They descend to the beach in the evening, clambering down grassy cliffs to settle on the sand. They roll cigarettes, strum guitars, burn incense, throw dogs driftwood.
At the height of the summer months, a little after 10 p.m., they turn west, transfixed as the sun melts into the Atlantic. When the sky lights up gold and fuchsia, some whistle, others applaud. This is sunset in Fisterra, the End of the Earth.
After nightfall, some climb back up the cliffs to sleep in the forest. Others return to the town. Those who remain on the beach crawl into sleeping bags nestled against the rocks, where, some mornings, local police wake them with orders to leave.
Some call them hippies. Some call them troublemakers.
They call themselves pilgrims — peregrinos, in Spanish — and come from around the world: Germany and Hungary, England and Italy, and places far beyond. They work in restaurants, panhandle near supermarkets and sell handmade jewelry on the beach. Most walked the famed 500-mile Camino de Santiago — the Way of St. James — and continued to this small fishing town on Spain’s northwestern coast.
Some have lived here for years; a few, just a week. They stay for love, for freedom, for artistic inspiration. They run away from families, drugs, jobs. Fisterra heals, they say.
No one can say exactly how many live here. Maybe 20. Maybe 50.
Their stories are similar: Once they ran out of land, they had nowhere else to go.
“I said I would stay two nights,” said Marge Ots, 41, an Estonian who lives with a handful of other pilgrims above a bar on Fisterra’s main road. “I’ve been here two years.”
The Atlantic surrounds Fisterra on three sides. To the east, a crescent-shaped beach forms a tranquil cove where snorkelers glide and fishermen set out their nets. To the west, austere cliffs hem in the Praia Mar de Fóra, a beach whose dangerous undercurrents have swept away countless swimmers. To the south, the peninsula tapers into a narrow, forested cape, where people gather by the lighthouse and watch the sunset each night.
Fifty years ago, the town’s geography made fishing a lucrative line of work. Residents dived for navajas — razor shell clams, so named for the thin shells — that burrowed into the sand. They set octopus traps on the seafloor and pried percebes — gooseneck barnacles, a regional delicacy — from slippery rocks during low tide.
Fisterra had a historical connection to the centuries-old pilgrimage, in which the faithful walked from southern France to Santiago de Compostela, where the Apostle James‘ remains are said to be buried. Thousands make the trek each year.
Ancient pilgrims sometimes continued on another 50 miles to the sea to wash their filthy clothes, but Santiago de Compostela was seen as the culmination of the Camino.
That changed in the 2000s. Camino associations and travel guides touted Fisterra as a gem on Galicia’s rugged Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death — named for the untold numbers of shipwrecks along its shores.
In 2009, 2,400 pilgrims visited Fisterra. A year later, that number exploded to 17,000.
The town transformed. Hotels, restaurants and albergues — cheap accommodations for pilgrims — sprouted up everywhere. Today, about half the town’s working population earns money from the sea and the other half works tourism, estimates Fisterra Mayor José Manuel Marcote.
“It’s a change that’s been imposed on us,” he said. “It has changed our way of life.”