Friday, August 16, 2013

The most unique albergue on the Norte: Güemes

tl;dr - stop at the albergue in Güemes, on purpose.

Hasta la vista (in Santander), baby

We spent the night in the 25-person room at the albergue, and I woke up still exhausted. (It didn't help that I had tossed and turned all night from having a headache and runny nose, needing to take a roll of toiler paper from the albergue to use that day). But I felt invigorated from taking two half-days at the beach and not walking a lot (by that I mean sub-20km) for two days. We had 28 or so kilometers to go until Güemes, and another 20 or so (turns out it was less than that) to go to Santander. We had never pulled a 40+ day, and despite Leah's feet being destroyed, and despite my head feeling like it was the size of a watermelon, I felt up for the task. I knew that pushing forward would clear my head of all it's clutter.

Leah's feet were screwed. Like, completely screwed. If it hurts more to walk in flip flops than in hiking boots, you know your feet deserve a break. We decided that Kayla and I were going to keep walking and Leah would take a bus to Santander. She needed a day-or-two break anyway, and Kayla and I wanted to keep walking.

We had breakfast at the albergue, an early one, left Leah to find a bus from town, and headed off, either planning on meeting in Santander either that night or the next night. Kayla and I gave Leah our map of the town (that also showed where the Camino was out of town) and headed out. We had a really hard time finding the path, but a number of helpful locals pointed us the way. 

We eventually found our way out of Santoña along the beach and had to scramble up and down a cliff that connected the beaches of Santoña and Noja. 

Note the arrows - they are everywhere. 

The beach stretched for miles - we walked at least 3km along the beach or the path next to it. It is hard to walk on the sand, weighed down by your pack. Especially when your shoes are mesh and sand gets into them all the time. The beaches are amazing - whether they are completely empty except for a single couple enjoying the good weather, rocks jutting out along the sand, or a lone young runner along the waves. It is an amazing feeling, standing alone along the shore at peace with the waves and the salt and the sand, seeing only a few people in the distance. 

We passed a camping-albergue, a small supermarket in Helgueras (where we were adventurous and bought a can of canned octapus (pulpo) to supplement our otherwise strict regimen of tuna, sardines, baguette, and tomatoes. We walked into Noja (another 3km from Helgueras) to get food for dinner, each carrying enough for ourselves. We figured Leah would be fine, since she was going to Santander. 

The route

Our book map looked like this: 

so we thought the signs would be hard to follow. Turns out, they were easy, and took us through San Miguel de Meruelo and eventually to Bareyo. We did not pass through Castillo but did pass through Noja. So basically, it was really unclear where exactly we went, but we got to Bareyo eventually. 

Kayla and I split up almost immediately after Noja - I continued to Bareyo until about 3pm when the temping sign of "café, wifi" caught my eye. I had been walking along the road for a while so I was almost tempted. But I thought Güemes can't be that far, so I just paused for a quick granola and water break and pushed on. 


I got to Güemes, expecting a slightly-larger-than-the-usual-10-house-town, but was greeted by none other than my favorite café-church combination. I did not see a sign for an albergue until I got to the edge of town, so I stopped to ask for directions. My pamphlet said 1km off the path was the albergue, so I eventually saw the sign (and many interesting Camino-shell-signs):

until I eventually found the place. 

It was the earliest I had ever arrived at an albergue - it was barely 4pm. I spent some time admiring the pristine cleanliness, the washers / dryers, the triple-bunks, the mess hall. I also spent some time chatting with our various friends we'd met along the way - the French couple from Portugalete, the Spanish couple from Laredo, a few others.

The most unique albergue

When I first arrived at the albergue, I walked into a group of 10 people of various ages and nationalities, some wearing hiking clothes and some wearing farmer clothes and some wearing nicer clothes. There were a few small children with their parents or grandparents as well. The group was sitting on chairs and benches outside the foyer of a two-story ranch house. 

I came up the hill and was immediately beckoned to sit, given a glass of water, and told to relax. An older man was in the middle of a song with his guitar, accompanied by his wife singing. I sat transfixed at the scene before me - I felt like I had just entered into a surreal, musical world. For 15 minutes I was lost in the Spanish guitar, the voices, the melody, and the atmosphere of rural northern Spain. When the songs ended, one of the volunteers at the albergue checked me in and showed me to my room.

I was left mostly to myself for a few hours to nurse my blisters and relax until the next day. I got to admire the triple-bunks, the cleanliness, the washer/dryer (which I didn't actually use because I thought it was too expensive), and the relaxed atmosphere. A German group was in the room next to mine, so there was the low chatter of German. I spent some time lying in the sun reading my book, enjoying just being outside and relaxed in such a nice atmosphere. 

At 7pm, we had a "peregrinos meeting" where Ernesto, the owner of the albergue, explained the history of the albergue and the various ways to get to Santander from Güemes. 

There were about 30 people in the albergue that night, each with his own unique group and unique story to share.

