Salvator ambulado – St. Augustine
I recently came back from the Camino de Santiago. My son, my friend and I walked approximately 250 km from Leon to Santiago for two and a half weeks. And many people have been asking me all sorts of questions upon my return – what it was like, how many kilometers did I walk each day, did I lose any toe nails? So I thought I would write a blog giving as much advice as I can based on my own personal experiences.
One thing to remember before you read on is that everyone has their own Camino – someone might be able to walk for 40 km a day with a 12 kilogram backpack, while someone might only be able to walk for 15 kilometers wearing a 6 kilogram back pack. Someone will be completely self sufficient, making their own meals each day, doing their own washing, some even opt to camp out, while others will eat out, do their washing in a washing machine, sleep in hotels, while others still, like me, will do a bit of everything. Listen to what your body and your instincts tell you, in other words, do what’s right by you, because it’s YOUR Camino and no one else’s…
Again, this information is based on my own personal experiences. Read about other people’s as much as possible before you leave and come to your own conclusions.
And it would be really great if you have done the Camino to comment or add some of your own advice to help me and others.
There are a number of routes and ways leading to Santiago de Compostela – I met a man who had walked from Vienna, a Czech man who had walked from Lourdes, a Dutch man who had walked from Holland, a couple from New Zealand who had walked from Le Puy and travelling back from Madrid, I met two Italian girls who had done the Camino Norde. In two years time I plan to do the Camino Portuguese starting from Porto. Here are most of the routes on one map.
The most famous, popular and best marked route, and the one I chose to do, is the Camino Frances, stretching just under 800 kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. Brierley’s guide (see further below) divides the Camino into 33 walking days. At this point in my life, I don’t have time to do it in one go and did in in three years, first going from St. Jean to Los Arcos, the following year from Logrono to Carrion de los Condes and this year from Leon to Santiago. Approximately 10% of pilgrims decide to go beyond Santiago and walk to Fisterra in Galician or Finisterre in English, the end of the world. I bussed it
And before you merrily set off on your way, don’t forget to pick up your credential or pilgrim’s passport! After a bit of walking, it should look like this:
Of all the equipment you’ll pack for your Camino, your boots are the most important – you’ll be walking in them for at least 6 to 8 hours a day, maybe even more depending on the etape. And by boots, I mean BOOTS. Not hiking shoes, sneakers or any other pair of footwear, hiking BOOTS. Make sure they’re comfortable, sturdy but not too heavy (they don’t have to be mountaineering boots) and waterproof because no matter what the season, you’ll almost certainly come across rain. IMHO, they should go over your ankle to give you support in case you trip. If they’re new, for the love of your feet, make sure to wear them out at least 6 months to a year before your Camino. It may sound like a long time but trust me, your feet will thank you! The most horrendous and horrific blisters occur if you wear new boots to the Camino. Good hiking supply shops usually have a “hill” where you can try the boots on walking up and down, to see if they hurt your toes or the back of your feet. My ones are Goretex leather Mammut and I can’t recommend them enough.
One thing that you have to remember before your Camino – just like your boots, you’ll be lugging your backpack around for at least 6 to 8 plus hours a day. Make sure it’s light, comfortable, waterproof (additional protection can be be provided with a cover and/or poncho. My advice is to, just in case, put all your stuff in plastic bags) and can fit everything in. If you’re not taking a tent, I would say 60 to 70 liters is more than sufficient. Any more than that and you’ll be tempted to stuff it with all sorts of unnecessary things. Even though I haven’t personally tried it out, something that is on my wish list is a back pack that some friends from New Zealand that we met on the Camino had – Aarn. They’re pricey but seem very very comfortable.
I still haven’t come up with the ultimate packing list – I don’t think anyone has, it’s the Holy Grail of the Camino! Even though I weigh everything and try to pack as little and as lightly as possible, I still find my pack is too heavy for my liking. In any case, I came as close as possible to it on my most recent Camino, so here is a list of items I packed, not including what I wore. Of course, depending on the season and your own personal preferences, you’ll have to tweak the list. Try to buy the best equipment you can with the money you have. Note that I did washing every day or many people would have avoided me!
