A Visit to Güemes - by Ian Woofenden
After hosting our visitors from Güemes, Spain when they were on the island in April, Lisa and I were delighted to have the opportunity to receive their hospitality at the Albergue La Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto in Güemes, Spain in September. This hostel on the Camino del Norte was Ernesto’s birthplace and family home. Over the years, he and his supporters have turned it into a hostel that hosted more than 12,000 pilgrims walking to Santiago this year.
We traveled to Europe, for the first time, to celebrate our 60th birthdays and to get a taste of places we’d dreamed of seeing in person. Scotland, Austria, and France were on the list, and seeing Güemes was a priority for us. We took a train from a village in France to the border with Spain where Ernesto, Paqui, and Miguel picked us up. (We were sorry not to see Marina, who is working and studying in Berlin.)
On the drive to Güemes, we got a taste of northern Spain’s coast and the Cantabrian countryside before landing at the albergue. Though I knew from our eight days with Ernesto and friends in our home that we were in the presence of a remarkable person, our three days at the hostel brought regular confirmation of his specialness. Ernesto is a person who has dedicated his life to caring for others while also having grand adventures—it seems like a great mix to me.
The hostel is decorated throughout with evidence of the huge number of people who have benefited from his love, care, and sense of humor. Everywhere you look, there is artwork, appreciations, posters, and more from and about the people who have been influenced by Ernesto and his helpers. The place is full of talent, love, and good humor that seems to never falter, even while a new batch of 30-100 pilgrims arrives every afternoon.
Lisa and I were particularly pleased to share and enjoy music with Paqui’s wife and others from the community one afternoon and evening. We were tickled to hear lots of American music in their repertoire and to enjoy their robust harmonies. There was lots of laughter as well.
We toured both of the local churches that Ernesto serves, and got a great view of the small community of Güemes from the tower in the center church. We also took a day trip to Picos de Europa, a gorgeous mountainous region where Ernesto served early in his career as a priest. There and around Güemes, everyone seemed to know and revere Ernesto—there was a familial warmth that was obvious.
We were able to hear Ernesto speak to one of the pilgrim groups in the round building on the albergue property that is dedicated to meditation and contemplation. I was particularly amused at how often Ernesto would tease or make jokes; he is a person who has done and accomplished so much, but has not lost his childlike humor and a humble sense of his own small place in the universe. Paqui and Miguel and several others are integral parts of the albergue’s mission, and the spirit we saw shining from them on the island is shared with pilgrims, volunteers, staff, and visitors.
We had the opportunity to chat with some of the pilgrims, and even more with the hostel staff and volunteers. With some frequency, pilgrims who stop at the hostel for the typical one-night stay decide to come back and volunteer for weeks or months. While we were there, we connected with volunteers from Spain, Netherlands, and Columbia who were there to help—and to soak up more of the congenial spirit of the place.
Our visit was brief, ending with a ride to the nearest international airport in Bilbao. It left us with a lovely taste and a wish to return, perhaps to walk some of the Camino, or to spend time helping at the hostel. I encourage islanders with European travel plans to consider a stop at this small place that shares our island’s name. The place is quite scenic; the people are extraordinarily hospitable and kind. Building more connection between the village of Güemes, Spain and Guemes Island was our pleasure, and could be yours too.