Spain’s famous 500-mile pilgrimage trail, the Camino de Santiago, has become one of the most popular hiking vacations in Europe. In medieval times, pilgrims from throughout Europe set out to the city now called Santiago de Compostela to see the alleged remains of the apostle James. Today, people walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, and in 2017, over 300,000 people laced up their boots and gave the Camino a try.
If you’re thinking of joining their ranks, you’ll find plenty of books describing the Camino’s history and authors’ personal journeys on the trail. While useful inspiration, these books often leave out the basics. So, here are 15 practical tips you will want to know before you start walking.
1. There’s more than one way to Santiago.
When people talk about the Camino, they’re usually referring to the Camino Frances, the French Way. Stretching from the French border, over the Pyrenees, across Quixote’s windy plains, and ending in the soggy, green hills of Galicia, the French Way is by far the most popular route to Santiago — but it’s not the only one.
The second most popular path is the Camino Portuguese, running north from Lisbon or Porto. In Spain, the Camino del Norte runs along the north coast of Spain in Basque Country; the Primitivo, the original Camino route, runs farther north than the Camino Frances since much of Spain was under Moorish control when it was established hundreds of years ago; and the Via de la Plata from southern Spain is the longest of the routes. All of these paths attract pilgrims looking for a different experience. Whether you’re looking for beach views, a more strenuous hike, or solitude, one of these paths might suit you better than the popular Camino Frances.
2. You don’t have to be a hardcore hiker.
The French Way holds a few strenuous climbs and a couple of long stretches without services, but reasonably fit people should have no major trouble. You don’t need any technical hiking skills or superhuman endurance. It’s even possible to book relatively comfortable, and inexpensive, hotels along the way or use a baggage forwarding service like the one offered through the Spanish Postal Service to forward your bags from place to place. You can walk your own way.
3. You can leave the camping gear at home.
The Camino is not the Appalachian Trail or PCT; you don’t have to be self-sustaining. If anything, it would probably prove more of a hassle finding a place to camp than paying for one of the cheap pilgrim accommodations. Proof of this can be found on the “free table” in Roncesvalles, the typical first-night location on the Camino Frances. Pilgrims who made the mistake of hauling camping gear over the Pyrenees dump the extra weight at the table once they realize they’re unlikely to use it, leaving a mini-REI for people to scavenge over.
4. Guides are unnecessary (unless you want one).
People have been walking the Camino for a thousand years. The trail is well established and well marked. If you’re considering a guide to ensure you don’t find yourself lost and stranded in the middle of nowhere, don’t. There are, in fact, a few alternate routes that arrive at the same destination, and nowadays, there’s an app for the Camino Frances with a map to assure you that you aren’t lost. But if you want to see the Camino through an expert lense or don’t want to worry about accommodation, then maybe a guide is for you.
5. The Camino feels different throughout the year.
Weather is a factor, but it’s possible to walk the French Way year-round. Give more consideration to the crowds. In August, for example, many Spanish families walk sections of the Camino during their kids’ school vacations, and the path takes on a family holiday vibe. Whereas in May and June, the crowd is more international, and in the winter months, the path attracts serious walkers.
6. The Camino has its own lingo.
- Buen Camino: catchall pilgrim greeting that can be used as “hello” or as an alert that you’re passing someone
- Albergue: hostel-like accommodation exclusively for pilgrims
- Parroquia: a church-run albergue, some offer mass or a blessing
- Municipal: a city-run albergue, often the cheapest and most basic option
- Privado: a privately run albergue, spanning the gamut of luxury and price
- Hospitalero/a: the person running the albergue
7. Your guidebook doesn’t control your Camino.
Most guidebooks recommend stopping in the bigger towns because there are more albergues and services, but if you go just a little “off-book” you can find amazing little villages. These stops will likely only have a tavern or two to entertain you, but with a good group of pilgrims, that’s plenty.
