Camino de Santiago: Luxurious Long-Distance Hiking
Never thought you’d see luxury and long-distance hiking in the same sentence, did you? Don’t think you have what it takes to go without a shower for a week, or miss your daily coffee and avocado toast while hiking the AT or PCT, but you still want to go on a long walk? Then the Camino de Santiago is the one for you.
After thru-hiking the AT, the Camino is downright luxurious: minimal daily walking, a bed to sleep in every night, access to a shower, an abundance of food, wine, and café con leche, and the most popular route takes about five weeks start to finish. You don’t even have to hike with your pack if you don’t want. You can pay a fee and have it delivered to your daily destination. It doesn’t get any easier than this. Plus, pilgrims have been walking to Santiago for thousands of years. So these “trail towns” know what’s up and they cater to the pilgrims’ every need.
The Camino is a Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Pilgrims—also known as peregrinos—have been walking to Santiago for centuries to pay their respects to Saint James’ relics that preside at the cathedral. Pilgrimages are meant to act as penance due for sins. Nowadays, over 100,000 pilgrims walk, bike, or horseback ride to Santiago on various routes each year. I didn’t walk this route for religious reasons, but more for a cultural experience. One of the most interesting aspects of this trek is how much history the area holds. Everything you pass—churches, bridges, statues—tell a story of a time long ago and are important historical relics. At one point I was walking on a stone road built by the Romans. The Romans.
One of the special aspects of the Camino is that there are several routes you can take to reach the destination of Santiago de Compostela. The most popular is the 490-mile Camino Frances route starting in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, France. The first day on the trail you cross the border into Spain and continue westward to Santiago. Not all pilgrims start in Saint Jean; some start in cities along the way such as Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, or Sarria. If you have a limited window of time, you can start anywhere along the way. The only stipulation is that if you want to receive your compostela (certificate of completion in Santiago) you need to have walked the 100 kilometers leading up to Santiago. You prove this by showing your pilgrim passport, a document that you get stamped at albergues every night. For the last 100 kilometers, you need to get it stamped at least twice a day.
Other routes include the Camino Português starting in Lisbon, Portugal, or the Camino Norte, which follows the northern coast of Spain. If you want to go farther than Santiago you can keep walking to the coast to Fisterra, Muxía, or both. If you’ve got the time you could potentially start walking from Paris and make your way south. The options are endless.
What to Expect
The Camino de Santiago sees hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year. My advice: go in the off-season of April or October. Going earlier or later, you will have to deal with the possibility of albergues being closed. You also need to check if the year you plan on walking the route is a holy year, because if it is you can expect a lot more peregrinos on the trail. You’ll need to get used to being around a lot more people on this trail. Moments when it’s only you as far as you can see are rare. On a positive note you’ll be meeting people from all over the world and you’ll get to practice your Spanish that you took in high school.
Albergues are hostel-like accommodations at which hikers stay every night. They usually cost 10 euros and provide a bunk in a dorm-like room, plus a communal bathroom and shower. Most have Wi-Fi and a kitchen area. Private rooms are sometimes available but cost more. Larger cities like Burgos have more options and nicer hotels.
Another major difference from backcountry long-distance hiking is that there is no need to carry food on the Camino, as you pass through many small towns every day. You can stop in a café for a sandwich or café con leche, a market for fruit or candy, or sit down at a restaurant. You’ll find that some of the smaller, family-run albergues also offer dinner. Either at an albergue or at a restaurant you’ll usually find the menu del dia for around ten to 12 euros. The menu peregrino consists of water or wine, bread, a first course of pasta or a salad, entrée, and dessert. This is always the best deal for the hungry pilgrim. The smaller albergues serve dinner family-style so all the pilgrims staying there get to sit down together to share a meal.
The route is easy to navigate and the way is marked with yellow arrows and yellow shells. The shell is a symbol of the trek and you’ll find your fellow pilgrims carrying a large shell on their pack for the entirety of the trek. I picked mine up in Saint Jean and carried it all the way to Fisterra. The most popular guidebook by John Brierley provides all the information you would need and has a set route for each day, getting you to Santiago in five weeks.
I can’t recommend the Camino enough. It’s long enough that you get into a nice groove and get to know the Spanish culture, but short enough that it doesn’t take up your whole summer. I laughed with fellow pilgrims over glasses of vino tinto and met friends I will have for life. I became addicted to sangria and churros, and I’m already planning my next Camino route to get my fix. Buen Camino!
If you need any more inspiration, look for my upcoming post about the amazing food and drink you’ll have at your fingertips on the trek.
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