I first heard about the Camino de Santiago in 2003 from a friend. The more he talked about it, the more my interest grew. In 2004 I walked the most popular Camino de Santiago route called the Camino Frances. At that time, I didn’t even know there was more than one Camino de Santiago route or that it is also referred to as the Way of St James.
Over 30 days I walked up the Pyrenees from Saint Jean Pied de Port in southern France. Then into Spain and downhill into Roncesvalles where pilgrims have stayed since the middle ages. Then onward to Pamplona, famous for the running of the bulls, a city with some of the best tapas I have ever eaten. Always heading west to Santiago de Compostela.
My Camino pilgrimage continued to Puenta la Reina where nearby there is a free wine fountain for pilgrims. Then on through Logrono and stopping briefly in Burgos to admire the stunning cathedral while saying hello to El Cid as I walked by.
Leaving Burgos we climbed up onto the Meseta, a beautiful barren landscape with the Picos de Europa mountains always away in the distance to the west then the north. I stayed overnight in Leon, one of my favorite cities. Then I wandered through the smaller cities of Astorga and Ponferrada with their tales of the Knights Templar. Eventually, after enjoying the eucalyptus forest along the last stretch, I walked into Santiago de Compostela, the end of one journey, and start another.
In the process, I became a fan of the Camino de Santiago, pilgrimages, and very long distance hikes. This website is the result of that first pilgrimage. I consider myself very fortunate to have now walked three different Camino routes in Spain and France, (twice on the French Camino, once on the Aragonese Way, the only time we got lost, and my last was on the Le Puy route in France).
All of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes lead to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The Camino de Santiago routes were first walked only as a pilgrimage to the remains of St James. His remains are in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Today modern pilgrims walk for many different reasons.
When I first walked the Camino de Santiago there was very little information online and only a few guidebooks. This allowed for a freedom of mind that is perhaps no longer experienced. I packed too many things in my backpack believing that I would be in remote areas for the next 4 weeks, I chuckle at how little I knew.
I just walked each day and did not book accommodation ahead. I stayed mostly in pilgrim hostels called albergues, and I walked in tandem with many that started at the same time and made friends that I still keep in contact with today. More importantly, I met my wife.
For modern pilgrims, the overwhelming information online today can result in over planning. The Camino de Santiago is certainly one place where you can turn up and just walk. There is no right or wrong way to get to Santiago de Compostela, and you can start anywhere that suits you.
It is your Camino – do it whatever way you want.
Camino de Santiago Routes
Each of the Camino routes becomes more developed each year. There are more pensions ( Bed and Breakfast), tour companies, bag caring companies, and pilgrims. If you want to find quiet pick one of the lesser walked routes, like the Portuguese coastal Camino, the Camino Inglés, or the Camino del Norte, alternatively go in the offseason.
The Camino Frances
The French Way at 500 miles, (800 km), is the most popular and well-known of all the routes, more than 100,000 pilgrims walk this route each year. If you are Spanish, it traditionally starts in Roncesvalles, but it starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port for the rest of us. This makes for a very tough first day up and over the Pyrenees, though you can split this section into two by staying overnight at Orrison.
The Camino Portuguese
Based on the number of people walking the route the Camino Portuguese is the second most popular route, (621 km). The full route starts in Lisbon, most pilgrims start in Porto or Tui, (240 km & 119). This route is less strenuous.
The Camino del Norte
The Camino del Norte is the toughest route and perhaps the most beautiful, at 825 km, you walk along the coast of Northern Spain and then turn south to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino del Norte, also known as the Northern Way, is gaining in popularity and becoming one of the main routes, but it has many steep climbs and descents due to its proximity to the coast.
The Camino Primitivo
At only 261 km the Camino Primitivo also known as Camino Original can look like an easy Camino route. But, it is a tough hilly 261km, though it is wonderfully quiet.
The Camino Finisterre
This route to Finisterre and on to Muxia is not technically a Camino route as it does not qualify the pilgrim for a Compostela certificate. A Camino technically finishes in Santiago de Compostela. Many pilgrims, like me, get the bus to Finisterre and walk to the lighthouse and watch the sunset into the Atlantic. This was once known as the end of the world. It is a great circular route.
The English Way
The shortest of all the Caminos, the English way, also known as the Camino Ingles, starts on the north coast at Ferrol or A Coruna. But, still, more than 7,000 walk this each year.