8. Feet are unique.
Nothing brings pilgrims together like a conversation about feet. Knowing your own feet before you start walking to Santiago will help avoid trip-ending injuries. This starts with finding the right shoes (boots vs. sneakers, waterproof vs. breathable, loose vs. tight) and often ends with finding the right blister solution.
Moleskin will help prevent blisters if you’re getting hotspots because your feet are dry and rubbing against your socks, but if you’re getting hotspots because you have sweaty feet and the moisture is rubbing against your socks, the moleskin will peel off in your shoe. Having a pair of hiking sandals to give your battered feet another option is often a good idea — although not if you have weak ankles. Feet are very personal, so figure yours out ahead of time.
9. Walking sticks help.
If used properly, walking sticks can take 20 percent of your weight off your knees. On the climbs, that 20 percent could be the difference between loving the simplicity of backpack life and wanting to throw your pack from the nearest bridge.
10. The last 100 kilometers (60 miles) are different.
To earn a Compostela, a Latin document declaring the completion of your pilgrimage, you only need to walk the last 100 kilometers, or 60 miles. So, in the town of Sarria, 112 kilometers (70 miles) away from Santiago, the number of pilgrims jumps dramatically. In the summer months, you should consider calling ahead to book a bed in a private albergue in Sarria and the following towns. You should also prepare for more of a party atmosphere and large groups of Spanish school kids on the trail.
11. You must collect your stamps.
To prove they’ve walked as far as they claim, pilgrims collect stamps at each albergue in a “pilgrim’s passport” (which can be purchased for a euro in most towns on the way). Along most of the trail, one stamp at each place you sleep is enough to prove your pilgrim status, but the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago recommends getting two or three along the final 100 kilometers. This makes it more difficult to “fake” a Camino just to get the Compostela.
12. The Cathedral gets busy.
You need to line up early to get a seat for Pilgrim’s Mass at the cathedral in Santiago. For security reasons, you can’t take your backpack in, but you can store them for a couple of euros at the Pilgrim House Welcome Center. Note that the cathedral is being restored in preparation for 2021 Holy Year Celebrations, so sections might be closed off. The Camino Forum is a wealth of information on the Camino in general and a good place to look for closure updates.
13. You can have a box waiting for you.
After four or five weeks of walking and hand washing, you might want to change your clothes in Santiago. Shipping a box ahead is a good way to resupply, especially if you’re continuing to travel. There are a couple of ways to do this.
The Spanish Postal Service, as noted above, can not only forward your bags from place to place but also hold general delivery boxes in Santiago. They say they only hold them for two weeks, but they’re known to be sympathetic to slow-moving pilgrims. Bringing extra gear to Spain and then shipping it to Santiago is the cheapest option.
A pricier but more convenient option is to ship a box to Ivar Rekve, a longtime champion of the Camino. He will hold your box for 60 days at a storage area near the cathedral and even deliver it to your hotel or hostel when you arrive.
14. Santiago doesn’t have to be the end.
Most people finish their Camino in Santiago, but you can walk another 90 kilometers, or 56 miles, to the lighthouses in the coastal towns of Finisterre and Muxia. Usually done in three days, the added walk gives pilgrims a bit more time to think about their experience, and watching the sunset over the Atlantic is a spectacular way to end the journey.
15. The Camino is addictive.
No one walks the same Camino. You can train for the long walking days and scale down your backpack weight, but the Camino will still deliver surprises. You’ll get a week of rain that throws a kink in your detailed schedule or you’ll find your pack filled with bottles of wine for a communal picnic. These tips will get you started, but you really have to just let the Camino happen.
No matter your what shape your journey takes, you’ll find the pull hard to describe. Many former pilgrims find themselves going back for a second, third, even 10th Camino! Don’t be surprised if you find yourself aching for more after the blisters have healed. If you want to stay connected to the Camino at home, you can join a local Camino group. In the United States, The American Pilgrims on the Camino hosts chapters all over the country. Buen Camino.