El Camino de Santiago: The Way of Saint James — a series of pilgrimage routes across Spain that have been in use for over a thousand years. In more recent history, The Camino has been gaining popularity as one of the must-do outdoor activities in Europe, pinned upon bucket lists by people from all around the world, from all walks of life.
After 3 years of waiting, I was finally able to make the 800km trek from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I spent 30 days walking through serene fields and forests, cozy towns and sleepy villages, and can safely say it was a trip to remember.
Was it all perfect? Of course not.
Like every trip it had its ups and downs, its pros and cons. Like very trip it had its good, its bad, and its ugly…
If you start in St. Jean Pied de Port, you will have around 30-34 days of walking. That gives you plenty of time for quiet reflection, a rare opportunity these days.
Slowly but surely, the problems of the outside world begin to fade with every step. You can thoroughly soak in the reflective journey, and since WiFi is few and far between (and the connections are generally poor) you can further disconnect with the modern world and reconnect with yourself and those you encounter along the way.
For those looking for more material gains, The Camino is a great place to shed some unwanted weight or just get some great exercise and fresh air.
5-8 hours of hiking (and sweating!) every day does wonders for the body, though the first several days can be taxing. Manage those, and your legs will soon be chiseled, your back stronger, and even your skin clearer.
Whether you walk at a brisk pace or a slow amble, your body will benefit greatly from the exertion.
The scenery you will see and experience really makes The Camino a unique journey.
It isn’t all picturesque – walking into some of the larger cities (Burgos, Leon) can be rather unpleasant. As well, many folks don’t enjoy the meseta, a desert-like plateau that takes a couple days to cross.
However, many other days provide magnificent vistas, such as the trek through the Pyrenees or the hike to O Cebreiro. In the end, you will see everything Spain has to offer – cozy villages, medieval towns, bustling cities, quiet fields, and murky forests.
It is an ever-changing panorama that never ceases to amaze those that look closely.
Blisters are an inevitable part of The Camino for many pilgrims. I made sure my boots were well worn, yet even I managed to get one.
My partner Christine had over a dozen by the end – she literally had blisters ON her blisters. She didn’t break her boots in thoroughly and ended up having to buy new shoes, new sandals, AND medicine for her wounds.
The lesson learned? Make sure you walk in your boots/shoes thoroughly (several months ahead) to save yourself the pain and the money. Good footwear is the best investment you can make for your trip.
The food on The Camino is, unfortunately, nothing special.
Many restaurants offer a ‘Pilgrim Menu’, usually for 8-10 euros. For the budget traveller, that is quite a bit to be spending on one meal every day, and from my experience the food was generally not worth the price.
Fortunately, many albergues (pilgrim-only hostels) have kitchens so those on a budget can cook for themselves. Vegetarians will be able to manage the trip, and I survived as a vegan though I did shed a few pounds. Those sensitive to gluten should be able to manage as well, but overall The Camino is no culinary paradise for the budget traveller.
The Final 100km
50% of all people walking only walk the final 100km, from Sarria to Santiago. This is because in order to earn your Compostela, a certificate proving you did the hike, you must walk at least the final 100km.
Unfortunately, this has led to the final 100km being rather touristy. Albergue and food prices rise almost overnight, and the convenient availability of grocery stores fades while the number of restaurants increase. Touristy shops multiply and reach something of a trashy crescendo in Santiago, where they are littered everywhere throughout the charming city.
The change happens overnight, and after hiking the first 700km it can be rather shocking. It is for partly this reason that many pilgrims continue past Santiago and walk to the quieter coastal town of Muxia, or to Finisterre, a place once thought to be the physical end of the world by the Celts and Romans.
Snoring. This is something anyone who has slept in a hostel dorm has experienced, but likely not on the same scale as on The Camino.
Over half of the pilgrims making the trek are between 30-60 years old. Since almost 50% of people over the age of 40 snore (predominantly males) you can begin to see the downside of large dorms crammed with older travellers.
If you’re a light sleeper, like me, even ear plugs wont suffice… so, well, good luck!
On my Camino I met people from all walks of life and from every part of the world, all walking for different reasons. Whether secular or religious, The Camino offers a unique experience for everyone who treads its path with open eyes and an open heart.
It will be tiring, and painful, and you might even get lost here and there. But the opportunity travel on foot across an ancient path with stunning vistas is one that shouldn’t be missed. So, as the pilgrims of old would say: Ultreïa!
Chris is the less-attractive half the the backpacking couple from Lessons Learned Abroad. Straight edge, vegan, buddhist, and balding, he is presently roaming the globe on a budget with his partner Christine in search of adventure, vegan snacks, and the art of being human.