For those who are not aware of the Camino de Santiago, this is a thousand + year old pilgrimage route for those who were seeking some sort of a)spiritual enlightenment. Or b)those looking to gain absolution of their sins through a physical trial. Once in Santiago they would be granted a dispensation by the Church for their sins. Washed clean. And today? The Camino is walked by people from all over the world for all sorts of reasons – religious and non-religious alike. But all of them are looking for something – healing, redemption, health, as a form of gratitude. Something. I would consider myself a non-religious but spiritual person, and my Camino was more than I could have hoped for.
Many people in Europe start it at their front door and walk to Santiago via one of the many possible routes. In Spain and Portugal there are main paths most people take. But there are other’s too.
These are the most popular ones:
- Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago – 800 km
- Camino del Norte (the Northern Way) Irun to Santiago – 824km
- Camino Portugués (the Portuguese Way) from Lisbon to Santiago – 620 km
- Via de la Plata. From Seville to Santiago – 960 km
- Camino Inglés (the English Way) Ferrol in A Coruna to Santiago – 119 km
- Camino Primitivo (the Original Route) Oviedo to Santiago 313 m
- Camino de Finisterre (the Finisterre Way) Loop starting and finishing in Santiago 90 km
After preparing for, and walking, the Camino Frances in 2017 (just one of the routes on the Camino de Santiago) I learned a few things that I thought might be helpful. And as I prepared for a second, shorter Camino, I have a few more insights. (Experienced walkers – please chime in!)
First off – Spain is a developed country. Whew! Glad I got that out of the way. It might seems strange I’m saying this but I’ve heard so many times But what if I can’t get x while I’m on the Camino in Spain? – I thought I would address it head on. Here in Spain, there are huge grocery stores , more Farmacias than Starbucks in the US, and if you are really missing your favorite mascara you can pop into an El Corte Ingles (the Nordstrom of Spain) in any larger town and scratch that itch. Housekeeping over.
Before you go
Its true – your Camino will start before you actually take your first step on whatever route you choose to take to Santiago de Compostella. I won’t weigh in on the ‘right route’ since I’ve only taken the Frances. But I will say that my Camino started even before the decision to actually go. It nagged at me for years and when the time was right, it sort of reared up and bit me. I couldn’t NOT go. Even my husband, Jeff, told me ‘You have to do that walk.’ All the reasons I couldn’t make the trek before seemed to melt away and the path with the big neon YELLOW ↪️ arrow pointing to St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France could no longer be ignored.
So – I was going. But how to prepare? I knew nothing so I went online. The good thing about the internet is that it contains all the information you’ll ever need to do anything. The bad thing about the internet is that it contains more information than you’ll ever need to do anything. Sifting through all that was unknowable, and unreliable until I’d actually walked the path, was daunting. So how do you figure out what you’ll actually need and how to approach things? That’s a harder question to answer, since everyone is different. But here are some of the things I learned:
Of course, there are times when we all have special needs or concerns that must be taken into account. Medical, dietary, etc. Those aren’t to be taken lightly nor poo poo’d. I’d know. I’ve got a load of annoying food allergies and some stuff that requires medication. How could I walk the Camino? Easy Peasy.
- So You’re Gluten-Free. This might be because of cileac disease, an allergy or by choice. None of the reason’s matter because you’re Gluten-Free and that’s that. But you’ll be thrilled to learn that Spain is entirely allergy friendly. First off, after moving here I was sooo happy to see just how many Sin Gluten options there are in every grocery store in every town. Just look for the section or label that says ‘Sin Gluten’ and you’ll be good to go. ‘Sin’ means without in Spanish. Con means with or ‘contains’. As in Cafe Con Leche – Coffee with milk.
- Filling Prescriptions. Since we’ve moved to Spain, all we had to do is take our old prescriptions from the US (just the old bottles from pharmacies back home – even if they’re empty) to the local Farmacia and they’ll refill them. No new Spanish prescription needed. So, if you’re coming to walk the Camino bring your prescription meds in the original bottle and you can take them to the local Farmacia and get what you need. I can’t guarantee this will work with all prescriptions but we haven’t run into a problem so far with my meds and my husband’s high blood pressure meds. And they might just be A LOT cheaper here too!
Now to the Good Stuff
First things first – If you’re not Spanish or already have a grasp of the Spanish language, you need to pick up some basic words and phrases. This will not only help you navigate and communicate – it will help you get what you need. And it also demonstrates a respect for the people and culture along the route and will go a long way in smoothing your path. Sure, there are books and apps you can use, but I recommend spending some time on https://www.spanishforcamino.com/do-you-need-spanish/walk-and-talk-2020/ Maria makes it very easy and you can listen to the exact pronunciations, so you can rattle off words and phrases like a local on your trek. Will you have a full grasp of Spanish in a short time? No. But I find in Spain, if you demonstrate a willingness to try to speak Spanish, most Spaniards will try to meet you halfway with their High School Ingles. I wish I had prepared myself better linguistically.
