La Tomatina is the festivals official name, and throwing tomatoes in Spain is the game, but is it any good? I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to review La Tomatina, which had been on my bucket list for over a decade! This classic tomato throwing festival dates back to a 1940’s feud in Spain and has grown exponentially ever since. Is it just a tourist trap now? Read on for a complete guide to La Tomatina festival, including everything you need to know and all the tips and tricks to maximise your time there.
I was with my parents as they had expressed some interest in experiencing La Tomatina as well, so this made for a slightly different dynamic during the trip as I had heard that it can get pretty nasty and that people sometimes get hurt at the festival.
We were staying at a hotel in Valencia and we left around 6 in the morning as we had been told that our lift was at 7am from Estacion Ave De Joaquin Sorolla. More commonly known as “the bus station”, we knew we were in the right place when we saw thousands of festival-goers lining the streets just outside.
The buses soon began to arrive, some plain coaches, some clearly borrowed from a local school, and each was being given a number, one by one, painfully slowly. Each ticket comes with a bus number, and after two hours of chasing some under trained staff around the buses, everybody just jumped on any bus that they could and we set off for the small town of Buñol where the festival takes place.
This can all be avoided by travelling yourself to Buñol, which gives you greater flexibility on when to arrive/leave. I found myself wondering what the streets would look like on a normal day, and if I were to come back I would definitely get there on my steam!
We arrived in Buñol to a mass of buses, excitable tourists and the odd holiday rep style staff member shouting at everyone to keep their wristbands on and to be back by 2pm on the dot.
We began the mile or so march to the center of Buñol, equipped with wristband to gain entry and tee shirt to hopefully soak up any tomato splats. The staff try to keep you together as a group but once we had our wristbands we darted ahead, eager to see what La Tomatina festival had to offer.
Once we had passed a few security checkpoints, grabbed some morning Sangria (it’s classed as a holiday so it’s allowed, yeah?), we were getting closer to the town center. Directions aren’t needed at this point as the streets along the route become lined with people, which we later found out were the queue’s for the portaloo’s. There are a couple of off-piste areas for people to urinate though, but beware of who can see you as there are a lot of people around!
Eventually we hit the center, which is neither signposted nor obvious, though the population of the streets was getting more and more dense. At this point you can look up and see some locals ominously leaning over the rooftops, some next to full baskets of tomatoes, some holding the end of a hose. As we began to have to squeeze people out of the way to get past, the phrase “sitting ducks” sprang to mind.
I had read that the traditional start to La Tomatina festival was the local young men would try to climb a greased pole (sounds difficult and strange already) and try to obtain a ham (turned out to be nearly a full pig) that had been skewered onto the top of said pole. We reached a point where moving forwards any more would have been uncomfortable, and we already felt like sardines. I propped up on my tiptoes and saw that we were only a few metres from a pole with a pig carcuss on. It would seem we were right in the mix, and I was a little bit concerned for my poor Mum.
At this point, a siren went off and the locals began to try and climb the unclimbable. They got pretty close in fairness to them, and even touched the ham, but never quite knocked it off. The majority of tourists couldn’t see what was happening, and most didn’t realise what was going on so began to get restless. Particularly when the locals starting throwing a few tomatoes (you’re not officially supposed to until everyone has access to ammo!) and spraying a few helpless bystanders with water. It kept us all entertained until the second siren, which signalled time for the madness.
The temporary gates just in front of us were removed and the locals really starting pelting us with their own wares. It was to be my first tomato shot taken – shrapnel from a headshot on somebody only a few feet away had ricocheted into my hair. A nice introduction. A few moments later, the first large truck appeared carrying dozens of tonnes of tomatoes, especially grown for this occasion. Each truck has several people resting atop the tomatoes, whose sole job is to arm everybody else by lobbing the toms at ’em!
I had seen photos of trucks coming down narrow streets and was beginning to wonder where the hell all the people would go, how would the truck fit down the street? I kept an escape plan but convinced myself that surely they would have plans in place to combat this. The staff began to move everybody to the sides of the road and surprise surprise there was no plan, just squeeze everybody together painfully close. Mix that with some (only a small percentage, but enough) ignorant drunken teenage revellers and you have yourself a claustrophobic nightmare, particularly for Mum!
We quickly made the decision to move to a nearby side street, we could always dive back in to the really intense madness of La Tomatina if we wanted too. We formed a human chain and forced our way through half drunk impatient people (again, vast majority are lovely) and within a few minutes we were in a still busy but much more reasonable side street.
Aforementioned bus eventually caught us up and as it drove past the sun was blocked out as a sea of tomato rained down on to us. Of course, this then gave us the ammunition on the floor to pick up and throw back. Really, really good fun! It didn’t take long for Dad and I to jump back into the really busy action and become covered in the red stuff.
We had almost an hour of play, including having a stranger stuffing tomatoes down my Dad’s back, having a juice juice fight with a young lady from Spain that ended in us both getting the crowd around us as much as each other, Dad making a tomato angel much to everybody’s amusement and me splatting Mum on the head at the end as we had protected her from so much of the crossfire!
Only once Buñol is mayhem, the streets have turned to acidic rivers and clothes are sticking to every man, woman and child does the final siren sound, signalling the end of the age old tradition and all round fun tomato throwing festival. We traipse back towards the bus as I pick tomato out of my ear and our adrenaline begins to return to normal. The streets are dotted with friendly Spanish locals offering free hose downs and some charging a small fee.
We approach the paella stall and the same vats of Sangria are now almost half price as the business want rid. Some tickets give you a free Sangria and paella after the event, but from what we could see nobody was checking any tickets (most peoples had disintegrated – including ours) so everybody got free food and one free drink.
We hold towels for one another as we strip off our red clothes which are now useless to us. Some locals hang around waiting to pounce on discarded clothing and shoes, and gratefully accept if you actually offer it to them.
- Drive there and save yourself a lot of headache (also get to see the before and after)
- Don’t get too close to the action unless you like your ribs crushed
- Book ahead and book early, tickets AND accommodation
- Only take goggles if you have really sensitive eyes
- Wear clothes you are happy to leave behind…and don’t forget to bring something to change in to!
La Tomatina Festival Overall
It is a very touristy festival these days but in my eyes it has kept it’s magic by having certain elements only available for locals and ultimately, touristy or not, if it’s still fun – do it! I cannot recommend La Tomatina enough as I had a fantastic time and believe people of all ages could too!
It is the last Wednesday in August each year, and you can book tickets directly here.