A friend recently asked me:
What do you do if you arrive somewhere and there are no beds?
We were talking about my time walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, last year. In following my blog, they’d been surprised to read about the race for beds and the sense of competition I’d experienced in the early days. I was surprised by it too, and found it very upsetting. I’m no Holy Joe but I never expected to find power struggles and gloating on a pilgrimage route. I never expected to see people literally running past other pilgrims to get to the hostel before them. That was both sobering and sad.
I knew that there was pressure on the limited beds along the Camino. I also knew that there was a possibility I would get stuck for a bed somewhere in my 500 miles of walking. Apparently, some 200,000 people walked the French Way in 2013. With numbers like that, the chances are pretty high that many people get stuck for a bed. But I didn’t want to walk Camino in a state of fear about where to sleep at night. I made a decision about how I’d handle the situation if it ever arose. You can read about it here.
I did arrive in towns and villages to learn that there were no beds left and it was rather heartbreaking. Sometimes, I walked for 8-9 hours in over 30 degree heat, and desperately wanted to find a place to sleep for the night. Being told there were no beds left was gutting.
What did I do? Well, in case you missed it, I wrote about my experiences in these posts:
I felt the race for beds most acutely in the first week. After that, things quietened down a bit, for various reasons. Of course, there was still a pressure on the limited number of beds available: it just affected me differently.
So to answer my friend’s question, here’s what you can do if (like me) you don’t reserve your accomodation in advance but arrive somewhere to find there are no beds:
1. Politely ask the locals for help.
Chances are, they’ve seen other pilgrims get stuck before so they might know what options are available locally. Sometimes, that means sleeping on the floor of the local community centre. Sometimes it means sleeping on an armchair in someone’s living room. You might not get a bed but you just might get somewhere to sleep. Understand that there’s a distinction between these two things. Be grateful for whatever is offered.
Three women arrived in Zubiri the same day I did (and like me) learned that there were no beds left. They discussed their plight over a beer in the local café bar, and shared their story with the waiter. He felt so badly for them that he offered to host all three of them in his home. To some of us, that might sound inappropriate. In reality, he was being hospitable and sincere, and the three women were delighted to take him up on his kind offer. When he finished work, he gave them full use of his living room (complete with armchairs and a couch) and even cooked dinner for them as a way of apologising for the over-crowding in the town that night. Isn’t that sweet?
Not every local will want to be this helpful and they’re not obligated to host pilgrims in their own homes. But generally speaking, they do want to help. If you’re nice to them, they might help you figure out somewhere to stay, without having to resort to these next options….
2. Walk on to the next town or village.
I had to do this more than once, as did many others. Surprisingly, when you plan to walk 500 miles, some primal part of your brain kicks in and
walking = survival
So, walking a few more miles to the next town can be surprisingly okay!
It’s not easy when the weather is exceptionally hot, cold, windy, or wet. It’s also not easy when you’re injured, sick, exhausted, or depressed. You never know when you might have to give an extra push, so keep some energy in reserve. Feel like walking 25km? Well, you might need to walk 29km to secure a bed, so factor that in to your planning and your coffee breaks each day. Then, if you do have to walk on a bit further, you’ve got the energy to do it.
3. Take a taxi to the next town or village.
If you can’t walk on to the next town or village for whatever reason, you might find a taxi to bring you there. The first time I availed of a taxi, it was organised by a hostel owner in Zubiri because the town was full. She kindly organised taxis and accommodation for 20 of us that evening.
The second time I had to use a taxi was when I arrived into Los Arcos at 5pm, with three other women. Again, the whole town was full. One of my co-walkers requested a taxi to the next village and we were thrilled.
In both cases, the taxis got us safely and quickly to our new beds. But the next morning, we had to decide whether to go back and pick up where we left off. You’ll have to face the same decision, so be prepared!
4. Take a bus to the next town or village.
This follows the same sentiment as my previous point but this only works if you’re in a town or village that’s big enough to have a bus service. Oh, and if you arrive at such a time in the day whereby the bus hasn’t yet departed. I didn’t take the bus at all and never even looked at a bus schedule, so I don’t know how well this one works. If any of you reading feel like adding your two cents here, please do!
5. Sleep outdoors.
I met a guy who crossed the Pyrenees on his first day of walking, and arrived into the town of Roncesvalles at 7 in the evening. The hostel and private rooms were all taken hours earlier, so there were no beds anywhere. He’d already walked 27km that day, including the climb up, over, and down the mountains. There was no way he could walk any further so he slept on an outdoor bench that night. He admitted it was cold and uncomfortable but he said it was fine, really.
I think he might have been Rambo in disguise!
Weeks later, I walked alone and learned that two of the villages I passed through were full. Helpful pilgrims shouted to me in the street and confirmed that there were no beds left, and that I would have to walk on further. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t even have to stop or take off my backpack to find out the information – they literally yelled to me from across the street!
I hoped the third one would have a free bed. I had enough energy to make it to the third village but I really, really didn’t have it in me to walk any further than that. So, I decided this:
If there are no free beds in the next village, I’m going to sleep outdoors.
I’m not beyond it!
I eyed the wheat fields and their bales of straw with a sort of exhausted lust. The straw looked soft and I figured it would provide extra warmth. I didn’t expect it to be terribly comfortable, but the ground was dry I was open to sleeping out, if necessary.
I know that some would never, ever consider sleeping outdoors, especially without a tent, a ground mat, and regular camping supplies. But people do it. It’s not that weird, really.
6. Sleep somewhere else.
I met a woman who arrived into the village of Villamayor de Monjardín to find there were no beds available. She didn’t have the energy to walk the 10k to the next town, so she asked the locals for help.
One said: I have a spare garage. You can sleep there, if you like.
Someone else said: I can give you some cardboard and old sacks to put on the ground.
Some pilgrims who’d already secured beds said: We have camping mats we don’t need tonight – you’re welcome to use them.
So, she joined 14 other pilgrims and slept on the ground in someone’s open garage. She wasn’t on a bed, a sofa, or a gymnasium floor, but she wasn’t outdoors either. She was safe and dry, and survived the night just fine.
Are there other options available? I can’t think of any right now. Maybe those of you who’ve already walked (some or all of) Camino can comment and remind me if I’ve missed something. Please do!
For those of you yet to walk, let me know if you have questions 🙂