ‘Are you going to the San Miguelada?’
‘I don’t know…‘he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
‘Hey, man, I can get a house in downtown for the party. La casa de mi tia. Well, a house she’s gonna let me stay at. Anyway, she told me to invite someone, you wanna go?’
‘Si, claro!‘ He grinned widely at the idea, as this was no small offer, but then frowned contemplatively. ‘Ahhh, mierda, I don’t have much money for a bus ticket.’
‘Yeah, fuck it, let’s hitchhike, I don’t have any money either!’ I proclaimed, inspired by the ease of the past weekend’s hitchhiking odyssey to Mexico City.
‘Perfecto! When do you want to go?’
‘Well, I guess pretty much right now. We need to get there before dark for sure. I need to call my aunt, first… How about, like… one hour?’ I suggested.
‘Esta bien. Awesome, we’re going to the San Miguelada!’ he grinned.
We hit the road within a couple of hours, after walking halfway across town and finally catching a cheap local bus to the outskirts of town. We met a few young Mexican girls on the bus that were doing the same thing and agreed to hitchhike together, five in all. We were dropped off next to a little roadside food shop in the center of a slow, one street town in the middle of the desert and the girls stood out front with their thumbs in the air. Castor and I sat back and planned to jump in once a car stopped, hoping they had enough room.
Eventually, a small Japanese car pulled up and the girls talked to the driver, who was another young Mexican woman. She told us all to jump in, introducing herself as we squeezed in one by one. We piled in tight, with one girl almost sitting on my lap. Everyone was talking in rapid Spanish, and though I could understand some things, I wasn’t fluent enough to understand yet. I just sat and looked out the window to the beautiful highland desert and thanked god that I was in Mexico.
Eventually we arrived in the city. After visiting my aunt and getting the keys and directions to the house where we would stay, we walked back through the winding streets up to the central part of town, where the chaos was already beginning to take hold. By the time we reached the central plaza, where the running of the bulls would take place the next day, it was full-on. Tens of thousands of people had crowded the area as tight as the Mexico City subway at rush hour. It was a complete human traffic jam.
The street was already piling up with cups, bottles and cans of booze and the stench of alcohol seeped out from the rocks. The old cathedral sat lit up against the moonlit desert sky, lending the party a strangely psychedelic hedonism. Mexican folk music jammed out of huge speakers and half the crowd was dancing, bumping into each other without reserve. There was no avoiding it. We struggled through the crowd, eventually coming out of it as if from under water, finally able to breathe.
I laughed when I saw Castor emerge from the sea of bodies behind me. ‘This is loco, guey!‘I yelled.
‘Bien loco, guey!‘he answered grinning.
We rambled through side streets looking for the house. After a long search, we found the number and tested the key. I smiled as the lock opened, and I pushed the heavy iron gate open.
My jaw dropped as I entered the house. It was a palace: a two story, 5 bedroom suite. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A beautiful fountain sat in the middle of an incredible courtyard, surrounded on all sides by immaculate gardens. I looked back at Castor, who had an awestruck grin on his face.
‘_Guey_…‘he mumbled, seeming stunned.
I went to the first door of the house, and tested the key. After a couple of tries, I found the one that worked, and walked inside. We entered the kitchen, which was impressively with every amenity, from blenders to a stainless steel oven, and continued on through the house. We entered the immense foyer, containing beautiful stone statues and antique furniture. Expensive paintings encased in gold lined the walls, everything incredibly clean and prim. It was shocking.
I left Castor to find his room upstairs, and continued searching through my new house. Eventually, I came to the master bedroom. It was a level of luxury and comfort that I had never experienced in my life. Lying down to test the massive king-sized bed, I felt it absorb me in the greatest feeling of comfort that I had ever imagined.
‘My god,’ I remarked out loud to myself. ‘This can’t be real.’
After several minutes of marveling at the bed, I went back upstairs to meet Castor, who was also sprawled out blissfully in bed.
‘What do you think?’ I asked.
‘Guey, this is awesome.’
‘Yeah, I can’t believe it,‘I said smiling. ‘You want to go out to the party, guey?’
‘We’re gonna get whatever girls we want tonight with this house…‘he remarked grinning.
I laughed at the idea, already exhausted from the night before but open to whatever might come my way. We left the house and rolled back into the night. I was already tired, and the massive crowds only made it worse. Within an hour, I returned to the house to sleep and get ready for the madness of the next day.
I slept beautifully on the deluxe mattress and awoke to the endless possibilities of the day. I met Castor in the garden for breakfast. He returned my keys with a grunt and sat down heavily on the chair with a thump.
‘What happened to you, man?‘I asked, laughing at his grizzly face.
