The Camino de Santiago is one of the best, most famous and most rewarding pilgrimage walks or hikes in the entire world. The route was originally a pilgrimage to the remains of St James, (or Santiago in Spanish), in Santiago de Compostela. The earliest evidence of this pilgrimage taking place is from the 9th Century. For hundreds of years afterward, pilgrims would walk to this sacred site in order to visit the divine location – the shrine of one of Jesus’ 12 apostles.
Over time, the journey gradually dwindled in popularity, until the 1970s, when pilgrims began taking interest in the walk again – and started drawing up modern route maps.
Most hikers now walk the route mainly as a physical challenge, but for many, the journey still has spiritual meaning.
The route is becoming more and more popular every year. Though it’s hard to measure exactly how many people undertake the walk, some statistics indicate that almost 350,000 walkers complete the Camino de Santiago each year.
In the 21st century, the idea of a pilgrimage is perhaps quaint. However, the effort of walking for a month and being disconnected to modern devices is immensely liberating.
I walked the Camino in 2004, 2005, and 2012. Each time it was different. Many go back and walk the same route again, or a different route. Some pilgrims are unable to take enough time off to walk a whole route and walk for a week each year finishing their Camino over 4 or 5 years.
It is your Camino – do it whatever way you want.
Walking the Camino de Santiago: The Routes
The Camino Frances is by far the most popular and well known of all the Camino routes. It starts at St Jean Pied de Port and runs the breadth of Spain to Santiago.
The Camino Portuguese is the second most popular pilgrimage route on the Iberian Peninsula. The full route starts in Lisbon, but most prefer to start at Porto.
I would say the Camino del Norte is the most beautiful of all the Camino routes, and maybe the toughest in Spain. 825km of rugged coastline – bliss.
At only 261 km the Camino Primitivo or Camino Original as it is also known can look like a breeze. But, it is a tough hilly 261km – it is wonderfully quiet.
The route to Finisterre is referred to as a Camino, but it does not lead you to Santiago – rather it leads you to the coast and the end of the world. A great circular route.
The shortest of all the Caminos, the English way starts on the north coast at Ferrol or A Coruna. But, still, more than 7,000 walk this each year.
During June and July, the Camino Frances is very busy, the other routes are better. But, if you can choose when to go spring and autumn are the best.
You can start anywhere along the routes and custom your pilgrimage to suit the time you have. All the route lengths are on this page, along with common start points.
If you intend to stay in pilgrim accommodation or collect a Compostela in Santiago you will need a pilgrim’s passport. There are many places at home and in Spain.
It is easy to spend little on the Camino and just as easy to spend a lot. The biggest costs are food and where you decide to stay each night.
Where are the Camino de Santiago Routes?
The routes end in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. The city is located around 60km from the North-Western coast of Spain. But hikers can take many different routes to get to this point. Technically, you can start the Camino de Santiago from anywhere you like… as long as you end in the city of Santiago de Compostela. This is one of the unique features that make this trek so great – you can hike at a pace, length, and route which is perfect for you.
Most pilgrims hike for around 30-35 days, but many walk less – and many do more! One famous hiker allegedly walked over 4,000km from Moscow.
What are the Famous Routes?
The famous walking routes are all marked, which makes them more accessible and hiker-friendly.
Yes, you can walk the route from your very own home if you’d like to… but if you want to hike the route with access to maps, infrastructure, hostels, and a well-marked path, you’re best to choose an established path. Here are some of them:
- Camino Frances (The French Way): when most people talk about the Camino de Santiago (or Camino for short), they’re talking about this route. It starts from the French town of Saint Jean Pied de Port and the full route is 770km. Around 60% of hikers take this route – or at least a section of it.
- Camino Portugues (The Portuguese Way): this route starts, as you might have guessed, from Portugal. Hikers begin either from Lisbon (a walk of 616km) or Porto (a walk of 260km or 280km, depending on the exact starting point). This route is second-most popular.
- Camino Primitivo (The Original Way): despite its name, only 5% of hikers attempt this one. It’s 321km, making it one of the shorter routes, but it’s also one of the most challenging. The Camino Primitivo has many difficult ascents and descents, making it a great challenge for those seeking something slightly more extreme.
- Camino Del Norte (The Northern Way): this one starts in Irun, a small Spanish town on the French border. It largely follows the Northern Spanish coastline and has a total distance of 825km.
