El Camino de Santiago de Compostela: the official distance is 775kilometres from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. The most physically challenging and rewarding experience of my life.
I knew that with enough determination I would be physically capable of walking the full distance. Once I have set my mind to something and publicised my intentions, I can be an awfully determined and stubborn person. While my family and friends continually told me I could do it, I suspect they wondered why I would bother and whether I would quit. With shouts of pride and wonder they were all very impressed when I finished!
So without giving myself too much of a pat on the back for kicking Camino butt, I do want to tell you about the experience in a way that is factual and informative for anyone considering doing it themselves, as well as giving interesting information about the experience as a whole.
Attached is a Spreadsheet of Camino Stats and Costs listing my walking days: start, finish, steps, distance, time taken and costs for the day. In addition to the stats of all 31 days of walking, it tallies all costs from my departure in The Netherlands to my return in The Netherlands and everything in between.
(The steps and distance were calculated by use of the Apple Health app on the iPhone – it obviously won’t be 100% accurate, but it’s not too far off)
Everyone walks their own camino…
I want to start by saying this: Everyone walks their own camino.
This is the most important thing to remember about the camino. It is yours and yours only. You may chose to share your experience with others, but you are there for yourself.
It is up to you to choose how you walk it: fast or slow; alone or with others; in silence, in conversation or listening to music; with rest days or without; collecting many stamps or a few; carrying your bag or sending it on each day; camping, staying in albergues or in hotels.
It is important to have an idea for how you want to walk your camino, but remain open-minded about how this may or may not change as you make friends and your priorities or situation change. Some people had to catch a bus or taxi for a section when they became unwell, there was no accommodation available or they didn’t want to walk a particular section. Some people sent their bags ahead each day because they physically couldn’t carry it, didn’t want to carry it or they suffered an injury meaning they could no longer carry it.
Whatever choices you make for yourself, do not try to convince others to do the same or change what they are doing (it made me angry to hear someone trying to convince others to change what they were doing).
No matter what, remain true to yourself and feel comfortable in the knowledge that you will be respected by others for making your own decisions. There is no judgement on the camino.
The most traditional starting point of the Camino Frances, or Way of St James, is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. You can however, start wherever you like along the route. To achieve a compostela at the end, you must walk at least the final 100 kilometres to the finishing point of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
One of the things you need when you begin is a pilgrims passport, known as a credencial. You can buy one online, at your hostel or from the local pilgrims office. I got mine from the pilgrims office in St-Jean.
In your credencial you collect stamps from the pilgrims albergues (hostels) where you stay as well as churches, cafes, bars and other memorable locations. If you walk the entire camino from St-Jean then you need at least one stamp per day. If you only walk the last 100km, you require a minimum of two stamps per day as evidence of walking the distance. It is up to you which stamps you collect, my choice was to only get stamps from the places I stayed. Some friends got churches and notable places and others got as many as they possibly could.
The full distance from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela is 775 kilometres. There are no rules as to how far you should walk each day or how many days you should take. Many of the guide books provide a suggested 34 day plan that you can follow if you choose to. No matter how you walk your camino, the distance you walk each day will vary daily.
I took 31 consecutive days to complete my Camino, this means I would have averaged a distance of 25 kilometres per day. In reality my longest walking day was 42 kms and my shortest was 15 kms.
You are not required to walk consecutive days; many people take rest days when they are tired, unwell or there is a city they wish to explore. Whether you take rest days or not is simply your own choice. However, if you are staying in a pilgrims’ albergue you need to be aware that they have a one night rule. To stay a rest day you will need to book a private albergue or hotel.
A typical day on the camino
A vague outline of a fairly standard day on the camino, times are obviously approximate and dependent on the distance walking in the day, the temperature, level of exhaustion and pain etc. The times in this outline would be around 25-28kms walking.
|0600||Get up, get dressed, pack|
|0630||Make and eat breakfast with groceries purchased day before|
|0900||Stop for second breakfast and a coffee, after walking between 10kms|
|1130||Stop for coffee and a snack, after walking 20kms|
|1300||Finish walking for the day and check in to an albergue|
|1400||Wash dirty clothes|
|1430||Find a supermarket to get food supplies and dinner ingredients if the albergue has a kitchen|
|1500||Sit down and chill out for a wee while|
|1830||Cook OR find restaurant offering a pilgrims meal|
|2100||Go to bed|
We typically broke our days into blocks of 10 kilometres. A 22km day we would aim to break into two chunks of around 11kms. A 30 kilometre day we would aim for three block of 10kms.
Many people used a guidebook to plan their day. Either the Camino de Santiago Michelin Zoom Guide (the book says it’s in French, but actually is in six languages within the one book) or more commonly the A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley My camino family and I planned our days through a combination of the guidebooks, my Wise Pilgrims Camino Frances app (iOS & Android), Allan’s Camino Pilgrims app, and Laura’s website for calculating distances between towns and pdf listing of accommodation options. Using these we were able to plan the days, with an idea for how many mountains we would cross, the distance between coffee breaks and where we should stay the night.
