Sarah Perkins Guebert is a freelance translator, writer, and ESL teacher who lives abroad in Spain. Although Sarah was born in Maryland, she’s visited forty states and twenty different countries. Earning her master’s degree in Spanish language and literature, Sarah now enjoys finding all of the hidden gems Spain has to offer, such as the Camino de Santiago. Make sure to check out Sarah’s guide to moving to Spain and how to apply for a student visa to get the full scoop.
On the Camino de Santiago: Traveling Northern Spain
Although it is not a traditional vacation by any means, walking the Camino de Santiago is a cultural staple of Spain. It’s one of the more unique experiences the country has to offer. The pilgrimage route is a tradition dating back to the 9th century. Before that, it was used by the Romans for trade. Taking into consideration its long history and cultural significance, walking the Camino is a must for those living in Spain.
Speaking from my own experience, walking the Camino was an unforgettable adventure, utterly incomparable to anything else I have done. I often think back to my time on the Camino and hope to explore another of its many routes in the future.
Here is a sneak preview of the views you will see along the way:
Before I tell you about my own experiences and give you my recommendations, allow me to explain what the Camino is and why you should consider it for your next vacation.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
Originally, the Camino, or the Way of St. James, was a pilgrimage route leading first to Santiago de Compostela and then to Finisterre. Finisterre means the “End of the World” in Spanish English and is the westernmost point of Spain. In the Middle Ages, when the route was used for religious purposes, many pilgrims chose to travel past Santiago de Compostela and see what they believed to be the ends of the earth. Nowadays, the Camino remains popular as a means of spiritual growth. In fact, several of the routes are listed by UNESCO in the World Heritage List.
There are many different routes that one can take to reach Santiago de Compostela, the most popular of which are shown here:
Walking the entirety of some of these routes can take weeks or months, so I chose to walk only a small part of the Camino Francés (French Way). I started in León and ended my journey 13 days later in Santiago de Compostela, walking a total of 315 km (almost 196 miles). I walked an average of 24 km (15 miles) a day. While this may seem daunting, the Camino can be broken up into much smaller chunks and tailored to fit an individual’s needs. Additionally, the Camino can be completed by bike, horse, or by paying for a service to take your luggage ahead to the next town for you.
Why walk the Camino de Santiago?
When I was a student at university, I had a professor who piqued my curiosity. She had walked the Camino de Santiago at least a dozen times before, and continued to make the journey each year. What was so wonderful about this pilgrimage route, I wondered? When I moved to Spain to teach English, I decided to discover its magic for myself. Spoiler alert, I had such a wonderful time that I have thought about doing it again ever since!
Many walk the Camino for spiritual reflection; however, this is hardly the only reason for traveling the route. Even if you don’t have any specific reason or expectations in mind, it is still an incredible experience. If you are living in Spain, the Camino de Santiago is a huge part of the history and culture of the country, and one you shouldn’t miss out on!
To help you decide if walking the Camino is right for you, I’ve laid out all of the basic information and my recommendations below.
Information and Advice
What Should I Pack?
I’ll be honest, when I made the decision to walk the Camino de Santiago, it was a rather rash one. Sure, I knew I wanted to do it one day, but I had no firm plans to do so. Then quite suddenly I woke up one morning and thought, ‘I’m going to try it.’ And I did. I didn’t research any information, buy any guidebook, or even pack some essentials, such as shampoo! So don’t stress about packing. No matter what you forget, the inconvenience is not insurmountable. This is because there are so many cities, towns, and villages along the way that you can always stop and pick up whatever you might need.
Okay, so what should you bring if you’re actually planning ahead? Well, you can’t forget your wallet and passport! Apart from these absolute essentials, first and most importantly you need a good pair of broken-in walking shoes. I saw many travelers popping blisters and bandaging their feet along the way, and most of them had brand new shoes. So above all, bring a good pair of shoes. Do not attempt to buy a new pair weeks before and break them in before your trip.
Apart from shoes, there are a few other things you will need. Obviously, you’ll want your phone and a charging cable (and don’t worry, there are sockets to charge your devices and internet in most places). Some additional entertainment, such as a book or a journal, is also quite nice to have with you. Take a poncho to protect you and your pack from the rain; keep in mind that it does rain more frequently in the north of Spain. Also pack some basics to wash with, like travel-size shampoo, soap, and a towel. It’s always a good idea to pack a first aid kit, even if it’s something small and basic. Above all, be minimalistic. At most, you really only need two full outfits and clothes to sleep in, although a pair or two of extra socks might come in handy on rainy days!
Most travelers also carried a guidebook with them, and this was extremely useful for laying out routes, keeping track of distances and elevation, and listing the public and private hostels in each town, along with addresses and prices. Guidebooks are available for purchase in almost every sizable town along the road. Wherever you start your journey, it may be a good idea to pick one up before you begin. Although not necessary, I definitely plan to buy one for my next Camino adventure!
The Three Most Important Things
The three most important things to bring that I haven’t talked about yet are a sleeping bag, walking sticks (pictured below), and a supportive backpack.