- 1 quick drying t-shirt (again, although I haven’t tried them, our above mentioned New Zealand friends had merino t-shirts that are odour resistant and you only have to wash every few days. And again, they’re pricy, but I will probably invest in one for my next Camino)
- 1 long sleeved fleecy top
- 1 singlet
- 1 pair of trousers (I had running tights, mainly to give support to my rickety rackety knees, but water resistant, quick drying, adjustable hiking trousers are great)
- 1 pair of running shorts (if it’s summer and your trousers don’t adjust to shorts)
- 2 pairs of underpants
- 1 bra
- 2 pairs of hiking socks
- Sun hat
- Bandana (which doubled as an eye mask when going to sleep)
- Towel (I bought a 50 x 50 cm fleecy cleaning cloth that was very water absorbent and ultra light, but a microfibre towel is great too)
- Light, Mary-made sleeping bag (liners are good too as most albergues have blankets if it gets chilly at night)
- Inflatable pillow
- Goretex raincoat (or poncho)
- Teva sandals (most people take thongs but I haven’t worn them since I broke my pinky finger in 2nd class when I slipped over wearing them)
- 1 liter Sigg bottle (some people have a camel pack which seems like a cool idea to me although I’ve never tried it)
- Swiss army knife
- Teaspoon and small fork
- Brierley’s guide book (aka the Holy Bible of the Camino. His texts can sometimes be a bit annoying but I highly recommend taking the guide book along as it has everything in it from maps with distances and topography, a full list of albergues to alternative routes and points of interest along the way)
- Small rock for La Cruz de Ferro
- Scallop shell for backpack
And let me tell you, I used every single item. The t-shirt and shorts got lost along the way, so thank goodness I had the singlet or a lot of people would have avoided walking down wind of me! Some people also take a sleeping mat but personally, I never found it necessary.
Now, there are always those “silly” things that you think you won’t be able to live without and just have to take with you (although the most valuable lesson of the Camino is learning how little we can live without). Think very carefully about how important those things are to you before you pack them and how often you will be using them. In any case, anything you don’t need can always be shipped home or left at the albergue (I think there are a lot of grateful libraries along the way because of all the books people leave behind!) Here’s my list of silly things:
- Cell phone (download a flashlight app on your phone so you can see in the dark while packing in the morning. A headlight is a good idea if you plan to walk before sunlight so you don’t bump into a tree. Make sure it’s light, pardon the pun! Petzl are pricy but the best on the market)
- iPad (before you judge me, I used it for internet, as a camera, a recording device for a couple of songs I came up with along the way, a piano, a listening device and a translator. So even though it was weighty, it was worth it!)
- Chargers for cell phone and iPad
As to your toiletries bag, you can’t go wrong with soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush. My skin, especially my hands, get horribly dry so I took a tub of Vaseline which tripled as a face/lip/hand cream. And I took a marseille soap so that I could use it for washing my clothes and myself. My hair’s long so I braided it and didn’t wash it for two and a half weeks (don’t ask about when the time came to unbraid it!), but if, unlike me, you plan to wash your hair, my advice is to take a shampoo soap. Definitely take some painkillers (preferably ibrufen), ice gel for your legs, bandaids/Compeed and sun block. Safety pins are a light alternative to clothes pegs, so pack a dozen as some albergues don’t have them.
To conclude, I said it once, I’ll say it again – take as little you can and pack as lightly as possible. Less is more. Your shoulders, back, hips and knees will love you for it. And although it goes without saying, I will say it any way – please do your shopping for home on the last day of your Camino!
Not everyone uses them, but I don’t think I would have been able to have done the Camino without them. I prefer nordic walking poles because they have gloves rather than straps and are for me personally more comfortable to use (I’ve used both kinds of poles). But no matter, find some that are light, comfortable, sturdy and foldable so you can pack them in your pack when travelling. Most people have rubber caps on their poles but I prefer to have spikes so I can poke them into the dirt and get more push. When unfolding them, make sure that they’re the right length for your height. You can see how to measure them in this video. Do this before you leave and make a mental note of the length.
