I recently received a call from a family that wanted some advice on walking the Camino de Santiago this summer. They had booked their flights into Spain and were going to start walking from St. Jean Pied de Port, walk a few days, then take a train down to Sarria and walk the last 100km. They had read from guide books and forums that it is easy to find overnight accommodations upon arriving at the major towns, even if it is in a crowded albergue (hostel), and they wanted to confirm that this was the case.
The first time I walked the Camino was in 2009. Back then it was a quiet journey, with mostly Spanish people, and without preplanning it was easy to find hotels and nice rural houses to stay in along the way. In 2009 there were 145,000 pilgrims. In 2018 there were over 300,000! Just looking at this year’s holy week, the number of pilgrims was up 61% from last year, so this year is sure to be record breaking.
That being said, the Camino has changed. I’ve heard of pilgrims getting up at 5am to walk to the next stage to make sure they find accommodations. I’ve heard of pilgrims having to run through some stages just so they make it into a hostel early in the day. Some pilgrims take taxis back to their original starting point at the end of the day so they can find shelter, others take a taxi to a town outside the Camino hoping there’s a place to stay. Last January when I was walking the Camino, a waiter mentioned that in Melide they opened the town’s gym and had people sleeping on the floor there last summer. Cab drivers were talking about shuttling people as far as Lugo to sleep overnight!
The Camino is a journey that can’t be stressful or rushed. It can’t be a competition to make it to a hotel on time or a fight to see who makes it first. The whole goal of our company is to provide authentic Camino experiences to people. And by authentic we mean booking hotels in advance, directly on the Camino, so our group has a good place to stay without being worried. It means walking, at your own pace, each stage of the Camino and not having to take a taxi or bus to a different town to spend the night. It means giving advice and helping the pilgrims wanting to make the Camino.
So, can you just show up on the Camino with a backpack and no other plans but to walk? We definitely wouldn’t advise to do that. You can, and that doesn’t mean that you will not find a place to stay. Just be advised that the place might not be up to your standards, you might need to walk to other towns and during the busy months you might not find one at all. Why put yourself through the stressful experience when all you’re trying to do is enjoy the walk?