These four routes – along with Camino Ingles (The English Way) and Via de la Plata (The Silver Way) – offer the best maps and the best infrastructure. If you want to take a famous, reliable, well-marked route which ends at Santiago de Compostela, these six are your best options. But there are many other quieter paths, including routes from Madrid, Levante, and Gran Canaria.
It’s also important to note here that many hikers only do sections of these prescribed routes. If, for example, you only want to trek the final 200km of the French Way – rather than its 770km entirety – that’s absolutely valid.
How Well Organised are the Routes?
If you take one of the famous routes, everything is very simple and easy to follow. You have access to marked trails, you will meet other travelers, and there are many places along the way to sleep, eat and rest. Some routes are more equipped than others, but all of the big six can be relied upon if you want a trip that offers a fair amount of reliability and comfort.
There are also many guidebooks and online resources that can help you to plan your trip.
How much you want to plan is up to you – some travelers book accommodation in advance, while others simply stop, sleep and eat when they feel like it. Anyone who walks 100km or more to reach the end of the trail receives a certificate. These certificates are issued at the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago.
To receive this certificate, you must first obtain your pilgrim passport before you set off. This document is of course not a real passport, but a small booklet which you must get stamped along the journey.
You can obtain these stamps at hostels (or albergues in Spanish) along with some cafes, eateries and other rest stops. To obtain your certificate, you need to ensure your pilgrim passport has been stamped along the route. It’s important to note that some albergues don’t allow you to stay overnight unless you have one of these passports. These passports and certificates make for great keepsakes. Years after your sores and blisters have healed, your passport and certificate will still be standing strong!
Why do People Walk the Camino?
Some people are religious pilgrims who want to visit the end point’s sacred site.
But others are simply on a journey of their own.
Some hikers want some space and time away from the hustle and bustle of city life, some like the simple challenge of a walk, some want to spend time with a particular loved one or friend. Others want time for self-reflection while some hikers simply want to enjoy the views on offer. Nowadays, many people also walk the route to raise money for charity.
The Camino is unique and varied, and so too are the many reasons for doing it. The Camino can also be a very sociable adventure if you want it to be. The most common routes have hundreds of other walkers, perfect for chatting and making friends.
What’s the Scenery Like?
This depends on which route you take. But whatever type of scenery you like, there’s a route which will be perfect for you:
- Mountains and hills: the most rugged, mountainous routes are the Primitivo and the Del Norte. If you want ups, downs, ascents, and descents, these two routes possess plenty of peaks.
- Coastlines and beaches: your best option here is, of course, the del Norte route, but the coastal route in Portugal also offers sumptuous seascapes.
- Fields and Plains: you get lots of flatlands and fields in the Camino Frances and the Via de la Plata.
- Cities and Sites: all of the routes take you through cities and towns. If there’s a particular city or town you’d like to see, it might well be along one of the marked paths!
- Before you set off on your Camino, you should consider the type of scenery you want to see, the amount of time and distance you want to spend walking, and how many other people you want to encounter.
You should also think about the type of weather you want on your walk…
When’s the Best Time to Go on the Camino?
Weather along the Camino is a huge consideration which many people don’t fully take into account. And the weather you’ll encounter will depend upon which route you take. May, June, July, September, and October are generally the best five months to take the walk. During these periods you’ll have more temperate climates and less chance of rain. But before you set off, you should check the weather reports and predictions for your particular route.
What’s the Ending Like?
With any long walk, you want the end to justify the means. And with the Camino, it absolutely does. The Camino endpoint of Santiago de Compostela is a beautiful, lively city, and no matter when you reach it, it’s bursting with hikers and pilgrims. Some of these travelers will have just arrived to receive their certificates, while others will already have been hanging around for a few days to relax after many days, weeks (or months!) of long hiking.
The UNESCO-listed city hosts a mass for pilgrims every day at 12 pm, which can be a beautiful and appropriate way to bring your walk to a close.
The Camino history page introduces you to some of the legends and there are few pages listing the major cities along the Camino Frances. I hope this is enough to get you interested and started. The Camino Directory lists other Camino websites and a full list of Confraternity sites where you can sometimes get a pilgrims passport before you go,
Camino Guide Books for a list of good books, Packing lists for essential advice about feet, good boots and how little to pack, Albergues (hostels) – explains what they are and provides a full list, Travel – how to get there and back often a bit of a challenge, and Photos to give you a bit of a taste of Spain.
Get used to the sound – Buen Camino – it can be a beautiful journey.
In 1985 2,491 pilgrims completed the Camino. In 1995 there were 19,821, then in 2005, there was 93,921.
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.
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