What Is the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Walk?

Camino - Uphill through Woods from Arzua
Camino - Uphill through Woods from Arzua. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Question: What Is the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Walk? My friends are interested in walking the Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James. What is this walk?

Walking the Camino de Santiago

Since the 10th Century, pilgrims (peregrinos) have walked to shrine of the Apostle St. James at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. The routes originate from many points in Europe and are known as "Caminos," or Ways.

Walking a Camino was a traditional penance and pilgrims received an indulgence to remove the penalty of their sins. Today, walkers who complete at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) of a Camino earn their Compostela certificate when they reach Santiago. They carry a pilgrim passport or credencial which is stamped each day along the way.

In the last quarter century, these traditional routes have become very popular for walkers and bikers, who enjoy the well-marked routes and traditional accommodations. Walking the Camino can be done as a solo experience, with a small group or as an organized tour. Walkers are treated well by the locals as part of the 1,000-year tradition.

Camino de Santiago Routes

A Camino is any route ending in Santiago. Some popular routes include:

  • Camino Frances - the French Way: Routes from throughout France converge at the Pyrennes. Today, walkers often start from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport on the French side of the Pyrenees and Roncesvalles or Jaca on the Spanish side. The route then continues for 800 kilometers or 500 miles through Pamplona and Leon to Santiago de Compostela. This is the most popular route today.
  • The Portuguese Way - Camino Portugues: 227 kilometers, about 141 miles, from Porto in northern Portugal. The minimum 110-kilometer route starts at Tui at the border of Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese Way is less hilly than the French Way.
  • The Northern Way - El Camino Norte: This route along the northern coast of Spain was used to avoid the Moorish influences further south.

    Walking a Camino can take from a week to walk the minimum 100 kilometers to several weeks to walk a full length of one of the Caminos. Many Europeans walk the Camino in stages rather than the full length of a route continuously.

    Training to Walk the Camino de Santiago

    The traditional walking days on the Camino are 20 to 25 kilometers (13-15 miles) in length - a hilly and strenuous half marathon or more each day. The routes are marked with yellow arrows and monuments with the traditional scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrim.

    Walkers should train for walking days of 20 kilometers, wearing a pack and hiking on varied surfaces with hills. Trail shoes or boots are recommended. The terrain in Spain is a constant sequence of uphill and downhill. The paths have a variety of surfaces: rocks, gravel, dirt, asphalt, paving stones and some concrete sidewalks through town. A wise pilgrim trains for this in advance.

    Sleeping and Eating on the Camino de Santiago

    Albergue guesthouses and hostels are the traditional accommodations on the Camino.

    Peregrinos check in at an albergue at the end of their walking day, with no reservation required, although it is possible to call ahead to reserve a bed or a private room. As the Camino becomes more crowded, this can be a wise choice.

    Albergues have dormitory sleeping rooms for a minimal charge, shared by four or more peregrinos. Some albergues also have private rooms, for a higher fee. There are also small hotels and many bars have rooms available.

    Meals can be cooked in the communal kitchen at an albergue or purchased at cafes and bars. A three-course pilgrim meal with wine, beer or water is offered for a low price and served at hours earlier than the traditional late Spanish dinner. Cafes and bars are located frequently along the Camino and in towns for coffee, late breakfast and lunch. They have free restrooms for customers.

    Bag transfer service is available for pilgrims to have their pack transported from town to town so they can walk with only a small day pack. Peregrinos may decide to use the bag transfer after an exhausting day or an injury.

    Movies About the Camino

    Walking the Camino - My Way

    For a taste of the Camino, follow along with my photos and story of walking the Camino de Santiago French Way from Sarria.

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