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 to Santiago de Compostela.
My Camino route 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 along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. 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 walk along the Camino de Santiago route. 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.
Table of Contents
- 1 Camino de Santiago Routes
- 2 1. Camino Frances / The French Way
- 3 2. Via de la Plata / Silver Route
- 4 3. Camino del Norte Route
- 5 4. Portugues Route / Road
- 6 5. Camino Ingles / The English Road
- 7 6. Camino de Madrid
- 8 Frequently Asked Questions
- 9 What to Pack for the Camino de Santiago
- 10 A Short History of the Camino de Santiago
Camino de Santiago Routes
There are eight main Camino de Santiago routes in Spain that finish in Santiago de Compostela.
- Camino Frances
- Via de la Plata
- Camino del Norte
- Camino Ingles
- Camino Portugues
- Camino Primitivo
- Camino Finisterre
- Camino de Madrid
There are many more Camino de Santiago routes than this in Spain, but these are the eight most hiked. In the map below the long route marked in red is the Camino Frances.
1. Camino Frances / The French Way
The Camino Frances is the most popular of all the Camino de Santiago Routes. The French route traditionally starts in St Jean Pied de Port and runs for 780km west to Santiago de Compostela. It has the best infrastructure for pilgrims; I highly recommend this route for all first-time pilgrims.
The Camino Francés is by far the busiest route and often during the peak months of July and August, it can be difficult to find somewhere to sleep at night without booking ahead. If you are not Spanish, St Jean Pied de Port is considered the start, and Spaniards consider Roncesvalles the start. A much quieter alternative start is the Camino Aragones. Read more information on the Camino Frances here.
2. Via de la Plata / Silver Route
The Via de la Plata runs south to north starting in Seville, although it is possible to start the route in Granada. The Silver Route is about 1000km and normally takes 6/7 weeks walking. This route is becoming more popular as the infrastructure improves and as the Camino Frances becomes increasingly busy.
The Via de la Plata follows an old Roman Road all the way from Seville to Astorga where the route joins the Camino Frances. There is an option after Montamarta to go west through Galicia towards Santiago de Compostela, currently, there are few hostels on this route.
3. Camino del Norte Route
The Camino del Norte is also referred to as the Northern Route. It has the great advantage of traveling along the northern coast of Spain where there are opportunities to swim sometimes at the end of a day’s walking. The Camino del Norte is one of the most challenging of the Camino routes here due to the rough terrain and continuous climbs and descents along the coast.
The Northern Route is also considered more dangerous due to the unclear signposting and stretches along winding roads with little visibility. However, it is said the level of satisfaction increases with the level of difficulty. The Northern Route begins by crossing the Santiago Bridge into Irun, the start of this route has few pilgrims hostels. The route is about 825km.
4. Portugues Route / Road
The main Camino Portuguese Route starts in Lisbon, but most start in Porto; although there are many other Camino Routes in Portugal. From Porto, it is clearly waymarked all the way to Santiago. From Porto, this is one of the shorter Camino Routes at about 230km and it is known as the Portuguese Coastal route. This route is well signposted and there are enough pilgrim hostels along the way. The much quieter route is the Portuguese central route. A diversion can also be made to the Catholic pilgrimage site of Fatima.
5. Camino Ingles / The English Road
The Camino Ingles has two possible starting points; both are ports in Northern Spain: A Coruna and Ferrol. This would have been the traditional start for pilgrims from Ireland the United Kingdom. From Ferrol to Santiago it is about 110km and from A Coruna only 75km this is not enough to claim a Compostela in Santiago.
Both of these routes meet up near a village called Hospital de Bruma. There are few pilgrim hostels on this short route and there has been much road building during the last few years. This is not a route to get away from it all. If you want a short route perhaps consider the Camino Portuguese or just walk part of the Camino Frances as you can start and stop anywhere you wish.
6. Camino de Madrid
This is not for the faint of heart during the summer as it can be extremely hot. The Camino de Madrid route starts in Madrid and joins the Camino Frances at Sahagún. It is 660 km to Santiago de Compostela and the last 368 is actually walked on the French Way. If you want to get away from it all this is one of the routes to choose.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.
- How much does the Camino cost?
- What do I need to pack?
- Getting fit for the Camino
- What is the food like?
- What is a usual day like?
- Why plan rest day days
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 de Santiago
The best times to walk the Camino de Santiago 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?
There is no single answer the total distance of each route is listed below and this article lists the distance of all the Camino de Santiago routes along with the number of people walking them each year. The shortest is 110 km and the longest is over 1,000 km. It is possible to start and stop your Camino anywhere along the route. In the middle ages, pilgrims would have started their pilgrimage from wherever they lived. Every route has its traditional starting point, but many people will not have the time to walk the full way.
How Long Does it Take to Walk the Camino?
One month is a reasonable time to take to walk the main Camino de Santiago route called the Camino Frances. However, you can start anywhere along the way. But, there are easy points in northern Spain to get to like Pamplona, Leon, Burgos, and many will start at these easy to get to locations. The last 100 km on the Camino Frances From Sarria is the most popular short hike that allows people an experience of walking the Camino. Many who walk these short routes come back again and walk for longer distances. This page lists all the best one week start points on the Camino and this page lists all the best start points for two weeks on the Camino.
Which Camino de Santiago is Best for You?
If you only want a taster consider starting at Tui or Sarria and walk the last 100 km into Santiago de Compostela. The Camino Frances is very busy between May and October, therefore, it will not give much quiet time for reflection. The Camino del Norte is the most challenging and can be very peaceful all year round. Whatever route sparks your interest – go – just go – it will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life. If you are not able to walk Camino de Santiago or you are searching for similar hikes, check the article of 12 alternatives to Camino de Santiago.
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 for the Camino de Santiago
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. 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 the 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 much more difficult on the Camino Primitivo, the Camino del Norte, the Camino Ingles. The Le Puy route in France is almost impossible to cycle. But, these more difficult routes usually have a cycling route that runs parallel.
Do I Need a Camino Guidebook
I took a guidebook with me each time on the Camino. 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.
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.
There are several legends explaining 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 this was 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 Camino de Santiago, 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?