Although many people walk the Camino de Santiago in the summer, it can also be unbearably hot in July and especially in August. In terms of temperature, the best months to walk are May, June, or September. However, keep in mind that the north of Spain is a bit cooler than Madrid and the south, so May and September nights can be a bit chilly. The sleeping bag is essential for keeping warm on those nights and also prevents touching the sheets of the hostel beds. Although the beds are kept clean, bedbugs are not unheard of. Make sure to check the mattress before you lay down on it.
Walking sticks and a supportive backpack can make all the difference when walking 24 km a day. Make sure to take care of yourself and buy or rent quality gear. If the sturdy backpack with the extra strap around the middle is a little more expensive, get it! These small “luxuries” make a world of a difference when you’re traversing great distances and carrying all your belongings with you each day.
- Wallet & passport
- Sturdy, supportive backpack
- Good, broken-in shoes
- Sleeping bag
- Walking sticks
- Clothes, poncho & extra socks
- Entertainment, phone, cables, etc
- Hygiene products
- First-aid kit
Finally, you may be interested in the Pilgrim Passport (Credencial del Peregrino). This is required if you wish to obtain an official document in Santiago de Compostela stating that you have completed all or part of the Camino. In order to qualify for the certificate, officially known as the Compostela, you must walk 100 km (62 mi) or bike 200 km (120 mi). You can request the passport from any public hostel, as well as from churches and pilgrim offices. If you are interested in obtaining the certificate, make sure to ask each public hostel you stay at for a stamp; these are necessary in order to ask for the certificate of completion. For more information on the Pilgrim Passport and the Compostela, check out this website:
Time, Lodging, and Budget
As stated earlier, the time you spend on the Camino is entirely up to you. Whether you have two days or two months, you can still enjoy the Camino. I walked for a total of 13 days, but many travelers along the way had been walking much longer, or had just started! One couple I met biked all the way down from Denmark. Another pilgrim began his journey in France and had so far spent five weeks on the Camino. Others could only walk for a few days but wanted to take part in the experience all the same. So whatever time you have, you can absolutely fit the Camino into your schedule.
Unlike many vacations, the Camino is quite inexpensive. Staying at a public hostel costs anywhere between two and five Euros a night. Some of the rooms are huge and filled with rows of beds, but most look something like this:
In the summer months, the public hostels fill up very fast. If you’re not among the first to arrive in town, the public hostel may not have a bed for you. In this case, you will most likely have to stay at a private hostel, which usually costs between eight and 13 Euros a night. If you have the funds, there are a variety of nicer hotels to stay at, as well.
Apart from lodging, there isn’t much else to spend money on. You don’t need to pay for transport unless you use the luggage transportation service, so the only expenses you have to cover are food and any odds and ends you might need or want. Buy a pack of cereal bars or something else to munch on in the mornings; many places to eat won’t be open when you set out, and you’ll need some calories to get you started. I didn’t pinch my pennies — I splurged from time to time on a private hostel or an expensive meal, and I still had money from my budget left over at the end of the trip.
What To Expect
A typical day usually begins around 7 AM, when the sun rises and other travelers start waking up. There isn’t much to do in the morning except to get dressed. You should alternate your clothes every day and wash the ones you aren’t wearing. To avoid paying for laundry services, you can wash them with you in the shower in the afternoon. During the day, it’s hot enough that your clothes should be dry by the next morning. After grabbing your clothes and changing, eat something, pack up, and head out.
The cool hours in the morning are the best to walk in but don’t feel like you have to rush. Around 10 o’clock I usually stopped for a coffee and a toast and took my time reading, journaling, or listening to a podcast on my phone. Then I’d stop once or twice more depending on how tired I was. There were plenty of travelers who pushed themselves to arrive as soon as possible at their next destination in order to secure the best lodgings. During the high-traffic summer months, this strategy might be in your best interest. However, if you are walking in the spring or fall, you can definitely take it easy and go at your own pace.
The typical time to have lunch in Spain is around two o’clock. Many restaurants and bars don’t serve meals before this hour. Try to arrive at your final destination for the day at the same time so you can rest afterward. If you can’t make it all the way there by lunchtime, stop in whatever town is closest! I usually had some kind of bocadillo (sandwich) and a drink before continuing on my way or finding the public hostel.
Depending on the day and how ambitious you are, you can usually expect to arrive at your final destination for the day between two and four o’clock. If you don’t have a guidebook, walk as long as you like, but make sure to stop before sunset. After stopping for the day, most pilgrims have a cold shower, do some sightseeing, and eat dinner before going to bed around 8 or 9 PM. A good night’s sleep is essential for maintaining energy and restoring your body’s strength. If you’re a light sleeper, bring a pair of earplugs to help you sleep through the night.
If you’re walking the Camino for a longer time, perhaps three or more weeks, it’s very important to take breaks. Once a week, stop to recharge and refresh yourself. Let your body heal from any pains it has. Eat well. Relax. This is crucial for maintaining both health and momentum. Otherwise, you risk burn-out well before you finish the trip.
