I survived La Tomatina!

Life List #24: Throw tomatoes at La Tomatina.

Crossing La Tomatina in Bunol, Spain, off my bucket list.

I was beginning to think I might never see a tomato. That I’d come home from that small town in Spain, from La Tomatina, from the biggest tomato fight in the world, with my 4 euro dress still pristinely white. The cannon that signaled the start had sounded 15 minutes before. And there we were. Clean.

Jaime, Ali, Andrew, and I arrived in Buñol after waking up way too early to get to the train station by 6am. We brought nothing minus waterproofed cameras, goggles, and a little money we put anywhere we thought it might not get lost or ruined.

The small town was already trashed and buzzing. Music blared from different sidewalk bars. People were drinking in the streets. People were sleeping in patches of grass. Locals were heckling everyone in Spanish.

We walked through the town until we hit the crowd, which had already filled up a good part of the center. It was shoulder-to-shoulder and smelled of beer and sweat. With four hours ahead of us it could only get worse.

At that point we had lost Andy. He went to find a bathroom and said he’d try to find us. I’m sure we all knew he never would. He wasn’t really into the whole thing.

We stopped where we were when we saw a pole covered in a thick layer of white lard being erected in front of us. It was too congested ahead anyways and we thought we might as well have a show.

Soon palo jabón began and drunken Australian after drunken Australian climbed over one another trying to get to the top of the greased pole, trying to capture the leg of jamon that dangled from the top.

The crowd threw everything at them to provoke failure: bottles, cans, yoga mats, brooms.

After many unsuccessful tries one man almost won, only to be taken down by someone else, only to be treated to a crowd chanting “you’re a wanker” at the assailant.

And then, that man tried again. And then again and finally, he succeeded. It was a feat not often accomplished. To this crowd, he was a hero.

The truck appeared again and again we were forced to each claustrophobic side of it, crushed against the wall and other people. More tomatoes were pelted at me.

And that was the last I saw of Jaime until after it was all over.

When the truck moved out of the way it dumped behind it a pool of crushed tomatoes. And then. Chaos.

Me, at La Tomatina, 2011.

Me, at La Tomatina, 2011.

The crowd moved towards it and almost immediately I was trampled and fell knee first into a pile of tomatoes. People were stepping on me and sitting on me. I couldn’t move my legs so I grabbed fistfuls and threw them in the air. At that point I just wanted to salvage my shoe that was trying to float away.

A man who I think had blonde dreadlocks helped me up. I couldn’t see him though because my goggles were fogged over. Tomato juice had seeped in and my eye was burning anyways so I figured I could do without them.
With goggles off I joined the crowd, just trying to not get trampled, just trying to keep my shoes, just trying to get as messed up as fucking possible.

The next time the truck came around I ended up on the other side of it. I still had no clue where Jaime had gone but I ended up next to some boy whose shirt had already been torn off who smiled at me as we said “this is amazing.”

When the truck cleared I again fell knee first into a red puddle. This time skinning both knees. Which is not a fun thing to do in a pool of acid.

The boy helped me up and then continued to look out for me for the rest of the fight, helped me up when I inevitably fell again, helped me not to fall every time the crowd leaned against me.

And then he kissed me. In the middle of the biggest tomato fight in the world. And in between grabbing piles of tomato and throwing them at each other and throwing them at others and squashing them on peoples heads he kept kissing me.

La Tomatina, 2011.

La Tomatina, 2011.

When the final horn blew I was thoroughly drenched with pulp. It was everywhere. It was in my hair and my pockets and my shoes and my bathing suit and my ears.

It was beautifully disgusting.

The boy and I waited and waded in the crowd, hand in hand, as the entire mob tried to disperse at once. I almost lost my shoe. Again. Locals in their balconies sprayed us from hoses, wiping away some of the mess but still leaving me looking like I’d taken a swim in a pot of Ragu.

When we reached the pre-determined meeting point I had with my friends the boy kissed me goodbye and headed off to find his bus. A few minutes later Jaime arrived and then Andy. Jaime looked just as bad as me but Andy, though stained, was still pretty clean. He’d managed to find a place to watch from the sidelines.

But we couldn’t find Ali. So we wandered around, stopped for some showers, and finally noticed her in the distance. We spent the rest of the afternoon looking for clean clothes, clean shoes, food. And we stopped any time we saw someone with a hose hoping we’d emerge spotless, though it never seemed to work.

Even after going home and showering I was finding tomatoes in my hair, in my ears, even the next day.

I walked out of La Tomatina exhausted and dirty. To be honest, the whole experience should have been miserable. I hate crowds and especially inebriated crowds. I got scalded with sun. The whole fight I was holding on for my life just trying not to break.

But, despite all of those things, it was amazing.

Quite possibly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.

And I can’t wait to do it again.



Throw tomatoes at La Tomatina was #24 on my bucket list.


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Hi, I'm Val. I spent most of my 20s in a standstill, unable to pick which path in life I wanted to take. I wanted the nomadic life of a traveler but also wanted the husband, the condo, and the kitten. Unable to decide which life I wanted more, I did nothing. When I turned 30 I’d had enough of putting my life on hold and decided to start “choosing my figs.” So, I quit my job, bought a one-way ticket to Europe, and traveled for three years. Now I'm back in Chicago, decorating my apartment in all the teal, petting my cats, and planning my next adventure.

  • jenjenk
    September 6, 2011at3:26 am

    you are awesome!! I heard about this a couple of years ago and vowed to go there one day!! Now that i know how miserably uncomfortable it is, i’m not so sure! 😉

  • Cailin
    September 6, 2011at5:16 am

    I’m glad you survived! And am happy you hated it but loved it so much! haha 🙂

  • Jaime
    September 6, 2011at12:01 pm

    Oh Val… I love ya girl. This is a great recap… I loved it so much and agree with you it was very miserable but worth it. Glad I was there with you as you ticked this off your list. Oh & I still love that you kissed someone in the middle of the fight!

  • Elle
    September 6, 2011at8:48 pm

    Hell freakin’ yea! I’ve wanted to do this for a couple of years now. It looks like an absolute blast!

  • Heather
    September 8, 2011at7:56 pm

    I’m sure I’d have a similar reaction — hate it but love it. At least I hope part of me would love it as it’s on my bucket list. I’m not one for crazy, drunken crowds either but this just seems like something you HAVE to do once in your life. I’m so bummed I couldn’t join you guys this year.

  • Steve
    March 20, 2014at11:19 am

    I’m thinking about going to the festival this year. How long after arriving did the crowds get to a point where everyone was invading your space?

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