One Hell of a Long Walk: Trekking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

You finally allow yourself to stop for a lunch break after hiking since dawn. The sun shines brightly, and you squint to see the vast and beautiful scenery unfolding before you. Although you are inspired by what you see, you are also dead tired. And now that you’ve stopped, the aches and pains are beginning to take hold.

But there is no time to coddle your wounds; you stand up with all your might and continue on for a further few hours in the dead heat.

Why, oh why on earth you ask, would you subject yourself to such punishment? Just ask anybody who has completed the 800 kilometer Camino de Santiago de Compostela, and they’ll probably have many compelling reasons for you.

Amanda said it beautifully in this article, when she highlighted the benefits of really slow travel. Seeing your surroundings and taking in a new place is best done on foot, where you can really take the time to absorb the culture, sounds, smells and pulse of a place.

Hiking, Camino de Santiago
© alessandro pucci

Taking this advice to new heights, a really slow trip that will make for an epic adventure is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: an 800km pilgrimage over the Pyrenees mountains in France and through to the town of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain.

The trip is meant to follow the footsteps of the Apostle St. James, who made the journey himself with nothing more than the clothes on his back. He preached Christianity in Spain, and eventually was martyred for his actions. After being put to death in Judea, his body was miraculously transported back to Compostela, where he was (and still is) buried and revered.

Variations of this pilgrimage have been followed ever since, and especially in the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela was considered to be the most famous destination in the world for pilgrims.

But as with all spiritual texts, much is left to interpretation. In fact, many of those who walk the Camino today don’t even do it for religious reasons. The largest demographic of pilgrims that come to Santiago de Compostela now are Japanese Buddhists.

The most popular route is the Camino Frances, following the 780km trip outlined above by starting in St Jean Pied de Port in France. However there are routes all over Europe, and pilgrims walk all or any part of the trip they choose. The common denominator of all pilgrimages is the destination: Santiago de Compostela.

Why Be A Pilgrim?

When you undertake a mission as large as an 800km hike, you can’t exactly carry everything you need on your back. So in the tradition of being a pilgrim, you rely on the hospitality of people along the way to help you. Along the (relatively) well-marked route, registered monasteries, hostels, and eateries will host pilgrims for fees little (if any) more than their actual costs. It is a humbling experience, and for some people, learning to accept the kindness of others can lead to wonderful growth.

Many travelers do the pilgrimage over a period of approximately 30-60 days, which translates to about 15-30kms/day of walking. The 30-day pilgrims are truly hard core (this coming from a hiker/mountaineer myself), as I would choose to complete the journey in 60-90 days myself, taking some time to enjoy the scenery around me. Alas, not everyone has that much time available to complete the journey.

Either way, with all that walking, there’s sure to be a lot of time for silent reflection and possibly an epiphany or two. To this end, many people prefer to do the pilgrimage solo, and will even take a vow of silence during the time they walk. Others yet travel with friends or family, or make fast friends with other travelers on the road, and will choose to walk together for large chunks of the trip.

By the end of the day though, whether you walked alone or in company, you walked a heck of a long way and will find yourself physically and mentally challenged to wake up the next morning and continue. You are encouraged by your supportive hosts, as well as your fellow travelers, and in the spirit of camaraderie you continue on a journey that you might otherwise abandon due to its almost incomprehensible grandeur.

Hikers, Camino de Santiago
© alessandro pucci

What to Expect

Accommodations:

The accommodations vary in nature, but in general are rarely anything fancy. The traditional refuges are often in monasteries or humble homes, and operate on a first-come, first-served basis, giving preference to walkers. Some people choose to ride bicycles, and others yet drive cars. Almost no respect or preference is afforded to those who drive, and the bicyclists tend to fall in a middle ground — some vehemently object to the use of any vehicles, even pedal powered ones.

Expect traditional refuges to be dormitory-style rooms, and functioning showers are occasional treats along the way. Hot showers are even rarer.

