The Camino de Santiago is probably the most famous trek in the world. With more than ten different routes and thousands of kilometres, every year it sees hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walking along its paths and reaching the end point in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia.
Why Santiago – A bit of history
So why Santiago? Well, the network of pilgrimages to Compostela became known in the middle ages, when Christian people started walking from all parts of Europe to go visit the shrine of the apostole Saint James the Great (Santiago in Spanish), whose remains are thought to be buried in the Galician capital’s cathedral.
So it started as a religious pilgrimage, and that is still the reason why so many people embark on the walk today. But lately the many routes that cross France, Portugal and Spain have become popular for many other reasons. There’s those who walk the way because they’re going through a hard time in their life, or they need to make an important decision and want to take the time to think it through, away from everything. There’s those who take it as a physical challenge, those who just do it as a holiday, and those who walk just for the sake of walking, which is exactly why I did it.
Is it for me – Who can walk the Camino
Like every trek, it’s better not to just roll out of bed and start walking. If you don’t trek or hike regularly, then it’s a good idea to get some practice first so that your body is used to it. This doesn’t mean that your legs won’t ache like mad for a couple of days at the start, but it will definitely help in the long run.
Having said this, I feel pretty confident in saying that the Camino is definitely a good choice for first time multi day trekkers for a number of reasons:
Where and when – Different routes
There’s plenty of routes to choose from: Camino del Norte that goes from Irún along the north coast of Spain, Primitivo from Oviedo, Portugues from Lisbon, Via de la Plata from Seville. But the most famous and popular one is the Camino Frances.
It conventionally starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, a small French village just across the border from Spain and about 60km inland from the Bay of Biscay. From here it’s roughly 800km to Santiago. Being the most popular route, there’s plenty of options for sleeping. Accommodation is never more than 15km apart, meaning that you can plan your stages as long or as short as you want. In the last few years, however, there’s been a huge increase in the number of pilgrims walking the way, which means this route can be extremely busy. In the middle of the summer it can be hard to find a bed, and it will hardly feel like you’re away from everything, with hundreds of other pilgrims walking beside you. So if you choose to walk the Camino Frances and want to avoid the peak season I would suggest to go in April-May or in September-October. The weather tends to be nice in those months too and not so hot as it would be in the middle of the summer.
If you would rather avoid the masses and have a better chance of enjoying some solitude then you should walk one of the less popular routes. There tends to be less people here, even though the numbers are still high in July and August, and the scenery is certainly not less breathtaking. The downside of choosing one of these routes is that accommodation might be a little further apart, so some days you might not be able to be as flexible and walk a little further.
Every route is different. Every season is different. You’ll get a different experience depending on where and when you’ll decide to go but you’ll still be guaranteed to se some beautiful places and meet some amazing people. And you’ll have an excuse to go back again and again.
Accommodation – How does it work and the credencial
As I said, pilgrims’ accommodation is dotted all over the different routes of the Camino. It’s mostly dormitory style with bunk beds, toilets and shower and the use of a basic kitchen, and only pilgrims have access to it. So how do you prove that you’re a walking (or cycling) pilgrim? With the credencial. This is some sort of paper passport that every pilgrim has to carry with them along the way. As soon as you get to your chosen accommodation, and before a bed is allocated to you, the hospitaleros (people in charge of the hostel, most of the times volunteers) will ask for your credencial and put a stamp and date on it. As long as you have at least a stamp for each day you’ll be allowed to spend the night in these facilities.
Bear in mind that it’s not possible to book a place in these pilgrims’ hostels, so beds are given out in a “first come first served” basis. Most people tent to walk in the morning and rest in the afternoon, so if you get there after 3 or 4pm it might be hard to find a place, at least in the smaller hostels. So if you don’t want to start your days early, be prepared to walk a little further to find a place to sleep, or make your stages shorter in order to get to the end of your day in time.
What to bring
This section is not going to be very long. In fact all you need has to fit in a 30l rucksack, otherwise you’re carrying too much. Two t-shirts, two sweaters, two pairs of trousers or shorts, three sets of pants, three pairs of socks, waterproofs. This is pretty much all the clothing you need, and you’ll have to wash it every day. Forget about pijamas, you’ll sleep with your walking clothes.
Apart from what you wear you’ll also need a thin sleeping bag for the hostel, a travel towel, toiletries, headtorch, sun hat and sun cream, water bottle.
Fundamentals: safety pins, to hang your wet socks to your rucksack as you walk. Marseille soap, to wash everything, including yourself. A book, you couldn’t do it without a book.
Footwear: comfortable walking shoes or lightweight boots, make sure these are broken in and don’t give you blisters. Also sandals, for when you’re not walking. [If you want to know how to look after your feet then read my last blog Top tips for a solo multi day trek.]
Life on the Camino
So what’s a typical pilgrim’s day on the Camino? Each person walks their own trek, and every day is different. At the start it might take a little while to get used to it, but it normally doesn’t take too long to settle into a routine. Get up (early), have breakfast, start walking (maybe in the dark), walk, walk, eat lunch, walk, get to base, have a shower, wash your clothes (by hand), drink beer, read a book, write about your day, chat with people, have dinner, plan the next stage, go to bed, repeat times 30+. This is pretty much how it looks like. So each day is not so different from the others, you may think, but it’s what’s around you that changes. The scenery you walk through will change, and you’ll experience the desert as well as the wet woods of Galicia.
But most importantly the people around you will change. Be prepare to meet the most randomly wide variety of people ever, from the 70 years old priest to the young couple on their honeymoon, from the girl who doesn’t know what to do after university to the runner training for an ultra marathon, and many more. Some of them will walk with you for just a few kilometres, others will be there from day one to the end. They’ll see you laugh and cry, they’ll help you strap your knee when it’s sore, they’ll cook you dinner, they’ll listen to your stories and they’ll tell you theirs. From absolute strangers they’ll become a close friend, all of this within a few days. Then you might not hear from them ever again, but the relationship you built on the way is a strong one, and it’ll stay with you forever.
Then one day you wake up, start walking like every other day, but at the end you arrive to Santiago. You enter the city as emotions start to take over, and then finally reach the main square in front of the cathedral. That’s it. You made it. All of those kilometres just for this. You’re tired, your legs are sore, you’re so happy to have arrived, accomplished, proud. And now what? What will I do tomorrow? Is this really all over? I bet these thoughts are what most pilgrims will experience as soon as the sense of accomplishment starts to fade away.
There is two things you can do at this point: 1- find a place for the night, go out for a meal, say farewell to all the beautiful people you’ve met and take a bus to the airport or 2- keep walking. Yes, because Santiago is not the end of the road. There’s still a few kilometres left before you reach the real end, at least for many pilgrims. Finisterre, the end of the land, after which there will be no more land to walk on.
Finisterre is a little village on the Atlantic coast of Galicia, and the westernmost point of Spain. If you walk west, a few kilometres outside the village, you’ll get to a lighthouse. Tradition says that pilgrims who get there sit on the rocks on top of the cliffs and look out to the ocean, waiting for the sun to set. You have to burn an item of clothing that accompanied you along the way, to mark the end of the pilgrimage. And then the sun disappears behind the horizon, and it’s really all over.
Tomorrow you’ll take a bus and it’ll feel strange, it’ll be the first time in a month that you’re not travelling with your own legs. The speed at which you’re moving will be a bit overwhelming. You’ll get to the airport, and back to your life. But you’ll always carry with you the memories of an amazing experience, and you’ll spend the rest of your days dreaming of going back.