“There are no beds.”
“There are too many people.”
The rumors flew up the Way faster than I could walk, carried by Radio Camino. They were shared over pilgrim menus and café con leche, baguettes and French cheese plates. Even when I’m home, if I see them ripple out across the Facebook groups and discussion boards, my shoulders get a little tighter.
The Bed Race
The Camino is always in motion. Moving forward every day by foot or bike, and sleeping in a different place each night, are key parts of the experience. Traditionally, so is traveling without a pre-determined agenda, trusting that every night “the Camino will provide” a modest albergue bed. This was something that drew me to the Way of St James over the other historic walks in Europe. I wanted that experience of letting go. I wanted to let go of my tightly managed and controlled schedule for a little while. I wanted to set out without an itinerary. (Here’s a longer piece about Why I Walked the Camino.)
But letting go is getting a lot harder in the modern era of Camino crowds. The numbers of pilgrims arriving in Santiago, especially via the Camino Francés, grows by tens of thousands of people a year (see the statistics here), and those people all want beds. And while Camino infrastructure (albergues, cafes, etc.) is growing rapidly across Spain, demand does sometimes outweigh supply.
Eric and I experienced that on our very first two nights on the Way of St James, when we arrived in French villages near Le Puy and heard the dreaded complet (full). We paid attention and learned to compromise, calling ahead (or asking someone with better French to call for us) each night to reserve beds for the next day. (Read more about making reservations on the Chemin du Puy.) We were still making decisions day by day, but a little security goes a long way in the remote French countryside, where gites are small and walking days often don’t end until three or four o’clock.
Then the rise in the pilgrim tide left us stunned when we entered St Jean Pied de Port, as the number of fellow pilgrims increased tenfold. The trail over the Pyrenees sometimes felt like we were part of a never-ending line, and at 3:30 we were assigned the last two beds in the Roncevalles albergue. (Those who arrived later were housed in overflow dorms in the basement and in storage containers….I’ve heard things have expanded since then.)
Anyone who’s read Walking to the End of the World knows that it took me a while to adjust to the new pace and crowds, and to find community among the lines of people waiting for albergue beds and showers and stove burners. And by then, I was at the edge of the second wave—when we reached Sarria, the number of people on the road increased tenfold again.
Two years later, when Eric and I walked the much less traveled Camino del Norte, we thought we would avoid that pressure. But I found myself looking skeptically at the guidebooks. The only albergue in town has 20 beds? That would fill quickly. Better hurry up.
Better hurry up
This is the bed race:
- The feeling of anxiety that rises when you see a large group of pilgrims with backpacks stretched out on the trail ahead of you.
- The competitive sense that you need to speed up, or cut a break short, or leave even earlier tomorrow, to “beat” someone else.
- The negative thoughts that creep into the experience of walking, feeling like you’re in a race and competing for limited resources, instead of engaging in a shared experience.
I’m a planner and worrier, and there were days I was as guilty of the bed race as anyone. I gave fellow pilgrims the side eye every time someone passed me. (And I’m slow up the hills, so I get passed a lot.) I rushed my companions and skipped breaks that my body dearly needed.
But after 100 days on trails, I’ve learned (and re-learned) some things about beating the bed race. With a new Camino season just around the corner, and a holy year promising to draw even more crowds in 2021, these strategies may help you, too.
Here are my guiding principles for staying within a budget and still getting a bed on the Camino de Santiago. (Results not guaranteed.)
Beating the bed race
Start early, but don’t be ridiculous about it.
I’ve tried the “start walking in the dark” thing a few times, and I’ve always hated it. I can’t appreciate my surroundings when I can’t see them. It’s hard to find the trail markers. It’s hard to be quiet enough not to disturb the neighbors (not just fellow pilgrims in the albergue, but the people who actually live along the Way). The experience of being in a new place is too easily lost.
I start at dawn (or a little later, usually between 6:30 and 7:30) when the air is cool and the morning light captures everything in beauty (Check out First Light on the Camino), but I see the arrows without a headlamp.
Finish early…but that doesn’t mean walk fast.
I learned the hard way not to rush through a walk with my eyes fixed on the destination. I missed out on so much beauty and wisdom along the trail. And I know many others who learned the hard way that walking too fast causes injuries and an abrupt end to the pilgrimage.
Instead, either first thing in the morning or the night before, set a reasonable distance that your body can go, at your best pace, and where there are a few housing options. If the trail feels crowded and the albergues are full, cut your distance a little shorter that day, so that you can reach your destination when the albergues open. Save those 40-kilometer days and 4:00 pm arrivals for days when you’ve got a reservation. (Alternately, if your body loves long days and arriving at 4:00, acknowledge that there will be a lot of people ahead of you, so make that reservation.)
Go private, and stick to the edges of town.
Most towns in Spain and France have municipally-run albergues (called gites in France) that offer the least expensive lodging option, but are also typically the fastest to fill. We quickly learned to bypass those and seek out privately owned hostels. They might cost 1-2 euro more a night (still a bargain compared to other travel), but rooms typically held fewer people crowded together, and they filled more slowly.
Knowing that Sarria was likely to be crowded with new pilgrims, for example, Eric and I stopped at Albergue A Pedra, one kilometer before Sarria, and had one of the best nights of our Camino Francés walk. There was a small group of pilgrims, a sunny back yard for lounging, and a communal dinner. The next night, in Portomarín, when the crowds turned right at the top of the (brutal) staircase, Eric and I turned left, and were two of the first to check int the albergue on the ground floor of the O Mirador restaurant. (Bonus was the great pilgrim menu just a few steps away.) When we reached O Pedrouzo the day before Santiago and saw the line of pilgrims snaking around the municipal albergue yard, we walked two blocks farther and checked immediately into a private albergue, the Porta de Santiago. There wasn’t even a line for the showers.
Make sure there’s a backup option.
The best way to preserve my sanity was to make sure I wasn’t in danger of stumbling into a town with my last burst of energy, only to be turned away from the only albergue and sent back to the road to walk another 5 or 10 km. (That happened once, in the tiny village of Espinosa.)
What I lack in hiking speed, I make up for in research skills. I don’t have an itinerary when I walk, but I always have a guidebook (preferably one of the Village to Village Guides), and I study it carefully during breaks to know what’s available at my destination town. If the first place I go to is already full, what’s my second option? My third? If there weren’t backup options, that’s when it was time to set aside the “traditional” way and call ahead to make a reservation.
Don’t spend the day worrying.
(Okay, TRY not to spend the day worrying.)
This is the hard one, but here’s what I learned: worrying doesn’t change anything. Fretting over whether there’s room or not, or whether that young kid who just went striding past me will take the last bed, doesn’t actually change whether he takes the last bed. There will be room, or there won’t. This is one of those things that you cannot change.
So set your destination goal for the day. Give yourself time to get there. And then stop thinking about it and look around. You’ll probably never be in this exact space again, on a day like today. And isn’t that really why we’re here?
I’ve heard lots of other opinions, like don’t start your Camino on the 1st of the month or a holiday, or you’ll travel in a “bubble” of crowds. Stay in “off-stage” towns, although with different guidebooks suggesting different stages now, that’s less helpful. What were your “beat the bed race” strategies on the Camino, and how did they work out?