Having said that, there are a growing number of hostels designed for the increasing number of pilgrims, so if you are prepared to pay for it, you could receive a private room and maybe even an ensuite bathroom.

Landscape:

Depending on the time of year and the specific route chosen, you will encounter everything from snowy alpine climates to dry hot landscapes. Some parts of the pilgrimage take you alongside busy highways and roads with little romance (and sometimes a rather dangerous path), and other parts wind through vast fields and quaint towns.

Navigation:

The route itself is marked with yellow scallop shells, usually posted on granite markers, but sometimes just painted on the sides of buildings or fence posts. Many a pilgrim has lost their way due to missing markers or well-camouflaged ones at that. I have yet to read a pilgrim’s story where they didn’t deviate off-course at least once during their journey. Apparently that’s part of the challenge and the fun; nearing the end of a tiring day to realize that you overshot your destination and either have to turn back and walk an hour, or keep on for an additional two hours to reach the next checkpoint.

Blisters:

Expect lots and lots of blisters on your tender tootsies. Even with proper training and a well broken-in pair of hiking boots, your feet will hurt. And hurt. And hurt. This too, is part of the challenge of the pilgrimage and what sets pilgrims apart.

Recognition:

Some pilgrims go “all out” by wearing the typical cloak, scallop necklace, and carrying a staff to identify themselves as pilgrims. Others find this too “touristy” and prefer to travel on the more incognito side.

But to the natives of small towns who have seen pilgrims pass by their doorsteps for decades (even centuries), there is a level of recognition that passes over their face, and cheerful waves and smiles are common and welcome signs of encouragement for the weary pilgrim.

Camino de Santiago de Compostela Passport
Camino de Santiago de Compostela Passport © caminosantiagocompostela.com

Passports:

No, we’re not talking about your international passport. You can pick up a “Compostela passport” at any major city along the pilgrim route, which you get stamped by your various hosts and checkpoints along the way. When you reach Santiago de Compostela with your stamped passport, you can receive an official “Compostela” or “Certificado”, proving and certifying your completed pilgrimage.

Afterwards:

As you can imagine, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is an epic journey full of high and low emotional points, intense friendships, and moments of clarity amidst the struggle of the trip.

But what happens afterwards? A service is performed in honor of the pilgrims at the big cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and then … everybody just parts ways. Some people continue on to Camino de Finisterre which was considered to be the “end of the world” in Medieval times and in some circles is thought to be the true end of the pilgrimage.

Ultimately in every pilgrim’s story is a hint of letdown or anticlimactic feelings at the end. Fellow travelers who were your “best friends” during the trip suddenly become strangers, as you find yourself unable to carry on a conversation without the tie that binds (being the trip).

You return to your “regular life”, and struggle to re-integrate yourself into your previous daily routine. Some people manage to after a short while, whilst others make drastic life changes as a result of their months of walking and quiet reflection. Many a book has been written about just this.

But then again, don’t these challenges ring true for every traveler? After exploring a new place, a new culture, and a new side of yourself, it’s always hard to return home without being a changed person. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is yet another way for us travelers to redefine ourselves by pushing our limits, challenging our beliefs, and learning a lot about ourselves along the way.

Here are some links to get you started on your own Camino:

35 Responses

  1. Sil

    “The trip is meant to follow the footsteps of the Apostle St. James, who made the journey himself with nothing more than the clothes on his back”

    Er…. not quite right. Pilgrims don’t follow in his footsteps – they created the paths to visit his tomb.
    Old Jimmy evangelised in Galicia – not very successfully -then went back to Jerusalem where he was beheaded. His disciples carried his severed head and body in a stone boat with no sails back to Padron and buried him on a hillside which became Santi’ Iago de Compostela.
    Gret story!

