“Beneficio” was a word I heard hushed around a few times in Granada. What is this mysterious place, I wondered? And then a few hours later, there I was. “Welcome…to Beneficio,” Eyal said, as he stuck out his hand. Surreal. A Scotsman, a Finish-Irishman and an Israeli were reunited in the forest. But the adventure had only just begun.
I had just cycled the 50 kilometres from Granada around the warm and beautiful edges of the Sierra Nevada—where a floating bubble of humid moisture from the southern Mediterranean meets an epic, snow-topped, tree-lined mountain range in the south of Spain. I climbed the meandering roads deep into the rocky foothills of the mountains, pushed my bike up an unmarked, un-signposted, single-track road into the forest to get to a village which doesn’t exist on any map. Never could I have imagined what was in store for me.
Me: “Is this the way to Beneficio?”
Spaced out hippies: “Up.” *points*
And so I pushed my heavy bike up the hill in the late sunshine to the make-shift car park, filled with about fifteen campervans and cars, some of which left to die. This is the border between society as you know it. Beyond this tree line lies a different world in the forest. Please leave your humanitarian dispositions here and optionally recollect them when you leave.
There are no phone lines, no sewage systems, no gas pipes, no mains electricity, no rubbish collection, no postal service and no maps of the village. The only one who had a phone signal, strangely, was our Israeli friend. Not even my Spanish sim card worked. This is Beneficio: the largest functional gathering of people I’ve seen living completely off the grid in the western world. I say functional, because it is just that; it’s certainly not perfect. But it did grow on me the longer I stayed.
I slowly passed some people relaxing in their garden hammocks whilst having a ramble around the vast network of tiny and narrow stone-topped dirt paths, with plants, long grass and various greenery flowing and twisting out from the seams, giving a slightly magical feel to the place. Eucalyptus trees tower high into the sky above, sheltering the dynamic mix of green life breathing below it: insects crawling and flying around, a myriad of plants climbing, and a peaceful, but hidden collection of humans. A daily ensemble of birdsong mixed with the faint, unmistakable beating of African-style drums provide fitting background music to what mimics an adventure around a secret hobbit village. And all the while an unknown compound of flowery pungency nourishes the air. Is this place…real?
Beneficio – The Terrain and Houses
Beneficio is situated in a short, narrow valley with rocky cliffs either side. There are two main streams that are used for irrigation, washing, and washing clothes, and two waterfalls, used to take a
cold freezing shower. The water supply seems a touchy issue as it is often diverted further up the valley, either by the oldest residents of Beneficio, or by a nearby village, and there is often a shortage in summer. However, there is a natural spring too, sprouting from some rocks and this provides a drinkable water source for everyone. I like that. I believe something special happens when everyone drinks from the same water.
Many of the houses have electricity provided by solar panels or wind turbines, and generally are quite sophisticated. If you build a house here (which should be from natural materials), it seems that you kit it out appropriately too. Many permanent residents have healthy vegetable gardens, perched anywhere there is unused land. Quite a variety too: we even saw lemon trees and various fruits. Pretty flowers, berries, wild nettles, herbs and spinach grow around too and are free for the taking.
Nature rules here. And anarchism prevails. You can pretty much throw up your tent anywhere you like, though if you put up your tent in the middle of someone’s vegetable patch, it’s likely the hippies will revolt against you. I don’t know exactly what that entails, but probably involves a gigantic rainbow.
From the top of the cliffs, which I made a habit of climbing, you can see a clearer view of the extent of the village, roughly 2-3km, yet there are no viewpoints where you can see the whole village, as everything is obscured by trees. Little Italy and the Japanese commune are supposedly situated higher up the cliffs, as are most longer term residents.
For one week we camped amongst the thick forest after the permanent buildings on the west side of the river; across a little stream on a tiny wooden bridge, patched up many times with different types of wood, passing some miniature hand-built houses of varies materials: stone, clay, wood, bamboo, canvas and hidden by an amalgamation of trees, shrubbery or a make-shift fences comprising of sticks and leaves.
Beneficio – The People
There are around two hundred people permanently living here, though nobody really knows for sure, as obviously there is no census. You would never be able to tell from just looking around, such is the extent of secretive paths leading around and as mentioned before, the lack of an overall view of the village. Everyone is welcome and people stay from anywhere between one day and twenty years. We met a few people that planned on staying a couple of weeks, and are still living here eight years later.
The people are a wide mix of nationalities. And it’s likely Beneficio has seen a native from nearly every country in the world. After all, it has been here for some 25 years now. English is the primary language spoken, as most of the residents and visitors are not originally from Spain. Though I would hazard a guess that Spanish is the second most spoken language here, and nearly everybody can speak it to some degree.
We passed many afternoons sitting barefoot and drinking tea or soup from the fire in the main teepee, which also provides good shelter and warmth from the slightly cold nights. Playing the locally handmade drums together (from animal skins) and synchronising our rhythms into a bouncy tribal beat was a fun experience. Here we also listened to stories from residents and other travellers. It’s not uncommon for several languages to be spoken at the same time. Many pass around a joint here and zone out. Others meditate next to the fire in the centre, or just come to cook a couple of potatoes. Dreadlocks and baggy pants are in abundance. And sometimes the odd person walks around naked.
Kids can also be found around, playing in the forest or with toys in grassy areas. We met a heavily pregnant woman living here with her boyfriend as well. Though it’s not known if she planned to have her baby in the village or not. Many people have previously done so though: I’ve heard over fifty children have been born here. Though there is a rumour (which I couldn’t verify) that one woman tragically died in childbirth.
