I’m going to write this guide as if you have never heard of the Camino de Santiago before. Because as it turns out, a large part of my audience hasn’t.
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James, whose body is (maybe) buried in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (in northern Spain). Pilgrims have been walking this route for over 1,000 years. But although this is technically a Catholic journey, people of all religious beliefs (or none) walk The Way year-round.
There are actually many different Camino routes of varying degrees of difficulty and landscape. The most popular route, however, is the Camino Frances, also known as the Way of St. James (or Jacob, in German).
The Way of St. James begins in Saint Jean Pied-du-Port, or Roncesvalles (France) and stretches nearly 800 kilometres to Santiago de Compostela.
I, however, started my Camino in Pamplona, Spain (about 720 kilometres). I chose not to walk through the Pyrenees in late March…and from what I’ve heard, I’m glad I didn’t. I flew into Barcelona and hopped on a train to Pamplona, which was affordable albeit confusing as hell. Spain’s not great with organization.
How does it work?
While the long distances are physically challenging, this is a relatively simple trek. Remember, the pilgrimage has been happening for over a thousand years. Spain has got this nailed down.
Most of the Camino meanders through towns and small cities. You’ll never go more than 20 kilometres without a place to stop for food and other necessities, and such a distance rarely occurs on the trail. It’s more like every 5 kilometres or so.
To get your Compostela (pilgrim certificate), you have to purchase a pilgrim passport (credencial) at a pilgrim’s office or specific albergue from your starting point. This is typically found in the major starting cities. Sometimes you can order a passport in advance, to be mailed to you before you set out on you trip. Every time you reach a new albergue, you’ll get a stamp! The passport only costs about 2EUR.
At a pilgrim office, you can also pick up an altitude guide that includes the typical day-to-day walk. A lot of people followed this pretty closely.
The Way is very well marked. The symbol on the Camino is a scallop shell, so when in doubt, look around for a blue sign with a yellow scallop. You’ll also find them embedded in the sidewalks and pavement of many towns, especially the larger ones. Otherwise you’ll see yellow arrows EVERYwhere. It’s impossible to get lost. Trust me, if I didn’t get lost, you won’t either.
It’s also a fairly easy route, with only a few laborious hills to climb. You can opt to ship your backpack between albergues for only 5EUR. Every albergue will have this service available. And if you find you have too much unnecessary baggage, you can ship stuff to a post office in Santiago and it’ll be waiting for you when you arrive.
When’s the best season to go?
That really depends on what you want. I chose the end of March and most of April because I figured the trail would be quieter, and the temperature mild enough for the long days of walking. I was mostly right. Socialising and meeting people was no problem at all, and there was never any competition for beds, etc. But the rain and snow was often hard.
The summer months are chaos. The trail is busy, busy, busy. I know that it starts getting busy in May, and lasts throughout the end of August. My friend who completed the route last year said that even in May there was some competition for beds and places to stay.
The benefit of walking during the off-season means that you can take your time without feeling pressured to reach the next town. I appreciated that about my walk. The flipside is that the weather can be unpredictable. Most of the time in March and April it was very pleasant, but those handful of days with harsh weather were pretty damned harsh. Having said that, I’d do that again, or I’d start in early May.
If you’re going to be walking during any of the big holy days, you might have to book rooms far in advance for the bigger towns. You’re gonna have a hard time finding a room in Pamplona during the running of the bulls, for example.
Where should I start?
That’s up to you! Technically you only need to walk 100 kilometres to be considered a pilgrim and to collect your Compostela, so many people (especially Spanish) start walking in Sarria.
The route for The Way of St. James begins in either Saint Jean Pied-du-Port or Roncesvalles (France). But you can basically pick up and go in any major city. I started in Pamplona, and I met plenty of people who started in Burgos or Leon, too. It’s your journey. It doesn’t make you any less of a pilgrim to start at the halfway point.
What should I pack?
Check out my complete packing guide!
Note: This is most appropriate for the spring months on the The Way of St. James.
What are accommodations like?
In each town, you’ll find albergues — hostels specifically for pilgrims. They’re cheap, and relatively comfortable (averaging about 5EUR per bed) but with large dorms. The municipal ones are always the cheapest, but you can also find donativos — hostels working on a donation base. Even if you’re a light, uneasy sleeper…you’ll find walking 25 kilometres a day stronger than any sleeping pill.
