To read about how to plan your own Camino, click this link.
Why did I choose to walk the Camino?
I needed to be in Spain due to immigration reasons and had about 10 days. I wanted to do something that I could not complete in a weekend, since I would have many opportunities to do those things during the school year. I also wanted something physically demanding, since my body is still holding up.
Normally the Camino is swarmed with tourists in August. I figured that COVID would give me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike one of the world’s most famous hikes with perfect weather and without crowds.
How did I pick my route?
I decided to go on the Camino Frances starting in Sarria. I picked the Camino Frances because it was one of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed routes, had easy bus connections to reach the start, and had the most infrastructure (which was important because many places in Spain were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Sarria is 117 kilometers from Santiago, meaning I would walk long enough to receive a Compostela.
How did I plan my Camino?
I booked a one-way plane flight to Santiago Airport (SCQ) and made a booking in Sarria for my first night. I ended up not staying in Sarria and winged the entire rest of the trip. All my bookings were done on the spot at the front desk. I stayed in albergues every night except for one.
I frequently used the StingyNomads guide and ended up using the stages mentioned in the guide.
Day 1: August 20, 2020: Barcelona – Lugo – Sarria – Portomarin
My 7:50 AM flight to Santiago from Barcelona meant I had to wake up at 5AM. Despite the late night before, I made it.
The flight took 90 minutes. Arrives around 9:15. Unfortunately, I just missed the bus to Lugo to start my Camino. The next bus wasn’t until 11:15.
There was apparently a faster option, but that would involve me going into Santiago itself and I wanted to save my grand entrance until the end of the Camino. So…I waited.
At 11:15 the bus arrived and I got to Lugo at 1. Since the town was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I decided to spend 2 hours here before catching the bus to Sarria, where my Camino actually would begin.
Got lunch at a fancy burger bar. Galicia is known for its beef. Then I walked to the magnificent cathedral.
Finally, I visited the city’s most famous attraction, the completely intact Roman walls. Built in the 200’s, the walls completely surround the old city- which is not small. As far as I know this is the only example of this in the world. Sure there are segments of Roman walls, but an entire wall? Unheard of. Interestingly, the rest of the old city is full of ugly modern buildings.
I then caught a bus to Sarria. That ride took 30 minutes.
The plan was to spend the afternoon and evening in Sarria to get acquainted with the Camino and rest up before all the walking.
I walked over to my hostel, a monastery just outside of town…only to discover that I had booked their sister property in Santiago. This property was closed due to COVID. Oy!
I walked back into town and tried to figure out where to get the all-important pilgrim’s passport to collect stamps which are needed to prove you actually walked the distance to get the Compostela when you reach Santiago.
Information is not good about where to pick this up. A few websites suggested the local church, but that doesn’t open until 7pm for the evening pilgrim’s mass. I tried a hostel. They sold me one for 2 euros and gave me my very first stamp. You need two per day for the last 100 kilometers. I would have considered staying the night, but the lady was super rude.
I then decided that I might as well start walking. There wasn’t much going on in Sarria and there appeared to be lots of other options to stay further along the Camino. After all it was only 4pm.
And just like that, in unceremonious fashion, I began my Camino.
The path was extremely well-signed as I headed along a wide dirt path through the countryside. The scenery was quite varied between forests, farmland, and quaint villages.
3 kilometers in, I reached my first town: . There was a gift shop and I bought two trekking poles and got another stamp.
I kept cruising through the beautiful scenery. At 6 kilometers I saw a guesthouse open. Some hikers who were near me decided to stop, but I figured I would keep going since it was only 5:30 and feeling really good. At 9 kilometers, I tried to stop at a restaurant for a snack. I was hungry. But the restaurant was closed for the year because of COVID…my first sign of closings along the Camino.
The pretty scenery continued. I saw an old man using a tiny red tractor and passed through a few more miniscule villages. Many of the buildings looked centuries old.
The good signage continued and the path was in great shape. This truly is the rural European hike you dream of.
The good signage continued and the path was in great shape. This truly is the rural European hike you dream of.
At 12 kilometers, I reached a town that supposedly has two “auburgues” or pilgrim’s hostels. Unfortunately both were closed. I continued onto the next town at 13.5 kilometers and both of their hostels were closed as well. It was 7:30 pm and I was really hungry. I then pulled up my map and realized that the next town with a guaranteed hostel was Portomarin at the 22 kilometer mark. Oooooof. That was still 2 hours of walking away. I realized that I if I stopped for dinner now, I would be walking in the darkness and would risk some of the hostels and restaurants in town being shut down (I read that many of the pilgrim hostels have strict curfews).
