If you’re looking for a pleasant, soothing distraction from the sometimes-cruel world we live in right now, we suggest you might want to avoid the events we’ve curated below. If you like living life on the extreme edge, consider it a checklist for things you really need to see for yourself in order to get a full appreciation for how insane some of these festivals really are.
The Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake
Chase after a 4 kilogram (9 pound) wheel of cheese? Sounds like fun. Except in this shindig, put on by the residents of the village of Brockworth, England, participants first have to throw themselves down a very steep (and lumpy) hill in pursuit. Of course, the cheese wheel gets a rolling head start, so barring anyone possessing super-human abilities, the wheel acts more like an edible projectile incentive for individuals to topple head over heels downwards. Injuries are guaranteed; ambulance crews are set up at the finish line at the bottom of the hill, with the area hospital prepped for a busy couple of days. Teams of volunteers are also in place to stretcher those too decimated to finish the race under their own steam to waiting medical care.
The yearly event, held during England’s spring bank holiday in May, saw a record number of injuries occur in 1997 when 33 people needed medical attention for everything from bruises to broken bones. Although cheese rolling (and of course the cheese chasing) has been Brockworth’s claim to fame since the 19th century, it was at one point canceled after the 2010 event amidst safety concerns. The following year it was back, unofficially organized, and is popular as ever — even if the race cheese is now made out of foam (that old-school wheel was a tangy bullet by the time it barreled over the finish line). At least the winner gets the real cheese.
Running of the Bulls
Spain’s Running of the Bulls brings one million visitors yearly to Pamplona to view the kind of event that makes animal lovers cringe. For eight consecutive mornings, a group of 15 cows (including six bulls, or “encierros”) are unleashed onto an 850 meter (970 yard) route along Santa Domingo street. Individuals dressed in white adorned with the traditional Pañuelico red scarf run alongside the stampede, trying not to get trampled or gored. As of 1974 women are allowed to run with the bulls, but one critical rule applies to anyone who wants to take part (along with them having to be over the age of 18): avoid the ample supplies of sangria consumed during the festival. You have to be stone cold sober to risk being speared by the horns of a bull. Also, hand over your cell phone to your next of kin before the race starts — there’s no picture-taking allowed by runners during the actual event.
And to quash an urban myth about these bovine and the color red — the animals could care less about the outfits and color schemes participants are sporting. It’s the frenzied movement that gets them riled up, and in turn causes them to start running. The finish line is a bullpen and arena located on Plaza de Toro, where later in the day the bulls face death at the hands of a matador. Last year a dozen people were gored by the bulls, and since 1924 15 people have been killed in the run.
National Pyrotechnic Festival
Readers of INSH might already know something about this fireworks festival that is centered in the Mexican city of Tultepec. On the surface it seems harmless enough: seven days of celebrations in honor of the patron saint of fireworks makers (yes, there really is one, and you can call him San Juan de Dios) that attracts about 100,000 people to the region. The festival itself is dangerous enough on its own — these fireworks don’t get shot into the sky, but rather at people dancing in the streets. It’s the production of the fireworks where things get truly scary; the area is surrounded by fireworks manufacturing facilities and accidents involving the manufacturing of explosives for the festival have claimed hundreds of lives.
It’s an acknowledged problem Tultepec’s mayor Armando Portuguez Fuentes says the city has learned to live with, despite a 2016 explosion that killed 33 people and hospitalized another 46 (including ten children). Speaking with the Associated Press, Fuentes said, “We know it is high-risk, we regret this greatly, but unfortunately many people’s livelihoods depend on this activity.”
Takanakuy Christmas Fighting Festival
Got a beef with a friend, family member or schoolyard bully from days gone past you think needs to be settled with an old-school fist fight? Maybe the Takanakuy Christmas Fighting Festival is for you. Forget Seinfeld’s Festivus tradition of the airing of grievances at the dinner table and feats of strength. This yearly event that falls on Christmas Day and began in the remote Chumbivilcas Province in Peru involves men dressing as one of five different characters from Andean history. As traditional songs waft through the air sung by often-inebriated revelers sporting traditional masks called uyach’ullu yell out the name of the individual they have an issue with and the two combatants square off in a no-biting-allowed martial arts-style battle.
It’s not uncommon to see friends duking it out as well, because nothing forms a stronger bond than getting elbowed in the head by your best buddy. Takanakuy also acts as a makeshift court system for the locals, who have little interaction with law enforcement thanks to being hours away from any major urban center. Copious amounts of drinking by participants takes place before and after the fights, which is a lot more fun than swallowing an aspirin for the pain.
Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival
The people living in the Yanshui district of Tainan in Taiwan think getting beaned by a lit firework is a good thing. A very good thing, in fact, to the point where they pile on whatever protective gear they can so as to allow themselves to get pelleted with fiery explosives that are said to bring good luck to whomever they make contact. A cholera epidemic in the late 1800s saw the locals praying to the Chinese god of war, Guan Gong, for relief from the deadly disease. To get Guan Gong’s attention, firecrackers were used. Cholera eventually passed, but the groundwork was laid for the festival as it is known today. The ‘beehives’ in this case are not filled with honey but are large towers crammed with upwards of 600,000 fireworks that will be set alight with their stored munitions launched towards a waiting throng of people. So where does the beehive reference come from? When you have that much firepower being unleashed at once, it has the appearance of a mass exodus of bees from a hive.
Good Friday Crucifixion Re-enactment
In North America, Easter is seen by a large chunk of the population as a good time to hide foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. In the Philippines, it’s taken a little more seriously. It’s also safe to say there’s a lot more blood involved. In a remote region 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Manila, Catholicism and local superstitions combine for individuals who have themselves willingly nailed to wooden crosses in a disturbing display that is their way of re-enacting the suffering cast upon Jesus Christ. Tourists look on as very real nails and hammers are used to gruesomely attach hands and feet, with the hope being sins will be atoned for as a result. Adding to the visual spectacle are people dressed as Roman centurions, who assist with the proceedings. The Philippines has the largest population of Roman Catholics in Asia, but the Catholic Church does not endorse these modern-day crucifixions. First, it’s cruel. Second, it’s seen as a very bloody tourist attraction. After a few minutes of agony, those nailed to a cross are taken down and attended to by a doctor.
Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival
Greased-up topless men clad in leather pants fighting for a gold belt — sounds like it could be a theme night in a funky nightclub somewhere. In Edirne, Turkey, it’s the core concept of the three-day-long Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival, the oldest sporting event in the world. It’s there men doused in olive oil attempt to either pin or lift an equally slick opponent over their head. Sounds simple enough, but it’s no small feat when you’re bare-skinned and slippery all over. Since 1346 these wrestlers, or Pehlivans as they’re known in the area, fight in one-on-one matches on a grass field inside a stadium called the Güreşçiler Tekkesi until only a single man is left standing.
It’s a sport that is a mix of strategy and strength, and as the competitors get whittled down to the elite, it’s not uncommon for matches to take hours before a victor is declared. It’s a historic sport featured on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list that is taken extremely seriously in the region, and patrons on their way to the spectacle walk past statues of three ancient Festival champions. That individual wins the title of Chief Pehlivan and is given the Kirkpinar Golden Belt. Before accepting their solid gold prize and their $100,000 check, they kiss their losing opponent — a sign of humility and honesty within the ranks of the wrestlers.
Canada’s Calgary Stampede has a love/hate relationship with a lot of people. The general rule of thumb is cowboys and party people love it; animal rights activists hate it. Held yearly every July since 1912, the 9-day Stampede sells over 1 million cans of beer as attendees watch rodeo champions from around the world buck it out in six major events: bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling and tie-down roping.
Some people refer to the Stampede as legal animal cruelty, and with the exception of 2016 the expectation of at least one horse fatality a year is about as safe a bet a person can make. Two human casualties have also been reported in the past 20 years, and injuries are the norm for animals and people alike while participating. One of the more popular side events, the chuckwagon races, is responsible for an estimated 60 horse casualties in the past 30 years. This includes a 2017 mid-race accident that saw another chuckwagon horse euthanized.
Onbashira Festival or the Honored Pillars Festival
Japan isn’t a country known for its logs, but every six years when the centuries-old Onbashira Festival is happening fir logs literally get ridden to the forefront. The festival is centered around the four shrines of Suwa-Taisha, northwest of Tokyo. Sixteen massive fir trees (some more than 18 meters, or 60 feet tall) are cut down, which then become ‘honored pillars.’ These are used to symbolically refresh the four shrines, but first, the logs must be moved out of the mountainous region they are taken.
That’s when people hop on and begin a perilous downhill ride as ropes are attached and the ‘pillars’ are dragged through treacherous terrain. Once at the shrines, the logs are finally raised, with riders still clinging on. Injuries are frequent and casualties have occurred, including drownings and several instances where riders have fallen from nine-meter (30-foot) heights while the logs are raised.
Agni Keli (Fire Fight of Kateel Durga Parameswari Temple)
Part of an 8-day festival that takes place every April, Agni Keli has a simple concept: two teams are pitted against one another, and the battle has nothing to do with kicking or punching. Instead, it encourages people to set one another on fire. Thousands of spectators gather at the temple of the Hindu goddess Durga in Mangalore, India, to watch hundreds of topless participants throw lit palm frond torches at one another from a distance of approximately 10-15 meters (30-50 feet).
Each is allowed five throws during the ritual which usually only lasts about 15 minutes. Although clothing is only worn from the waist down, that fabric is often set ablaze. We assume a sliding scale of burns are a given for anyone brave (or foolish) enough to take part, but teammates who have a moment between dodging fireballs do try and spray down those getting their pants burned off with holy water called Kumkumarchane.