El Camino de Santiago Image courtesy of jmgarzo
What is The Camino De Santiago?
The Camino De Santiago is said to be Spain’s oldest trail and it is dubbed as the most popular pilgrimage trek in the world. For over 1000 years human feet, animal hooves, and recently bike and motor vehicle tires have literally carved this majestic and historical Camino (main highway). It is said to have started when the remains of apostle St. James were discovered by a farmer in Galicia, Spain. Travelers from all over Europe came to see the remains, which marked the same trails which are being traversed to this date.
At the highest point of the Monte Irago, the topmost point of the Camino, pilgrims traditionally leave a rock to symbolize their journey to The Camino De Santiago.
The French Way (Camino Frances) is the portion of the Camino that binds various routes through France and across Spain. It is one of the most-travelled ancient trails in the world, estimated to date back from the 9th century. This route starts at St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, then crosses the Pyrenees and continues westward across Spain about 60 miles south of the coast. It passes through Leon, Burgos, Pamplona, and a host of smaller towns and villages.
Camino del Norte
The Northern Way (Camino del Norte) begins in Irun on the boundary with France and west across Bilbao, Santander, and Oveido. This route takes about 35 days to finish on average with a total distance of 510 miles. Accommodations are sparse along this route and this itinerary is mostly rigid.
The Portuguese Way (Camino Portugues) is relatively flat, without too many hills and begins in Lisbon and traverses Porto and Pontevedra on its way to Portugal. Distance is 380 miles with reasonable infrastructure along motorways.
The English Way (Camino Ingles) is a Y shaped route which begins in either La Coruna or Ferrol. Distance is 75 kilometers when started from La Coruna and normally takes 3 days. It is 70 miles when starting from Ferrol and normally takes 5 days.
The Original Route (Camino Primitivo) is the straightest route from Oveido to Santiago traversing through Lugo. Many pilgrims detour to this route to visit the city’s cathedral. The walk is about 180 miles and quite challenging since it includes hill climbing and the weather is always changeable.
Camino de Finisterre
The Finisterre Way (Camino de Finisterre) is located in one of the westernmost points in Europe. This route is 55 miles and best walked in 5 stages.
Refuges and Hostels
All along the various Camino routes there is an abundance of Pilgrim refuges and hostels (“hostals” in Spanish).
In the Camino Frances diary, I list all of the refuges on the Camino Frances way. There is a comparison table on this page that rates each refuge for it’s comfort and facilities.
I list whether each has laundry facilities and kitchen facilities, as well as how many beds they have. I also show how the distance of each Refuge from the previous refuge on the journey.
In many of the Hostals, they have rules about who can stay the night. Some of these Refuges will check that you have the official Pilgrim’s passport (or Credencial, in Spanish) with some stamps to show that you have travelled at least part of the Camino.
The Credencial is an exciting way to see how your pilgrimage has progressed as you get stamps from each of the Refuges along your journey. Here is a nice example of a Credencial with many stamps collected on the Camino Frances.
Camino de Santiago Passport With Stamps
There is also the coveted Camino completion certificate which you can gain at the Pilgrims Office. There are some rules to consider, for example if you start your journey outside of the Galicia region then you will only require one stamp per day. Once you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, you will need to show your stamped Pilgrim Passport at the Pilgrims Office to apply for your Compostela certificate. There is also a range of other certificates to apply for.
Santiago de Compostela Certificate
Definition of Spanish Terms
- Compostela – is the certificate awarded to pilgrims which you get at the end of the walk if you completed 100 kilometers or about 62 miles. You must mention that your goals were spiritual, else you get a plainer certificate
- Albergues and Refugios – are the refuge or hostel accommodation stops for travelers and pilgrims. These are mostly church-run and are quite cheap.
- Credential – is the passport for pilgrims and issued by Camino-friendly organizations. Each accommodation has its own stamp which you will receive each night. You will need this Credential to be able to stay in the Albergues and Refugios. And you need to get a complete record of stamps to get your Compostela.
- Camino – means road or path. Many people follow the route as a pilgrimage for religious reasons, but recently the Camino has been popular with cyclists and hiking enthusiasts.
A Brief History Of Camino de Santiago
In recent years, hikers around the world are reliving Spain’s Camino De Santiago. The city of Santiago de Compostela is the heart of the Camino and it is where the name is derived from.
It is in Spain’s far northwest where legends tell about the martyrdom of St. James who is buried in the city which then became the rallying point of the Europeans in fighting the Moors during the 8th century. History states that the Camino was responsible for the largest movement of people in Europe during the Middle Ages.
People from all walks of life made their way to Santiago de Compostela where a pilgrim mass and certificate of pilgrimage were believed to ensure their souls will spend less time in purgatory.
