No Pain No Rain No… Spain?

No Pain, No Rain, No… Spain?

It’s official: I’ve completed the Camino de Santiago!

Though I hiked the Camino as part of the 4,000-mile Trans European Alpine Route, it’s a special trail and deserves some special attention.

Which Camino?

The US long distance hiking community seems to have a general awareness of the Camino de Santiago.

When I first heard of it, I assumed it was, like most major US thru-hikes, a single trail.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Hiking “The” Camino is essentially hiking any route over 100km (~60mi) to Santiago de Compostella in Spain’s Galicia region. An official route doesn’t exist. Sorry, purists.

The Camino de Santiago isn’t referred to as a hike, but rather a pilgrimage. In English the direct translation is “The Way of St James,” named for the Apostle whose relics and remains are reportedly housed in the Cathedral in Santiago De Compostella.

There’s some debate about whose bones they truly are, which you can read about here.

A Brief History

Christian pilgrims began journeying to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella immediately after its construction in 1065.

It was said that visiting the remains and relics in Santiago de Compostella reduced the time a soul would spend in Purgatory.

There are numerous well-established routes with their own names. The most popular is the Camino Frances, which starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and finishes in Santiago.

The two oldest routes are the Camino del Norte, which runs along the northern coastline, and the Camino Primitivo. The Primitivo which begins slightly inland from the Norte in Oveido and parallels the Norte, joining it in Arzua before reaching Santiago.

My Experience

My personal Camino was a strange one. My intention of walking Spain was part of a much larger project, so I didn’t give the Camino much thought as an entity.

The official Trans European Alpine Route spends a significant portion of the Spain section on other trails not included in well-known Camino routes.

I decided to begin at the coast in Finisterre, walk to Santiago, and then follow the TEAR eastward to France, before flipping to Bulgaria to walk westward.

The Trans European Alpine Route

Given my early arrival and some significant snows in the high passes of the Cantabrian Mountains, I rerouted from the official route and walked the Camino del Norte in reverse.

This is a decision I regret. Knowing what I know now I would have begun my Camino in Irun and walked my Camino the proper way. With 99.99% of pilgrims walking in the same direction, walking “the wrong way” doesn’t offer the type of social experience that makes the Camino so special for many.

Rain and Pain

Most people think of Spain as being a warm and sunny place. That may be the case in the summer, but in the shoulder seasons it’s very wet, particularly along the Atlantic coast.

My first ten days in the Camino, it rained intermittently every day. I got a lot of use out of my Six Moons Designs umbrella.

Normally, these type of weather conditions would make the trail hard going, but the majority of the Camino Finisterre and the Camino del Norte are paved or gravel road. This saved me from walking through mud puddles, but it had some downsides.

I started the Camino in a pair of Altra Lone Peak 7s, but the constant pounding of walking in asphalt led to intense foot pain, and in desperation I swapped them for a pair of extra cushioned New Balance running shoes. That seemed to help with the foot pain, but the significant impact on my knees also became an issue.

As many hikers can attest, road walking is hard on the joints, and 580 miles of it proved punishing.

On the Bright Side

The terrain on the Camino del Norte is very approachable regardless of physical conditioning. Roads, by nature, are well graded. There are steep sections, but they tend to be relatively short.

For those that like to cover ground, this trail is a dream. If you’re a fast hiker and you come in fit, 20-mile days will come early, often and easy. In my case, the Camino provided me with a great warm up to knock the rust off and get in better shape for the more challenging sections to come.

Natural Beauty

The Spanish countryside is absolutely stunning. For those unaccustomed to the rolling farmland of Europe, it’s quite surreal.

A significant portion of your walk will be well cultivated, meaning very little “green tunnel” and constant views.

The manmade structures have their own beauty. As an American, I find the sheer age of many European buildings impressive, and Spain has an appealing architectural aesthetic.


Given the population density and distribution around the Camino, resupply isn’t a concern. If you have the funds, you could easily rely on restaurants for three meals a day on most stages of the journey. Restaurants usually offer a “Menu del dia,” which is three courses. Typically, it’s soup or salad and a main meat dish followed by dessert. Prices are affordable for such ample portions.

Typical first course of hearty lentil soup

If you’re on a budget, you can usually find a grocery store every day to stock up on snack and meal supplies.

Wild camping isn’t totally legal in Spain, and the vast majority of surrounding property is private. This means tent camping is challenging, but it also means that there are tons of hostels (called Alburges) to choose from.

Staying in an Alburge every night is definitely a hit to the wallet, but the extra luxury helps significantly with the mental game. It also provides ample opportunity to socialize and make friends with fellow pilgrims of you wish.

Hiking early in the season and in the “wrong” direction, I often found myself the only Pilgrim in the Alburge. When I didn’t, the opportunity to socialize was very welcome.

In order to minimize the impact on my wallet, I tried my best to stick to the Municipal Alburgues operated by local governments and donation-based hostels. For those choosing which route to walk, these Donativos are much more common on the Primitivo and Frances than on the Norte.

Final Thoughts

Finishing the Camino checks one off my hiking bucket list of sure. I’m pleased to be finished with a major section of my larger journey. It’s had its ups and downs, but overall, it’s been fun.

It isn’t quite the same feeling as completing the Appalachian Trail, given I haven’t had time to go completely feral, and instead of going home I’m off to hike another 3,500 miles!

I intend to come back to Spain at least twice more. Once to hike the official TEAR path through Spain, and once more to hike the Camino Frances, in the correct direction, in the middle of the season. I’ve hiked the Camino, but I know there’s much more to experience in busier seasons.

Hasta El Proximo, España!

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