La Tomatina festival is high on many bucket lists - but there are a few important things to know before you join this messy tomato fight in Spain. This survival guide will make sure you know how to prepare for La Tomatina, including what to wear, how to stay safe and what to leave at your hotel - and just how long it will be until you stop finding tomatoes in your hair!
I have this thing with tomatoes.
A can of Heinz tomato soup when I'm feeling sick? Fantastic! A delicious pasta sauce? Can't get enough. Ketchup on a hotdog? Who wouldn't?
But give me a tomato that I am either required to bite into or cut and I freak out like a puppy learning to use the stairs for the first time.
It may surprise you to learn then, that when I was invited to experience the infamous La Tomatina festival, it was excitement and not downright terror that enveloped me.
After all, who doesn't love a good food fight?
Originating in the 1940s following a small street brawl (or so legend has it), La Tomatina has grown to become the sort of festival that tops many a bucket list, and is the very definition of organised chaos: 20,000 locals, Spaniards and international thrill-seekers and an entire hour to pelt friends, foes and anyone within throwing distance with more than 60,000 kilograms of over-ripe tomatoes.
Whether you've booked that tour, have a last minute ticket and aren't sure what you're letting yourself in for or are already planning next year's adventures, there are a few things that you need to know - don't worry, we've got you covered.
The essential La Tomatina Information
Okay, so you know there's a lot of tomatoes involved, but what exactly happens at La Tomatina?
Where and when is La Tomatina?
This crazy event is held on the last Wednesday of every August, in the small town of Bunol, around 45 minutes out of Valencia.
Theoretically you could stay in Bunol, but it makes much more sense to base yourself in Valencia and head to the town for the day. This is an amazing little city (and one of our firm Spanish favourites) with so much to see and do, especially during the summer months - be sure to add a couple of days on either side of the festival to make the most of it!
How to get tickets?
After one particular busy festival a few years ago when 50,000 people descended upon the streets of Bunol, it was decided that for safety reasons, La Tomatina would need to be a ticketed event - with admissions limited to 20,000.
As you can imagine, tickets get snapped up pretty quick!
Festival go-ers can choose between ticket only, a variety of transport options or being part of a tour - an ideal option for solo travellers. I experienced La Tomatina with Topdeck Travel which meant that my accommodation in Valencia was covered for three nights as well as the ticket cost, transport to the event and admission to the infamous after-party.
What happens on the day?
The food fight officially begins at 11 a.m., but most people aim to arrive at around 8 a.m. to enjoy the festivities. Your coach will drop you off in the car park and then you will need to make the one kilometre walk to the entry point on foot.
You'll then have a couple of hours to have a few drinks (yep, that starts early too), pick your spot, and most importantly, have a chance to watch big men climb a greased pole after a giant ham.
Yes, you read that correctly....
The idea is that once the ham is reached, the tomato throwing can begin. In reality, people rarely make it to the top, and so a limit of 11 a.m. has been given.
Once the starting gun is fired - you can't miss the sound - the fun and the tomato-themed carnage begins; what happens in that hour is completely up to you, totally crazy and a whole lot of fun!
One thing is certain though - it will get very, very messy.
What to wear and what to bring
Embrace the old
As I write this, I have a bra sitting in a sink of bleach that I suspect will never be its whitest white again, a pair of cheap plimsoles that are almost certainly lying in a Spanish rubbish dump right now and a camera strap that has only been saved by a thorough dousing with both shower gel, shampoo and detergent.
Moral of the story? Don't wear anything you'd be upset if you ruined. A single tomato stain is difficult enough to wash out. Roll through a street full of them and you'll look like a guest at The Red Wedding.
And as illogical as it may seem at the time, be sure to wear white (it's kind of the tradition)!
Reject the flip flops
20,000 people squished into the tiny streets of a small Spanish town - it's cramped before several giant trucks roll down it. Now imagine the potential for all those people to stamp on your feet. Whilst trainers aren't going to protect your tootsies entirely, they're a damn sight better than a pair of flip-flops. Plus they offer you significantly more grip, and in a sea of tomatoes, that counts for a lot!
Leave the bag at home or on the bus....
The security guards at La Tomatina are not fans of bags, even tiny canvas ones - trust me, I tried.
So, instead you have the option to queue for way too long and put it in overpriced lockers near the main entrance or, better still, leave it on the bus and take in only what you absolutely need, like a bit of cash and other essentials.
...along with a spare change of clothes
Although there are plenty of locals offering to hose you off on the streets at the close of the festival, trust me when I say that you will in no way feel clean and will want to remove those tomato-encrusted clothes as soon as possible, if only so you can get on the lovely clean bus (note that you won't be allowed back on covered in tomato juice).