Closing his eyes in an effort not to vomit, he waited for a long moment before answering. I waited while chewing a piece of bread.
‘Guey, it was a crazy party. I don’t know what happened, really.’
‘Ha, no man, today’s the crazy party,‘I said, slapping him on the arm. ‘I’m gonna run with the bulls!’
‘You’re loco, guey,’ he grunted hoarsely.
‘It’s gonna be awesome, but I better get some fluid in me before I go,’ I said, producing a bottle of mescal, a cheap Mexican liquor I had brought from Guanajuato.
I poured myself a glass and winked at my friend. ‘Wanna drink?’ I asked.
‘Ugh, chinga su madre, no,’ he replied, nearly vomiting at the smell of it.
I laughed and took several shots in a row, needing some kind of motivation to run in a ring with 2000 pound bulls chasing me with huge horns. Within an hour, I had drank half the bottle and felt quite ready. I walked alone to the central plaza, where the ring had already been set up, and climbed over the fence to get inside.
A large crowd had already formed, and most were just milling around, not exactly sure when the bulls would actually run or not. There was a great tension in the air as the plaza continued filling. I began talking with a foreigner I saw standing there alone.
‘Are you gonna stay in here until the bulls come?’ I asked him.
He showed me a crooked smile and rubbed the back of his neck uneasily.
‘I don’t know… Are you?’
‘Hell, yeah!’ I said grinning broadly. ‘I wouldn’t miss it, man… You only do this once in your life, you know what I mean?’
‘Yeah…’ he seemed unconvinced.
‘Really gets the blood pumping just thinking about it,‘I remarked, feeling bolts of adrenaline run through my body and my hairs stand on end all over my body. ‘Hey, man, do you know where these bulls are gonna come from?’
‘Yeah, right over there,’ he said, pointing to some massive wooden boxes about 100 meters from where I stood.
‘Aha, cool. Do you know when they’re coming?’
‘Soon, I’ve heard, but who knows, probably after they do something to get them really angry…’
I laughed uneasily at the idea, but the alcohol content of my blood seemed to take the edge off quite nicely. I was determined to stay until the bulls were released, and as long as I could after. Hundreds of people continued entering the ring, mostly young men. I could see a light scattering of foreigners, maybe ten in the whole crowd, and realized that this indeed was a unique experience.
The sun sat high overhead, and the heat was already quite intense. The crowd began to get more animated, and shouts and cheers rose out of nowhere, running like waves over the sea of bodies in the ring. Some of the people in the ring seemed to have second thoughts at the last minute, and went racing for the fence, jumping over to the relative safety of the other side. I stood my ground, easily able to see over most of the crowd to the boxes, where the doors were beginning to open.
Suddenly, mass panic took over the crowd, and hundreds of people began racing in my direction. The push was so powerful that some people fell onto their faces and got trampled if they couldn’t get back up in time. I began running with the crowd, trying to avoid a worse fate. As if from a tsunami, people began fleeing in panic to the walls, some screaming in horror.
I, too, fearing this still-invisible menace, ran for the protection of the wall. I stood there a moment, surrounded by sweating Mexicans, feeling my heart pound hard in my chest and a lump build in my throat. Suddenly, emerging from the crowd, a single massive bull charged with his horns lowered at a foolish straggler in the center of the road. The bull lifted him off his feet and threw him over his head to the ground behind, cruelly kicking his nearly limp body as he passed.
The savage, enraged animal now turned his attention in my direction, and panic seemed to take over everyone around me. There seemed to be no escape if he came as far as us and, indeed, he was charging directly at me. Some tried to jump over the fence behind us, others just pressed for the wall, which at the time seemed like the only thing that could be done. I thought back to some advice that I’d heard before running, namely A group of bulls are no problem, they’ll just keep running around in circles… the dangerous thing is a single bull…
The bull came charging harder, and had closed within five meters when the man in front of me broke from the ranks and ran away. The bull diverted his attention to him and flipped him before running back to the center. I ran past the man’s body toward the bull yelling like maniac, half trying to get back ahead of him to feel the excitement of such a close encounter again.
Other bulls were released, and it became imperative to constantly look in all directions or risk a horn in the back. I ran like this for 15 minutes. Every time a bull or group of bulls passed I pushed for the wall to avoid them. Others were more foolhardy and, perhaps trying to impress someone with their courage, would try to ride the bulls or pull on their tails. Several received crushing kicks to the stomach or worse.
I was pouring sweat, and decided to take my shirt off in the ring, like many of the Mexicans. One man, however, slapped me hard on the back and insulted me in Spanish. I yelled back at him furiously, and saw that he was stumbling drunk. I marched up to him ready to fight, but a man stepped between us and shook his hand saying no. I thought about the situation for a minute. Fighting someone while psychotic bulls circled around us? Besides, I thought, I was probably heavily outnumbered if he had any friends, so I let it go and put my shirt back on.
