This article is intended to give an idea of what it is like to be a hospitalero, the duties, rewards, the good and the bad. The way each albergue is organised can vary greatly, and this description is intended to give a general idea of the work of a hospitalero.
I have been an ‘accidental’ hospitalero for five days at Casa Fernanda on the Camino Portuguese and a qualified hospitalero for two weeks at San Miguel Parochial Albergue at Estella on the Camino Francés.
When walking a Camino, those who have not booked accommodation for the night will likely know where they will possibly stop for the night, but in any case it is unlikely the pilgrim will know much about the albergue before arriving and asking whether any beds are available.
Is the hospitalero friendly? Is the albergue clean? These are questions to ask yourself before registering and if there is a decisive ‘No’ to either of these mental questions, I would move on to another albergue if possible.
Ideally a hospitalero will have completed a training course which lasts two easy days, and after completing an application to The Spanish Federation of Voluntary Hospitaleros, he or she or a couple will be allocated to an albergue for fifteen days. The hospitalero should arrive at the albergue one day early for handover from the hospitaleros who are completing their allocated stint. After they have left the new hospitaleros will be on their own, and it will be up to them whether pilgrims will have a good experience or a bad experience. Some albergues will have a set of rules, but in most the rules are made up by the hospitaleros.
Day by day
The day begins for the hospitalero at or before six o’clock, getting breakfast ready (if provided) for the early starters. It is usually a simple meal, often just bread with butter and jam, and of course coffee. The hospitalero eats with the pilgrims or after they have departed. Encouraging all the pilgrims to leave at the designated normal time of around eight o’clock makes it easier to start cleaning, which will take most of the morning. Then there will be shopping to do if the albergue is in a town. Back at the albergue, chances are that there will be pilgrims waiting for the albergue to open. The hospitaleros should be firm and pleasant and explain that opening time is later, suggesting to the pilgrims that they might like to eat lunch before the albergue is open, and you will look after their packs while they are away. (This latter point is debatable, although personally I would do it and disclaim any responsibility).
At opening time, the hospitaleros welcome the waiting pilgrims, preferably in at least Spanish and English, request they remove boots before moving indoors and registration commences. After taking the details, the rules must be explained such as times of dinner (if provided), lights out, breakfast times and closing time in the morning, etc. There could be many early arrivals and I have found the registering easier if you just request the passport and credencial and most of the information is in these two documents, thus avoiding asking the pilgrim’s questions in various languages. Whilst doing the registrations, there is also dinner to prepare, so the hospitaleros are very busy. After the dinner is cooked and eaten, all the cleaning up must be done. Most pilgrims are very willing to help both with the preparation and clearing up afterwards. The hospitaleros will then have about an hour to relax, chat to the pilgrims, and help them with information about the stops for the next day and alternative routes. Lastly, lock up at closing time, and go to bed, hopefully around ten o’clock. Thus ends a sixteen hour day. (Lock up means lock against entry— there should always be an unlocked exit door.)
This regime is repeated for fifteen days, and a hospitalero will get tired and sometimes fed up with the same questions, and occasionally dealing with difficult pilgrims, rowdy pilgrims, and those who return after closing time and make enough noise to wake up everyone. Sometimes a fellow hospitalero is difficult to work with, which adds to the stress of looking after everyone.
After fifteen days and you have handed over to the next hospitaleros, you will feel excited like a school kid at the end of term, and swear not to do the job again, but after a short while you will want to return to another fifteen days of punishment.
Requirements of a good hospitalero
In my opinion, a hospitalero needs patience, empathy, tolerance, to eat well and be firm when necessary, and has knowledge of walking the Camino.
When a pilgrim arrives, a good hospitalero gives him/her a friendly welcome, asks how him/her are and is ready to help. A good hospitalero should know the locality of local food shops, pharmacies, doctors, podiatrists, physiotherapists, the nearest hospital, and nearby albergues etc.
Many pilgrims are surprised that I had come from Australia to be a hospitalero, and I would explain that it is all part of the Camino experience and has its own special rewards. I would also use the opportunity tell them that as they travel towards Santiago, they should occasionally think of all the many volunteers that make the Camino operate so smoothly, those who paint the yellow arrows, maintain the pathways, the cleaners who remove the litter each winter, the administrators and planners, the vast majority of whom are Spanish and volunteers. I know that the organisation that I belong to has about 800 volunteer hospitaleros, and that is a small part of the whole army of those who give their time.
Why be a hospitalero?
Being a hospitalero is hard work with long hours, so why do it? A hospitalero is in a unique position to help, especially the first timers. A hospitalero, because he/she has walked the Camino previously, can identify with pilgrims and understand their doubts and problems.
It is an especially rewarding job and is another aspect of the Camino.