If you’re directionally challenged or hesitant about traveling on foot along unfamiliar roads, don’t worry! If you’re ever lost or aren’t sure of the way, just look for these scallop shells (shown below). This is the symbol of the Camino and will be visible along the route at regular intervals. If you spot one of these, you know you’re going the right way! Who needs GPS when you have scallops to guide you?
There are many pictures online depicting the Camino as a long, winding dirt road with no one in sight. This could not be further from the truth (unless you’re traveling in an odd month, like November or February). No matter where you are, there will always be another pilgrim within sight. If not, stop and tie your shoe — by the time you finish, someone will appear!
Keep in mind that the Camino passes through many towns and cities, and in those areas you are walking alongside traffic. This was quite a shock to me, and I felt a bit disillusioned in León on the first day. However, most days you are in the countryside or only pass through small towns.
Making Friends on the Camino
Although I started the trip alone, it certainly didn’t end that way. I made many friends over those thirteen days, many of which I still keep in touch with. Although we didn’t usually walk together, we met up every evening for sightseeing, dinner, and company. The meals we shared are some of my fondest memories from the journey. Each night before we went to bed, we’d agree on our next destination and hostel. This way, even without the Internet, we would never lose each other.
That said, it is actually quite difficult to lose the people you begin your journey with. As you walk, you’ll start to recognize the faces around you, because they are following the same route and will begin and end each day in the same place as you. Little by little, these people will become your Camino family. However, it is easy to adjust your journey if you wish to avoid this.
There are many different options for food along the Camino, depending on your budget and travel style. You can eat all your meals at bars and cafes, or you can prepare them yourself. In the small villages, you won’t have a large variety of food to choose from, while in the larger towns and cities you can find almost anything you might want.
Some of the public hostels serve dinner and/or breakfast. This is great and if the option is there, definitely take it! This is a fantastic way to connect with fellow travelers and easy on the wallet, too! If not, try some local cuisine! I took the opportunity to sample traditional Galician cuisine, such as pulpo a feira (boiled octopus) and caldo gallego (Galician soup). Maybe I was just hungry, but I never ate a bad dish!
If you prefer, you can also cook your own meals. There is no shortage of grocery stores in Spain, and most hostels have a kitchen fully stocked with pots and pans. Many of my evening meals were cooked like this and shared amongst myself and my friends. This is an especially important option if you have any dietary restrictions.
The Camino is extremely safe as long as you are practicing common sense. Do not walk after dark, do not leave the marked path, do not accept food or beverages from anyone you don’t know, and do not leave your wallet or passport unattended. If you follow these basic rules, you should be very safe. In case you are injured along the road, someone will stop and help you. If need be, there is an emergency rescue service that can collect you and even helicopter into high altitude areas.
If you are in poor health and worried about making the trip, it might be worth using a luggage transportation service or walking with a group (you can hire a guide or join a group). If you are interested in joining a guided group, you can find one through Camino Ways.
Finally, never fear that you’ll be cut off from the world. Even surrounded by cows in the Galician countryside, there was still cellphone service most of the time (or at least in the towns). I was able to upload photos to Facebook and call home via the internet every night. Just because you are on a pilgrimage does not mean that you have to live exactly like the pilgrims did in the Middle Ages. Although, you most certainly can if you choose to!
General Tips and Advice
My takeaways from my own trip are the following:
- Take your time! Rushing leads to blisters and burn-out.
- Make friends! Connecting with people around the world and chatting at the end of the day is one of the best parts of the journey. The Camino only lasts a set number of days or weeks, but the friends you make can last a lifetime.
- Pack extra socks! (I regretted this after it rained two days in a row and I had to squish my way down the road.)
- Buy, rent, or borrow quality gear! Do not take the cheap stuff if you plan to walk for more than a few days. Trust me.
- Use your noggin! Don’t do anything you wouldn’t if you were at home, such as wander around in the early morning hours or stray off the beaten path.
- Have fun! Learn, grow, make new connections! There is so much potential on the Camino. It’s a trip that is truly unique to each and every traveler.
Reaching the End
Wherever you start your journey, it will most likely end in Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral there has regular church service to celebrate pilgrims and the journey (called Pilgrim’s Mass). It is also in Santiago de Compostela that you can obtain an official certificate stating that you have completed all or part of the Camino de Santiago.
If you choose, you can go on to Finisterre, the last possible stop on the journey. Once in Finisterre, you’re done! You have officially reached the “end of the world” and completed the pilgrimage. It is tradition to burn your old clothes there and cast off all your old pains and regrets while doing so. After that, you can swim, hike, picnic, or simply sit and enjoy the view! From Finisterre, you’ll need to first bus back to Santiago de Compostela, and from there you can fly, bus, or take the train back to your hometown or point of origin.
So what do you think? Are you ready to plan your next vacation on the Camino de Santiago?
For more information, check out the Camino‘s official website.