This would put me one full day ahead of my intended schedule. Portomarin was my goal destination for tomorrow!!!
I noticed that hot spots were starting to develop on my feet, but I needed to get to Portomarin by sunset so I ignored them and kept walking.
Somewhere along the way, I got lost and ended up on the cycling Camino which detoured me onto a paved road. This added some distance and meant I missed the famed 100 kilometers to go mark.
My feet started to hurt.
The last 5 kilometers were a big downhill towards a river. The feet really were hurting. With 2 kilometers to go, I passed by a town with a hostel that was open. I debated staying in the small town but it meant that I would just have to walk further tomorrow so I pressed on. The last 1 kilometer was a very steep descent. My feet were in agony and I limped down the hill as the sun set.
I trudged across the huge river into town. The smile on my face overcame all the pain in my feet.
I stopped at the very first hostel I could find and checked in. A dorm bed was 12 Euros. Little did I know that blankets are not included…instead they give you a paper sheet and pillow covering. Luckily, the room was warm enough and I could use my jacket and towel for warmth.
Unlike all the other villages I passed by today, this was a real town and there were multiple restaurants open until the typical 11:30 pm. I found one with good reviews and a “pilgrim’s meal”. The pilgrim’s meal is an incredible deal for just 10 Euros you get a 3-course meal plus a drink (water or wine) and bread. I have no idea how these places make money.
It was finally time for bed. I was exhausted- my day started in Barcelona at 5am and ended at 11:30 pm. Wow!
Day 2: August 21, 2020: Portomarin to Palas de Rei
I woke up and had to run a few errands. First, I bought a toothbrush (I ALWAYS forget this). Second, I had to get some snacks for the road.
My feet still hurt a little bit from yesterday’s slug, but I made a change that would help: I switched to hiking socks. Yesterday, I was in such a rush to get moving that I walked the whole thing in normal athletic socks. My hypothesis is that this was causing the issues since hiking socks have far more padding.
The weather was quite cold, 11 degrees Centigrade, so I wore all my layers. While the weather report called for 0% chance of rain, it drizzled on and off the entire walk.
The Camino started again in a pretty forest but moved to farmland and eventually to the side of a two-lane road. The scenery was noticeably less exciting than yesterday but still fine. The first 8 kilometers were all uphill. It wasn’t steep, but it was enough of a climb to notice.
About 4km in, I stopped to get my first stamp and a bottle of water. It appears that places will not just give you a stamp unless you purchase something first. Despite not being part of a city, the place was packed. It appears that most of the pilgrims are all staying in the same towns- especially because of COVID. Therefore, everyone is sort of on the same schedule. I would guess that there were 20-25 people at this random restaurant.
At about 6 kilometers in, I walked by a series of manure factories. They tried to hide it by placing a tall hedge in between the path and the nearly 1 kilometer of factories. Maybe it obscured the view, but it could not hide the smell. The awful smell did encourage me to walk faster.
The top of the massive 8km hill had some ancient Celtic ruins.
Finally, I found some flat ground. After crossing a highway, the Camino flattened out and then continued along a paved road lined with eucalyptus trees. There were a few road crews cleaning the Camino.
After a solid downhill lined with extremely muscular cows, I found an open restaurant for lunch. My feet were hurting after 15 kilometers of walking. I ordered a burger, which was spectacular!
The final 10 kilometers was mostly along a quiet road until I was almost into Palas de Rei. There, the Camino veered off onto a beautiful pathway built by the town council. My feet were in so much pain it was difficult to walk for the last bit, but I couldn’t stop now.
At the entrance to town, there was a kiosk where a greeter gives you a stamp. So very kind!
It was 3:30 pm by the time I reached the town center- exactly 24 hours after I had left Sarria. That meant that I completed two stages totaling 50 kilometers in the past 24 hours. No small feat.
I then found a guesthouse. This one, unlike the last night, had blankets. I also was able to chat a bit with the other pilgrims in the room (in Spanish). Everyone doing the Camino was Spanish because of all the travel restrictions from other countries for people returning from Spain.
Since my feet were in so much pain, I knew the best remedy would be to get off them. I laid in bed for a couple hours before taking an ibuprofen pill and eventually heading to dinner.
The town itself is okay. The unusual name of Palas de Rei stems from its status as center of a Celtic kingdom that has long disappeared.
I got another pilgrim’s meal. This one had the famed Galician octopus as my main. The octopus here is so much better than at Galician restaurants in Barcelona. The food is either fresher or the Camino made the food taste better. We’ll never know. After dinner, I laid in bed and tried to get as much rest as possible.
