Walking long distances with backpacks was the easiest part of the first leg on the Camino de Santiago. The rural towns we stayed in were quaint, charming, and a step back in time. People moved at a slower pace with little need for technology. Most residents were older. One old man we met on the Camino had only been to three towns in southern Spain in his entire life. The ghostly afternoon quietness showed that every town we walked into stuck to the siesta.
Day 1 – Almería to Santa Fé de Mondujar (28.43 km)
On our first day, we finally started our long Camino. The weather was perfect but we didn’t have everything we needed. We had lost our travel adapter, which forced us to husband our cell phone usage. Our cell phones are our maps, guides, and access to emergency services.
After walking for about 17 miles with no issues, we made it to our destination.
But finding a place to sleep proved difficult. On arriving at the town plaza, we saw a group of old men. They looked at us and pointed somewhere vague with grunt-like, slurred words. It was obvious that they only spoke Spanish here. Very fast, heavily accented Spanish. We thought they pointed to the tourist office so we went there. It was closed.
Then we saw a woman and asked her, “where is the hostel here?”
She said, “There is no hostel here, the nearest one is 15 km away. Good luck.”
Tired and hungry, we didn’t want to sleep outside on our first day. So we backtracked and started walking and anxiously searching on our phones for a plan B. Luckily, a group of older women approached us.
“You looked lost. Are you pilgrims?”
“Yes, is there a place to stay here?”
“Of course! Go to the bar and ask for the key.”
Relief! We went to the bar, drank some beer, ordered some food, and got the key and a ride to the albergue. Thinking about it later, the group of old men, the thing they were pointing to…they were pointing at the bar.
Day 2 – Santa Fé de Mondujar to Alboloduy (15.71 km)
We slept well and had a hot shower. In the morning we returned to the bar in Santa Fé to pay for our stay, return the key, and have breakfast. When paying, we did the usual and handed her our credit card.
“We don’t take card, only cash.”
Well, we didn’t have enough cash. “Where is the ATM?”
“About 15 km away [in the nearest big city].”
“We don’t have enough.”
We handed her all out cash and we still owed her seven euros. She didn’t take all the money and let us keep one euro.
“For pilgrims, it’s ok.”
We felt bad. We don’t like owing people money. While we were awkwardly standing there, she offered us a special drink to make us strong for our journey. It tasted like sweet, Ouzo flavored lemonade. We drank them quickly and I started to feel…tipsy.
“Is there alcohol in here?”
“Of course! It is about 40%. To make you strong! ¡Buen Camino!”
So we waved adios and started our second day. A little tipsy, in debt, with a one euro coin, and useless credit cards among our possessions.
We walked a beautiful 9.7 miles through desert that reminded us of the drive from San Diego to Las Vegas. When we arrived into town we saw another group of old women.
“Are you looking for the albergue?”
“It’s up there, on the hill. Go.”
So we went and saw a phone number on the building. We called and a nice man named Jose answered. He immediately switched to English when speaking to us and his English was better than our Spanish. The phone call went smoothly and he offered to let us into the albergue in one hour. He picked us up and drove us to the albergue.
Almost immediately, we told him we had no cash and asked for the nearest ATM. The closest one was also about 15 km away and he offered to drive us to that town. On the drive, he talked about the town. It was very small and very rural with an older population. Older people farmed “as a hobby” and grew olives, grapes, pomegranates, etc. to share with family. Young people lived in the cities where there was more opportunity for work and higher education and came back home on holidays and some weekends. After getting our money, we settled in took showers, ate an awesome 3-course late lunch/early dinner, charged our phones on the USB port on the TV, and got ready for day 3.
On the drive, he talked about the town. It was very small and very rural with an older population. Older people farmed “as a hobby” and grew olives, grapes, pomegranates, oranges, etc. to share with family. Young people lived in the cities where there was more opportunity for work and higher education and came back home on holidays and some weekends. After getting our money, we settled in took showers, ate an awesome three-course late lunch/early dinner, charged our phones on the USB port on the TV, and got ready for day three.
Day 2 ~9.7 miles/total 26.6 miles ? There are no ATMs/cajeros in any of the tiny villages along the route and no one takes credit card. Will work for food! ?. Luckily the hostel owner drove us to the nearest town with one and we got our cash on ? We hate asking for favors and are usually self sufficient, so now we’re humbled & happy. Ended with this beautiful view ? #caminodesantiago #caminomozarabe #mozárabe #alboloduy #hikingspain #spain #spain_beautiful_landscapes #ang_and_nik??