These days there are an overabundance of travel guidebooks and online resources to help you plan your very own tour of The Camino De Santiago.
Tours also abound for this destination and they vary in intensity and levels of difficulty. So, to provide readers with a simple reference, I have classified all the tours I found across the internet into 2 categories, light tours meaning very little or no difficulty at all and the self-guided tours wherein levels of difficulty mostly ranges between medium to high.
History and Background of the Camino
Camino De Santiago Light Tours:
- Half -day Way of St. James Hiking tour from San Sebastian – for this tour, you can engage yourself in a nature hiking walk of Mount Ulia so to escape a half-day away from the crowds of San Sebastian. You can visit local villages, experience the remarkable Basque landscape, and learn about the locale. You can also take a boat ride across Pasaia San Pedro’s bay. Tour starts at central location in San Sebastian where you shall meet your tour guide and tour group
- Camino de Santiago: Camino Primitivo – this is a not so light tour but lighter compared to the self-guided tours. Duration is 15 days/ 14 nights covering 200 miles through mountains and meadows of Northern Spain. It is described as a heart-centered companionship tour where nourishment is nature-based. Tour starts from the Cathedral de San Salvador in Oviedo Spain and ends at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.
- Camino de Santiago Trek – begins in La Coruna and ends in London. Duration is 9 days and tour include accommodation in a hotel, an expert guide, meals, and transportation
- Cycle the Camino de Santiago – is a bicycle tour which starts and ends in Oveido. Duration is 8 days and takes you through Oviedo in Spain and 11 other destinations also within Spain. Tour includes accommodation in a hotel as well as an expert guide, meals, and transportation
- Walk the Camino de Santiago – is a hiking and trekking tour which starts in Lugo and ends in Santiago. Duration is 8 days and covers Lugo in Spain, with it’s World Heritage listed Roman Walls and 4 other destinations also within Spain. This tour includes accommodation in a hotel as well as an expert guide, meals, and transportation
- Camino de Santiago Encompassed – is an in-depth cultural tour and starts in Madrid and ends in Santiago de Compostela. Duration is 10 days and covers Madrid and 6 other destinations within Spain. This tour includes accommodation in a hotel, an expert guide, meals, and transportation
- Walk the Camino de Santiago the French Way – (Camino Frnces) is a walking tour which begins in Sarria and ends in Santiago de Compostela. Duration is 8 days across Sarria and 2 other destinations also within Spain. This tour includes accommodation in a hotel, an expert guide, meals, and transportation
- The Camino, Part 1 – is a hiking and trekking tour which begins in Biarritz and ends in Estella. Duration is 8 days across Biarritz in France and 5 other destinations in Europe. This tour covers accommodation, an expert guide, and meals.
The Camino de Santiago Self-Guided Tours:
- 10-Day Adventure – this is the last 150K from O’ Çebreiro to Santiago. Duration is 10 days / 9 nights covering 150 kilometers or 93 miles. The level of difficulty is medium to high. This is the Walk of St. James from Santiago’s O’ Cebreiro in a total of 8 stages full walk in Galicia. For this tour, introductions are made in Madrid and then you will proceed to O’ Cebreiro where you shall begin your walk the next day. There are reserved accommodations at the end of each 8 stages, but you will have to walk independently and on your own each day in this tour.
- Last 100 km’s Self-Guided 8-Day Camino – this is a 100 kilometers walk to Santiago coming from Sarria. Duration is 8 days/ 7 nights covering 117 kilometers or 72.7 miles. The level of difficulty is medium to high. For this tour, introductions and meet and greet are made in Madrid and then you will proceed to Sarria by train where you shall begin your walk the next day. There are reserved accommodations at the end of each stage, but you will have to walk independently and on your own each day in this tour.
