Walking El Camino de Santiago: The What, Where, and Why

posted in: Europe, Portugal, Spain, Travel, Travelogue | 24

What do you mean you are walking 500 miles?

Our trip to Spain and Portugal is officially organized and booked so I guess this is really happening! The fact that we are taking six weeks out of our visit to carry all we have on our back and hike 500 miles through four of Spain’s fifteen regions is starting to sink in. Oh my goodness!

We have told a few people already that we are embarking on the Camino footpath this spring. The responses are everything from what the heck is that, to it’s a dream of mine to do something similar. Some people say we are crazy, others say we are lucky. Some people have tips for the journey, others have questions. A lot of questions.

Because there have been so many questions, I want to discuss and address some of them here.

El Camino de Santiago
Camino Frances

What is the El Camino de Santiago?

You’ve probably heard the expression, “all roads lead to Rome.” Well, in this case while walking El Camino, all paths lead to Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain. The El Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, is the name of the many pilgrim routes that end at the shrine of St. James in Santiago. According to legend, his remains are at the cathedral. There are many routes through various European countries such as France, Germany and Belgium that all end in Santiago.

Historically, the pilgrimage has been taken as a spiritual journey and a form of penance for those who practice the Catholic faith. Over the years, the list of reasons has grown and evolved. It still continues to be a religious journey for some, but there are multiple motives that inspire hikers today. People come from all over the world to walk the Camino and each one has their own reason for making the journey.

El Camino de Santiago
Camino Frances

The intent may be exercise, digital detox, to delve into history, a cultural awakening, to make friends, for the landscape, the cheap cost, or because it’s the in thing to do at the moment. Whatever the reason, there’s a commonality among each hiker. As every day begins, we pack up all that belongs to us at the moment and rely on are own two feet to take us one step at a time to the next destination. Simple days, simple ways.

El Camino de Santiago

Which Camino route are you taking?

Because it is considered the classic route and has the most infrastructure for pilgrims, we are walking the Camino Francės. Since it is the most popular route, it is one of the easiest ones to plan for. The French Way begins among the Pyrenees Mountains in Saint Jean Pied de Port. The route heads west with stops in Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon.  Due to our lack of experience in long-distance hikes, we think this is a good route to start with.

El Camino de Santiago
Camino Frances Map

What will we see on the Camino Frances?

Along the French Way, we will experience charming small villages, lush vineyards, green hills, dirt trails, fluffy sheep, boring flat lands, rugged mountains and beautiful cities. Or so I’m told.

El Camino de Santiago
Camino Frances

Why are we walking the Camino?

I had never heard of the Camino until a few years ago. My in-laws watched the movie, The Way (2010) with Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen and became intrigued with the idea of the pilgrimage. If you are interested in what we are doing and curious about the pilgrimage, I encourage you to watch it.

Sure enough, when my mother-in-law retired she began planning her trip. Her and my brother-in-law completed the Camino Frances in May of 2015. Through her daily e-mails and pictures, we followed along with them. We found ourselves looking forward to reading her short accounts of the day including the things they were seeing and experiencing. When they completed the route, I was never prouder of her. Five hundred miles at the age of 63 is no easy feat.

So why are we walking the Camino? To be honest, I like to hike but walking for 500 miles straight is not really something I would have pictured myself doing. My hubby is the one who is more enthused with the idea… budget-friendly, slow and a new adventure. I, on the other hand, am excited but nervous. I am looking at it as more of a challenge, excited for the spiritual aspect and using it as an experiment to see if these types of trips are something I would like to do more of.

Since life is short and we are fortunate to have our health, why not try something new?

It's the perfect itinerary for you! In our 90 day Spain and Portugal itinerary, you'll find a genius route throughout both countries.
El Camino de Santiago

Why Six Weeks?

We are going to be in Spain and Portugal for three months so we decided to take six weeks to complete the pilgrimage. Not everyone walks the entire way, some come for only the last 100 mile stretch. Others may take only four weeks to walk the entire route. We like the idea of taking our time, having down days if there’s bad weather and exploring the bigger cities for a few days versus only one day. My nerves got the best of me here as well. Since we’ve never done a hike like this, I would rather have more time and finish early than feel rushed.

