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Camino de Santiago, Day 38: Villafranca del Bierzo to Alto do Poio

Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago

Today I was tested.

We left Villafranca del Bierzo at 9 am which is a late start for most pilgrims.  We walked for about 15 kilometers on flat ground winding through a valley with towering mountains all around us.  Over and over we passed over rivers and streams.  At 15 kilometers we knew a formidable climb was ahead, the last mountain standing between us and Santiago.  Jamie went ahead.

Slowly, the landscape changed from verdant and hilly to an absolute rainforest.  As I ascended, ferns appeared, small streams poured down the path, and a mist clouded the air.  Slugs crossed the trail, with many fatalities.  I saw Paul from Perth again and he asked how I was – I was bending over in a heart attack position after climbing rapidly up the steep path.  “Bueno”, I said.  “Just slow and steady.”  Not sure if he believed me.

At 25 kilometers I saw Jamie who had already checked into an alburgue.  It was 4 pm and all reasonable pilgrims had found their beds for the night.  Unfortunately for me, “reasonable” has never been my forte.  I really wanted to get to the top.  Just 5 more kilometers and I would be there.  Jamie wished me luck and I pressed on.  I walked alone and the views were amazing.

Nearly to the top, I had to make way for cows being shepherded to another pasture by a man with a shepherd’s stick driving a jeep.  That was a first.  Cows are big.

Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago

By the time I reached the top it was past 5 pm.  I waited in a line at a hostel to see if they had a bed available.  The woman ahead of me told me she thought she might faint.  “Have you come a long way?” I asked.  “Oh yes, I came 50 kilometers on my bike, except I took a taxi up the mountain.”  She had made an advance reservation and got a bed.  When I stepped up to the counter, drenched in sweat and bedraggled, I was asked “Reservation?”.  “No.”  “Sorry, completo”.  Every one of the two hundred beds had been filled.  Every hotel had the dreaded “Completo” sign on the door.  No beds available.

I have actually gotten over the anger at individuals who take taxis and buses.  Sure, it’s their Camino to do however they want.  But the problem is that when people do this, and make advance reservations, it makes it almost impossible to walk the Camino faithfully.  I can’t possibly compete.

As I walked around the town, taxis circled like piranhas waiting to pick up the weak and tired and charge them a fortune.  I saw Paul again and he and a friend were taking a taxi to the next town to get a bed.

And then, I snapped.

Again…in my mind I said: “I will NOT get in a taxi.”  Stubborn like a mule.

Did I tell you it was pouring rain?

“Just six kilometers to the next town. I can do this.”

Guess what happened in the next town?  Completo.  An old man with half-a-mouth’s-worth of teeth offered me a place to stay in his house.  I pondered this.  And then decided it was safer for me to continue.

I walked 3 more kilometers in mist and rain and mud.  It’s now nearing 7 pm.  I practically fall into a hostel and ask if there is a bed.  The woman says “completo”.  I ask her if she could call the next alburgue (3 kilometers away) and ask if they have beds.  She asked me for the number.  I said I didn’t know it.  She coldly said “No.”  I stood there in her lobby, making a puddle of water on her floor, and stared at her.  Seriously, a single tear fell out of the corner of my eye!

I. Will. Not. Take. A. Taxi.

I then spent the next two kilometers cursing her and hoping that she would be punished someday which probably did my karma a lot more damage than what she did.  My legs were moving like a machine now.  Nothing could stop me.  I wondered how far I would have to go.  Would I walk all night?   How deep were my reserves?  How strong am I?

What astounded me was that each time I thought I had reached my absolute limit, there was still more there.  I come from a long line of gritty women and I was flying my grit flag like a freak.  I was NOT going to give up.  And this was a lesson.  We are stronger than we realize.

I walked 3 more kilometers and a lot of it was uphill.  At one point I stood in the path looking straight up and yelled: “You have GOT to be kidding me?!”  The path appeared disinterested in my problem.

Reaching the highest peak of the mountain, Alto do Poio, it was now 8 pm.  I was soaking wet.  I approached the alburgue with the confidence of an abused dog.  I opened the door and an old lady turned towards me.  “Completo?”, I said pathetically.  “No!”, she said,  scornfully looking at the puddle I was making.  And then my hands automatically fell into prayer position and I thanked the woman as if she had given me her kidney.

Just then I see Javier across the room and he yells “Laura!” and rushes over to give me a hug and a kiss on each cheek.  He takes my bag, sets me up with a bed, and introduces me to his friends.  What a lovely feeling to be welcomed after being in the literal and figurative cold.

The satisfaction I felt when I finally began to fall asleep that night was immense.  I had done something I would never have dreamed possible two months ago.  Amazed.  And the point is, you can too.

Today, I walked 37 kilometers or 23 miles and tackled my last mountain on the Camino!

Photos of the Walk from Villafranca del Bierzo to Alto do Poio:


  1. Wonderful post! I have a little travel addiction also, and so appreciated your determination! I’m looking forward to reading more – leaving in September 2015 for my Camino.

    • Thanks Beth! I wish you a safe and wonderful Camino. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.

  2. Wow, this has given me great inspiration for my camino which I embark on in two weeks time. I’m concerned that I’m going to meet this problem quite a bit being Easter, but hopefully I’ll be able to dig and find some female grit if need be!

    • I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the read Daisy. Since it’s early in the year, I’m guessing you’ll be fine. But if you have a hard day, certainly there is value in that too. Best wishes on your Camino!

  3. Woooooooohoooooooo! This is great, I’m living vicariously albeit a month late. Love this one. I could totally visualize you screaming at the heavens and the sarcasm with which you asked “completo?”

    Thanks for journaling like a mad woman. This takes work! “as if she had given me her kidney.” lol. 23 miles….damn!

  4. What a great story! You got GRIT woman!! Love Paula

  5. That’s a great story, Laura! Good for you!

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