Cultural Respect – The towns, villages, and cities along the Camino aren’t like faux towns in Disneyland. They’re filled with people living their day to day lives and their families have probably been living there for centuries. Most have nothing to do with the Camino. Farmers, shopkeepers, factory workers and professionals. Each region of Spain has a long and storied history, and they’re unique. Before departing for Spain or France, perhaps spend some time learning about the previous 1000 yrs in the autonomous regions you will spend time in, even if just on a surface level This will help you understand the people in a cultural context. But having said that, know that there are things that you need to be sensitive about. History here is fresh. Don’t ask about political issues and express your opinion (those of a foreigner). This includes the situation in Catalunya, The Basque Separatist Movement, or the Spanish Civil War. As a non-Spaniard, this is bad form unless someone you meet, who is Spanish, brings up the subject first.
Stuff! – Keep your pack as light as possible – Don’t over-think it. Take just the essentials. If you’re in the US and go to REI – get their list and cut it in half. And on top of that – look at the remaining items critically. I didn’t use the 3 bandannas they told me to bring – not one time. But I got the best advice when buying boots and it came from my husband, Jeff. I was hemming and hawing about whether I needed to spend A LOT of money on boots. I tried on many pairs. But in the end he asked me a simple question and that re-prioritized how I approached my boot purchase. ‘What’s going to get you from France to Santiago?’ Of course, the answer was my feet. So I bought the good, yet expensive, boots with the orthotic insoles. And I didn’t get one – not one – blister. And I was the only person I knew in that shape.
For the truly adventurous – you might just get on a plane with your passport, lip balm and a tooth brush (or just the passport) and head to a Decathlon store when you land in Madrid or Barcelona or Paris. Or even if you’re starting in Pamplona, Burgos or Leon. They can outfit you with every single thing you’ll need for your walk and it will cost you a third of what all that stuff will cost in the US. Or even less. Just something to think about. There is an amazing gear shop in ‘downtown’ St. Jean Pied de Port. You could buy it all there too. You’d save yourself months of stress and be helped to purchase just the essentials without all the debate on FB groups.
Duct tape and a Swiss Army knife– Bring a roll of duct tape and buy a Swiss Army knife. You’ll use it. Every day. You’ll need it. Someone else will need it. I checked my pack during the flight so bringing the multi tool knife was simple. I used the scissors every day for everything. If you don’t bring it with you before you begin, try to find a Decathlon store before heading to your starting point.
It will be WET!! – Before considering rain gear, first think about packing. Jeff and I just walked a Fall Camino in 2019 and it was very wet and raining the entire day, every day. Purchase at least one dry bag for your clothes and sleeping bag. This will ensure that each day you have dry clothes after a shower, and a dry sleep. And don’t skimp on the rain gear or leave it somewhere because it’s so hot you won’t need it. You will – just wait until Galicia, even in summer. If you’re going in summer you’ll still need it but you could probably wait until Burgos or Leon to purchase your rain poncho from a local Decathalon store – and it will be cheaper and better quality than in the US.
If you’re afraid you’ll need something you forgot – or deliberately left out – someone will help you, if you can’t find it at a local store or famacia. A big part of your Camino is helping others and learning to accept help yourself. Leave your judgement for yourself and others at home.
Getting a Bed – Do not listen to those who will tell you that you need to book your accommodations in advance. Emilie and I went in high season and we always found a bed. I’ll talk later about how we ensured this.
Safety – So many people – especially women who choose to walk alone – worry about safety. I understand this. I worked at the same company in Phoenix as a woman who was killed on the Camino in 2015. Many people there begged me not to go when I announced I was going to walk the Camino. I heard the fear in their voices. So, was I a little nervous? Yes. But there are things you can do to mitigate your fears. Walk with other people. There is something very real called ‘A Camino Family’ and this often forms right away and includes people who are walking alone. So you’ll meet people you can walk with that you might find become friends for life. Outside of that – take the same precautions you would at home. If you do, you should be fine. Are there crazy, criminal people in the world? Sure. They’re in every community in the world. The Camino is no different. But remember, for Emergencies in Spain dial 1-1-2 (even if you don’t have a Spanish SIM). The person who answers will speak many languages, English will be one of them. The police will drive out to wherever you are – even on the trail. In some areas they patrol with ATV’s and horses. You’ll see them often while walking. You can also download the Guardia Civil’s app to your phone to get instant assistance on the trail.
Credentials del Peregrinos – Now that you’ve filled your pack with just the essentials, studied up on Spain, learned a little Espanol, chilled out a bit and stopped worrying about every little thing, you’re ready to get your credentials. For only a few euros they will sell you this multi-page document with your name and the date you’re starting on your journey. This is the Pilgrim’s Passport that you’ll need to stay in all those cheap Albergues/hostals all the way to Santigo. And the stamps – one per day until Sarria, and two per day after that – will allow you to get your Compostella at the Officina de Peregrinos in Santiago de Compostella. But where to get this important document? There are a few things you can do, depending upon where you’re from. In the US, if you want to order in advance you can contact the American Pilgrims on the Camino. https://americanpilgrims.org/ If you are in Spain you can contact your local Amigos del Camino de Santiago at: http://vieiragrino.com/
You can also pick up credentials in any of the larger cities by going to the cathedral or monastery. They will direct you. If you run out of pages after walking so long, as Emilie and I did, we picked up another passport at the Cathedral office in Leon.