El Camino de Santiago

Where will you sleep? Lodging along the Camino Francés

There are three types of lodging along the route: albergues, hostals/pensions, and hotels. The cost per night depends on the type of lodging chosen. It ranges from 6 euro to 25 euro a person on average.

The albergues are owned by the government, religious groups or individuals. The municipal albergues (government-owned) are for pilgrims only and have bunks but no private rooms. They are first come, first serve. No reservations can be made. They are usually the cheapest out of all the options. Some have cooking facilities, laundry facilities and most have internet services.

El Camino de Santiago

Private albergues are usually only for pilgrims, but can be reserved a day or two ahead by phone. They sometimes offer private rooms, but usually no private bathroom. Private rooms are at an additional cost. Some include breakfast and most have Wi-Fi. Since alburgues are for pilgrims only, one night is the maximum length of stay.

Hostals and pensiones are available to everyone and reservations can be made ahead of time. There are a variety of options for rooms. The more privacy, the more the price is. Most of them also include a simple breakfast and Wi-Fi. Hostals and pensiones rarely have kitchen facilities, but some provide an evening pilgrim’s menu and breakfast options for a fee. These can be reserved for more than one night.

Hotels are hotels: private room, private bath but more money.  What type of lodging are we planning on staying at?

We will switch it up depending on where we are and how good we are sleeping in the bunks. Since we plan on staying in the big cities at least two nights, we will probably stay in hotels for those. The rest of the time we will try going the cheap route and see how we like it.

El Camino de Santiago

Why does it matter if you are considered a Pilgrim?

In order to be considered a pilgrim, we will have to purchase a pilgrims credential, also known as a pilgrims passport, at the beginning of our journey. It gets stamped along the way and allows us to record where we’ve been, to stay in cheap lodging, and to have access to pilgrim meals. The pilgrim menu is offered for dinner and usually includes a three course meal for a low cost.

The passport will also provide us the opportunity to get the Compostela in Santiago’s cathedral which is a diploma issued by the Catholic Church honoring those who have completed the walk.

Someone asked me if we are going to get the diploma if we finish? ABSOLUTELY! If I drag my body for 500 miles, you bet your butt I’m getting any form of proof they are handing out!

El Camino de Santiago
Camino passport with stamps

What are you packing?

This has been the topic of discussion for the last few weeks. I will eventually provide a post and maybe video of everything we are bringing and things that worked and didn’t work for the walk. The difficult part is that we are not just going for the hike, we have an additional seven weeks exploring the two countries. BUT weight is of the utmost importance when doing a walk like this since we will be carrying everything we are bringing, every day. From what I read, the goal should be to only carry 10% of your body weight. I weigh 120 pounds so my pack should be 12 pounds or lighter!

El Camino de Santiago
Loving this little hiker!

My packing list as far as clothes go includes:

  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 2 long hiking pants (one that zippers off to shorts)
  • Capris (these may not make the cut if my pack weighs too much)
  • 2 short sleeve quick dry shirts
  • Long sleeve quick dry shirt
  • Rain gear (pants and top)
  • Zipper up fleece
  • Vest
  • Lightweight jacket
  • Pair of gym shoes
  • Pair of sandals
  • 2 hats
  • Bandana
  • Pair of gloves
  • Earmuffs

*Packing list may change based on how our preliminary walks go*

El Camino de Santiago

How are we preparing physically for the Camino?

Midwest winters are hard on our workout routine which usually just includes being outdoors. Since we are leaving in less than two months, we started walking recently and will continue to increase our mileage as the weeks go by. We will eventually start walking with our packs as well.

Do you have any other questions regarding our time on the Camino? If so, ask in the comments below!

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El Camino de Santiago

24 Responses

  1. Eeep!

    It’s on my list – probably in 2019 or 2020! Good luck! 🙂

    I’ve always wondered; where do you get the pilgrim passport from? Is there a ‘shop’ in Saint Jean Pied de Port that issues/sells them?

    Time of year matters from what I gather; you get fewer pilgrims on the trail in Spring/Autumn, so it makes it easier to find lodging, but conversely it makes it a lonelier voyage, and a colder one. Was that something you actively factored in to your plans?

    And … one thing that puts me off I have to say, and something I need to work on -> do either of you speak Spanish, as I … don’t but hopefully will be able to ‘get by’ by the time I come to do it!

