What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago also known as the the Way of St. James is a cristian pilgrimage well over a thousand years old, pilgrims travel to the Cathedral in the city of Santiago De Compostela in northwest Spain. It's widely believed that the Cathedral holds the earthly remains of the apostle St. James. There are many other Caminos - the Camino Francés, the Camino Finisterre and the Camino Portuguese just to name a few. When you hear people talking about the Camino, they're generally referring to the Camino Francés which is the most popular route travelled by pilgrims.
How long does it take to walk?
If you're planning to walk the total distance of approximately 800km you should allow approximately 4-6 weeks, depending on your level of fitness and pace. You'll also have to allow a few rest days in between. The Camino is not a race and you don't need to rush. You should walk at a pace you feel comfortable with and take in all that the beautiful towns and villages have to offer. The distance between towns and villages vary somewhat, but on average you can expect to walk an average of 25 - 30kms per day to complete journey in around 30 - 35 days. True pilgrims walk the entire journey on foot but if you feel you'd like a change, you can always opt to hire or buy a bicycle and ride part of way. There are bike shops available in the larger cities, that offer bikes for hire or sale at reasonable prices.
How many people complete the Camino?
More than 200,000 pilgrims walk the Camino every year, most of which walk the last 100kms to Santiago De Compostela (this is the minimum distance required to obtain your Compostela). The Pilgrim Office in Santiago told me that only around 24% of pilgrims that start in St. Jean Pied de Port actually complete the whole journey to Santiago De Compostela. Many of those pilgrims with less time on their hands or small tour groups will commence their journey in one of the larger cities closer to Santiago. As mentioned previously, pilgrims are only have to walk the last 100kms to Santiago to receive their Compostela, while cyclist have to ride at least the last 200kms. Some pilgrims we spoke to where walking the Camino in various stages over 2-3 years, coming back to start where they last left off.
I'm a little older, will I have any issues completing the journey?
If you're a little older and intend to walk the entire distance of some 800kms, the journey shouldn't be taken lightly. It's hard work and a lot of the older pilgrims that started with us in St. Jean Pied de Port pulled out due to injuries or fatigue only after a few days into the walk. In saying that, I also found a large number of younger pilgrims pulled out after a few days, finding the going too tough. Regardless of your age, I think one of the hardest aspects of the journey is getting 'your head around' walking these long distances day after day for around a month.
What can I do if I get tied while walking on the Camino?
If you find you underestimated how far you could walk in a day and are too tied to go on, you can arrange for a taxi to pick you up and take you to your next accommodation. If you haven't got a working mobile phone, most of the staff in the many cafes and restaurants along the route will be more than happy to call one for you. Keeping in mind it's a little harder (but not impossible) to get a taxi if you're between any of the towns or villages.
Do I need to carry all my own gear?
While many pilgrims elect to carry all their own gear, many choose to have their luggage picked up at their hotel and taken to their accommodation in the next town for $7-10 Euro. You can ask the reception desk at your hotel or albegue on the Camino for more details.
Where do I start the Camino?
There's no particular starting point for the Camino, the choice is up to you and it's your Camino... My wife and I were on a holiday in Brussell's when she spotted a brass scallop shell in a cobble stone path in the capital (a symbol of the Camino), so you can start from just about anywhere. The scallop shell is worn by pilgrims as a symbol of their pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela. The most popular route traveled is the Camino Francés, starting in the small town of St Jean Pied de Port in southwest France.
What type of terrain can I expect?
You can expect to encounter varying types of terrain on your journey to Santiago De Compostela. You'll probably find your first day of walking from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles the hardest. The "route de Napoleon" will lead you up Col de Lepoeder at an elevation of 1450m. The rest of your journey is made up mostly of rolling hills, paths & tracks, to quiet streets, and at times, busy roads. I also found of the distances listed in the guidebooks to be somewhat inaccurate. You can expect to walk between 3-5kms more each day to what you first thought.
What do I do to prepare for the Camino?
Apart from the obvious; travel arrangements, transfers, passports and getting time off work to travel if you need it... You'll need to have the appropriate gear to make your journey that much easier. In ancient times the true pilgrim would carry a small sack and just the shirt on his back, relying on the generosity of the people he would meet along the way to provide him/her with food and board. These days it's a little different. Most importantly, you need to carry no more than what you need; the golden rule is that your backpack shouldn't weigh more than around 10% of your total body weight. Many pilgrims pack way too much gear and end up sending half of it back home or give it way. For a detailed packing list for the Camino, select 'Equipment' from the menu items above.
The other is to ensure you have a good pair of walking shoes/boots. It's not necessary to have heavy duty hiking boots as many pilgrim these days walk the Camino in their comfortable runners. I would suggest that whatever footwear you decide, that you try to get a pair of shoes that provide good ankle support and that they're well worn-in and waterproof. You don't want to be wearing your brand new shoe on the trip going over. Depending of your normal level of fitness you will need to complete a few long distance walks to prepare you for the journey. You can find more information on your preparation and training, under the menu items above.
