Whether you’re looking for an adventure with friends, a bonding with loved ones, an enlightening experience or simply a challenge, the Camino de Santiago can be one of the most memorable walks of your life.
But what is the Camino de Santiago I hear you ask? Also known as The Way of St. James (or The Way), it’s a pilgrimage that people take to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there.
For some, getting their “Compostela” certificate after completing the pilgrimage meant they had secured their VIP ticket to heaven, one to show St Peter at the golden gates of paradise. But it’s certainly not confined to religious people. It’s said that over 200,000 people of all ages take the pilgrimage every year.
Back in the day, pilgrims used the scallop shell as proof as their pilgrimage but this became a fraudulent practice with people buying and selling shells. The symbol of the shell remains incredibly popular today with the signposts incorporating it, as well as people placing a shell on their backpacks to show that they are pilgrims.
These tips are based on my experience walking the Portuguese Coastal Camino with my Mom in May 2017, though this advice will certainly relate to every Camino journey! You can also cycle the route as well but you have to have done a minimum of 200km to get your certificate. We chose to walk for spiritual rather than religious reasons.
Bear in mind for this list: We chose to stay in hotels and guesthouses rather than hostels as we’re both incredibly light sleepers. Hostels are very cheap but hotels are pretty cheap too. It completely depends on your budget.
1. Pick the right Camino for you
There are several official routes to take on the Camino de Santiago which all have a varying terrain and host different experiences. For myself and my Mom, we chose to do the Portuguese route where the terrain ranged from stretches on the road to forests and hills to vineyards and small villages.
Remember, that you also don’t have to do the full journey (which can be 1000km!) As long as you do 100km of the Camino you will get your Compostela. Bear in mind also that some months may be wetter and cooler than others. The most popular route is the French Way which stretches 800km from Saint Jean de Port to Santiago de Compostela but this is incredibly busy.
2. Read up on the history
More than just a walking holiday, the Camino is enriched with an amazing history. It’s a fascinating cultural experience and while you may only spend a day or so in one place, it’s worth looking up on key things to see. If you’re passing through Caldas de Reis on the Portuguese Way, scout out the hot springs – you won’t be disappointed!
3. Get those legs ready
Because there are many places to stop along the way, I’d say that the Camino de Santiago is actually well within everyone’s walking ability. That being said, for the more serious walkers planning on doing more than 100km, I’d whole-heartedly recommend training before you set off. Practice long distance walking to increase your stamina and if you’re planning on bringing everything with you; walk with your backpack on.
4. Book ahead
Depending on if you’re determined to end up in a certain place each night, it’s highly recommended to book your accommodation in advance as hostels and hotels can be booked to the brim.
5. Pack smart
Many pilgrims tend to carry everything on their backs, and I mean EVERYTHING. Essentials include water bottles, a sun hat, a first-aid kit, a decent poncho, sunscreen, hygiene wipes, spare plastic bags, ear plugs, toilet roll (for the wilderness) and a sleeping bag where necessary. An external battery to charge your phone is also very useful! Forget fashion on this trip, comfort is far more important.
Only bring walking poles if they’re lightweight, collapsible AND if you know how to use them. They can very particularly handy on sloping terrain but not so much on concrete.
If you (like me) don’t feel like carrying your bag for the full journey, you can get it transferred to each location along the way meaning that every day you’re walking, your bag will be in transit to your next stop. Tuitrans is just one service that you can use that cater to those on the Portuguese Camino, whereas for other routes you can use Camino Fácil. This means that you can bring a bit more on your journey, though I would still recommend keeping things to a minimum.
6. First Aid
Speaking of first aid essentials, here are some things that definitely need to be in your kit: blister plasters, normal plasters, antiseptic wipes, Deep Heat for your legs and we also loved using Lush’s Wiccy Magic Muscles. But don’t worry, there are plenty of pharmacies along the way and facilities so you won’t be stuck! Not only that, fellow pilgrims will no doubt be able to help too.
7. Get the right footwear and socks!
Your walking shoes should be worn in before you head on the Camino de Santiago and it’s worth splashing out to get the right shoes. Two brands we would recommend are Salomon or Columbia – Mom wore the former and I the latter. Both offer a great range of walking shoes (we were blisterless after the Camino!) but they will cost you over €100. If you can, get shoes that are waterproof. The weather is often unpredictable and it’s not fun walking with soggy feet. However, make sure that they’re breathable too.
Combined with good socks, your feet should be able to withstand the constant walking. I recommend buying socks that have CoolMax technology incorporated into them which keep your feet cool and dry (We wore socks from Trespass. Merino wool or bamboo are also great in socks and clothing as it dries fast and tends not to smell too much. If you’re in Ireland, TK Maxx usually stock a lot of socks.
8. Get stamped!
The Camino de Santiago passport aka Credencial del Peregrino will serve as proof that you walked the 100km necessary to obtain your Compostela certificate. You can buy your Pilgrim Passport in many establishments at the start of your journey and get them stamped from many places along the way from churches to town halls and restaurants.
I’d recommend getting it stamped as much as possible if only to have a great collection of colourful stamps! Once you reach Santiago, you must show your passport to the Pilgrims Office and they will give you your final stamp.
N.B. if you’re planning on attending the pilgrim mass at the cathedral, take your certificate with you, as some pews are reserved exclusively for pilgrims.
9. Learn the language
You don’t have to be fluent in any language to walk the Camino de Santiago but locals really do appreciate it when you make an effort to converse with them. The most “useful” language to get to know is Spanish. I would recommend using Duolingo (you can get it on mobile or desktop) to get to grips with Spanish but you can also make it easier on yourself by installing Google Translate onto your phone. Google Translate can be used offline if you download the language and you can listen to the pronunciation too.
10. Start early
To beat the heat of the day it’s worth getting up early. Many pilgrims are already on the route by 7am to make it to their destination by lunch. It’s pretty amazing to walk into the sunrise too.
Many pilgrims are already on the route by 7am to make it to their destination by lunch. It’s pretty amazing to walk into the sunrise too.
11. Use your maps!
Don’t have enough data to be using Google Maps abroad? No problem! You can download offline versions of an area before you leave and then use them to navigate using your GPS. These can be incredibly useful when you’re exhausted and you just want to get to your hotel without having to ask hundreds of people.
12. Write a diary
Writing about the little tidbits you experience along the way can be good fun to look back on. Consider setting up a Facebook group or a basic blog to document your journey – friends and family love to be connected and for some it will be a relief knowing where you are.
13. Spirit of the Camino
While understandably you mightn’t want to chat all the time on the Camino, greeting everyone with a “Buen Camino!” really gets you into the spirit of things. You can meet extraordinary people along the route of travelling anecdotes. Conversations can continue for days on end with incredible camaraderie taking place. You’ll never forget these talks.
Most importantly, the most memorable part of the Camino de Santiago is the actual journey so there’s no real need to rush the experience. Take your time to find your walking pace and don’t feel any pressure to keep up with everyone else.
Some of the most precious moments are when you’re on your own in the countryside taking it all in and appreciating the little things.
Buen Camino friends! Enjoy the adventure.
This was originally written for IMPACT Work & Life Magazine but has been edited for the blog to include more points.