What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage routes used to reach the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.
Since the tomb was discovered in the 9th century, thousands of people including royalty from all over Europe wanted to see it. These routes eventually became standardized and gained infrastructure. While there are many routes, 4 routes have emerged in the modern day as the most popular and have UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Those are the Camino Frances (from France), Camino Portugues (from Portugal), Camino del Norte (along the north coast of Spain), and the Camino Primitivo (the very first Camino from Oviedo, Asturias). The most popular route (accounting for more than 50% of tourists) is the Camino Frances.
While the Camino has had pilgrims continuously since the 800’s, it has recently turned into one of Spain’s most popular tourist attractions. In 1985, just 690 pilgrims completed the pilgrimage, but in 2019, 350,000 pilgrims completed the pilgrimage.
The Camino is not just for the Catholic faithful. People of all backgrounds and religions walk the Camino for purely touristic purposes.
How the Camino Works:
All the Camino routes function the same. Every day you walk from town to town along a well-marked path that is a combination of dirt and tarmac. The trail marking is a blue and yellow scallop shell, the symbol of St. James.
Where to Start:
Technically, your Camino begins the moment you leave your house. This means you are free to join the path wherever you want. That said, there are some cities that are popular start points for two reasons: 1) the city is the official start of one of the historic routes or 2) the city is just more than 100 kilometers from Santiago (the required minimum distance to receive a Compostela certificate). Cities in the first category are: St. Jean Pied Du Pont (France), Porto (Portugal), Oviedo, Irun and Ferrol. Cities in the second category are: Sarria, Tui, and Ferrol (fits both categories).
Where to Sleep:
Most pilgrims stay in dedicated pilgrims hostels called albergues. They cost 12 Euros/night (2020 price) for a bunk in a shared room. 50% of the albergues are privately owned and the other 50% are run by the local villages. Generally speaking, the private ones are nicer, but slightly more expensive. If staying in an albergue (especially a public one), bring a sheet or sleeping bag liner because many do not provide blankets.
The albergues are known to be very friendly places. If staying in them, expect to have pleasant conversations with the other pilgrims from around the world.
If you do not want to stay in a dorm room, there are plenty of hotel and guesthouse options across the price spectrum.
Where to Eat:
Restaurants and coffee shops appear every few kilometers along the Camino. Generally speaking, the more popular the route and the closer you are to Santiago, the more options you will have.
By far the best deals are the Pilgrim’s Meals (menu de piligrino). For just 10-12 euros, you get a 3-course meal plus bread and your choice of water/wine.
The Caminos pass through many different regions in Spain. Each region has special dishes that are worth trying.
The Pilgrim’s Passport:
In order to get the coveted Compostela certificate (a medieval-era document that says you completed the Camino), you have to walk 100 kilometers (or cycle 200 kilometers). In order to prove you actually walked the distance, you have to purchase a pilgrim’s passport and get stamps along the way. The passport can be purchased in churches, hostels, or tourism offices for 2 euros. Stamps can be obtained in hostels, restaurants, gift shops, churches or random vendors along the Camino. You need at least 2 stamps per day that you walk. You must also date all the stamps.
Putting it All Together: Planning Your Camino:
The first thing is to decide a route and a starting point. Once you have that figured out, the rest of the itinerary will naturally fall into place due to the location of the larger towns with more amenities.
There are many online guides covering the Camino with the location of food and lodging as well as recommended walking stages. I used this guide by Stingy Nomads for my Camino on the French route.
Some pilgrims will make their lodging bookings ahead of time. This approach can give you peace of mind since you know exactly how long each day is going to be and you are guaranteed a bed. There are Camino travel agencies that can plan and book the entire trip.
Other pilgrims will “wing it” and will book things on arrival. This approach allows more flexibility- but in the busy season there is a chance that places will be full and you will have to walk to the next town to find an open albergue.
Restaurants do not need to be booked ahead of time.
The pilgrimage does not have to be completed in one go. It is perfectly acceptable to do a route over multiple trips.