The Via de la Plata
The Via de la Plata start in Seville is also known as the Silver Route, (1,000 km). This is the quietest, longest of all the Camino routes, it also has the least infrastructure to aid pilgrims. It is not recommended to walk at the height of summer as temperatures easily get to 40 celsius, 104 Fahrenheit.
There are other less known and less walked Camino de Santiago routes: Camino Madrid, The Camino Aragon which joins the Camino Frances, the Tunnel Way, the Camino Sanabrés, the Camino Mozárabe, the Camino de Invierno, the Camino de Levante. Many of these lesser walked routes are not well waymarked.
The above are the routes in Spain and Portugal. There are four main routes in France, Paris and Tours route, the Vézelay route, the Le Puy route, and Arles Way. It is worth noting that the Camino de Santiago trails extend across the whole of Europe.
A Short History of the Camino de Santiago
Legend says that Saint James was the disciple who was sent to the Ibearn peninsula to spread the word of Jesus. He traveled throughout Spain spreading the gospel of Christianity. He returned to Judaea after having a vision of the Virgin Mary on the banks of the Ebro River,(where he was beheaded in 44AD). This happened on the site where the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar now stands in Zaragoza.
Several legends explain how his remains ended up in the Field of Stars, which is now Santiago de Compostela. One tells of St James being taken by his disciples to Iberia on a boat that crashed on the rocks. Angels intervened and encased his body in a stone shell and transported it to Santiago. Another legend says he sailed on a stone boat that was then dragged to where Santiago was built.
St James’ remains were discovered in the 9th century by a hermit called Pelayo after experiencing a revelation during a dream. It is said that Pelayo convinced the bishop of Iria to go and check, and they did after a three-day fast. Being convinced that these were the remains of St James the bishop went to see the king. This led directly to the first small temple being built. It is worth noting that Santiago de Compostela sits on what was a Roman settlement.
King Alfonso II is considered to be the first pilgrim in 825. The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage grew slowly and steadily from this point. The pilgrimage route was popular in the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries and then slowly declined in popularity. Along the route, St James is depicted as a pilgrim and often as Santiago Matamoros the warrior and Moor slayer.
By the 20th century, almost no one was walking any of the Camino de Santiago routes. Then in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the routes became of interest to a few. They wrote about their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and mapped the routes again. This trickle of pilgrims has become a steady river of more than 100,000 per year.
In the 21st century, the idea of a pilgrimage is perhaps quaint. However, the exertion of walking for a month and being disconnected from modern devices is immensely liberating. Another interesting read is who was Santiago?
FAQs about the Camino
These are the most common questions I am asked about walking the Camino routes or preparing. One thing to note is that I am not a tour company, I do not offer tours or any other services related to any of the pilgrimage routes, I am just a guy who loves walking the Camino and other long distance hiking routes.
What is Accommodation Like?
The first time I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago, I only stayed twice in pensions. I stayed in a youth hostel in Leon twice as they have private rooms and don’t have a curfew. I wanted to see the sights in Leon and have a late meal with friends I had met along the way. The rest of the time I stayed in pilgrims’ hostels called albergues.
The pensions were basic and cheap, around €30 per night. They always had ensuite but no breakfast. I have met and talked with people who stayed in good hotels and Paradores. The accommodation is down to your budget and sometimes how much you want to socialize with other pilgrims.
Most albergues are basic. The private albergues are like good upmarket youth hostels, the ones owned by Confraternities vary widely. Some like the hostel owned by the Confraternity of St James in Rabanal del Camino is brilliant, others not so.
The albergues owned by the local regions or churches are usually very basic, but they have a great communal and welcoming feel. Except for the hostels owned by the Xunta in Galicia. These have a very high throughput of pilgrims and can be a bit rough.
What is the Best Time to Walk the Camino
The best times to walk the Camino are April, May, early June, September, and October. During July and August, the Camino Frances is very hot and busy, if you can it is better to choose another route.
But, if you can choose when to go, spring and autumn are the best. It is best not to start walking on the Day of Assumption and the 4 days before as many Spaniards pick this time to start and the route out of Roncesvalles is very busy. Some hardy souls walk in the winter.
How Long is the Camino?
Often this question has a split intent. How long is the Camino de Santiago in miles and kilometers or how long does it take to walk in time.
Bear in mind you can join any of the Camino de Santiago routes at any point. So, you can adjust the time and distance to suit yourself. It took me 28 days and then 30 days the two times I walked the Camino Frances.