The crazy edge of the first few minutes wore off after a while. The bulls began to run together, which made the experience safer and also meant that they would only pass once in a while. People began to mill around talking, and some left the run entirely by hopping over or crawling under the gate. Eventually, I too left, looking for something to eat and drink.
I struggled through the incredibly dense crowd and emerged into a nearly empty street. Two blocks away I sat down for tacos and lemonade, downed both as fast as possible and headed back in the direction of the plaza, where the bulls were still running, exhausted. I tried to re-enter, but the crowd was too dense to pass. As I was looking for a way through, I heard a loud gunshot less than half a block away. I struggled forward to see what had happened, and eventually arrived next to an ambulance where four paramedics were carrying an unconscious man bleeding heavily from his chest. They lightly tossed him into the car and pushed through the crowd and down the street. I turned back at this point, deciding to return to my luxurious bed and take a nap out of the heat.
I strolled leisurely back to my palace as extremely drunk young Mexicans littered the streets with their bodies and trash. Some could be seen urinating in the street while other offered passers-by beer or drugs.
One girl came up to me and gave me a hug, barely able to stand up straight.
‘Hola, chico, what are you doing?’ she asked me in a slurred voice, reeking of alcohol.
‘Uhh, me voy a la casa. ¿Y tu?‘ I asked her.
‘Well, I’ll go with you…’ she murmured before falling to her knees in a heap and spilling the glass of beer in her hand.
I helped her up and took her to the curb before walking the rest of the way to my house. A long line had formed just outside on the street for the bullfight in the afternoon, but I had no money for the ticket, and happily went back to the quiet and comfort of my mansion.
Still feeling hungry from the exertion of the run, I searched through the kitchen for something to eat. After opening every cupboard I arrived at the only food in the house, a newly expired jar of organic peanut butter. Peanut butter was an incredibly rare luxury in Mexico, and I began devouring it directly from the jar. I took it with me to my room and stored it in my pack before crawling into bed for the afternoon and sleeping until sunset.
I awoke well rested and found Castor sitting in the garden with a Mexican friend. I had no idea how they had entered, but assumed that Castor hadn’t left the house all day. They were drinking beer, and I sat down next to Castor, introducing myself to his friend.
‘Are you guys gonna party tonight?‘I asked.
‘Did you run with the bulls today?’ Castor asked.
‘Yeah, it was crazy. It was so much fun!’
‘Que loco gringo!‘ they both seemed to say at the same moment.
‘You guys didn’t?’ I asked.
‘Several people died.’
‘Yeah, I saw someone get shot… Anyway, you guys gonna go party tonight?’ I asked laughing.
‘Yeah, I guess, you wanna go out?’
‘I’ve still got a bottle and a half of mescal… we might as well drink it,’ I declared, grabbing the open bottle that still sat on the table from the morning.
I poured them each a glass and took the bottle in my hand, drinking it like a beer. We finished the bottle in a matter of minutes and I suggested we go back to the street. I met them outside after grabbing the other bottle, and we began the journey back to the central plaza, stumbling over the carnage of the party from the afternoon. The beautiful, normally immaculately clean colonial streets were completely littered with plastic cups, aluminium cans, and broken beer and liquor bottles. A few people sat in the gutter passed out or vomiting. But the street seemed much quieter than in the afternoon.
As we rose up over a crest on the road and began to descend, a powerful techno beat blared from the direction of the plaza. In the distance, on the same road as the plaza, a crowd still stood, drinks in hand. As we continued to near the plaza, the beat grew stronger and we began to hear the shouts of the revelers rising up over the buildings. When we finally entered the main street, I could gaze out over a sea of people dancing and drinking under the old cathedral. Psychedelic spot lights shone over the crowd, creating a rock concert atmosphere. I took a heavy drink from my newly opened bottle of liquor and entered the insanity. Within a minute my friends were gone, but I drifted on happily, chatting up random girls in Spanish.
By the time I reached the other end of the crowd I was already getting quite drunk, and was surprised to see my bottle almost empty. The rest of the night was a strange blur of crazy drunkenness, being swallowed over and over by the crowd and falling out of it into empty streets. I raged through the city making friends every minute and instantly losing them again in the chaos.
I awoke the next morning in my bed, barely able to move and totally incapable of remembering what had happened the night before. I had the vague notion of having been in a car, and it occurred to me that Castor had no way of getting back into the house. I tried to leave the bed awestruck by my weakness, and only managed to roll over and fall back asleep.