Planning for Your Camino de Santiago Walk

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Choices to Make for Your Camino Walk

Camino de Santiago Route Marker
Camino de Santiago Route Marker. Wendy Bumgardner ©

You may be inspired to walk Camino de Santiago in Spain, perhaps by books and movies such as The Way. Once you have the time to make the journey, you need to start planning.

Which Camino Route?

There is no one Camino. There are numerous routes through Europe, Spain, and Portugal to reach Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain in the area of Galicia. Within a route, there are many starting places. The shortest Camino you can walk and earn the Compostela certificate is 62 miles (100 kilometers). 

  • Camino Frances—The French Way: This is the most popular route, from the France at Saint Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. The route continues 790 kilometers (500 miles) through Pamplona and Leon to Santiago de Compostela. The shortest official route begins in Sarria and you would complete 116 kilometers from that town. The route is very well-marked and supported and is a good choice for your first Camino.
  • Camino Portugues—The Portuguese Way: This is another popular route and often the one people enjoy for their second Camino. From Porto, the route is 141 miles or 227 kilometers. The shortest official route is from Tui, at 110 kilometers.
  • El Camino Norte—The Northern Way: This route along the northern coast of Spain was used in historic times to avoid the Moorish influences further south. Its 825 kilometers begin at the French border in Irun, it passes through San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, and Oviedo. Walkers now choose it because it is less crowded as well as offering a variety of scenery, although it is less well-marked and there are not as many albergues in the eastern stages.
  • There are many other routes. You can find advice on walking different routes of the Camino de Santiago online.

How Far?

Many Europeans walk the Camino in stages, spending a couple of weeks each year walking a segment before finishing. But Americans and non-Europeans often want to make the most of the plane ticket and walk the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port in France on the Camino Frances, a journey of 35 days or more.

You may decide that a shorter, easier Camino is best, given many factors such as the time you can spend away from home, the number of days you want to walk, and your physical condition. Some people want an athletic challenge while others want to savor simple days spent walking in the countryside without distance or time stress. The shorter Camino Frances route from Sarria is the most popular starting point, with over 25 percent of the pilgrims starting there compared with up to 15 percent starting over the French border, according to the official Camino statistics. It takes only a week or less to complete.

Your decision can come as you train for multi-day walks and decide what suits you physically, psychologically, and spiritually. You may decide to walk from St. Jean Pied de Port, Leon, Sarria, or any point in between. Many also walk the first segments from St. Jean over the Pyrenees and then take the train across the Meseta and resume their walk closer to Santiago.

Here are typical lengths of time needed to walk different distances on the Camino Frances, assuming that you walk about 12 to 17 miles each day:

  • St. Jean Pied de Port: five weeks
  • Pamplona or Logroño: four weeks
  • Burgos: three weeks
  • Leon or Ponferrada: two weeks
  • Sarria: one week

How Far Each Day?

Traditional daily walking distances on the Camino are 20 kilometers (12 to 13 miles) or more. On some legs of the journey, you have no choice as the accommodations are that far apart. But the boom in interest in the Camino has resulted in more places to stay, at traditional albergues (pilgrim hostels) or small hotels.

You may also decide to walk a shorter distance each day. There are "easy walking" itineraries available, although they are not possible for every stage. If you are staying at albergues, you risk not being able to stop where you wish because there is "no room at the inn." If you are staying at small hotels, you may be able to book such an itinerary.

While not ideal, it is also possible to use taxis along the Camino to transport you to accommodations for the night and then back in the morning to where you ended the previous day's walk. If you find yourself unable to make it to the next town, you may be able to call a taxi from a cafe/bar on the route.

Training

You need to train for your Camino walk in specific ways. You will need to steadily build the mileage of your long walk for the week. This prepares not only your muscles and aerobic conditioning, but also toughens your feet so you are more resistant to blisters. You should also train for hills, as all of the Camino routes have constant hills, up and down. You need to train wearing your Camino gear and clothing so you know how it performs. You should allow three to six months of training before your Camino.

Accommodations

The Camino Frances is getting more congested each year. If you plan to stay in albergues, you may not be able to secure a bed simply by arriving in the next town or hamlet. Nowadays, you are able to call ahead to reserve a room or space on the same day.

Another option is to book at small hotels along the way rather than take your chances at securing an albergue bunk. Albergues have group sleeping accommodations and you will be assigned a bunk without being able to make a choice. Bathing, restrooms, dining, and clothes washing facilities are shared. You will enjoy much camaraderie and quickly make friends and form a "Camino family." Many say these are the best memories they form walking the Camino.

