The Last 100Km
There are few rules when it comes to walking the Camino de Santiago. You can walk it, you can run it, you can bike it, and you can even ride a horse. You can stay in a fancy hotel one night if you get sick of the albergues. You can start your walk from San Jean Pied de Port, you can start from Russia, or you can do small weekend trips to do pieces at a time. You can do it alone at your own pace or organize a group and have a structured plan. You can walk the Camino Frances, the Camino del Norte, or the Camino Portugues. You can walk with a backpack, a stick, some hardcore hiking shoes, or you can wear a ball-gown and flip flops ( though I wouldn’t recommend it ).
The point is, the Camino is what you want it to be and the experience you have is the one you create. Many people choose to follow guidebooks which give more or less the same recommendations, and of course there are unwritten “rules” of the Camino ( don’t wake up everyone else when you leave the albergue in the morning, use bells if you’re a biker to alert those on foot that you’re passing, and be nice and courteous to anyone–pilgrim or not–you meet along The Way ), but the only real “rule” of the Camino is that in order to receive the Compostela once you arrive in Santiago, you must have walked at least the final 100km. And this is where the problems lies.
For many, the Camino is a grueling adventure that far exceeds the minimum of 100km. It takes more than this minimum truly become a peregrino. The last 100km, however, are an excellent excuse for tourists to “experience” the Camino and still receive their Compostela. In the guidebooks and in anything you might read in preparation for the Camino, you are told to be patient with those starting at this point and that even though the Camino becomes much more crowded, you should still treat these new pilgrims as any of the ones you have encountered before. But that is much easier said than done.
Sarria: the city just before the 100km point. We had intentionally not stayed in this city the night before, knowing that it is a popular starting point for many pilgrims and therefore overly crowded. The few nights before we had already seen the beds filling up more quickly in albergues and while with our early start times each morning, it had not been a problem, we could not deny the restlessness in the air and the feeling that the Camino was no longer about the experience, it was quickly becoming a competition.
Our group had split a few nights before at O Cebreiro, some wishing to push ahead and some wishing to enjoy the stunning mountaintop city. This meant that a portion of our group was a couple towns walk ahead of us (maybe 15km). Those of us who hung back to enjoy the views stopped in Sarria for our usual 10km-down-the-road morning coffee. Immediately we noticed a change. A steady stream of peregrinos with crisp, white shoes and clothes not yet faded by hours upon hours in the sunlight walked by us, talking excitedly and much more loudly than any of the peregrinos I had heard passing through cities earlier on the Camino. I glanced up at the windows above the streets wondering if the still-sleeping Spaniards of this town were as receptive to the tradition of the Camino as others.
I connected to the cafe’s wi-fi to see what town our friends ahead of us had ended at the night before. We wanted to reunite before Santiago and since most of us were carrying smart phones, we kept each other updated through Facebook messages if we separated. Instantly my phone buzzed with notifications.
“Caitlin,” they had written, “You guys need to hurry. You would not believe the number of people who are out here already. You should try to make a reservation!”
I scoffed and looked at the time. We had left early, earlier than usual in fact, we should have no problems getting beds that night in Portomarín. But as we watched more people walk by I found myself suggesting that we should call ahead and make some reservations. We looked up our albergue options listed for Portomarín in the guidebooks. There were several albergues with hundreds of beds available. We would be fine. And yet, each one we called had the same response: ya está llena. We’re already full.
Our only hope was the albergue municipal, the one in each town that is run by the government and does take reservations. These albergues open their doors beginning at 12 pm. In this instance they had 114 beds with overflow ( of several hundred each ) into a nearby school and after that into a recreational facility. If we could be some of the first hundred people in line, we would be fine.
We drained our coffees and headed off, ready to secure our spots in line for the municipal and with it, relief that we won beds for one more night. But as soon as we entered the main stretch of the Camino again, my heart sank. Ahead of us were mobs of peregrinos as far as I could see. We picked up the pace to pass them, grateful for the weeks of strength we had built up until now as we neared a running pace up hills and over rocky surfaces that slowed down this fresh batch of peregrinos. We saw buses dropping off groups of people along the way, but taking their backpacks with them ahead to secure a spot at the next town.
These new peregrinos were not afraid to litter. They stretched across the path in groups, not allowing others to pass them. For each one I counted without a backpack, I knew that there was one less bed available in Portomarín where we had planned to sleep that night.
