Swimming in Ketchup: A Survivor’s Tale of the World’s Largest Food Fight (La Tomatina)

The sticky red liquid oozed down my scalp and along the sides of my face as I tried to orient myself. I was surrounded by screams and flying ammunition from all sides.  “Look out!” I heard a group of Germans warn in broken English. I instantly saw where the shots were coming from and dove head first into the sidewalk. The explosion happened just above my head, and the red liquid hit the ground and ran between the cobblestones on the street all around me. I maintained my sprawled position for safety and army-crawled to the reusable pile of ammunition across the road. I scooped up the remaining weapons and leaped to my feet.


I knew my mission and made a run for it. I found the group of Australian fighters from my hostel with their backs to me. Sitting ducks. They turned just in time to see me flying toward them through the air, war cry on my lips. I fired my shots. They attempted to dodge but were too late. My aim was accurate and I hit them straight in the face. Too bad. I had liked those Aussies. But it was every man/nationality for himself in this epic battle. The warfront was Spain, there were neither sides nor truces, and don’t even think about surrender. The weapon of choice was tomatoes. And so began the 63rd (or so) annual battle of La Tomatina, the world’s largest food fight.

La Tomatina, like so many battles of this modern era, is completely purposeless and without rhyme or reason. This particular battle could only have originated in Spain. The Spaniards, always looking for an excuse to party, began the annual tomato fight in 1944 or 1945, no one is really sure (of course not), and it continues to this day in the otherwise peaceful and sleepy town of Buñol. Each August, thousands of fighters from around the world come to experience the craziness and down-right waste of tomatoes at La Tomatina.

I had heard of about the fight for years, and I salivated at the idea of throwing food without inhibitions in the faces of fellow travelers. So on my second trip to Europe, my travel buddy and I scheduled our whole itinerary around the fight. We were well trained and equipped, however, upon arrival, it turns out nothing could have prepared us for what was about to ensue.

Each year the fight begins with yet another meaningless (and wildly entertaining) tradition: the knock-the-ham-off–the-pole ritual (for lack of a more specific title). In the center of Buñol, a thick wooden pole is erected, covered with lard and grease about 5 inches thick, and a roasted pig tied at the top. Boys brawl and rumble for the chance to ascend the pole and cut down the pig from its resting place. While the majority end up covered in fat and laughing hysterically, one brave hero finally completes the task and achieves his manhood. And then it begins.

Loud screams signal that the pig has been released, and everyone crowds to the one main road that runs through Buñol. Wanting to be in the center of the action, I squeeze my way through the crowd (losing a shoe) to the main street. Within a few minutes, a large truck appears, carrying a huge mound of tomatoes and six Spaniards in its bed. As the truck slowly descends the main street, the Spaniards chuck tomatoes, with amazing speed and accuracy, at the crowd covering the sidewalk, myself included.  Once the tomatoes have been unleashed, a dog pile is formed around them as fighters grope and grab to come out with a handful of crushed tomatoes to fire at their opponents. The process repeats itself 5 or 6 cycles, and by the time the final truck has disappeared from the crowd, the whole town is red.

The fun really begins when large hoses are brought out to begin the washing of the “bloody” Spanish streets.  Because of the narrow alleyways and avenues, it doesn’t take long for the entire city to be knee deep in tomato juice. Tidal waves of chunky red water swish and flow around corners and up walls. The locals add to the flood by throwing buckets from their apartments several stories above street level onto the crowd. I join the fun by creating a slip and slide along the smooth marble sidewalks. The Australians take their revenge by dumping a bucket of juice on my head.

About an hour later, the city is drained of the last remaining tomato peel, and my travel partner and I wait in line to rinse off at the hoses positioned like shower heads along the river. An ice cold rinse and 45 minutes puts us on the train heading back to Valencia. The car we are riding in is so full that we are forced to lean against the door for the hour ride. The air smells of body odor and salsa. I can hear the murmur and laughter of ten languages still high on the events of the battle, and an unspoken awareness that we would need several days and even more showers to recover from the havoc of the day.  In all my years of travel debauchery, this had definitely topped it all.

Little can be done to prepare travelers for La Tomatina, however as a Veteran, I would offer these boot-camp tips to help ensure a smooth fighting experience:

Sleeping:

Have lodging booked in advanced. Most backpackers (myself included) never break the cardinal rule of not making reservations, preferring to risk homelessness than lose a $3 deposit on a hostel bed in case plans changes. However, since La Tomatina is such a huge event, rooms and hostels fill up quickly. Valencia is the largest city close to Buñol and offers direct transportation via train. Travelers might also considering splurging on a hotel instead of a hostel, so there is unlimited shower access.

Seeing:

Bring goggles. They don’t sell them at the event, and the acidity of the tomato juice will have one blinded in a few seconds. Small swimming goggles work the best as they aren’t bulky and can be easily disposed of.

 

Waking:

Rise early. The festivities begin at 8 am, so get to the train station with plenty of time to ensure a seat on one of the earlier trains. The line begins at 6:45ish and trains come every half hour.

And that is as far as I can take you, cadets. March on, be fearless, throw tomatoes, and have the one-of a kind experience that can only be had at La Tomatina.

October 15, 2010

6 thoughts on “Swimming in Ketchup: A Survivor’s Tale of the World’s Largest Food Fight (La Tomatina)

  1. Very cool story! I had no idea such an event even existed! I felt like I was right there beside you as I was reading the story! Love it! I look forward to reading more of your travels!

  2. Great Story! What a crazy tradition, but looks like a lot of fun.

  3. The lady speaks truth. I attended the event a few years ago and it was incredible. Everyone should do this but be prepared for a hellish train ride back into Valencia post-tomatina. Great story!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this story. This is definitely now high on my list of travel must-do’s!

  5. Those Spaniards really know how to party!! First Running of the Bulls, now this. Never heard of this event before.

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