There is something about slowing down from 100 to 5km per hour that makes you experience the world differently. The Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way) is a pilgrimage route across Spain, leading to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it the remains of the Apostol St. James are kept in the city’s grandiose Cathedral and although this pilgrimage started as a religious route over a thousand years ago, nowadays there is a plethora of reasons amongst peregrinos for walking the Camino.
I embarked on this adventure twice: the first time in 2012 when I walked solo almost 900km (560 miles) and the second time in 2016 when I walked 350km along a different route with my partner.
If you’re considering walking this route for whichever length of time, below are some tips that will help you prepare. This was a life changing experience and I can’t recommend it enough! Whether on your own or with family/friends/partner this pilgrimage is an unforgettable experience.
Choose Your Route Wisely
There are many roads that lead to Santiago and not all are created equal. My first Camino took 5 weeks (Camino Frances) starting in the French city of St. Jean Pied de Port, crossing over the Pyrenees, across Spain and reaching the west coast at Finisterra (if you wish to continue past Santiago, highly recommended). The second Camino lasted 2 weeks (Camino Primitivo) which starts in Oviedo and consists on hiking mountains for the first week until it merges with the Camino Frances.
You may start and stop wherever you want, you don’t have to pay for it and can choose any route to fit your needs.
For one week routes: Camino Ingles (5 days), Camino Portugues (1 week from the Spanish-Portugal border), and the last 100 Kms of the Camino Frances. If you can speak a bit of Spanish this is the most comprehensive online guide out there.
Pro Tip: you need to walk at least 100 kms to receive the ‘Compostela’, a certificate that proves you’ve done the pilgrimage. This certificate is a reproduction of the original certificate pilgrims used to get a thousand years ago, and it’s written in Latin.
Choose The Right Time Of The Year
The experience can be very different depending on the time of year you walk. If you go in winter, there are parts of the mountains you can’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you go in Autumn it rains a lot, Spring can be quite crowded but the weather is very pleasant. I went in the height of summer, August, both times because it was convenient for my work schedule, and while it was a good time to go (hardly any rain) it was also very tough in certain areas. If you’re hiking the mountains it’s nice and cool in the summer, with temperatures in the mid 20s Celsius. But if you’re hiking in the ‘Meseta’ (a desert-like area in the middle of Spain) the temperature can reach 45 degrees and it can be very dangerous to walk past noon, therefore you need to start your daily walk at 4am. Bear this in mind!
Plan Your Overnight Stops
On average, one walks between 6 and 8 hours a day, which is the equivalent of about 30kms depending on terrain (the trail is very well signposted). Along the route you have albergues… which are pilgrim hostels, most of which are not more than €10 a night, some less and some even free. These albergues can house anything from 200 people in one hall or 10, you never know what you’ll get! These are solely for the use of pilgrims. You must present your ‘pilgrim passport’ which is stamped at every albergueas proof that you’re walking.
In the summer these hostels can get crowded quickly so make sure you plan where you’ll stay and try to get there early. But don’t let it become a race, just be prepared to sleep outdoors sometimes!
Pro Tip: There are also private pilgrim hostels, which are somewhat fancier and more expensive, but ‘snoring’ free!
Pack Wisely, And Light!
This is crucial. Your backpack should be 10% of your body weight, your knees will thank you for it. Make sure your backpack is comfortable and take only the very basic essentials!
What to pack: 2 of everything – underwear, t-shirt, shorts, socks, etc. (this will vary depending on season). Microfiber towel (cotton is too heavy when wet), basic toiletries, no makeup, first aid kit, sun cream, hat, flip-flops and a sleeping bag.
Pro Tip: take Vaseline to lather your feet at the start of the day, this will prevent blisters! Also take bedbug spray, I learned the hard (and itchy) way.
Prepare Physically & Psychologically (…and learn a bit of Spanish!)
You don’t need to be an athlete, but it’s better to have some level of fitness as you will be walking/hiking for 8 hours a day. That being said, regardless of how fit you are, it’s guaranteed that every muscle in your body will ache at some point. If you walk solo you will have a lot of time to be with yourself, which is a wonderful thing but it can also be very emotionally and psychologically taxing, just enjoy the ride! 5 weeks on my own was tough at times but also incredibly rewarding and a life changing experience.
You will meet a lot of wonderful people along the way, and will never be truly ‘alone’ unless you want to. The Camino is very safe but take basic precautions from pickpockets at hostels, other than that it’s safe for women. If in doubt, stick with a group!
Pro tip: learn basic Spanish, some people will speak English but you will go through some remote villages where basic phrases will be very useful!
If you’re thinking of doing this walk, think no more! It will be worth it, no question. It will be rewarding, painful, eye-opening, tiring, heart-opening and all of it worth it. You will see some incredible landscape, meet amazing people, eat great food and prove to yourself that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. What’s not to like? Buen Camino!