The history of the albergue

Ernesto, who sported a 2-inch-long white beard and exuded the wisdom of decades, explained in great detail his life and the story of the albergue. A large portion of the guests there that night did not speak Spanish but spoke good English, so a translator was necessary. Fortunately for me (I speak great English and pretty decent Spanish), a British girl had already befriended Ernesto and was chosen to be the translator. She did ask me a few times when she didn't catch Ernesto's phrases to translate, but mostly I got to enjoy and listen to the story.
  • The house the albergue is in was Ernesto's family's home. It was vacated in the 50s by his family, but he moved back here to restore and rejuvenate it around 1975, at the start of the popularity of the Camino del Norte.
  • Ernesto studied to be a priest (in Spanish, a cura) and worked for many years in a small remote village at the top of a mountain. He showed us the picture of the village he worked in (and the trail he used to walk up to it), and it made me glad for the existance of motorized vehicles. 
  • After he finished his studies and working for a time, Ernesto took a "doctorado de la vida" as he called it, traveling the world for two years, stopping in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. 
  • Ernesto loved traveling and meeting people so much that he wanted to bring that experience back to his native home, and decided to open an albergue on the Camino del Norte. 
  • The albergue would be a meeting place for travelers, peregrinos, and enthusiasts. The payment would be by donation only, with each paying as much as he thought appropriate for the services and experience he was given. 
  • Those who wanted to stay longer at the albergue could volunteer their time in exchange for room and board for (almost) as long as they wanted. (For example, I met an Irish woman who was working at the albergue for 3 months before going back to Ireland to re-start her new career as an accountant). 
  • Those who stayed at the albergue were encouraged to share their stories and experiences with one another, and bring their positive values back to their home societies.
The end of the meeting also included a song by the man who was singing earlier, revealed to be Ernesto's cousin. 

We were also explained the three different ways to get to Santander: 
  1. 10km along the highway (...groan from the peanut gallery)
  2. 13km half-highway, half-coast
  3. 15km along the coast (cheer!)
Right then and there I decided that I was going to try to go for the coastal route - if I started early like everyone else was bound to do, it would take me only 4 hours maximum and I would meet Leah and Kayla in Santander before lunch.


After the peregrino's meeting there was a communal dinner, cooked and served by the volunteers and full-time staff of the albergue. I sat and chatted with a German woman working at Mercedes-Benz (her adventure stories made me miss my fellow MITOCers and their crazy world travels), a Romanian woman recently-emigrated to the UK starting a new career, a Korean couple, and a plethora of Spanish couples young and old. The young women who were hiking alone were more drawn to talking to each other, since we all were eager to share our stories and experiences. During dinner Ernesto made us all make a communal toast (not religious of course) and pointedly showed us where the donation box is. 

The hermita

After dinner Ernesto needed yet another translator to talk about the hermita on the albergue property. The word hermita in Spanish is most closely translated as a "hermit's lair" without the negative connotations. It is a place to work, sleep, eat, think, pray, and study. 

Ernesto's hermita was an 8-sided structure (not circular to facilitate the building of benches along the inside walls), painted and decorated by a Brazilian artist friend of Ernesto's. Ernesto spent some time explaining the significance and story of the paintings along the walls: 

The Camino is a journey of life, for the heart and the soul as well as the feet. The travelers are laden with their bags and in various stages of tiredness and exhaustion, looking down at the trail for the yellow arrows that mark the path. The shells mark the signs of the Camino, their use for the peregrinos multi-faceted.

The outstretched (multi-racial) hands are asking the universe for a good experience of the Camino. The eyes are constantly searching for the right Way, and the feet are always sore from the day's exertion.

The peregrinos are always searching, always looking, always reaching. They are sometimes lost, discouraged, confused. They are reaching forward towards something, sometimes unclear about what they are searching for or where it is. They all think they are searching for the yellow arrows that are pointing them along the Way.

Some travelers are so focused on the trail that they only follow the yellow arrows without regard for anyone else or their troubles. But some (man, woman, black, white, all kinds) help each other through the troubles of Camino (and of life). Those who help are REALLY the ones following the Way, as shown by the angels bringing down a yellow arrow to the altruistic group.

The Camino is a place to share meals, stories, experiences, and life. It is a place to meet other travelers and experience the goodness that is inside each ordinary person. People walk the Camino to be reminded of the ordinary pleasures of life.

Once you have found that the Camino is about meeting people, helping each other, sharing experiences, and finding the goodness inside yourself, then you have succeeded in finishing the Camino. The end of the Camino is not in Santiago de Compostela (and that is why it is not depicted here), but the end is inside each one of us, as soon as we discover the goodness that is inside each other. The world is brighter for these discoveries, and we need them for the survival of humanity at large.

And onwards

I eventually heard from Leah that Kayla had made it to Santander (I would get the full story later), but because I had such a great time meeting travelers in Güemes, I forgot about the original plan to meet here. I went to sleep happy I had met these interesting people, and glad that I had accidentally stopped in Güemes for the night. If you follow the Camino del Norte, make sure to stop in Güemes, but on purpose.

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