Day 3 – Alboloduy to Abla (28.74 km)
We woke up and walked to the café to have breakfast. A trend was becoming noticeable. People, mainly old men, drink liquor in the morning. Usually, we walk into the café-bar, the news is on TV, and no one is talking. The waiter/barman pours everyone’s usual order in silence: one man has café con leche, another a glass of brandy, another a shot of espresso with a splash of rum. Then we walk in and the waiter says his first words of the day to us when he asks us what we want. We typically ask for two cafe con leches with toast.
We hiked about 17 miles. The hike was challenging with some steep inclines and declines. While on our hike, we called the hostel in the next town to make our reservation. Jose, from Alboloduy, advised us to start making reservations and letting the next town know we were arriving. This part of the Camino isn’t so popular and it was the low season so most times accommodations are not expecting people.
We finally arrived into town and walked into the hostel/bar/café/restaurant. The young waitress was surprised to see us.
“We have reservations for a room.”
“Uhhh, I have to call my boss.”
It was siesta time so the town and the restaurant were in a lull. After a couple of minutes, the boss checked us in, bleary eyed. He must have just woken up from a nap. After check-in, we ate lunch. Nick also bought a cell phone charger in town. We were good to go now.
Day 4 – Abla to Dólar (28.17 km)
We hiked another beautiful 17-mile hike through farms and desert.
The Camino guide actually recommended we stay in a town called Hueneja. We arrived in this town at around noon and walked into the town hall/tourist office. We asked the worker about the albergue. He indifferently told us we needed to get the key and then quickly returned his attention to his computer. No explanation about the key, nothing. This irritated us, so we got our phones and started changing our plans. The next town was not far away so we decided to the two or three more hours to get there. On our phones, in google maps, we saw a nice looking, highly rated hostel. We called the hostel and made reservations. Easy!
Well, we should know nothing is ever as it seems here. When we walked into town, we went to the supposed address of the hostel. But there was no hostel. It was someone’s house. We asked an older man where the hostel was. He answered that is was two km “that way” by the highway. We looked at the map and then looked at the hostel’s address on their website. Yes, google maps was wrong. So we walked an extra two km, about 30 minutes, and finally arrived at our destination, which turned out to be a gas station restaurant/café/hostel. (We made the correction on google maps).
It was the equivalent of an American roadside motel, but we were pleasantly surprised. Our dinner was excellent. We had a three-course lunch with wine, beer, sparkling water, and espressos. While we were eating, a bus of Spanish tourists rolled in for afternoon coffee. They all ordered their drinks, sat down, and drank with real silverware and cups. No shortcuts. They take their coffee time seriously here.
Day 5 – Dólar to Alquife (16.80 km)
Day five was a nice short 10.4 miles. We walked through more olive tree farms with views of old Islamic-influenced architecture.
In one small town, wonderful aromas of baked goods wafted through the air. I had to have whatever they were making. They made all kinds of cookies, treats, and bread. It was too late to buy bread so I bought almond cookies, which the baker made with pork fat instead of butter. These cookies lasted us five days and we always looked forward to our cookie break on hikes.
Again, we learned our lesson and reserved a room with Albergue Lacho on the phone. He offered to pick us up in town. After waiting in the plaza, an old, small, dirty beater car arrived. Lacho had a cigarette dangling from his mouth and an empty beer can on the floor. He started speaking to us in broken English and explained the accommodation. In a short time, our conversation switched to all Spanish. He was a great host and cooked us a delicious dinner of braised (precocido ) pork elbow, salad, and french fries. It was such a nice place to relax and sleep in between hikes.
Day 6 – Alquife to Guadix (25.23 km)
We started the day with coffee and a shot of cherry liquor with our host, Lacho. Off we went.
The hike was beautiful and the scenery was straight out of a spaghetti western film. Guadix is famous for its cave houses. The bulk of the house is inside the cave with a door leading outside and sometimes a chimney sticks outside on top of the mountain.
All our hosts and tour guides have told us that the houses maintain a fresh 68 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. No need for heat or air-conditioning.
We took a very quick tour of one of the cave houses and they are fresh, but dark since there are no windows. Nick and I have scallop shells on our backpacks that are symbols of pilgrims on the Camino. The old man giving us the cave house tour was extremely enamored with our shells and kept offering to buy them. It was a bit odd and he seemed a little off his rocker. We politely declined his offer and carried on.
Our accommodations in Gaudix wee top-notch. We stayed at a 16th-century palace and our host was a famous sculptor in town. She had sculpted a replica of Michelangelo’s La Pieta that was on display at the cathedral. The house had a beautiful arched terraza, an Arab-style foyer and an old dining room and kitchen. For dinner, we went out in town drank wine and ate tapas of sausage, cheese, and bread.
Day 7 – Guadix to La Peza (24.17 km)
We walked from Guadix to La Peza on a Saturday. We started the day with café con leche, toast, and orange juice. The terrain was still dry with lots of olive tree farms. Olive trees are drought resistant and hardy, which is why so many farmers have them. Before the drought, there were more citrus trees.