Day 3: August 22, 2020: Palas de Rei to Arzua
My feet felt better after almost 15 hours lying down in bed. I had a few blisters, but the pain from standing was not there…at least for now.
The feet sure needed to recover because today was going to be my longest day: 29 kilometers.
The path started through a beautiful forest. The weather was chilly, but definitely warmer than yesterday. No rain.
About 2 kilometers in, I passed by a massage shop that unfortunately was closed due to COVID. Dang that would be awesome right now!
5 kilometers in, I found a breakfast restaurant that was packed. Outside at a table was a guy making candlewax seal stamps to put into your pilgrim’s passport. I got one for a 1 Euro donation. So cool and medieval!!
The rest of the morning was uneventful until the 12 kilometer mark. In the town Furelos, I crossed a Roman-era bridge. The nearby town was quite pretty.
From there, I headed into the Melide, the largest city I would pass through along the Camino. Melide has 9,000 residents and a number of tall buildings. After a few days in the countryside, it was a bit of a shock to see a city this big- sort of like in Pokemon when you reach Saffron City (or Goldenrod City in Gold/Silver).
Melide is famous for two reasons. The first is that two Caminos: the Camino Frances and Caminio Primitivo (from Oviedo) meet here. The second is that a very famous Galician octopus restaurant, Pulperia Ezequiel, is here.
I devoured the plate of “pulpo ferria” (octopus fair-style). It was so so so delicious. It was also nice to get off my feet, which were really hurting.
Just a few minutes after leaving town, I got a message from my friend Curro. Curro has a friend who has a churro shop here in Melide and if I wanted to, I could visit and get a free churro. At this point, my feet hurt so much that the prospect of walking even 5 minutes back was so dreadful that I had to say no. I still had 15 kilometers to go!
The next stretch of Camino went quickly, but with 8 kilometers left, I couldn’t walk any more because my feet were in so much pain. Luckily at that moment I got a text from my friend Connie suggesting I switch to tennis shoes (I had been using my hiking boots the entire time). I decided to take her up on her suggestion. While the feet still hurt, the lighter weight and better cushioning felt good! I realized that wearing the boots was a bad mistake and I might not even have had blisters had I used my trainers.
I then continued through cornfields and some steeper hills than desired and eventually made it into the pleasant town of Arzua.
The hostel I picked was out of dorms, but they did have a private room for 25 euros. Since I was so tired, I splurged on it…and it ended up being so nice to have my own space.
After lying down, I realized that I had run out of ibuprofen. In Spain most pharmacies close on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. It was Saturday afternoon. Luckily, I found a pharmacy that was open. Ahh sweet relief!!!
I also found the best pilgrim’s meal of all time. This one was 12 euros instead of the normal 10, but I definitely got the extra 2 euros worth of deliciousness. It started with an enormous bowl of the Galician stew. That was followed by ribs. That was followed by a lemon tart. An epic deal!!
I then got a great night’s sleep. The longest day was now behind me and only 39 kilometers separated me and Santiago de Compostela.
Day 4: August 23, 2020: Arzua – O Pedrouzo
This day was going to be the shortest so far. Just 20 kilometers.
The day started out in the beautiful forest. I noticed that there were way more people on the route today than in days past.
About 3 kilometers in, I got breakfast at a surprisingly chic café in a historic farmhouse. Orange juice and the tarta de Santiago (a local specialty that’s similar to an almond cake).
Another 6 kilometers in, I reached a beer garden covered in the Pelegrino (pilgrim) beer bottles. I had purposefully not been drinking, but felt that the setting was too cool not to have a bottle of beer and add it to the collection.
Pushing closer to Santiago, the Camino continued to be quite busy. I was suddenly surrounded by group of backpackers who had speakers playing EDM music. It was fun to walk next to them.
Just one kilometer from my destination, I stopped in the town of A Rua since it looked to have better food options than O Pedrouza. I found a local restaurant with good reviews and went in for what ended up being the best meal of the Camino.
I started with a local cheese plate- Arzua is known for its blue cheese- and ended with an amazing squid cooked in its ink. Wow! So good.
With a full stomach, I limped my way into O Pedrouza. The feet hurt a lot and my blisters were now pretty significant. I found a very basic hostel for pilgrims. Just like my hostel in Portomarin, this one didn’t have sheets or blankets. Instead, I was given a paper mattress and pillow covering.