However, there are other options if you'd rather not share sleeping quarters with many others. Many albergues have private rooms you can call ahead to request. Small hotels are also available on many stages and can be reserved. You may also use a company such as Camino Ways to book your small hotel accommodations throughout your journey. The disadvantage in this is that it costs more and you are locked into getting to your destination each day. You may also not meet as many other pilgrims along the way.

Luggage Transfer

While traditional pilgrims carry everything on their back, you can use luggage transfer services to move your bag for you, allowing you to walk wearing only a smaller day pack. This is available at albergues as well as small hotels along most of the routes. Even hardy pilgrims use it if they are experiencing aches or minor injuries. When using Camino Ways and similar companies to book your accommodations, it is often included.

Solo or Not?

Many pilgrims will highly recommend walking the Camino solo. The reasons are that everyone will need a different pace, have injuries, or need a rest or rest day at different times. Many people who start together find they need to split up. It is generally safe for a woman to walk the camino alone, far safer than doing so in a city or on a trail in the U.S. Besides there being an extremely low risk of personal crime on the Camino, all pilgrims look out for each other and offer assistance. Everyone is going the same way and views all others as part of their spiritual family.

You can join groups who walk the Camino together, including guided groups, but that is usually unnecessary due to the route being well-marked and mapped, with frequent cafe/bars for refreshments on most segments.

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Traditional vs. Tourogrino on the Camino de Santiago

Pilgrim Statues - Monte do Gozo
Pilgrim Statues - Monte do Gozo. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Walkers on the Camino de Santiago say, "Walk your own Camino," but you still hear rumblings of resentment or disdain against those who don't walk it in as traditional of a way as possible. Postings on social media can show disdain for those who don't start at the French border, cross the Pyrenees, walk 20 kilometers or more per day, carry a 20-pound pack, and sleep in the dormitories at albergues.

These snide comments are usually quickly countered by those reminding everyone that each pilgrim has their own challenges, goals, and needs. The Camino isn't just for the strong and athletic, and even those walkers can find themselves injured and exhausted. The Camino is also for those who want a contemplative walk. The fact that the shorter routes are the most popular shows that not all want a massive month-plus walk.

Suffering vs. Savoring

Catholic tradition speaks of redemptive suffering, but you aren't required to seek out ways to suffer. Self-mortification is no longer in vogue. The Camino can call you spiritually, to literally walk the path taken by pilgrims for over 1000 years as they sought forgiveness and a new life.

You will be surrounded by the pilgrims of today walking each for their own reason—adventure, physical challenge, spiritual cleansing, emotional healing. Suffering may be part of what you seek, but that is your choice. You may instead want positive energy to spend seeing what is around you and connecting with the people you meet. You may want to concentrate on savoring your experiences rather than suffering. You may realize that your competitive nature may predominate if you feel you have to rush down the trail to beat others to the next albergue.

You can take steps to ensure you don't cause suffering to walkers who are doing a longer or more vigorous journey. They are often most resentful because those starting in Sarria are taking up beds in the albergues and those walking without a pack may get to the albergue earlier to snag a scarce bed in the most-crowded months.

By staying at small hotels rather than at the albergues, you would not taking a bed away from people who are in the last push of their long journey. That makes your Camino as least-competitive as possible.

If you truly miss the suffering, there can always be another Camino journey in the coming years.

Being a "Tourogrino"

Sylvia Nilsen walked the Camino four times the traditional way, "doing the albergues, backpacks, walk-every-inch-without-cheating." Now she says she is paying back by being a "tourogrino." She leads small groups on the Camino with AmaWalkers Camino. Her words may dissolve any guilt about choosing that path.

  • "I am a proud tourogrino who is making a difference to the Spanish economy.
  • "I stay in private rooms in albergues, pensions and Casa Rural, which helps the established hospitality industry (and leaves the bunks free for new pilgrims).
  • "I send my backpack ahead if I want to (thereby supporting the local transfer companies).
  • "I stop for lunch if I want to because I don't have to join the rush for beds (helping the restaurant businesses)
  • "I do detours and visit local places of interest because I have lots of time to do that, which supports the local tourism industry.
  • "I am now proud to say that I've retired to make way for all the new first time pilgrims who want a hard, mendicant, you-have-to-suffer-to-make-it-real experience. And I am paying back by being a tourogrino. Viva el Camino!"

Book: "A Survival Guide to the Camino de Santiago in Galicia," by Jeffery Barrera
ISBN 9781502356192
This book covers the Galicia stages of the Camino de Santiago in detail for those who want to savor it. It is written by a local. It includes Camino traditions, current local customs and interesting places that are adjacent to the Camino.

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