- Camino Lite – this is the final 100 kilometers walk of the French Way in short stages. Duration is 12 days/ 11 nights covering 117 kilometers or 72.7 miles with a low level of difficulty. Since this tour is in shorter stages for your comfort. This is designed to walk the last 100 kilometers needed to obtain the Compostela certification from Sarria in 9 short stages, with an average of 13 kilometers or 8 miles per day. In this tour you can immerse yourself in the culture of Galicia and experience a truly unique tour while you walk on your own
- Portuguese Coast Camino – this is a tour along the majestic coasts of Spain and Portugal. Duration is 15 days/ 14 nights covering 261 kilometers or 162.1 miles with a medium level of difficulty. For this walk, you start in Porto along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. You will be passing through important cities in Spain and Portugal and experience a variety of biological and landscape values. For this tour you will pass through beautiful environment that takes advantage of the shoreline and trails along the ocean such as dune cords, cliffs, beaches and marshes, and stunning landscapes
- Portuguese Adventure – is a walk over the border from Portugal to Spain. Duration is 11 days/ 10 nights covering a distance of 154 kilometers or 96 miles and with a level of difficulty from medium to high. This is a spectacular tour wherein you start your walk in the beautiful town of Ponte de Lima and make your way to Santiago de Compostela. You will be travelling through wild forests, vineyards, historical villas, and coastal cliffs. Introductions and meet and greet in Madrid then you will be transferred to Ponte de Lima where you will begin your walk the following day. There are reserved accommodations at the end of each stage, but you will walk independently and on your own for this tour
- Epic Adventure – this is a self-piloted 39-day walk from France to Spain by means of the original French Way. Duration is 39 days / 38 nights covering 752 kilometers or 467 miles. The level of difficulty is medium to high. This is the complete French Way self-directed from the French boundary. You will experience travelling through Spain’s history and varied landscapes such as the Roncesvalles’ Pyrenees, the pines of Navarra, the La Rioja vineyards which are known to be sweet smelling, and the wide Castilian plains, until you reach the mountains and Galicia’s oak and chestnut tree forests. You will walk independently and on your own for this tour.
Preparing for A Tour of The Camino De Santiago
Just like any travelling, planning is very essential and make sure to bring along guidebooks and pre-plan and pre-book all accommodations and destinations and necessary tours to make sure you maximize your vacation days. The guidebook by the Confraternity of St. James is highly recommended. Also, it is ok to make adjustments in your tour, just make sure you have the necessary arrangements confirmed.
Actually, there is very little technical walking on the main Camino routes, this is mostly on well-maintained pavements and tracks, so you do not really need much backpacking experience. About 300,000 pilgrims walk the Camino every year and many of them are in the senior age group so there is no need to worry, rather you just engage in this breathtaking adventure.
If you are the type of traveller who does not like to hike much, then just get out and go around your sight seeing for an hour or two. Just be ready with your comfortable and reliable walking shoes.
As to the necessary clothing and gear, this will depend on the type of tour you planned yourself into. Make sure also to carry the load which your body type allows, never take overload as this will just make your trek a nightmare. And always bring along the water, light food, emergency kit, sunscreen, and never forget your passport and other travel documents.
Packing for the Camino de Santiago
As I mentioned above, there is a basic list of neccessities that you will need to carry with you at all times while walking the Camino. Do remember to keep it light. On the Route page I show that most of the refuges do have both laundry and kitchen facilities. This means that you can get away with minimal clothing.
Clothes are often among the heaviest items that you will want to carry with you but there are lots of specialist lightweight hiking clothes available if you want to pay the price for them.
For a detailed list of what to carry in your rucksack, you can check my Camino packing list. Hopefully this will give you some good ideas of what to carry with you. Some unexpected items like bed bug spray are great advice!
Sounds of the Camino
If you are so inclined, and why not, if you are out hiking in the vast natural landscape of Galicia? You can listen. In fact you will have miles and miles to listen. The further yu walk, the more the sounds of the Camino will come alive to you.
If you are walking alone you will find that these sounds become a recogniseable and friendly song to accompany your journey. Pilgrims often remark that the sounds of the birds, wildlife, livestock, wind, sea, trees and grass speak to them in songs during visions while walking. I am sure that they are not alone. In fact, the sounds of the Camino are partof what make the Galician countryside such a marvellous place.
On my second camino on May 2001, I took along a small mini-disc recorder, a Sony MZ-G750, and a stereo microphone to try and record some of the fabulous sounds I heard on my first camino. Although I did not get the snoring, I recorded most of the other characteristic sounds that can be heard. They are all in MP3 format which I hope you can use.
Camino de Santiago Books
There has probably been hundreds of books written about the Camino de Santiago. The earliest known book called the Codex Calixtinus, which was written sometime in the 12th Century about the Camino Frances and is kept in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This Medieval Pilgrims guide is still available today along with many other books written since. I have attempted to cover some of my favourite Camino books and travel guides on the Camino books page.
I have listed some links to old websites that inspired me over the years. When I started walking the Camino the Internet was brand new and so there was not much available, but here are some of the sites that moved and informed me all those years ago. Some are not online any more, but those that are still around are listed on the About page.
Because the Camino is literally over 700 years old, a lot of organisations have grown up around it. However, for official, local information you can rely on the following official organisations. Take a good look and read up as much as you can before you go.
- The Confraternity of St James website https://www.csj.org.uk
- The Spanish tourist office website https://www.spain.info
- The Galician tourist office website http://www.turismo.gal
Enjoy Your Camino Adventure!
There is amazing camaraderie on the route to The Camino De Santiago and the people you meet and the stories you share are all part of the atmosphere.
To all travelers and pilgrims out there, take note that The Camino De Santiago is not a race, so take your time and enjoy the scenery.