For dinner, I got a special treat: my IESE friend Juan Eduardo drove out to meet me along with his wife, Trini, and son. They were staying in Santiago, which is only a 20 minute drive away from where I am. We got a beautiful dinner in town and caught up on life. After 4 days without having any real conversations, this was truly wonderful!
The hostel had a 10pm curfew, so we got back just in time so that I wouldn’t get locked out.
I did not sleep well this night. My hostel neighbors were chatting until midnight. Additionally, the room got extremely cold and I didn’t have a blanket. I tried to use my fleece jacket and backpack, but it wasn’t quite enough. I slept for probably 4 hours.
Day 5: August 24, 2020 O Pedrouzo – Santiago de Compostela
This was it the final day! Only 20 kilometers to go.
Traditionally, people get up very early on this day to make the noon pilgrim’s mass at the cathedral. All my neighbors in the hostel woke up at 5-5:30 which meant that I too was waking up early.
Despite the lack of sleep, the adrenaline of the final day got me quite excited and I was out the door just after 6 am. The sun had not yet risen.
About 2 kilometers in, the sun started to rise. It was so beautiful in the corn.
I moved very quickly at the beginning of the day. At 8 AM, I passed by the airport where I flew in and by 8:30, I was just 10 kilometers away from Santiago. There was no pain at the moment, even though my blisters were massive.
Once I passed the town of Lavacolla, things started to change. The Camino shifted to a cement road and my blisters started to get bad. They were so bad, I had to stop multiple times to adjust my bandages. But the pain was intense. This section of the Camino was tough because of the long straightaways. It felt like a very long time.
After walking for what seemed like forever, I got my first glimpse of the Monte de Gozo (mountain of joy). This mountain contains the first view of the cathedral. My pace quickened as I ascended the mountain through a suburban neighborhood.
The top of the mountain contains a park. Interestingly you cannot see the town unless you stand exactly at the top of the hill which contains a monument to Pope John Paul II.
And there it was, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela!!!
From Monte de Gozo, there was a steep downhill that really hurt my feet. Everything started to hurt, but I had only 5 kilometers to go so I couldn’t stop.
The entrance into Santiago is quite anticlimactic. You walk over a highway and along city streets with barely any Camino signage. Even 1,000 meters away, all you get is an ugly blue sign.
I was in so much pain during this section that I had to stop a few times.
Eventually I reached the old city and the narrow streets. My pain started to disappear as my excitement built up.
Then all of a sudden I reached a plaza and was face to face with the north side of the massive cathedral. I raised my hands in victory as some tourists applauded me.
I then headed down a set of stairs through an archway to reach the famed Plaza de Obradoiro which contains the signature main entrance. My hands were still raised as I walked to the center of the plaza.
There, I met up with my classmate Marco who had just finished the Camino de Norte from the northern coast of Galicia. We had been chatting the entire time and coordinated our arrivals. Talking to Marco was a big mental boost for me along the way.
After resting and smiling, we were met by Juan Eduardo and family! Juan Eduardo is one of the best photographers out there and took some pro pictures of the group. They then took off for southwest Galicia.
Marco and I walked to the pilgrim’s office to register our Camino and get the Compostela.
Something they don’t tell you about when walking the Camino is the long line to get the Compostela. It took an hour to get our appointment. We were around the 250th people completing the Camino that day.
Once our number was called, we walked into what looked just like a government office. We waited just a few minutes inside before I was called up to one of the 12 desks. There, a church officer recorded my information and checked my pilgrim’s passport for the correct stamps. After verifying that I did in fact complete the Camino, gave me my Compostela. Additionally I paid 3 more euros for a certificate of distance…because why not.
In the afternoon, Marco and I toured the cathedral. The interior was undergoing a major renovation, but we were still allowed to walk around. Most importantly, the tomb of St. James was still accessible. Once we saw the tomb, our pilgrimage was officially complete.
Now, it was time to rest and heal my blistered feet.
There is a popular saying that the journey is the destination. It couldn’t be more true on this hike especially since the destination was undergoing a major renovation. When I think back on the Camino, I will probably think very little about Santiago itself. Rather, I will remember the beauty of the countryside, the small villages along the way, the incredible trail infrastructure, and the food. More than anything, I will remember my struggles with the blisters, the uncomfortable hostels, and how, despite the odds, I managed to complete the journey. In a way, I am happy that the hike didn’t go as planned because it allowed me to use my mind and my decision-making skills. Time and time again, I have found the most rewarding trips to be the ones where I can learn and grow from the experience. These trips are never as comfortable as laying by the pool, but the end result is better: the feeling of accomplishment and a story I will have for the rest of my life.