Every year, many thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela — a medieval pilgrimage route which is very popular today among spiritually-minded “pilgrims,” as well as those attracted by an interest in history, hiking / biking, or travel.
It traverses hundreds of miles across northern Spain, to Santiago in the northwest corner of the country, but pilgrims commonly walk from Roncesvalles in France or from other points north, east, and south.
Pilgrims traditionally sleep in albergues or refugios, low- or no-cost volunteer-run dorm-style hostels provided for those who walk, bike, or ride horses along the Camino. Bed bugs have surely been present since the pilgrimages began. But with a worldwide resurgence in bed bugs, they are surely flourishing now more than they have in the last fifty or sixty years.
I had heard of the spread of bed bugs on the Camino and had begun to compile this post last month based bed bug reports on pilgrims’ discussion board forums. I was not surprised to see that the Telegraph (UK) did a story Wednesday on the problem of bed bugs on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and on some pilgrim support organizations’ plans to fight bed bugs in an organized way:
The Federation of Friends of the Camino de Santiago has proposed a simultaneous clean up at all overnight stops along the route from the town of Roncesvalles on the French border in the Pyrenees.
This is the same problem hotels and hostels face, but worse. Think about it: the nature of the pilgrimage route means that the same people are going from hostel to hostel, day after day after day. They’re bringing backpacks or sleeping sacks, and clothing, and their laundry and washing facilities are more limited than those of the typical urban backpacker.
Imagine trying to fight bed bugs at a hostel when you know that subsequent guests will have come from exactly the same locations as those who brought bed bugs into your premises in the first place.
The Telegraph continues,
The worst hit establishments have in the past closed their doors to disinfect the beds but they quickly become reinfested as unwashed pilgrims carry the bugs, of the Cimicidae genus, with them from other shelters.
The [Federation of Friends of the Camino de Santiago] has proposed that all the regional authorities along the 460 mile route through Spain join forces and simultaneously disinfect the guesthouses to wipe out the pest once and for all.
Mr. [Angel Luis] Barreda [of the aforementioned Federation] believes winter is the best time to act when few except the most devout pilgrims attempt the route, which dates back to the ninth century.
The simultaneous clean-up of refugios is a good idea. This post on the Pilgrimage to Santiago forums says that Spanish news TVE24 recently announced a plan to shut down all albergues for 15 days in the “low” season and simultaneously treat them.
Doing so in winter is not a bad idea, except waiting to do so means pilgrims, who tackle the route year-round, will keep picking up bed bugs and moving them around until then.
But treating the refugios, even if the process wipes out all the bed bugs on the route (which is a big “if”), will not “wipe out the pest once and for all.” Pilgrims are certainly bringing bed bugs to the Camino, as surely as they are also taking them home.
Discussion boards for pilgrims to Santiago are crawling with bed bug stories and warnings of bed bug sightings in this or that albergue. Few pilgrims seem concerned about taking bed bugs home, but it is a matter of time before many of those who traveled the Camino during the peak season of late summer begin to discover they brought these souvenirs home.
The Confraternity of Saint James gives fairly lax advice about avoiding bed bugs on its FAQs for pilgrims:
With reasonable precautions, namely shaking out your sleeping bag outside at regular intervals you should be able to prevent the worst problems. And perhaps most important: check your sleeping bag, clothes, and rucksack before leaving Spain, to avoid bringing any bed bugs back with you.
They also link from the FAQs to a brief PDF (click to download) from Les Chemins de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, which isn’t bad, but may mislead pilgrims with its photo and description of bed bugs (adult bed bug pictured, described as being 1/4 inch long).
It’s common for the media to leave out the juvenile first instar nymph’s appearance. Your bed bug may not be big and brown and 1/4 inch long. He might look like this, and be the size of the period in a newspaper sentence:
(Photo credit: L. Sorkin and R. Mercurio, American Museum of Natural History.)
Suggestions for Peregrinos (Pilgrims) to Santiago de Compostela, and other backpackers, to avoid taking bed bugs home or to your next location:
“Shaking out your sleeping bag” is not a guarantee bed bugs will not be in your sleeping bag (or for that matter, your clothing or backpack). I’d personally do much more than “check” my posessions before going home, because bed bugs can be hard to spot. I’d treat them as infested.
None of those FAQs is specifically written with the backpacking pilgrim in mind, so here are some additional tips for peregrinos and other backpackers/hostelers on how to ensure you are bed bug-free:
- Learn to search a mattress and bed frame for bed bugs, and so so carefully before putting your stuff in the room.
- Try not to store belongings on or near beds. Though bed bugs can live elsewhere, beds are the most likely spots.
- The best idea to keep from spreading bed bugs is probably to dry everything in a machine on hot before leaving a known infested premises, and before going home. (If items are dry, this takes less time, but if things are dirty, it’s best to wash and dry for a very, very long time. Sleeping bags may make it easy for bed bugs to harbor even during a wash or dry.) Learn more here.
- Carefully inspect items that can’t be dried.
- Learn what bed bugs and their signs look like.
- And don’t assume that if you do not have bed bug bites, you were not bitten en route (a sizeable percentage of people do not react allergically to bed bug bites, and so will see and feel nothing).
Finally, if the worst happens, and you brought bed bugs home (or suspect you did), learn how to get rid of bed bugs in your home.