Where do we sleep on the Camino de Santiago ? Do I have to book my accommodation in advance? What are the different accommodations? I receive these kinds of questions very often and I finally took the time to write an article to help you prepare your journey.
First of all, accommodation is often one of the fears of the future pilgrim. It’s understandable, after a long day of hiking on the Camino de Santiago, you want to take off your shoes, take a shower and relax. Not to struggle to find a mattress. I reassure you, except in extreme cases, sleeping on Compostela is not a problem. There are multiple possibilities and at worst…the options airbnb, hotel or resourcefulness.
The accommodations on the Way of Compostela vary according to the itinerary. Indeed, if we take for example the Camino Frances, which is the most used, there is a plethora of lodgings on the way. On the other hand, if we take the Camino Primitivo, which is wilder and much less used, there are far fewer villages and stopping points and on these stages there are few accommodations.
Do we have to book our accommodation in advance on the Camino?
To answer the main question about whether or not you should book in advance, it depends on the Compostela route you are taking. If you are going on a Camino that is not very popular (the Way of Tours, the Way of Arles, the Camino Primitivo…) it is indeed better to get information and anticipate to avoid problems. If you go directly on the most used paths, no need. Personally, I only knew where I was going to sleep the night of my first stage, in St Jean de Luz. The rest of the time on the Camino del Norte I saw from day to day. Sometimes I continued the stages longer than planned, sometimes I stopped before. This is also the magic of the Camino, to be able to let yourself be carried along every day, and especially to listen to the Camino radio and to be guided by the advice of other pilgrims. That’s how I was able to sleep in incredible accommodations on the way, which I would never have known if I had not let myself be carried along.
How much is accommodation on the Camino?
It depends on your choice of accommodation! You can sleep in pilgrim hostels which are often the cheapest option. The donativo is an accommodation that is not “free” if you respect your host who will give you most of the time food and a place to sleep, but you can give your fair price. And of course if you want to opt for a more comfortable accommodation, you can sleep in hotels or guesthouses.
The different accommodations on the Camino de Santiago
Any advice? Nothing better than Radio Camino to know which accommodations are not to be missed! The hosts can sometimes advise you themselves since they often know the other accommodations, otherwise the pilgrims themselves often know very well the places where it is absolutely necessary to sleep on Compostela.
The Pilgrim Hostels, Albergues.
These are the “official” accommodations of the Way, the most frequent and used by pilgrims. They are the ones that are most often referenced and indicated on the path and are therefore the “official” meeting points of the path. Most of them do not require to book in advance, so it is first come, first served, especially in Spain. Each pilgrim hostel is unique, some are very spartan, others more comfortable, sometimes they belong to the municipality and sometimes to a private person. Most of the time the bedrooms are organized in dormitories, sometimes they are small rooms with a few beds. Most of the time only the bed, shower and sanitary facilities are included, as well as a room to eat together with some utensils. Sometimes there is a washing machine (extra charge), sometimes it is a tub at the bottom of the garden.
It is necessary to be a pilgrim to be able to sleep in pilgrim hostels, and to show your credencial ( which proves that you are walking on the Camino de Santiago ).
The Donativos, voluntary accommodation on the Camino de Santiago
I discovered the “donativos” during my 2018 pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago from Bayonne to Santiago. Previously, when we had notably taken the Tolosana route I had never heard of them. The principle of a “donativo” accommodation is, as its name indicates in Spanish, the fact of freely participating in the costs of accommodation and meals. In the form of donations, anonymously. There are no fixed prices, which allows everyone to give according to their own means. The accommodation can be in the family home or in a dedicated home. All the ones I tested also offered dinner and breakfast in addition to lodging. All four of my experiences with donativos were incredible, and in fact are some of the best memories I have on the camino. From my point of view, it is often “lovers” of the path who open their doors to pilgrims, and the houses I stayed in were all very well kept, often less spartan than the stage refuges. The meals were exquisite, often very copious and often a beautiful moment of sharing with the other pilgrims.
I recommend this type of accommodation, even if it is quite rare on the Camino of course and the places are often few (except for Guemes, which is a very famous place). The donativos are a precious type of accommodation, where sharing and passion for the Way are the most important, but it seems that some people abuse the system and offer “false donativos” (with an imposed price, and therefore in unfair competition with bed and breakfasts or other lodging). Likewise, so that those who dedicate their time to welcoming pilgrims and open their homes to us, dirty and aching walkers, can continue it is good to respect the hospitality that is given to you and not leave a donation too low. Personally, the accommodations and meals are of high quality, and in the end, these are often the places that I have paid (anonymously) the most for.
