The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage trail. Originally, walked by Celtic and Roman pagans who would follow the path of the sun to Finisterre, on the Atlantic coast of Galicia, Spain.
Eventually, the tradition was taken over by the Catholic Church and given the name The Way of St James. For a thousand years or more, the faithful have walked to the Cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, a few days shy of the coast. Once there, they attend mass at the cathedral and their sins are forgiven.
Today, thousands of people travel the Camino every year. While many pilgrims walk for spiritual reasons, some do it for the physical challenge, others to have time to clear their heads, others to explore the country in a way they couldn't on a bus tour.
What does Buen Camino mean?
It means 'good road'. This is how pilgrims greet each other, regardless of their native language. It can be a hello, a goodbye, a toast. Locals will often greet you with it as you pass them.
What is the meaning of the seashell?
The seashell is the ancient symbol of the pilgrim. The path to take is marked with seashells, and pilgrims carry them on their packs. A pilgrim may also choose to carry a gourd and a walking stick, while less common than the seashell these symbols are also seen along on the Camino.
Where do I start walking?
The Camino has many starting points. The shortest and flattest option is to start in Sarria, a town 100km from Santiago. Around 70% of pilgrims start there. Both times I walked the Camino I started in St Jean Pied de Port, in Southern France, 775km from Santiago. This is known as the French Way and was the path taken by Roman pilgrims.
How long does it take?
It depends on where you start and how far you can walk in a day. If you start in Sarria it would take about a week, but from St Jean Pied de Port it takes most people at about a month.
However, to walk the French Way in a month you have to walk 20-30km a day, which wears on the body even if you are very fit. Many pilgrims become injured forcing themselves to keep to the strict walking schedule needed to reach Santiago de Compestella in the 33 days prescribed in one of the most popular guidebooks.
When is the best time to do the Camino?
While you can do the Camino at any time of the year, spring and autumn are best as this avoids the more extreme weather. Because a lot of websites recommend walking in autumn to avoid the heat and the crowds, more people start the Camino on September 1 than any other day of the year. This influx of pilgrims doesn’t just mean more people on the paths, it means more people taking up beds in the albergues (pilgrim accommodations). With this in mind, I would suggest that if you want to walk in autumn, start a week or so either side of September 1, to avoid the major crowd.
How much does it cost?
The only cost for the Camino is the price of your credential, plus your food and accommodation. Many restaurants offer an inexpensive set menu for pilgrims. There are cheap options for accommodation as well as some higher-end ones along the way. I would recommend finding a Camino forum and asking someone who has completed the Camino in the last year to get the most up to date estimate of the cost.
Do I need to book through a tour company?
No. Both times I walked the Camino, I showed up at the pilgrims' office in St Jean Pied de Port, bought my credential, and hit the road. That was it. However, if you want the security of having your meals and accommodation arranged for you in advance, there are companies that offer these packages.
What is a credential?
A credential is proof that you are a pilgrim. When you check into an albergue the staff will ask to see your credential and will record who you are and where you spent the night before. This lets them track the pilgrims on the way in case of an emergency. They also stamp and date your credential. By the end of the Camino, you will have a unique stamp for every place you stayed. When you arrive in the pilgrim's office in Santiago de Compostela, your credential is proof that you have in fact walked the Camino. Without it, you will not receive your certificate of completion.
Where do I get a credential?
You can buy a credential at the pilgrim's office in the town where you start walking. The Society of St James in your country may produce their own credential which can be used on the Camino. However, I don't know much about this option as I bought mine in St Jean Pied de Port (for 2 Euro) both times.
Do I have to speak Spanish?
No. But also yes. There are VERY FEW locals on the Camino who speak English. While they don't speak English, they are usually very patient and accommodating and will do their best to help you through pantomime. However, it is best to at least learn some basic phrases.
What should I pack?
The type of clothing you need will depend on the season you walk. Standard hiking advice is to keep your pack to no more than 10% of your body weight, with a maximum of 10kgs, so you need to pack carefully to keep the weight down.
Along the French Way (from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela), there are plenty of opportunities to buy things you need. I recommend packing light and buying more if you need to rather than packing everything you can think of and then throwing things out. However, other routes do not pass through as many cities and may not have as many shopping opportunities so be sure to do research on the facilities along the path you plan to take.
Can I use my credit card on the Camino?
No. The only places that will take a credit card are hotels and ATMs. That is all. Restaurants, albergues, and shops only take cash. In some cases, you might be able to use your credit card at a supermarket but the majority of the places you will buy food from along the Camino are small shops which only take cash. ATMs are not everywhere, never in the small towns, and can run out of cash with lots of pilgrims using them, so get enough cash out to last for several days every time you see one.
What is the terrain like?
This will depend on which route you take but even if the path you choose is described as being flat you should expect hills. The French Way has at least one hill every day, and a few mountain crossings. While some of the mountains are very challenging you do not need to be a mountain climber with special equipment. Expect mud, rocks, dirt roads, highways, cement, and gravel.