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Dance, forget sleep in Pamplona

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
  • At the festival of San Fermín, there's dancing everywhere
  • Keep your belongings close to you, and don't wander off
  • Check out San Sebastián for a relaxing day trip afterward

(CNN) -- "Uno de enero, dos de febrero,
tres de marzo, cuatro de abril,
cinco de mayo, seis de junio,
siete de julio, ¡SAN FERMÍN!"

Like schoolchildren on a field trip, my friends and I excitedly sang this song on a bus from León to Pamplona in 2005. All I knew about the festival of San Fermín was that it involved people running with bulls, and that it took place every year from July 7 to July 14.

Here are some tips:

Dance, dance, dance. Pamplona turns into one big 24-hour-a-day party for the festival of San Fermín. Everyone's dressed in white clothes with red bandanas, and everyone is there to have a good time. There is live music everywhere, so it's a great opportunity to groove to the most popular Spanish hits. I remember dancing to Melendi's "Caminando por la Vida" around 3 a.m. at one of the outdoor concerts.

Don't expect to sleep (much). If you're making last-minute plans to go to Pamplona, don't be surprised if you can't find a bed. My friends and I didn't even try. It seems like everyone sleeps outside in public places, or doesn't sleep at all. In fact, Pamplona is the only place where I've ever slept in a public park. I brought a foldable sleeping bag in my backpack -- handy, since northern Spanish nights can get cold -- but most people just lay on the grass, huddled together to stay warm. If you go this route, hang on tightly to your belongings. I used my purse as a pillow, but at least one person from my group had his backpack swiped while he was asleep.

Running is risky. Every year, there are serious injuries or even deaths among people who try to run with the bulls. In 2010, I spoke with cancer survivor Michael Lenahan, who got gored in the leg by a bull; his brother got hurt in the left buttock. In fact, between 200 and 300 people are injured annually, according to the Council of Pamplona. Proceed with extreme caution if you are planning on getting near the toros. There are so many people trying to watch and run that you might not know a bull is near you until its horn scrapes your arm.

Check out the bullfighting ring. There are so many people stretching their necks to see over the fences that line the streets of Pamplona -- not to mention sitting on the fences, too -- that it's actually hard to see people and bulls running. "No vamos a ver nada" (We're not going to see anything), my friend Marek lamented. We decided to go instead to the Plaza de Toros. With everyone pushing and shoving each other to get tickets to this event, it seemed almost as dangerous as chasing bulls in the streets. But we finally got our passes and made our way inside the enormous arena, which is the ending point of the bull run. There, we watched hundreds of people run around the bulls, including one member of our group who emerged proudly with a large cut or two.

Don't wander off. One of the girls in my group didn't show up at the agreed-upon time that morning. A half an hour went by, and she still hadn't shown up. We all started worrying, and had no idea how we would ever find her in a sea of thousands of people, since she didn't have a cell phone. Finally, she appeared two hours later -- she apparently made some new friends the night before and lost track of time. Don't do this to your traveling companions!

Check out San Sebastián afterward. If you're looking for a place to chill out after a crazy night in Pamplona, head about 51 miles northwest to San Sebastián, a beautiful small city on the Bay of Biscay where you can lie on the beach, admire medieval architecture and actually sit down for a yummy Basque meal.

Those are my top tips for visiting Pamplona. How about you? Share your tips for San Fermín with us below, and if you have photos and videos, upload them here.