    • Thanks! I’m excited, but nervous having never done something like this before. Yes, we pick up the passport at the Pilgrims Office in SJPP. Or you can have it mailed you for free beforehand. Not sure if that pertains to US residents only, will have to look that up. We chose the spring to avoid crowds but from what I hear the trail is still active with many people. The trail is gaining in popularity over the last few years. The cold and rain was one deterrent for this time of year, but we end in late May so we will have a mix of weather. I rather be cold (and prepared for that) than hot. I read there’s not a lot of shade on the trail. As far as Spainish goes, my husband downloaded a translator on his phone and I’ve been using DuoLingo to learn a little of the language. It will be quite the experience!! Hope you follow along with us ☺

  2. Chris Travels

    I have been fortunate to have walked two different Camino pilgrimages in Spain and will be going for a third time this year. I love how each day unfolds before me in nature’s setting by the power of my own two feet, and excitement in wondering what lies ahead. By our very design we are created for walking. My experiences walking these very special treks are high on my list of wonderful, unforgettable memories and I feel blessed!

    No special questions to ask you, but I do wish you a “Buen Camino”!

  3. Can’t wait to follow along vicariously!

  4. Wow! Looks totally awesome! I’ve heard of this and always wanted to try it. I’m a huge hiker and I’m looking forward to reading about your journey

  5. This is an awesome experience! I love adventure travel !! This is a great and inspirational guide for hikers 🙂

  6. Sounds like a real adventure. We ‘re thinking of doing a similar route this summer (in a car) but tracking the coastline instead of being more inland. Can’t wait to hear your stories and see your pics to give me some inspiration.

  7. I know a few people who have done just a small part of the Camino, but I’m impressed that you’re doing the entire thing. You won’t be disappointed. Even just to see that much of Spain on foot without it flying by in a car will be worth it. Spain is one of the most incredible countries in the world with the most wonderful people in the world and they will help you and cheer you on and do anything they can to get you to the end. This will be an experience you carry with you for the rest of your life and you probably will be talking about it for years to come! I can’t wait to see your follow-up post on how it goes!!!

  8. Just mentioned this to my husband and I think he is cringing and hoping I don’t mention it again 🙂 This will be an absolutely amazing experience for you, I’m quite sure. I really am intrigued by this but I’m not sure I could do the dorm style type of accom for too long :). Will be looking forward to your articles detailing your experiences.

    • I’m not sure about the dorm style rooms either especially if we have snorers! Walking all day, every day is challenging but take away quality sleep and I’d be a hot mess.

  9. Good luck guys! I’ve read about the Camino before but had no idea about the ‘Pilgrims passport’ what a great idea! Can’t wait to see how you guys get on….and good luck with your packing!

  10. Wow. That looks amazing. Looking forward to following your journey. That truly is a trip of a lifetime…

  11. What an exciting adventure! I had a teacher who walked this trail a few years ago. She was in her 60’s, so I’m sure you’ll be able to make it. You might want to think about bringing stuff for blisters and sore muscles though!

  12. In my opinion, walking El camino de Santiago is a ‘once in a lifetime experience’! I don’t think you are crazy or lucky, but blessed.

  13. We found out about the El camino de Santiago by watching “The Way” also. Love that movie. It’s on our list to do about 2 weeks in the next couple years. We are so excited as you must be since your trip is coming up so soon. We will be reading your reports as you are hiking the trail. Can’t wait to hear how it all goes!

  14. Yay I’m so excited for you! I will do this one day, and I will mainly be doing it for the challenge but also because it’s sort of the “thing to do” if you consider yourself an avid traveller. I LOVE the idea of it and want to start doing more solo multipule-day treks 🙂

  15. Wow this sounds like it will be an absolutely amazing journey! You guys are awesome, we would also love to do something like this one day! It’s gonna be tough a lot of the time but we are routing for you! Good luck

  16. That sounds amazing! Spain is my favourite country and I would love to explore it the way you gonna do it! I just need to find a buddy and start planning adventure like that 🙂 Cant wait to read all about it! Good luck !

  17. What a great read. I visited Compostela de Santiago a few years back on an Iberian Interlude cruise. I had no idea anything about it until I visited. Now, I have several friends who make this journey several times. In fact, I had dinner Saturday night with some French friends who made the trek last year. They are planning to go again this year but from the Portugal side route. Nice job of explaining how it works and what you should look for in planning.

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