I clenched my teeth as angry tears filled my eyes. I didn’t want to have to spend my last days on the Camino worrying about getting a bed after I had already walked this far just because these tourists sent people ahead to save them a spot. That’s not how this is supposed to be. I shouldn’t have to worry about this.
But I did.
While I stuck to my vicious mantra of vamos! faster! keep moving!, Alex and our friend Jens counted other peregrinos as we passed them. By their calculations we were passing 350 other pilgrims per hour. We continued to speed ahead, ignoring the distances we usually stopped at to take rests. My legs ached and my feet throbbed, but I forced myself to continue at a slightly-less-than-running pace as I realized that we would not be stopping until we got there–not for a water refill, not for a snack, not to catch our breaths. If we didn’t get there before these people, we would have to sleep outside, and none of us had the equipment to survive a chilly Galician night under the stars.
We finally entered Portomarín and broke into a run to close the final stretch to the line outside the albergue municipal. We had just all but ran the past 22.4 km from Sarria with no stop and we fell into line aching, dehydrated, and staring longingly at the food enjoyed by other pilgrims in nearby restaurants. But more than that, fear pulsed through us with each accelerated heartbeat. It was already past noon, the municipal had already been opened. We clung to our place in line, hoping we would not be turned away if the albergue reached capacity. We didn’t even bother with the main albergue, but instead waited in the long line forming for the overflow outside the school.
We were ushered inside and as relief washed over us once we realized we were in, we were each handed an exercise mat ( our bed ) and assigned a classroom to set it in. Luxury. We arranged our mats and took off our boots, marveling at the horrible turn this experience had taken, exhausted after the adrenaline began to fade, and afraid to walk away from our mats in case people got desperate and tried to steal them.
When the school reached capacity and the remaining peregrinos in line gave up, we showered, washed our clothes, and went in search of the half of our group that had been ahead of us. We found them already refueling at a nearby restaurant and dousing their sore muscles and receding panic in beer.
“Tourists!” they spat. “They were taking photos of us as we were exhausted and breathless in line for the albergue like we were some sort of show!”
“They were dropping people off by the busloads at the front door. Some of these people aren’t even walking, they’re just staying in albergues so they can get the ‘pilgrim experience!'”
We sat in disbelief watching the masses of people in the city, watching tired pilgrims walk up to the doors of the albergues, and then witnessing their hopes crushed when they realize they were full. But mostly we were waiting for our friend, Inês, who had been limping for several days now with terrible foot pain ( we would later find out it was tendonitis ). She would wake up earlier than us each morning to get a head start, knowing that at some point she would fall behind but that we would be waiting for her when she eventually arrived.
“Did anyone see Inês today?” we asked each other.
At that moment an Italian peregrina we had seen along the way the past few days walked by our table to say hi. “They’re all full!” she exclaimed. “Every albergue, every private albergue, and all the hotels in the city are full.”
I looked at the time. It wasn’t even 2pm.
We would smuggle Inês into our albergue, there was no question, but I imagined all the other peregrinos like her who may be injured or overly exhausted but have come too far to give up or be turned away once albergues reached capacity. Surly these peregrinos deserved a bed more than the ones who were in it for the bare minimum to get a certificate.
The next day we learned that some of the other peregrinos we had seen off and on for the past month had also arrived too late to get a bed. They were forced to sleep outside, most without tents or proper blankets. The conditions ( at least at peak season ) for the last 100km are truly horribly problematic. Up until this point in the Camino I had been formulating blog posts in my head, ready to encourage everyone to walk this great journey, and suddenly the morning after Portomarín, I was formulating a post to protest this leg of the journey. The Spanish government needs to take into account the rise in the Camino’s popularity to make sure that this does not happen whether that means opening more albergues or creating stricter “rules” on who can and cannot stay in an albergue. It is an incredibly dangerous situation when pilgrims are forced to sleep outside, and I am lucky that I ( barely ) avoided it from this point onward. I considered taking a bus the rest of the way to Santiago to avoid the repetition of a day like Sarria to Portomarín, but I had already walked so far to give up at this point. We adjusted our walking schedule over the next few days, waking up no later than 4:30am ( though leaving Portomarín there were already plenty of pilgrims leaving at that point as well ) and staying in towns that were less popular by Camino standards ( risky, because while that meant less people, it also meant fewer beds ). I am grateful for this experience and hope to walk the Camino again, but I would not redo that last 100km and I sincerely hope changes are made so that other peregrinos do not have to face these problems in the future.