- Getting to St. Jean – Emilie and I flew to Barcelona from the US. In retrospect – I would go via Madrid or Paris to Bayonne or Biarritz. Much easier and less Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
- To Reserve or Not Reserve – Do reserve your first night in St. Jean in advance. Especially high season. And if you’re planning on stopping in Orisson, to make that first day a little easier rather than heading the full way over the Pyrenees, reserve in advance. They fill up quick in high season. You can do this on their website but only a few weeks before so you’ll have to be on it. https://refuge-orisson.com/en/ After this we didn’t reserve in advance until after Sarria. And even then we didn’t really need to as we got up very early in the morning to avoid the heat, arriving to the Albergues by noon each day.
- Safety – Again. I had one day between Espinal and Zubiri where I found myself alone and the guy in front of me was acting weird and made me uncomfortable. I went back and found a group of women who were just a kilometer behind me, and asked if I could walk with them. It was great and they were happy to have me. So just be smart and listen to your gut. Remember 1-1-2
- Stay Hydrated – Always replenish your water when you encounter a cafe or store. Watch this closely as sometimes it’s miles between places where you can pick up more fluid – especially in the Meseta,
- And speaking of the Meseta – There are many who recommend skipping this section or biking it. Some take buses around it. I thought it was some of the most beautiful parts of the Camino Frances – and Emilie thought so too.
- Money – Well, I heard horror stories about people who had their debit cards eaten by an ATM on a Sunday and they were out of cash and had no means of getting a bed or food for the night. They had to wait until the bank opened the next day to get cash and their card back. I gave a woman some money once who was in a state of desperation on a Sunday evening in a village with nothing open. So – my advice is to make sure you never get below 50 euros so you can always pay for a bed and a meal – for at least two nights.
- Keep it Clean – When laundry facilities are available use them. This means at least a real washer – if not a dryer too. So keep some euro coins handy for just this purpose. Hand washing it fine for a week or so – but you’ll find that a good machine washing every once in a while will make all the difference.
- Secure your belongings – Never leave your passport, pilgrim credentials, cash or cell phone unattended (even when charging). Sure, all pilgrims are supposed to be noble and on a quest of their own devising. But I met people who were not the most honest and had to chase one girl from Emilie’s pack in an Albergue in Pamplona. Once bitten, twice shy. I showered with our documents and money in a small dry bag. And I bought a zippered pillow case and every night I slept with that stuff under my pillow. It worked well
- Shipping your pack doesn’t mean you’re not a real Pilgrim. We shipped our packs when we were over tired or had an injury. It’s cheap 3-5 euros and very reliable. See your Albergue host and then fill out the envelope, put the money in and seal it. Attach this to your pack and leave it with your host. When you get to the next Albergue that afternoon, in the town/Albergue you wrote on the envelope that morning, your bag should be waiting for your with the host.
- Showing Respect – When staying in communal accommodations like an Albergue with a large dormitorio, please follow these simple instructions. A) Assume there are people sleeping – because there usually are very tired pilgrims in any Albergue – maybe in the next room. B) Don’t pack your stuff in loud crinkly grocery store bags. Use cloth stuff sacks and organize your stuff by the color of the bag. C) Observe Pilgrim hours for sleeping and waking. And finally D) NEVER EVER EVER set an alarm on the your phone to go off on anything but vibrate and keep it under your pillow so it only wakes YOU!!
- Sleeping – Bring a healthy supply of ear plugs on the trail. You’ll need them at every Albergue. And if you like to sleep in the dark bring an eye mask. I used mine every day. I want to say you can use your buff (a must have for keeping the cold off your neck or the sweat out of your eyes, but since you’ll wash this, and need to dry it each night – unless you like sleeping with a wet band around your face you’ll want an eye mask.
The moments we weren’t walking were some of the most important. The times we stopped to just look at the scenery and to take a moment to contemplate inside a church, or on a hillside, were the most spiritual experiences of our time walking for 5 weeks. Every morning we left our Albergue in the dark with headlamps blazing. And each day the sunrise was more beautiful than the last. So after all the preparation and the daily housekeeping of finding a place to eat, stay, shower and wash your clothes, don’t forget that this will be one of the most transformative experiences of your life.
In the beginning, you’ll feel like you have so far to go. But very quickly, you’ll find yourself at the half way point in Saugun, and your Camino will rapidly come to a close. Don’t forget to stop and take it all in. Those quiet moments on the top of a mountain when it’s just you and the wind and the fog. That’s my Camino to me. I hope you find some of this helpful. And as always – Buen Camino 🙏