What time of the year is best to walk the Camino?
The most popular time to walk the Camino is late June, when Santiago De Compostela celebrates the feast of St James in August. You'll find it hot in June and extremely crowded. Alternatively, quieter periods tend to be April to May. If you elect to walk the Camino from mid to late September to November, its a little cooler and you may find some of the cafes and shops closed along the route.
How far will I have to walk between villages & towns?
Pilgrims have been walking the Camino for more than a thousand years so you can expect to come across a small village or town every 5-20kms. Some of these smaller villages are not accessible by vehicles and they rely on the support of the traveling pilgrims to keep their businesses operating. There are a couple of stages of 15-20kms between towns.
Is it safe to walk the Camino on my own?
While most adventures come with their risks, the incidents of crime are relatively low considering how many people walk the Camino. If you're a walking the Camino alone, I'd suggest you walk during daylight hours, stay within shouting distance of other pilgrims and carry a mobile phone and whistle in case of an emergency. Regardless when traveling abroad, you should always stay alert and be aware of your surroundings.
What food and accommodation is available?
Obtaining a meal on the Camino won't be a problem. Most of the smaller towns and villages will have a market place where you can pickup some bread, fruit and vegetables to snack on along the way or carry in your pack. Simple breakfasts and dinners are provided by most if not all of the albergues, B&B and hotels, and will set you back approximately 3-4 Euros for breakfast and 8-10 Euros for dinner. You can also enjoy a lovely 3 course dinner at one of the many restaurants, bars or cafes located along the route. These will cost you a little more.
There are many options available for accommodation on the Camino. If you elect to camp out during your journey, it can provide a great sense of freedom. Many of the albergue owner will allow you to camp on their properties. Alternatively, you can stay in any one of the many Albergues, B&B or hotels located in the many villages, towns and cities.
What is the Pilgrims Passport & how do I get one?
The "Pilgrims Passport" is your Credential; it's used to provide proof that traces your progress along the Camino. You'll need to present a completed/stamped Credential to obtain your Compostela Certificate when you arrive in Santiago De Compostela (with a minimum completed distance of 100kms). Traditionally you have your Pilgrims Passport or Credential stamped once a day at almost any albergue, refugio, bar, town hall or church located along the Camino. I had my Passport stamped once a day and only twice a day for the last 100kms of the journey.
When we arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port, we made our way to the Tourist Information Office. When I enquired about obtaining a Pilgrim Passport, I was told there was only one type of Passport available, which turned out to be incorrect. I received a 'tourist's version' of the Pilgrims Passport that set me back 2 Euro. To obtain the original version of the Pilgrims Passport, you'll need to go to the Pilgrim's Office further up the street.
You don't have to be religious to walk the Camino or to obtain your Credentials. Keep in mind when you register for your Pilgrims Passport, that you'll be asked to indicate the purpose of your pilgrimage as religious, spiritual, cultural or other. If you indicate any purpose other than religious (doing the pilgrimage with a Christian purpose), you'll receive a different style of document in Santiago De Compostela. Your Pilgrims Passport will set you back around 2-3 Euros or a small donation.
What is a Compostela?
A Compostela is the certificate of completion issued to pilgrims at the Pilgrims Office in Santiago De Compostela. The Church will grant you a Compostela if you can prove you walked at least the last 100kms of the Camino. Use your stamped Credential as proof of your journey.
How much does it cost to walk the Camino?
The Camino can be one of the most inexpensive adventures you'll ever take. Most of the cost will be in traveling to the starting point. In saying that, you can make it as cheap or as expensive as you like, the choice is up to you. On average you can survive on between 20 -30 Euro per day, if you elect to stay in the albergues and refugios. Hotels with single rooms range from 20 - 30 Euro per night, and of course you can expect to pay more for better quality accommodation.
How physically fit do I need to be?
There's no need to be in 'peek of physical condition' to complete the Camino. In saying that there are some difficult sections but remember, it's not a race. You can find more information on your preparation and training, under the menu item Preparation & Training, at the top of the page. It's more about 'staying power' and getting over the 'mental hump', getting up every day and walking for a 4-5 hours every day for around a month can be hard to overcome. As part of your preparation, I'd suggest talking a few long walks with a full pack for 25 - 30 kms in the months leading up to the Camino. .
What if I don't speak Spanish?
No problem, you can pick up on a few phrases during your journey. You'll find a lot of the pilgrims on the Camino speak English and the local people are use to people speaking different languages. If you'd like to work on a few of the common words & phrases before you go, you can load the free Talk Spanish webapp - Click here. Alternatively, select 'Home' at the top of the page and load the app on your iPhone or iPad located towards the bottom of the main page. This is not Apple Store app, so it will work on both Apple and Android products.
What equipment do I need?