Beneficio – The Lifestyle
The pace of life is slow. And it’s pretty hard for it not to rub off on you. At some point someone asked me what I was doing that afternoon, and I replied: “I think I’m going to walk to my tent to get my jumper.” Did I really just say that? Is that the only plan I have today? It was.
Money does exist in the village, though it’s preferred in many cases to use an alternative if there is one. Meals are often shared and people come together from different parts of the camp, though the old tradition of cooking and sharing a meal together in the main teepee has largely been lost. Many people do completely shut themselves off here, living peacefully and isolated in the hills above, coming down to the main valley only for water or to walk down to the nearest shop in Órgiva, around 50 minutes walk away.
People frequently wander around selling things, mainly food items they have made at home such as various chocolates, cookies or bread. There’s a panadería here selling fresh bread too (which tastes a little of beer due to the high yeast content). They also bake pizzas and sell dishes such as lasagne. It doesn’t look like your average bakery however, more like an unbranded shack with windows.
There is also a man which comes every Monday delivering fresh goods from a trolley-bag: a selection of home-baked bread, eggs and peanut butter. Now living in Órgiva, the nearest town, he explained that he used to live in Beneficio and pointed out to us two houses which he had built, made of stone and clay (which are plentiful in the area).
Several cats and stray dogs can be found around the camp. Even at night they will come up and play as you sit around the camp fire. I made the mistake of feeding a kitten half a tin of tuna one night, as it was clearly hungry. The following morning we discovered our food bags shredded open and milk and tomato found metres away. After that the cats were our enemies (but still our friends everywhere else away from our camp spot). They appear to be a bit of a menace for everyone. But I feel the over-presence of dogs darkens the mood around the village a little more. They used to be banned, as was alcohol, but as many claim, Beneficio has changed a lot over the years.
Drugs are now rife in Beneficio, and you can buy cannabis from
most people everyone. Hard drugs are also readily available, though seldom used, at least not on a daily basis. The first night we arrived there was a Ayahuasca ceremony in the teepee up the hill from us, where the people I could best describe as looking like Native Indians, adorned with feathers, shells and carrying furry sticks, participated in the spiritual ceremony known to make you vomit and trip balls long into the night.
I believe the Beneficio community maintain the “no fire, no hard drugs and no drinking” rules to deter people from coming here for a party and trashing the natural surroundings which nearly everyone respects and cherishes. Sadly there are a few lingering residents, showing signs of heroine use, or just taking too much acid, that see the world in a slightly different way. Generally the few odd-balls stay out of everybody’s way and don’t cause too much trouble in the camp. But if there is trouble (like when broken glass was discovered at the bottom of the bathing pool) these people are the prime suspects.
There is a kids school here, for anyone aged between 3 and 10. I was able to meet a couple of the teachers, one from England. They have twenty students at the moment, “they come and go though,” the teacher said, owing to the dynamic nature of travelling families, and the constantly shifting nature of the village.
They teach everything from English, science, art and have an ethos of discovery learning. I’m sure some of the kids could start a fire better than I could. There is also a school in Órgiva which I believe some children attend as well, although some which are born in Beneficio may not be registered to do so.
There is also a library for everyone, lying at the foot of a garden, and is pretty well stocked with well over 100 books, featuring topics such as travel, anti-capitalism, spiritualism and anarchism (obviously). There are several maps too.
During our time in Beneficio the police made a couple of low passes in a helicopter to monitor the area. It is well known by the police that there are drugs, and drug dealers hiding in the village. Though what you probably think of as a hardcore, scar-faced and brutal drug dealer is likely different from the peaceful faces I met in reality. Whilst sharing soup and beer, and conversing with a young couple from Budapest whom had just arrived, I shamefully lost a game of chess to a Moroccan drug lord, who was filling me in on the tricks of the trade.
The police occasionally appear at the car park too, to discourage anyone from parking and generally hassle the residents, as the land is heavily disputed. The police and local government claim the settlement is illegal whereas the residents claim a large part of the land was bought and left to the community when it began 25 years ago. The truth is, large parts of Beneficio, especially West of the main river are on natural park land; however, it’s clear that the human impact on the land is about as minimal as it possibly can be. Which says a lot: the fact that we need to have natural parks in the first place speaks volumes about the destructive influence of humankind elsewhere.
Shouldn’t we always look after nature? Shouldn’t the whole planet be a natural park?
It really is a shame that this argument exists against Beneficio because if these 200 or so people were living in “normal” society, they would be draining a lot more of the Earth’s irreplaceable resources and causing a lot more damage than taking a shit in a hole.
That said, the imperfections of a truly anarchistic society come through the cracks, and I’m in two minds about whether I’m fully in favour of such a society without some form of common goal for the greater good.
On the surface: a bunch of lazy hippies smoking weed. All right, not all are lazy (but they do all smoke weed). And underneath: on an environmental level, it’s a helluva way closer to the way we should be living than our current system. All sources of energy are renewable, and sustainable. Growing your own food, sharing meals, and buying food locally (and without packaging) is massively beneficial for both any society and any economic system. And they do it all without any effort.
However, economically it would be hard to see Beneficio ever fully operate without some form of external monetary help. Some people work in Órgiva, some sell food and other items at the market there, others travel a bit further and make music busking in the cities. Though I’m inclined to say a few people in the village are simply escaping the rat race (I don’t blame them) and living from savings or from drug money.
Living in Beneficio was not radically different from my current tent-living, nomadic lifestyle, so it wasn’t difficult for me to take a cold shower every day under a waterfall, live amongst the spiders and bugs and live without a toilet. But I’m still not sure I could live so passively, knowing that the rest of the world out there is slowly ticking over and consuming itself.