    Reply
    • Susan Dueck

      my husband and I are planning to walk a segment of the Camino in 2015
      we have 2-3 weeks – we are doing lots of reading about it and increasing our “long” walks
      what is your web site Sil? and the name of your book
      is it available through Kindle?….S

      Reply
  2. Nora

    Thanks for the clarification, Sil!
    I have been researching the trip for quite a while now and read a number of books and blogs on the topic, but was unable to get the full scoop in a consolidated manner.
    What a journey!

    Reply
  3. Tony P

    I have always wanted to do this, but not sure if I can ever muster up that much energy to walk 800km! It would be a great challenge, though…

    Thanks for the article!

    Reply
    • Elin

      Tony, I walked the Camino from Sarria for my 65th birthday. I had never worn a pack or walked more than a few miles before so the starting point put me into Santiago after walking 62 miles or the obligatory 100 k one must do at the end to get the Compostela or the certificate. Everyone has their own Camino and everyone’ s. way is the right one for them. I then went to Finisterra because after the silence and simplicity of the way, Santiago seemed so loud. Finisterra is at the ocean’s edge with great beaches to swim in and amazing sunsets to watch out at the faro, lighthouse. I picked up lots of baby shells for gifts back home. Easy to pack and much appreciated. Best to YOUR Camino. Elin.

      Reply
  4. Tony P

    Wow! Very inspiring. Thanks for the article, Sil. My wifes been talking about moving back home to Madrid in the next year or two, so this might actually come to fruition.

    Should it happen, I’ll make sure to keep you guys in the loop!

    Reply
  5. Sil

    Serene, the guide books suggest that spring (May/June) and autumn (September/October) are the best months. Until April you might still have snow, sleet, heavy rain and lots of mud on the camino.
    July and August are very hot months and very busy. From November onwards, you are back into the chilly months.
    There are about 15 official ‘camino’ routes in Spain – and 7 that start in France.
    I have a lot of info on my blog – just click on search this blog for info on packing lists, costs, medication, accommodation etc.
    Buen camino!
    Sil

    Reply
  6. Caroline Mathieson

    Thank you ma’am for the nice references to my now ancient and rather out of date website.

    I am pleased to see you acknowledge use of images from the website.

    Many people use my pictures without my consent or knowledge, but I don’t really mind.

    Reply
  7. Laurah

    I’ve been wanting to walk the Camino for decades! I got MS in 2008 and realized this year (after my first exacerbation last month) i need to do it while i am still able to walk…I’m heading out for the full trip (and onto Finisterre and the Atlantic) in August.

    I’m giving myself 3 months. I’m can hardly wait to get going! I’m actually starting in Lourdes (can’t hurt :) and going onto St. Jean to begin the pilgrimage officially. Worried about the Pyrenees and esp. Alto de Perdon but i’m takin’ my sweet ‘ol time, and expect i may have to rest for a few hours or even camp at the top of each b4 continuing on. If i find a super lite-weight bivy tent i’m getting one.

    Been reading lots of books and blogs so i have an idea of what to expect, so thank heavens so many people have been and can offer that to those of us who have not.

    Thanks!

    ps- I plan to hike to Machu Picchu, then the Jerusalem route next :)

    Reply
  8. Beth

    I am planing on doing the Camino in May/June and maybe fall into July. I was planing on doing the Camino Frances from followed by the end of the world. However, I keep reading about the “whole” walk which appears to be longer. Does anyone know what this term refers to? Do people continue on the do the Portugal trek backwards? I would appreciate any and all comments as I only know what I have read and am lacking personal experience. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Sil

    Beth – there is no ‘whole walk’.
    In the middle ages people left from their front doors so if you lived in Norway, the ‘whole’ walk was from Norway! If you lived in Tricastela, the whole walk was just 135km long.
    There are modern day starting places. Seville (or Cadiz) for the Via de la Plata: Roncesvalles (or St Jean Pied de Port) for the Camino Frances etc. (There are over 35 routes in France & Spain and in the early stage of the pilgrimage pilgrims walked through St Michel, not St Jean, and near the end they didn’t walk through Sarria – that came later.
    The Camino is a modern invention of the old pilgrimage trails to the tomb of St James which fizzled out in the 15th Century, became a dim memory and was practically forgotten about. It was reanimated in the late 1970s.

