We went in search of Southern Spain’s mysterious hippie community and discovered a way of life that was different to anything we’d experienced before…
Beneficio is a community of people from all over the world living in La Alpujarra mountain range. There’s so much to say about this enchanting place that it’s difficult to describe in a blog post, it is probably many different things to different people: a peaceful retreat, a social experiment, a spiritual awakening…Here’s what we experienced and learned during our visit but to find out what it’s really like you have to go and experience it for yourself!
Getting there… As soon as we arrived in the nearby town Orgiva, we quickly got a sense that we were almost there. There were lots of people walking around with big backpacks, hippie buses from all different countries and hitchhikers along the road out of town towards Beneficio.
Apparently the entrance to Beneficio should be obvious but we’d somehow managed to drive straight past it. Fortunately we had a hitchhiker on-board who was making his way back to Beneficio and was able to guide us (one of the many benefits of picking up hitchhikers!). The entrance is fairly unassuming, just a turning down a gravel track. The drive in to the car park was quite narrow and at one point got so steep that we almost got stuck with the wheels spinning out in the dust. After a bit of a run up we made it inside and felt like the real adventure was about to start.
We were first met by about ten dogs who all ran over at once to greet us. This felt a little intimidating but we soon realised they were just excited about the new arrivals. We found a clear spot for ours and our friends, James & Renee’s, vans then received a proper welcoming from long-time resident Avi (hope that’s the correct spelling!).
Avi is truly one of a kind. He told us that he first visited Beneficio around ten years ago but then left and came back about four years ago when he got his house in the woods where he now lives. He grew up and studied Art in Scotland where his parents ran a Buddhist centre which, he said, might explain some of his desire to seek an alternative life at Beneficio.
He is one of the most genuine, kind people we’ve ever met and was willing to share everything he had with us even though he lives a modest life out in the woods. Avi lives in a stone built house which someone else in the community described as ‘the palace of Avi’, we soon found out this was no exaggeration.
Every time we saw Avi he told us to visit his house sometime for a cup of tea and on our last day at Beneficio we did. His house is really something to behold being constructed from a variety of materials, mainly stone and wood, built in to the slope of the valley. Inside is an endless sea of things Avi’s collected throughout his years of living at Beneficio.
Avi is an artist and the main feature of his house is his hand sculptured wild boar themed clay fire place which towers over the space. Visiting Avi’s house was almost like going to an art exhibition as he guided us through his various projects, all involving different natural and recycled materials and methods for creating drawings and sculptures. We sat down in his outdoor living room on a pile of cushions and rugs and had tea, shaded from the afternoon sun by tall trees, watching squirrels acrobatically dart between them.
Being around Avi and his three very loyal dogs who follow him everywhere, we couldn’t help but feel calm and at home. We felt inspired by his simple, relaxed way of life and his completely open, honest kindness which so many others in the community had clearly also seen. Everyone at Beneficio seemed to know Avi’s name, even fellow international travelers who were just passing through. He clearly has a lot of friends.
Whilst we found life at Beneficio to be above all peaceful and relaxed, we still found that there is a level of structure to the place with everyone working together to help sustain the community.
In terms of facilities Beneficio has several composting toilets or ‘shit pits’ built in the woods, a library with hundreds of books in just as many languages, a bakery, an outdoor communal kitchen, a very minimalist but adequate grocery shop, a school and play area for kids and a football field.
The main communal area is ‘The Big Lodge’, a tepee with a bonfire circle next to it where daily activities take place like yoga workshops, drum circles, storytelling, cooking and general socialising. You could go and sit down there at any time of day and someone would be there to strike up a conversation with.
On certain days in the car park you can find the caravan thrift shop which is one of the most amazing places we’ve ever seen – handmade artifacts crafted by Beneficio residents, second-hand clothing that wouldn’t look out of place in a pricey London vintage boutique, artwork, homemade food and general miscellaneous interesting items, all beautifully displayed inside an old showmans caravan. We bought a postcard print of some artwork by a British lady who used to live there and spent the next morning making a frame for it with some salvaged wooden dowel that we’d previously picked up by a fishing boat in a lake near Istan (read more about our visit to the Sierra de las Nieves here).
We’d heard that money is generally frowned upon in the community and instead exchanges are encouraged, but from what we saw people were using whatever skills they had to make enough money to get by, like selling homemade food or artwork. Each Thursday there’s a market in the nearby town, Orgiva, where lots of the residents go together and sell what they’ve made on market stalls. It was a great feeling joining the communal ride in to town taking a couple of Beneficio residents with us in the van and seeing all the familiar faces at the market.
It’s impossible to see how far Beneficio stretches and how many residents it has because the temporary and permanent dwellings are spread out all across the valley. Whilst some people only stay at Beneficio for a short time in tents and trucks, there are many individual residents and families living here in permanent structures, some with vegetable plots. We were told there are around 150 permanent residents living at Beneficio.
These kittens made our van their home for the majority of our visit
What immediately struck us about Beneficio was how relaxed and open it is. Travelers are free to come in, park/pitch up and make themselves at home without having to ask anyone or adhere to any rules. Some of the residents talked about rules like no alcohol, obvious things like not littering in the woods and using the ‘shit pits’ but in general we felt free to basically do what we wanted. It’s amazing how unharmed and nurtured the environment around Beneficio is despite this.
We’ve visited so many beautiful wild camping spots that have been neglected by lazy travelers and spoilt by litter; it was reassuring to see that there are at least some places where people respect the natural environment around them. There were a few small areas accumulating rubbish, mainly in the car park entrance, but generally the woodland appeared untouched. Even though there is a functioning community living inside it felt wild, fresh and natural.
The Beneficio way of life might not be for everyone. Being laid back seemed to be a pretty important character trait and if you’re the type of person who likes to productively get things done, the slow pace might get a bit frustrating. But, if you can relax and accept a less-structured, unplanned routine then it can be a really enjoyable way to live. We found while we were there we’d spend whole afternoons just having a cup of tea and a chat and our daily plans became ‘let’s just see what happens’.
It was inspiring to see that a community which exists to enjoy life, nature and the company of others without the luxuries of material things and the conveniences of modern civilisation can function perfectly well. Up the side of the valley towards the nearest village, Cáñar, are the original Beneficio houses, some of which were built around 30 years ago. Babies have been born and grown up at Beneficio. It’s as much a real place as any other, with its own history and, hopefully, a future.
People living at Beneficio aren’t living to work and make money but are enjoying a simple life that offers so many more pleasures than those that can be bought. We could definitely see the appeal of living there permanently and wherever we are, we’ll always feel like we can call Beneficio home.