Now, you’re probably thinking what the hey? Again, not everyone does it, or better said, not enough people do it, but I swear by stretching before sitting down and taking a break or a nap. You don’t have to stretch for half an hour, a few minutes is more than enough. Your whole body will be grateful when you eventually, ever so slowly, and sometimes painfully, get up :). Here are some stretches you can do.
Eating and sleeping
The age old question that everyone asks me when I return is – how much does the Camino cost? My answer always is – it depends on where you eat and where you sleep. If you make all your own meals, sleep in municipal or parish albergues, do all your own washing and don’t splurge even a bit, you might need about 20 euros a day. If not, 30 to 40 euros a day if you sleep in private albergues, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in a restaurant/bar, do your washing in a washing machine and have the occasional snack along the way, more if you sleep in hotels or casa rurals. Cash is the way to go on the Camino because some albergues don’t accept credit cards.
If you see that the Camino is quite crowded (this can especially be the case from Sarria to Santiago), try booking ahead. Bedbugs are an ever present problem although I personally have never gotten them. Avoid sleeping directly on mattresses/pillows and you should be right. Be prepared for all manner of things disturbing your sleep – the creaking of bunk beds, snoring, smelly feet, people waking up at 4:30. Thankfully, most albergues have a lights out policy at 10:00/11:00 pm. You can find a relatively updated list of albergues with all amenities here.
Many people train before the Camino but I personally think that if you don’t have any serious health problems and are a relatively fit and active person, you don’t need to do any extra training. If you sit at a desk all day and then in front of the TV once you get home, doing some brisk walking will help – maybe walking or cycling to and from work is a good idea if you don’t time to fit in extra training. Everyone’s different but I have seen people of all ages and from all walks of life (pardon the pun!) do the Camino with few problems.
Try to plan and buy your tickets well before your Camino. I even buy bus and train tickets via Alsa and Renfe before I go, to avoid queues, rushing and lack of seats. But be flexible.
You’ll get by well enough with English, but it isn’t a bad idea to learn a bit of Spanish before you go. You’ll find phrases such as “una cama, por favor” or “donde estan los aseos, por favor?” particularly helpful when you come across a 70 year old abuela on the other side of the counter who doesn’t speak a word of English!
Although it certainly isn’t necessary, but being a foodie, I like to find out what kind of food is the specialty of the place or region I’ll be visiting – chorizo in Pamplona, pintxos in Burgos, wine in Rioja, black pudding in Leon, seafood in Galicia. It’s not easy being a vegetarian in Spain, even more so a vegan, but don’t lose hope, it isn’t impossible, you just have to be a bit more inventive.
Having an occasional day break, especially if you’ll be doing the Camino all in one go, is good, giving the body and soul a bit of a rest. So give yourself some cushion days and see where it would be interesting to stay for more than one night. I personally think the bigger cities (Pamplona, Burgos, Leon…) are a good idea as there are always lots of attractions to see and new foods to try!
If you really want to get into the Camino spirit before you leave, definitely watch “The Way” starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
I think one of the most important things is to keep an open mind. As I said at the beginning, this is your Camino, no one else’s. Maybe you planned to walk 28 km on a particular day and could only walk 15 km. Circumstances change, go with the flow and don’t get down. If you find yourself bussing occasionally, trust me, many do. I did. Don’t get down about it and think you’re cheating. You’re not. And even though you’re a pilgrim, splashing out sometimes and sleeping at a 5 star hotel or having a fancy meal is not a sin (even though I didn’t stay there, our New Zealand friends treated us to breakfast at the Parador in Leon and I can highly recommend it!). Listen to you body and heart, they’ll be grateful.
And don’t race – try to stop and smell the flowers, take some photos, have a coffee and a chat, sit on a rock and look at the sunrise and sunset, pat the horses, listen to the rhythm of your feet, hear the melodies of the birds around you, stuff yourself with tapas/pintxos, enjoy every moment of it, regardless of the fact that your feet are telling you otherwise! And of course, Buen Camino!