    Reply
  10. wendy mcbane

    I just became aware of the walk after seeing the movie The Way. After reading alot of online info I was wondering from your perspective, which route would be the best one for a one time full experience. Which route would you take for the best overall experience of the Camino de Santiago? For about 2-3 weeks and medium fitness. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. Gina

    Hello everyone. Does anyone have information on physical preparation for the walk?

    Thank You

    Reply
  12. Sil

    Gina, I don’t want to use this blog to promote my Camino planning book but there is a whole chapter on preparing the mind, body and soul – with a training program in the appendices.

    Reply
  13. Sil

    Jenny ran the Camino in 12 days in 2010.
    jennjourney.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/she-did-it

    Reply
  14. sung ho choi

    That’s less then 50 miles a day. Hmm, I can beat that for sure.. thanks for the info sil!

    Reply
  15. Shreni

    great aticle but i was wondering if the top of the scallop shell if facing north which way do the pilgrims walk?

    Reply
  16. Donald Buotte

    I am 55yrs old and have become increasingly reflective of my life up to this point and I am continually having these intense feeings of doing a pilgrimage to exorcise my past demons and become more spiritual. I know something is going on inside and feel this trip would help me with both.

    Reply
  17. Fred

    Donald …… I walked the Camino in June 2011….. an incredible experience in everyway……you can made the Camino anything you want it to be for yourself….if you let it……the first day I ever heard of this walk…I knew I had to walk it ……so for me every step was one of gratitude and wonder ……the first portion very physical…..the long walks in the middle very emotional…….and the last portion very spiritual ……. when or where else do you get to be with yourself for over 30 days….and surrounded in a community of friends from every country of the world….all helping each other get Santiago…..Amazing….everyday I am reminded in someway of my walk…….F

    Reply
  18. Mary Perry

    I am enjoying the possibility of taking this walk. Thank you for the notification re: comments.

    Reply
  19. Jennie

    I really want to go on this walk. I saw the movie “The Walk” and have felt ‘called’ to do this ever since. I’m so excited! I’m gathering information. The fall months sound good to me, September… October. I’d rather have the heat vs the colder parts of the spring. Life is an adventure for me… I really want the experience of being on this walk, meeting many people from all over the world; seeing what changes occur in my life because of it. I’m single, raised 3 kids on my own, not committed to a ‘job’ so this year may be the perfect time …yippee~

    Reply
  20. Sil

    Jennie, just remember that the characters in THE WAY had strong personal reasons for walking the Camino which pulled through to the end. Being a movie – they never got blisters, tendonitis, muscle crapms, never wealked in the rain or struggled through the mud and they never had to wash their clothes. Also, they had each other the whole way through the film which is unusual on the Camino. You make friends, lose each other, meet up again or make new friends and eventually you have a nomadic family – some ahead some behind – but very rarely together the whole way. Walking the Camino is very special but go with no expectations, no preconceived ideas of how it will be, go with a blank slate and make your own story! (September is a lovely time to walk!)

    Reply
  21. paula

    @sil what is your book, do you have a link?
    Is it dangerous to do it as a female alone?
    Would it spoil the whole thing to do the whole thing with a partner?

    Reply
  22. Alice

    Next year is the big 6-0 for me & I want to walk the Camino! I started prepping for the trip; talks with my daughter who did it solo a few years ago, reading, getting supplies, exercise plan & want to learn Spanish (Rosetta Stone). Could do it with a female friend or alone. Thinking of the spring & getting a leave of absence from my teaching job; 30-60 days. Excited! Any thoughts for me?

    Reply
  23. Bethany

    Nice article. I walked the Camino alone from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago in 2005 and it remains one of my life’s defining experiences. I am still learning from it eight years later and long to return and make another pilgrimage soon. The faces and places that were a part of my journey will be with me forever.

    Reply

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