While hiking, we read our Camino guides and read that La Peza was a tiny town with no hostels. There was a municipal albergue, but we could find no information on how to get access to it. We called the town hall, but no one answered. We also called our old host Lacho and the Camino de Santiago Association. No one had any answers for us. So we just continued to walk anxiously while trying to figure out where we were going to sleep later. Finally, our phone rang. The association leader called us back with good news and gave us directions on how to get access to the albergue.
When we arrived into La Peza, it was a ghost town. Nothing looked open and we were hungry. We dropped off our backpacks at the albergue and scoped out the town for food. The supermarket was closed. There were four bars in town and all were open. We literally walked into all four bars. None were serving food. This is because food is served at lunch from 1-4 pm and at dinner time which is 9 pm. We were walking around town at about 5 pm. We missed lunch and dinner was three hours away.
No one eats at 5 pm. It’s the time for coffee or beer. So we drank some beer and waited. One bar offered us a small tapa potato chips and another gave us sautéed potatoes. After this small ration of food we were still hungry and just wandered around town to let time pass. It was hard to wait until 9 pm to eat, so we asked one place to please cook us some food at 7 pm. They did and it was delicious. We didn’t go to sleep hungry so it was a successful day!
Day 8 – La Peza to Quéntar (30.60 km)
We had slept well. Breakfast is the easiest meal for us to find and eat in Spain. We usually find a café that is open pretty easily. We had our standard breakfast, without shots of liquor, and went on our merry way.
The hike was a long and hilly 18.8 miles. Every 100 m or so along the Camino de Santiago there are yellow arrows pointing hikers in the correct direction. We also have a backup GPS trail route on our phones. Every day until this day the GPS route and yellow arrows synced up. On this day they diverged and confused us. Were we lost? Were we going the wrong way? We decided to do what we thought was the safe thing and follow the yellow arrows instead of our GPS route.
The yellow arrows took up into the mountains to a beautiful and high viewpoint. We were tired but tried to enjoy the panoramic views. Then we followed the arrows to descend the mountain and noticed something on our phone.
We basically took the long, difficult scenic route instead of the short, energy-efficient route the GPS was telling us to go. At the time I was hungry, tired, and annoyed while hiking the extra scenic route. It was pretty, but the short way would have been better. But we did see this guy…
Day 9 – Quéntar to Granada (18.93 km)
This day’s hike was beautiful, scenic, hilly,sc and short. Mostly good except for the hills. The terrain was classic desert scrub with olive trees. After walking a short while in the hills, the city of Granada started to show itself.
It was huge compared where we had been the previous nine days. It sprawled and immediately you could make out the mosque/church/fort called the Alhambra, which the city is famous for. It is a large sandstone colored Arabic fortress that sits on top of a hill visible to most of the city. When we walked into the city we felt some shock. There were people, lots of people, in the streets. They were crowded and full of tourists. We heard German, French, and English spoken in the streets along with Spanish.
Our accommodation for our two days in Granada was at a convent. Our previous host Lacho recommended it to us. We walked to the convent during lunchtime and checked in. And we noticed the nuns here looked different. They were not Spanish, but we couldn’t quite place where they were from. After washing up we walked down to the dining room for lunch. They served lunch family style and we sat next to a local couple. One of them spoke English since he had lived in Chicago for 12 years and started chatting with us. In our chat, he informed us that all the nuns in this convent and many convents in Spain were from India. Obviously, the sisterhood is not a popular career choice for most young Spanish girls today. In order to stay open, they recruit young women from India.
There was a recent scandal with the Spanish Catholic Church where Indian nuns wanted to renounce their vows but were forced to stay. Eventually, they were let go, but I couldn’t help wondering what the back story was. It felt a little strange eating and staying at this convent. It was very quiet and echoed when you walked through the halls. Everything was immaculately clean and everyone spoke with barely above a whisper, politely, with hands clasped close to their gowns. We had an unofficial curfew of 11 PM, which was more than ok with us. They had to buzz us in through a very large gate and wooden doors. It’s a stay I won’t forget. And, honestly, will probably never do again.
Day 10 – rest day
We slept in and got to walk around without heavy backpacks. It was great! It happened to be All Saints Day so we decided to visit the cemetery. As you do.
The cemetery was crowded and all the tombs and gravesites were clean and tidy with fresh flowers. The cemetery had a jovial feeling, not somber at all. Families were walking and talking and just enjoying the day.
We did have one important task this day. We had to pay our debts. We bought a stamped envelope and sent ten euros and our thanks to Ana from Santa Fé for taking care of us at our first stop along the Camino.
Here’ the map. Thanks for tuning in!
Slightly edited for clarity 18 Nov 2016.