You can take as little or as much as you like. Keeping in mind that your backpack shouldn't exceed more than approximately 10% of your total body weight. For a comprehensive list of the recommended equipment to take on your journey, select the Equipment page from the menu items at the top of the page.
Do I need to book ahead for reservations?
It's not necessary in the quieter months. I would suggest you book your accommodation in St Jean Pied de Port and the first couple of days walking from St. Jean Pied De Port. Only that you might be tired when you first arrive and you might not want the hassle of finding a place to stay after a long journey to get to your starting point. If you know roughly how far you are going to walk within a day and you'd like to stay in a particular hotel, it wouldn't hurt to call and booking ahead.
What if I need a toilet on the trail?
There's a few options available when you need to go to the toilet on the Camino. I'd include a roll of toilet paper in your equipment list, just in case you need to go to the toliet behind a bush on the trail. Alternatively, there are any number of albergues, refugios, cafes and bars that have toilets you'll be allowed to use.
Can I ride a bicycle on the Camino?
The true pilgrim would be expected to travel the Camino on foot or horseback, however a large number of pilgrims these days now elect to ride the Camino on pushbikes. If you'd like a change from walking, many of the larger cities on the route have bike stores that offer bikes for hire or sale with drop-off locations in Santiago De Compostela.
Is theft and crime a problem on the Camino?
To say it never happens on the Camino would be incorrect but the risk of theft on the Camino is minimal. Pilgrims tend to keep an eye out for each other. That said, regardless of where you are in the world, you should always take precautions to reduce the risk of theft from opportunists. Leave your personal items at home, keep your other personal belongings secure and with you at all times, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Another tip is to make copies of all your important documents and either keep them on email or store a copy in another safe place, just in case.
Keep an eye out for any unusual behaviour; individuals posing as pilgrims that you've never seen before, they might give you the impression they appeared out of nowhere, well they probably did. These 'pilgrims' generally checkin late in the evening and checkout early the next day. Be aware of individuals hanging around ATM's, or maybe small 'tight' crowds creating a distraction like a 'street trick' or 'game'. Crowded tourist attractions and outside information booths are also popular spots for thieves but are normally in the larger towns or cities
Is it safe to walk the Camino on my own?
It is relatively safe to walk the Camino on your own but you know what say, "there safety in numbers". If you walk the Camino during the more popular times of year, you'll always meet up with other pilgrims along the way.
Do I have to walk the whole 800kms?
You can walk any section of the Camino you like, for as long and over what ever time you want. Some pilgrims walk different sections of the Camino over many years, 2 - 3 weeks at a time. In order to receive your Compostela, you'll need to walk at least the last 100kms to Santiago De Compostela.
Am I likely to get lost while walking the Camino?
Not likely... The Camino is well sign posted with the distinctive yellow scallop shell and bright yellow arrows, symbols of the Camino.
Are there any recommended guidebooks?
You can purchase a copy of the Guide to the Camino Francés from this website. The Guide to the Camino Francés is designed for both the seasoned hiker or those just starting out, and is the perfect size to conveniently carry in your pack. The Guide to the Camino Francés can be purchased as a digital Adobe PDF for your iPhone, iPad or Android device or in paperback form. The Guide to the Camino Francés is the ideal travel companion and a 'must have' for the Camino De Santiago.
Can older people walk the Camino?
Provided you're relatively fit and healthy, it doesn't matter how old you are. I've heard of people in there 70's and 80's walking the Camino.
Are blisters are real problem?
The key to avoiding blisters on the Camino is quality footwear and socks. Firstly, a good pair of quality shoes/boots that are well worn in. Don't be pulling out your new shoes on the first day of your Camino journey, you'll only be asking for trouble. Secondly, you can reduce the risk of blisters by purchasing a good pair of quality seamless socks. Quality adventure and outdoor stores can offer great advise on footwear and sock for long distance walking.
What is the significance of the scallop shell?
Pilgrims have been carrying the scallop shells as a symbol of the Camino since ancient times. They represent the same type of scallop shells found on the northwest coast of Spain. The arrangement of the groves in the scallop shell all lead to 1 point, as with the journey on the Camino.
Can I get internet access on the Camino?
Internet access across the world is improving all the time. You may have noticed there are fewer internet cafes these days and more wireless hotspots in hotels, cafes and bars. Most of the larger albergues and hotels will have wireless internet access. Alternatively, there are a number of telco's in Spain that offer great deals on prepaid mobile phone accounts with mobile data options.
Is there mobile phone coverage on the Camino?
Mobile coverage is improving all the time, it's worth keeping in mind that more remote rural locations may have limited cell phone coverage and if you own an iPhone, you'll find that it will chew through the battery as it will be constantly searching to find a network. So it's best to turn your phone off or into 'Flight Mode' while you walking through these regions. Prepaid SIM Cards are readily available in the larger cities like Pamplona, and offer great deals on calls and text.