Eating on the Camino
At the albergue’s or nearby cafes and restaurants there are breakfast and dinner options. Due to the high level of physical activity and early starts, we typically ate four meals per day: Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
I found that for variety, quantity and cost effectiveness, buying food from the supermarket for most meals was the best option for me.
Over the full 31 days of walking, I spent €435.11 on food. The most expensive individual meal was €15 for an amazing seafood paella and beer. My average daily spend on food was €14.04.
Breakfast, Second Breakfast and Lunch
Pilgrim breakfast ranges from €3 – €4 and is typically a glass of fresh orange juice, a coffee and two pieces of toast with butter and jam. There was not always a pilgrim breakfast available at the time we would start walking for the day. Aside from this I thought it was overpriced and not enough food for long walking days. So I would make my own.
For the first three meals of each day I would typically make myself a bocadillo using the cheese and meat I purchased from the supermarket. I would accompany this with a piece of fruit and often for breakfast a small tub of yoghurt.
Sometimes I splashed out and bought a pastry or tortilla to go with my regular stops for a “CCL” (Cafe Con Leche – coffee with milk).
A pilgrim meal has entree, main, dessert, bread and red wine (or water and sometimes you can ask for beer instead). In terms of quantity, the pilgrim meal is a pretty good deal, but in terms of variety you will very quickly find you diet lacking in vegetables! (We began to supplement with daily multivitamin tablets)
Some pilgrim meals are fully set menus and other provide a few options for you to choose from. A typical entree selection would include pasta with a tomato sauce, mixed salad or soup. A main would typically be some form of meat and hot chips.
Again my preference, when we had access to a fully equipped kitchen was to chip in for groceries and cook. Shared meals were really enjoyable, healthier and much cheaper. Often we ate for €4 per person!
There are several accommodation options on the Camino: Pilgrim Albergue, Monastery, Convent, Casa Rural, Hotel Rural and Hotel (these last three are essentially all hotels). Accommodation is traditionally in pilgrim albergues.
Where you stay is completely your choice. I typically opted for the municipal albergue in the town I chose to stay in. Occasionally I splashed out on private rooms. On one occasion Hannah, Will and I walked in El Burgo Ranero soaked to the bone and got a private room just so we could warm up, dry out, be comfortable and quell our misery.
Over the full 31 days of walking, I spent €323.42 on accommodation, the cheapest hostel bed was €5 and the most expensive private hotel room was €30. I averaged €10.43 per day.
There are municipal, private and xunta albergues; convents and monsateries also tend to fall into the albergue category.
To have a bed in an albergue you are required to provide evidence of being a pilgrim, your credencial. This entitles you to stay in the albergue for one night. Prices for municipal albergues range from €5 – €10. I paid up to €15 for a private albergue.
It is important to be aware of standard albergue rules. Never put your bag on the bed. Shoes go on the shoe rack, which is basically never in your dorm room – thankfully! Doors are locked between 10-11pm and if you are locked out, bad luck. No noise before 7am, you must be out by 8am.
Albergues vary in size, from 10 -150 beds. Those beds may be separated into small rooms with as few as 4 beds per room and others are huge halls of beds.
Bathrooms are shared, most are quite private. Occasionally when bathroom are single sex privacy appears to be missing, along with the shower doors. With so many pilgrims in each albergue, be aware that everyone is also competing for hot water. I was caught out with cold water on a few occasions.
My two favourite Albergues were both private family owned and run. They were Cuatro Cantones in Belorado and Paloma y Leña in San Mamed do Camiño. They were both only €10 and provided a €10 pilgrim meal – food and accommodation were both AMAZING!
I am ridiculously grateful not to have encountered these evil little critters, but that being said, I took some precautions along the way.
In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I paid an obscene amount of money for Bed Bug repellent spray, which I dutifully sprayed over all of my stuff inside and out (sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, hiking pack, clothes etc) every two to three days. Many people had their belongings pre-treated with a bed bug killer and/or repellant. I never knew such a thing existed, so certainly didn’t do it.
Additionally, many hostels give you the option to purchase disposable bed sheets for €1 – €1.50. I would highly recommend doing so, it just provides an extra protection between your stuff and the mattress. (Many albergues have plastic covered mattresses, which I think is a huge help in preventing bed bug problems)
Almost every albergue will provide hand washing facilities and washing lines. Some also have washing machines and clothes dryers, these typically have an additional cost of€3 – €4 per load, per device.
I typically hand washed my socks and underpants every day. Every few days or once a week I would pool dirty laundry with some friends and we would all chip in for the cost of using a machine. It was nice to have everything ‘proper’ clean every so often.