Where to get a Pilgrim’s Passport
What? I need a passport to walk the Camino de Santiago?
No, you do not need a pilgrims’ passport to walk the route, but you do need one if you intend to stay in accommodation that is designated for pilgrims. You also need a pilgrim’s passport if you want a Compostela from the cathedral in Santiago. Please note you need to have walked more than 100 km or cycled more than 200 km to apply for the Compostela. So, if for you this is a Catholic pilgrimage and you want a plenary indulgence make sure you get a pilgrims passport.
I still have my pilgrims’ passports from each of my Caminos, they are part of my treasured memories. The pilgrims’ passport page has a full list of Confraternity sites where you can order a pilgrims passport before you go.
What to Pack
I have written a post on my full packing list that has lots of detail.
Depending on the time of the year you walk, decisions need to be made on your packing list – a sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner, hiking shoes or boots. A rain poncho or rain jacket will be needed all year, and consider trekking poles. The following are the basics.
- Best backpacking backpack
- Hiking shoes
- Summer sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner
- Sunscreen and toiletries
- Trekking poles
- Rain poncho or lightweight rain jacket
- Hiking shorts
- Fleece jacket
- Microfiber towel
- First aid kit and blister treatment
Whatever you pack, try to keep it as light as possible. The first year I walked the Way of St James my backpack was 15 kg when I weighed in at the airport. The following year it was 6 kg which made it easier on the many steep ascents.
Best Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago?
Most people do not have a full month or more that they can take off to walk the Camino Francés, or longer for the Via de la Plata. I met many pilgrims that walk for one week on one of the Camino routes and come back the following year and start where they left off.
How Much Did You Spend?
It is easy to spend little on the Camino de Santiago and just as easy to spend a lot. The biggest costs are food and where you decide to stay each night. A budget of between $40 and $60 per day is reasonable.
The first time I walked the French Way my budget was around $35 per day – but that was 2004. Overnight accommodation in an Albergue will be between $10 and $15, it is around the same for an evening meal. Many albergues have kitchens where you can cook in the evening along with others. I have written more here on how much does the Camino de Santiago cost?
Did I Lose Weight?
Certainly not one of my reasons for walking a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago but I lost around 12 pounds the first time I walked.
Age Group on the Camino
The average age of pilgrims does tend to trend upwards. Let’s be serious, it is not a party and has less attraction to a younger generation. Most albergues have lights out around 10 pm and a lot of people are up and walking before 7 am. Most pilgrims are between the ages of 30 and 50. Though a huge amount of people walk the Camino in their retirement.
Cycling the Camino
Many pilgrims cycle the Camino de Santiago. If you take or hire a mountain bike you can travel the same paths as those walking most of the Camino routes. Some parts get a little rocky and a few steep descents will need to be walked, but overall it is something that many do and I would love to cycle the Camino my next time.
Cycling is easy on the Camino Francés and the Via de la Plata, but more difficult on the Camino Primitivo, the Camino del Norte, and the Camino Ingles. The Le Puy route in France is almost impossible to cycle. But, these more difficult routes often have a cycling route that runs parallel.
Do I Need a Guidebook
I took a guidebook with me each time. You do not need a guidebook or map for the route, as it is almost impossible to get lost due to the great waymarking. But, Camino Guide Books are helpful for the history, local sites, and places to stay.
Santiago de Compostela is the destination for all the Camino de Santiago routes. It is a beautiful old city and of course, everyone must visit the Cathedral. Here are the best posts on the city.
The Camino de Santiago is for everyone, young, old, fit, unfit, religious, or otherwise. One of the surprising observations I had was that people I thought would drop didn’t – and most of the people I saw with problems were younger people – perhaps trying to push their walking too fast.
One great bit of advice I got was – slow down – a Frenchman I met kept telling me this – I listened after a while and traveled as far, but with much less pain and strain.
Get used to the sound – Buen Camino – it can be a beautiful journey.
In 1985 2,491 pilgrims completed the Camino de Santiago. In 1995 there were 19,821, then in 2005, there were 93,921 In 2016 there were 277,854 recorded pilgrims that completed their Camino to Santiago de Compostela.
These are only the pilgrims that asked for and received a Compostela, therefore many more completed the routes. Figures compliments of the Office de Acogida al Peregrino in Santiago de Compostela.