Walking the Camino de Santiago is one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in life, from a variety of points of view; and anybody who’s passionate about travel should do it at least once in their life.
The Camino de Santiago is meant to be a religious pilgrimage, with a series of ancient pilgrim routes that from various places in Europe take pilgrims to the the burial ground of apostle Santiago (Saint James), which was found in 814.
The hundreds of thousands of people that every year embark on this difficult journey, do so for the most varied reasons. There obviously are those that do it for religious reasons; others that do it for spiritual ones (which doesn’t necessarily imply being religious); some do it for the physical challenge; while others for the sake of adventure, companionship, and tourism.
Those who are up for the challenge may benefit from a few tips on how to better experience the Camino de Santiago:
Pick Your Route Wisely:
Most people opt to walk the Camino Frances. This is the most crowded one, something to keep in mind if what one is looking for is meeting a lot of people. Here, the scenery does get a bit monotonous, especially in the summer months when everything is dry. Of all the routes to Santiago de Compostela, the Camino del Norte – which crosses some of the best places to visit in Spain from the Basque Country, through Cantabria and Asturias, before arriving in Galicia – is thought to be the most scenic one, with the landscape varying from beautiful coastal paths that offer breathtaking views of the ocean, to mountain trails and beautiful villages scattered along the route. Yet, it is the most challenging one – which explains why less people opt to walk this way.
Carry a Map and a Guide:
although the routes are clearly signalled with the cockle symble, a map may be useful at times, and even more so a guide, which helps planning and has information about the pilgrims’ hostels and restaurants. It is also useful on a day to day basis as it explains the various difficulties one may meet along the way.
Choose Your Dates Wisely:
The classic route is better walked in the shoulder season – either in spring or in the early fall (October) as it does get too hot in the summer months. The North of Spain is typically colder and gets much more rain than the rest of the country. This means that the scenery is much greener and soothing to the eyes, yet it may be uncomfortable to walk if the weather conditions are not favourable. The best month to start walking the Camino del Norte is June.
Aim to Walk Around 20 km Per Day:
This means having a fairly good speed and at the same time being able to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the pretty villages along the way. Do stop for a few days when feeling tired or in need of a good rest. Lots of hostels do take in volunteers!
Get Travel Insurance:
Fingers crossed nothing will happen and there won’t be any need, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry and nowadays travel insurances cost as little as €1 per day.
This tip actually applies to any of the trails. In fact, it applies to any other hiking trip one may take in life. Walking for tens of km for one day is tiring. Doing this for days and days on end is even more tiring. The last thing one wants is to carry a heavy backpack for the duration of the pilgrimage. A small backpack of no more than 7 kg in total is more than enough for the trip. Keep it to the bare essentials: a pair of convertible pants, an extra pair of lightweight pants, 3 t-shirts, a fleece, a rain jacket, 3 pairs of socks and underwear and a pair of flip flops that can be used to get in the shower and to give the feet a good rest at night. Throw in a quick dry towel, a poncho that can be used to also cover the backpack in case of rain; a headlamp; a swiss knife and a first aid kit, a good sunblock and a few pairs of ear-plugs – they will come in handy to light sleepers when sharing a dorm with tens of other pilgrims.
Do Laundry (Almost) Every Day:
Most hostels along the Camino have laundry facilities and dryers. If they don’t, it is a good idea to wash clothes every day, at the end of the day, with some laundry soap. If the clothes aren’t dry by the morning, they can be tied to the backpack with safety pins and they will dry during the day.
Wear a Good Pair of Hiking Boots:
Investing in a good pair of hiking boots is the way to go. Not only they have to be comfortable; but especially in the case of the Camino del Norte they have to be hydrorepellents too. Even in the summer months, it may rain and the terrain does get very muddy at times. A good pair of hiking boots keep the feet dry and warm even in the worst weather conditions, and will provide good ankle support and good grip even when it is muddy. The best thing is to actually use the shoes a good bit before starting the camino, to make sure that they adapt to the feet and that any issue they may cause (hurting the toes, blisters etc) may be addressed.
Always Keep Your Camino Documents on Hand:
Make sure to obtain the pilgrim’s passport, a document that can be obtained at any church, police station or municipality in Spain. This is needed in order to be able to use pilgrims’ hostels for free (a small tip is however recommended).
Don’t Worry About Money:
The Camino is meant to be for all budgets and the accommodation and eating options along the way are plentiful and range from pilgrims’ hostels to more comfortable bed and breakfasts and hotels. The same goes for eating: most hostels offer meals to pilgrims; but there are plenty of places to eat along the way that vary from markets to up-scale restaurants. What one spends is really a matter of personal choice.
Where to Sleep:
Most pilgrims opt to stay at pilgrims’ hostels, known locally as albergues. The range of accommodation there varies from private rooms to large dorms; some have a bathroom per dorm; in other cases showers will be completely open. All hostels have a kitchen. There also are bed and breakfasts and hotels along the way. Picking the right place to stay is just a matter of budget: albergues are free for pilgrims (except in Galicia where they cost around €5 per person). Beds are assigned on a first come first serve basis and if they are full, pilgrims who walk the route are given precedence over those who bike it, as it is assumed that these will need less time to get to the next available place.
Where to Eat:
The best thing to do is to carry some dry fruit and nuts, and some cookies and water to munch on the go during the day. There are plenty of eating options along the way anyways. For dinner, lots of restaurants have special offers for pilgrims – they can be recognized as they have the symbol of the Camino and usually offer a “menu de peregrino” (pilgrim’s menu) which for around €10 usually consists in a starter (rice, pasta or soup), a meat dish (most likely chicken) with a side salad, a dessert (usually a flan), water, wine and coffee. In any case, hostels always have kitchen and most of the time groups of pilgrims that travel together share the expenses to cook a meal.
Make Sure to Eat Properly:
Have a good breakfast, as this sets up your metabolism for the rest of the day; lunch should be light, but snacks should be consumed along the way – bananas are great as a source of potassium, and dried fruit and nuts are also a good source of energy and essential oils; dinner should be filling but not heavy.
Talk to Other Pilgrims Along the Way:
other people are usually the best source of first hand information when it comes to accommodation options and places to eat along the way.
Keep an Open Mind:
as already said, walking the Camino is a convivial experience. Many people are afraid of going alone. Others prefer this. Either way, it’s incredibly easy to meet other pilgrims and most people end up walking at least part of the route in good company. The Camino is about sharing the good and bad experiences; about providing each other useful tips; and about helping each other. It is an emotional and spiritual experience as much as a practical one. Just make the most of it.
More than anything else, don’t forget that walking the Camino de Santiago is meant to be a fantastic experience, and it should be enjoyed throughout!