La Tomatina festival: Everything you need to know to survive this Spanish fiesta

La Tomatina festival: Everything you need to know to survive this Spanish fiesta

Visiting Spain’s La Tomatina festival for the first time can be a little daunting – What is it like? What are the rules? What do you wear to La Tomatina? How do you even get there?

While the La Tomatina festival is a one of a kind experience, there are so many things about it that we wish we had of known beforehand.

So, we created this guide to answer all of your questions and give you a better idea of the craziness that you can expect from this highlight of Spain. We cover all of the above questions and give you 11 tips to survive it!

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Why is La Tomatina festival celebrated?

Firstly, why WOULDN’T you celebrate throwing tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes at complete strangers from all around the world in the tiny little town of Buñol, just outside of Valencia? But that doesn’t quite answer your question. La Tomatina has no religious significance, unlike other Spanish festivals such as Las Fallas or Semana Santa.

The exact origins of La Tomatina are unknown and there are numerous alternative theories, all beginning in the 1940’s. Theories range from a vegetable attack on a disliked councilman through to a spontaneous food fight by disgruntled musicians who were not allowed to participate in a parade through the city. Either way, it caught on quickly with the locals who recognised it as a prime opportunity to… well, throw vegetables at their neighbours with impunity.

It was banned for many years under the Spanish dictator Franco but it really kicked off in the 1970’s and international tourists have been visiting ever since in ever greater numbers (approximately 50,000 in 2015) until the city council implemented a ticketing system in 2013 to cap numbers to approximately 20,000 revellers, (and when you see how narrow the street is, you’ll understand why).

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Our fearless leader explaining MariCar rules

What happens at La Tomatina?

Technically the tomato fight doesn’t start until noon, but a lot happens before then. Tour buses leave Valencia between 6 – 7am and arrive in the small city of Buñol by 8am. The streets are filled with energised revelers, locals putting on bbqs and entrepreneurs selling goggles and accessories. If you came as part of a tour, there is a pre-tomatina sangria party with entertainment (sangria, marching bands, sangria, dancers, sangria… you get the idea).

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Around 10am everyone will start to make their way through the tarp-covered streets and congregate around Iglesia San Pedro to watch hopefuls climb a two-storey wooden pole, covered in thick grease, to knock down a leg of ham from the top (there’s an image you never thought you could imagine!).

This spectacle is nothing short of primal, and the only thing missing is David Attenborough’s narration. Males and females alike ruthlessly climb over and pull each other down to make their way to the top, but to no avail. Ripped shirts, scratched backs and pulled hair quickly became the norm and sadly, despite individuals’ efforts, the ham was not reached. Normally, the tomato fight would begin if the ham is knocked down, but if the ham isn’t knocked down by 12 noon, a siren is fired and the tomato fight commences regardless.

Travelling to Spain for La Tomatina? Don’t miss our guide to Valencia and Costa Brava!

Here’s the truth.

If you thought 20,000+ people crammed into a narrow street is cramped, wait until the trucks start rolling in. Officials yell at the revellers to move back to make way for the truck and that is where you will practically find yourself making it to second base with many strangers, due to being squashed in tight proximity.

MariCar in Tokyo, Japan

The truck slowly moves along, with people throwing buckets of tomatoes down into the crowds. The locals will also be on their balcony, fire hoses in hand, gleefully spraying all of us suckers below. After the truck passes, the crowds spread out again and throw whatever tomatoes they can get their hands on before another official yells to move for the next truck (we counted six in total). Finally, after the final truck rolls through the street, the real fun tomato fight begins and the streets are flooded with red.

MariCar in Tokyo, Japan
MariCar in Tokyo, Japan

Two more sirens are blasted and it’s time to stop playing and the clean-up commences. The locals waste no time in getting out their heavy duty hoses and brooms and quickly spray down the buildings and streets, pushing all the tomato sludge into the drains. Revellers quickly find the friendliest local to hose them down, or they head to the nearby river for a bath before heading out of Buñol. It’s actually quite amazing how quickly the little town returns to the way it was, only shortly after being annihilated by tomatoes only hours earlier.

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The rules of La Tomatina

There are just a couple of rules that you need to know for La Tomatina:

  1. Squash the tomatoes before throwing them to soften them up a little
  2. Don’t tear others’ shirts off (Some people find it hilarious to go around and rip the shirts off ladies and some guys as well – don’t be a douchebag!)
  3. No glass/hard plastic bottles or objects are to be taken into the town centre for safety. Also, no selfie sticks are allowed (though we did see some sneaking in).
  4. No climbing of the trucks with the tomatoes (trust me, they are coming out anyways!)
  5. Stop throwing tomatoes after the second firework is set off at 1pm.

Tips for La Tomatina

Ok, so you’ve decided to go to La Tomatina – congratulations!!! Here are some of the tips that we put together, based on our experience and prior research:

  1. Go with a tour. You can buy Tomatina tickets at the gates to the city if you want to make your own way to Buñol. But we HIGHLY recommend going through a tour company leaving from Valencia who will organise your transport (air-conditioned coaches), provide pre-drinks and entertainment at designated points in the city prior to the event and generally shepherd you in the right direction (we used Festivals All-Around – approximately €99).
  2. Take a change of clothes. You DO NOT want to take your clothes back with you following Tomatina. Take a dry set of clothes to change into afterwards and simply dump the tomato-coloured clothing. If you go with a tour company, you can store fresh clothes on the bus (otherwise you will have to grab one of the limited lockers at the entrance to Buñol for a couple of Euro. It is traditional to wear white for the festival (it also makes the tomato stains shine) but plenty of people were wearing a range of colours as well. As long as the clothes you wear are cheap and you don’t mind trashing them, that’s all that matters.
  3. Wear shoes and throw them away. I want to be super clear here: DO NOT WEAR FLIP FLOPS TO LA TOMATINA. There will 20,000 other people smashed together and your feet will get trampled if you are not wearing something to cover them. A cheap/old pair of sneakers is fine, they don’t have to be pretty but it also helps if you can dump them afterwards and save yourself the hassle of attempting to clean them.
  4. Use goggles or a snorkel mask. Our guide on the tour told us he didn’t think goggles were necessary, as they will just fog up and detract from your ability to appreciate La Tomatina. Utter. Rubbish. Ok, technically goggles do fog up etc but it was MUCH better than dealing with conjunctivitis and pulling pieces of tomato from under your eyelids on the bus on the way home. Snorkel mask will give you a better range of vision than goggles but both can be bought either in Valencia (cheaper) or from street vendors on the walk into Buñol centre.
  5. Take a little cash. You should absolutely get there before 11am to make sure you get a great spot and to soak up the atmosphere. But as you probably will not have had time for breakfast, you will want to bring along €10-20 for a snack. The locals put on options like hamburgers and ham and cheese bocadillos (aka baguettes).

6. Use a GoPro or a phone in a waterproof case. If you plan to be in the thick of it (see tip 8 for location) then a big DSLR camera or similar will get completely destroyed. GoPro’s are great but can fog up after a few hits with air-propelled tomatoes. But normal smartphones in a waterproof case will also work. Either way, make sure that you keep a firm hold on it as there will be a lot of pushing and shoving by the crowds as the trucks come through, and with the tomato levels rising to mid-shin height, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

7. Be patient and a team player if you want to win the ham. Let’s say that you have travelled half-way around the world to visit La Tomatina and you fancy a crack at winning the ultimate prize – the leg of ham that sits on top of a pole covered in grease. It taunts you, calls you a baby and dares you to take it down… Plenty of drunken loons will have a go at the earliest opportunity, but the smarter punters will wait for the grease and butter to be scraped off by others before making their attempt. The ham is not conquered every year (mostly because the crowd who will pull anyone close to the top down rather than help them up) so remember, this is an individual sport and take no prisoners!

8. Location, location, location. Where do you stand to get the best experience at La Tomatina? If you want to be in the absolute thick of the action, then stand close to the Iglesia de San Pedro church (close to the ham pole). This area is packed and is hit first by the tomatoes. It was utter carnage at the end of the day but if that it was you are after, there is no better place. You will be squished close to the point of suffocation, so don’t say we didn’t tell you…

If you are claustrophobic or don’t feel like squeezing up against the next sweaty foreigner, then I recommend heading to the area around the Plaza del Dr Ramon y Cajal – a lot more room to move, a lot less people but still plenty of tomatoes!

9. Don’t wash off in the stream. Seriously. After the tomato fight, you will want to wash off thoroughly. NEED to wash off thoroughly. You will have two options – wash off in the river at the bottom of Buñol or get hosed down by a local. Whilst the river may look like the best option, it gets dirty quickly and Ling even saw a panty liner float past her.. For this reason, stick to the helpful Spanish locals who will give you a brief hose down from their houses and resign yourself to that tomato smell for the bus ride back.

10. Book accommodation in Valencia early. La Tomatina is a huge drawcard for Valencia and the region and there are very few accommodation options in Buñol itself. So staying in Valencia and booking as early as possible is our strong recommendation. Most tours leave from Plaça de Tetuan in central Valencia, and you will see hordes of people at 5am in the morning walking towards it to catch the tour buses. Aim to book Valencia accommodation at least six months in advance to give yourself as many options (price, location, etc) as possible.

11. Stick around to the end after everybody leaves for photos and fun. This is what happens when you stick around directly after the tomato fight ends.

Once the festival is done, everybody just hits the road back to the buses or to get washed off and the locals start to get out with hoses to clean everything. But this is a great time to get photos of your La Tomatina experience unencumbered by crowds, etc. It’s also when people start doing funny things like tomato angels (think a snow angel but in tomato sludge) and sliding through pools of tomato residue. Very funny and so much fun!

Our experience at La Tomatina – what was it actually like?

The thing about La Tomatina is… I would only do it once. It has been a huge bucket list item for Ling and I for a long time and it is something that you just HAVE to do at least once in your life. Participating in the world’s biggest food fight is simply too good of an opportunity to pass up. Words can simply not describe how epic a sight it is to see so many people COVERED head to toe in tomatoes in the middle of a small town in Spain. Memories like that don’t fade quickly.

But it wasn’t quite everything I thought it was going to be either…

The cons – packed in like sardines with 20,000+ other people was hectic and THEN the trucks make their way through the street, further squishing us all together. This was not fun at all! (I would go more toward Plaza del Pueblo end rather than close to the ham next time for more space). Then I was really looking forward to pelting one of my good friends with tomatoes and had even worked on my baseball throwing action in preparation ☺. But I ended up too cramped in the crowd and was only able to hit him with a rather pathetic throw. Imagine a T-rex trying to throw… that is pretty much the amount of arm movement you can have when you are packed in with 20,000 people. This was disappointing.

All in all, this is something you just have to do and with the tips above you will be sure to have a great time doing it. Enjoy!

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Is La Tomatina on your bucketlist? Or have you survived and lived to tell the tale?

Let us know in the comments below!

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