There are no changing rooms so bring something that's easy to change into without flashing your bits to hundreds of people and don't forget the several large bottles of water to give yourself a makeshift shower first.
Keeping the guards happy
There are strict La Tomatina Rules
Trying to keep a bunch of slightly inebriated individuals hell-bent on having the time of their lives and causing as much tomato-related damage possible means that a few rules are needed.
Firstly, nothing is to be thrown before the first starting gun goes off at 11 a.m. and nothing at all after the second gun at midday. Whilst people seem happy to follow the first, I can attest to the fact that many people weren't so keen on the second - although the velocity and force definitely decreased. Certainly, it can be tempting to keep going, but note that the security guards are the particularly burly sort that don't look adverse to a little man-handling...
Secondly, and this is a relatively new one, don't rip off anybody's clothing. It's not big, it's not clever and it may well get you chucked out.
Go Pros are fantastic, but leave the selfie stick at home
In an attempt to properly manage the crowds, the local authorities have recently implemented a strict 'no selfie-stick' rule; don't try and get around it. As mentioned above, you can't hide it in a bag and security is incredibly tight- it will get found, and confiscated forever.
The good news however is that you can bring in a GoPro stick like this one (the kind that doesn't extend). Mine was allowed through, and I saw countless other people with one too.
Make sure your wrist band is in mint condition
Before you arrive at La Tomatina, your tour company will give you a wrist band. This is what gets you in. Put it straight on, do not lose it and do not damage it. I saw two people get turned away because their band had come off and had to be re-tied - they were left in the situation where they had to try and beg the ticket office to give them a new one, or risk having to wait at the entrance until they could go home.
You have been warned.
Safety and security
Put your cash in a zip-lock bag and put the damn thing in your pocket!
First of all, don't take giant wads of cash to La Tomatina. Unless you plan on buying one of everything on offer, you simply won't need it. The money you do take however should be placed in a zip-lock bag and shoved deep inside your pocket. After all, would you accept a 10 Euro note that had been half dissolved with tomato juice?
Secondly, I saw a number of people carrying their money in the waterproof cases designed for their phone and then hung around their neck - so many of these people were quickly advised by security and locals that money should be placed out of sight. I didn't see any crime at La Tomatina, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Be sensible people.
Accept that some tomatoes are going to hurt
La Tomatina has several rules, one of which is that tomatoes should be crushed in your hand before being thrown. My face can attest to the fact that not everyone did this. The odd glass of sangria may help to numb the pain somewhat, but unfortunately there's very little to avoid the occasional tomato-related injury.
Resist the urge to get too hammered
We've heard that in the wee small hours of the night, the streets of Bunol become party central, with some choosing to stay in the city simply so they can get their drink on ASAP. Even for those that arrive with the tourist throngs at 8 a.m. the countless stalls selling litre glasses of beer and sangria for 5 Euro a pop will be hard to resist.
Unsurprisingly however, drinking too much in a place where water is pretty hard to get a hold of (let alone carry), summer temperatures regularly pass 30 degrees and you're all cramped in like sardines can be a pretty bad idea - even for the hardcore.
By all means have a couple of pints, but just don't risk it. Being carried off to an ambulance because you've passed out isn't fun.
Leave the expensive camera at home
I know, I know, I didn't. But I did do everything in my power to protect it. Unless getting the perfect photo is of paramount importance to you AND you're willing to be sensible to get it, just leave the expensive camera at home.
For the budding photographers amongst you, we have a post in the pipeline with all the best La Tomatina photography tips!
know where you plan on standing
Firstly, if you don't want to get hit with tomatoes, you probably shouldn't be at La Tomatina. However, given how packed these tiny streets get it's completely understandable that you may want to be a little away from the main crush - it can be extremely crowded and claustrophobic otherwise. If this is a concern, make sure that you are based at the entrance of one of the small side-streets coming off of the main route. When the truck passes through, the crowds will naturally force their way back into these small alleys but at least they have somewhere to go!
For those who want to go full-on tomato crazy, aim for the ham pole and be prepared for things to get crazy!
Lastly, Have Fun!
This is truly a one-in-a-lifetime sort of experience.
Everywhere you look, bright red projectiles fly through the air. They will coat your hair, run down your shirt and obscure your eyes. You will slip, you will fall, you will land in a sea of red - and you’ll get back up and start all over again.
You will leave with clothes forever stained pink (no matter how many times they go through the wash) and discover bits of tomato long after you make it back to Valencia. I found tomato in my bra and inside my ear for days afterwards, I have a camera strap that will forever smell ever-so-slightly of rotten produce and remarkably, a camera that lived to tell the tale.
Most of all, I will have the memories.
Turns out there’s no better way to make friends on the road than hurling tomatoes at them.
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I was invited along to experience La Tomatina as part of Topdeck's Ultimate 49. All opinions however are entirely my own.