There are many private albergues as well, though. They tend to range in size and price. Some you can make reservations for, but generally, you just show up where you find a place and book a bed on the fly. Again, most guidebooks will give you some idea of what accommodations are like.
What can I eat and drink?
Remember, Spain is a very developed country. You don’t need to constantly buy water bottles on the trail. I used one and refilled it at the fountains along the way. There are TONS of fountains on the way. If they’re not potable, they’ll say so.
Spain makes a HUGE profit off the pilgrimage. It’s great, especially for the small towns that are barely staying afloat. Even the teeniest village will have somewhere for you to pick up food, and if not, your albergue will.
I avoided the pilgrim’s menu like the plague. Basically, you can buy a three course meal with wine or beer for 9EUR or less (or more). I thought they were awful. None of my food experiences were very favourable on this route and so I mostly stuck to cooking for myself.
I did, however, LOVE my pauses in bars (cafes) for a cafe con leche and a plate of tortilla pincho (like an omelette with potato). And there were a handful of good meals, and nice breakfasts in bakeries. One time, me and my friend wandered into a gorgeous pension and the woman made us a tortilla pincho on the fly. It was my best dining out experience!
Is it expensive?
I meticulously tracked EVERY item I spent on the Camino. Like, every single thing. Most days I didn’t go over 20 EUR. The cheapest day I had was about 5 EUR.
You’ll spend a lot of money if you eat out every night and book private rooms at the albergues.
What shouldn’t I miss?
Estrella: A semi-big town on The Way, with a beautiful church and town square. If it’s Thursday, there will be a market in the centre of town. It’s been going on for hundreds of years.
Irache: After leaving Estrella, you’ll come across a monastery…with a wine fountain. Yes, you’re allowed to sample the wine.
Logrono: The first major town after Pamplona, with really, really good tapas restaurants.
Burgos: The cathedral here was the only cathedral I was really impressed by. But I’m pretty jaded, so. You might like the others too.
Castrojeriz: I LOVED walking into this town. It’s stunning.
Leon: If you’re going to take a break, I suggest here.
Rabanal del Camino: This is a good place to stop before tackling the mountain overpass, but also because there is a tiny church where you can listening to Gregarian monks singing.
Villafranca del Bierzo: This might have been my favourite town on the Camino. I absolutely adored every second of it. It’s stunning beyond words.
O Cebreiro: You’ll officially be in Galicia by the time you reach this spot, and it’s a beautiful town. I won’t reveal any further.
What were the best albergues?
Obviously I can’t compare them all, but some were very memorable! Like so.
Hornillos – El Afar de Hornillos: When you need a break from the larger albergues, this one was really homey. You’re basically staying in the owner’s house, and the dinner is wonderful. There was an excellent lemon mousse.
Carrion de los Condes – Santa Maria: This place is run by some wonderfully warm sisters-in-training, and they’ll greet you with equally warm tea! They’ll also invite you to a singing session and a chance to get to know other pilgrims. It sounds kinda lame, but I absolutely adored every second of it.
Villafranca del Bierzo – Albergue de la Piedra: I absolutely loved this place. The warmest, friendliest owners. The sweetest dog; the nicest cat. Private rooms are affordable, and the dorm room is extremely comfortable. Everything is modern and new. It’s a beautiful spot.
Las Faba – El Refugio: Usually you’d continue on up the hill to O Cebreiro, but in this case, I couldn’t carry on and stopped here. I loved this place, but I do regret not spending more time in O Cebreiro. El Refugio is a total hippie joint with a sustainable system. It’s a glorious cabin-like albergue for only about 12 people, but it’s run by some wonderful people. Plus the meal they serve (vegetarian) was one of the best on the entire trip.
How should I budget for time?
It took me about 33 days from Pamplona to Santiago, but I didn’t take any breaks. Some days I walked shorter distances, but no breaks.
I got a little wrapped up in the people I was walking with, which I don’t regret at all, but it can be folly. I now wish I had more time to rest in Leon or Burgos. Both were beautiful.
If you plan on doing it a little slower, 40 days is ideal. I don’t understand the point of rushing all this. Enjoying the moment is more important, in my opinion. Many people I met were doing sections of the Camino over time. I met several Spanish people who’d complete a week each year, for example. I find this is a better model than gunning it through the entire length in a short amount of time (and your body will hate you).
Remember, this is your Camino. There is no right or wrong way to do things. Criticising others for their choices is not the spirit of the Camino.
Any questions? Just ask!