The Donativos Where I Had the Chance to Sleep
The hostel of Güemes, on the Camino del Norte. It was other pilgrims, Gilles and Armand (for those who read my book) who told me about Güemes. According to them, it was a place not to be missed and they warmly recommended me to go there. Josiane and I followed their advice, even if it meant that we had to make a rather long stage from Liendo (35,5km). I arrived alone in Güemes, Josiane having preferred to spend more time in a village at noon, and I must say that I was really tired, especially since the weather had been terrible all morning. So here I am, ko of ko, arriving in front of the big domain of Güemes. It is indeed a refuge which looks like a mini vacation camp, with small bungalows, a big green space, pilgrims everywhere. I found there many pilgrims I met during the first days of my camino. Güemes is an incredible place, which I recommend to all those who will make the Camino del Norte. Father Ernesto is of incomparable kindness and wisdom, and he welcomes all those who pass by his “cabaña del abuelo Peuto” (Grandpa Peuto’s cabin) as true friends. In fact, we all gathered in the large reception room for a proper presentation of the place and its history. It is one of the biggest refuges I have ever experienced (I think there were 70 of us at that time) but above all one of the most convivial.
The hostel of Bodennaya, on the Camino Primitivo. Such a magical place. Much smaller and more intimate than a refuge like Güemes and conducive to feeling at home. Bodennaya is run by a couple of enthusiasts who open their doors and their hearts to all pilgrims. In a small, cozy house, the food was perfect and we were even treated to a lecture on the Camino Primitivo and the next steps. Bodennaya marked another turning point in my adventure, by this time I was alone again since Josiane had returned and it was in this hostel that I met my little group of “Primitives”. The afternoon and evening that we spent together in this little cocoon welded very strong bonds!
The hostel of Santa Cruz de Bezana also remains one of my best moments. Held by a passionate of the way, it is a small charming house where we tasted a succulent tortilla. I spent a memorable evening there with a group of young Koreans and I still remember that the beds were really comfortable!
We stayed in a convent twice during our experience on the via Tolosana with my mother. In the second convent we were able to eat with the other pilgrims in the convent. This is not the most common solution and to my knowledge there are not that many of them, but on some routes spiritual accommodations are an option.
Other Accommodation Options on the Camino de Santiago
Of course, everyone is free to choose his or her accommodation as he or she wishes. Moreover, some paths, less used, have few or no stopover gites. The refuges are often located on the most common arrival points of the stage, if you wish to make a stop or cut your way differently, you may not have refuges.
It sometimes happens (fortunately it is rare) that you find yourself at the door of a refuge, already full. This is what happened to a friend and I when we did a small portion of the Camino del Norte for the first time and arrived very late at the refuge. There was no more room. In this case, two solutions: continue to the next stage and hope that the next refuge is full (but the refuge can be 5, 10 or more kilometers away), or find an alternative. At the time we had taken a night in a hotel.
Finding ourselves “at the door” of a refuge has never been a big worry for me, but on the last stretch to Santiago de Compostela we were a small group of 10 people and to be sure to be lodged in the same place we had booked the refuge of the next day, two or three times ( especially for our arrival to Santiago de Compostela). I always refused to hurry up or to wake up like some people at 5 am to be sure to have the best bed, the best shelter… Personally, this is not the spirit I wanted for my adventure.
To come back to the “other” accommodations that pilgrims on the way can use, here they are:
Can you camp along the Camino de Santiago?
I met very few pilgrims who were camping, with their tent and their gear. Even if sleeping outside is the ideal solution for a free accommodation, the Camino de Santiago is not “thought” for wild bivouac, and honestly except on some parts of the Camino del Norte or the Camino Primitivo I don’t see a big added value. Of course, there are some nice spots where a couple of friends were able to camp, like a small secluded beach on the Camino del Norte, but in general they were forced to pitch their tent in the garden of some albergues. It must be said that wild camping is not welcome in Spain. I would not recommend bivouacking on Compostela, it is not unfeasible but even if you want to bivouac, go to the mountains. Bivouacking will make you miss the moments of sharing with the other pilgrims and will add the complexity of finding a remote place where it is possible to pitch the tent. Not to mention the extra weight of course and the logistics that this adds. Please note that the stamp on the credential is often affixed in the refuge, it will be necessary in all cases to make a visit there or to find another stopover to “validate” your stage if you wish to keep your credential up to date.
I am not going to give you an overview of what a hotel is ^^. Depending on the stage, there may or may not be any of course. When you are on the Camino Primitivo, much wilder, don’t expect to find a Novotel at every corner. The hotel is a useful solution when there is no refuge, or when it is full, or when you are totally lost and want to stop in a place with no other accommodation. Personally, on my way to Santiago, I opted for the hotel option twice: the first time because I had a very sore shin, I was tired and I didn’t want to go further. In short, I needed physical and psychological rest and comfort. The second time I had simply had a series of crappy nights with snorers outside of Paris and I just needed solitude, vital space and a good shower. The remaining nights I preferred the shelter and donativo option, my companions on the way being more important than the temperature of the shower.