I had way too much to say about packing, that it doesn’t fit in this blog post. Check out my blog post on packing for the Camino.
Pain and Exhaustion
When researching the Camino there are so many comments about how wonderful it is and that it’s a life changing experience, which it is, but they seem to skip the part where you experience pure exhaustion and extreme physical pain.
Exhaustion: When sleeping in dorm rooms, you rarely get a good solid night sleep due to noise and snoring. In addition to which you have very early starts to the day. The alarm is typically set for 6am, but people start rustling around in the dorm room at 5:15am. I’m not a great sleeper, so this meant I was awake very early each day.
You typically spend 5-10 hours in the day walking, including stops. Despite feeling completely exhausted upon reaching the hostel, we always had things to do and even if we didn’t, I seem unable to nap. The first two weeks of adjusting to this schedule had me so exhausted I literally passed out the minute my head touched the pillow every night. But by week 3 you are generally fairly used to it. While still exhausted, you don’t have that ‘pass out’ level of tiredness at the end of every day.
The exhaustion is manageable, but the pain is just crazy! The pain also kept me up at night. My hips were so sore that attempting to sleep on my side was excruciating. My heels were throbbing in pain when they were resting on the mattress, the only way to get the pain to a manageable level was to sleep on my stomach with my toes hooked over the end of the bed.
So I talk about pain, but what do I mean?
Muscle Pain: I experienced quite a lot of muscle pain in the first week or two, simply because my legs were not used to walking so much, together with carrying the weight of a pack and ascending and descending mountains. The muscle pain was the most manageable, and you adapted to it very quickly.
Toe Pain: On day one, descending the mountain in shoes that were too small resulted in both my big toes ramming the end of the shoe. This pushed the nails back towards the nail bed, and caused so much damage it would result in my toenails falling off. For the first week this meant that my big toes around the nail were very tender. However, despite the nails taking a very long time to die, after that first week I did not experience any more pain. (7 weeks on from day one the nails are still attached at the base but not the sides, and are completely dead, white and hollow underneath)
Joints, Bones and Soft Tissue: With the continual walking often on a hard surface, carrying your own body weight and the weight of your pack, your joints, bones and soft tissue take a bit of a beating. My hip and knee joints often became quite achy at carrying the extra load. I spent a week or two wearing a knee brace for additional support. The soles of my feet had it the worst. Because I threw out my hiking shoes (because they were too small once my feet had swollen), I walked the full camino (less two days) in my running shoes with an additional gel sports insole. Running shoes don’t have a sturdy enough sole for this type of walking and do not provide enough support. So the soles of my feet came to feel bruised, so badly bruised that I still wonder if I have stress fractures in many of the little bones of the feet. When standing after periods of rest, I could barely put weight on my feet, I almost couldn’t walk and steps were taken very tentatively. It took a little while to get going after each break, but then I numbed to the pain and could push through. For a number of us many days started and finished with Ibuprofen pain tablets. I would also use ibuprofen gel on my knees each night.
Blisters: Last but most certainly not least, blisters, the bane of most people’s Camino. I had epic blisters on both heels instantly on day one, taken to the extreme where I wanted to scream each step I took. Once I took proper care of those blisters and switched shoes the pain dropped to a manageable level. I later got blisters in other places, like the right side of the heel on my right foot when the padding inside my shoe wore away, under the arch of my foot as my insoles disintegrated, on the ball of my foot near my toes probably from grit in my socks on a rainy day and the right side of my left heel as the padding on the other shoe wore through. Eventually where the gaps in padding appeared in my shoes, I filled them and then covered them in duct tape (I walked with duct taped shoes for 2.5 weeks!) Believe it or not the most painful blisters I experienced were the two on the side of the heels, at the point where the soft skin turns to hard skin near the sole of the foot – I suspect there are a whole collection of nerve endings there, because the tiniest blisters were the most obscenely painful things I ever experienced!
So as you imagine I have some brand new knowledge about how to best treat blisters on a big walk like the camino. I tried a few different things but came up with a process that worked really well for me. Firstly, the key to handling a blister effectively is do whatever you can to prevent the roof of the blister tearing off as it increases pain level and drastically increases chance of infection.
- If the blister occurs in the middle of your walking day, skip step 2. After walking for the day drain the blister by piercing it with a needle, many people choose to run thread through it to keep it open as it drains. I just pierce it and squish out the liquid into tissue.
- After showering and giving the blister time to dry, smother it in the home made whizz bang amazing blister repair cream from the pharmacist in Fromista (HOT TIP: The pharmacist in Fromista is AWESOME, if you need any supplies, stop there! When you cross over the road in town, there a couple cafes to the right, and the pharmacist is to the left)
If you don’t have the super awesome cream, possibly put on some antiseptic cream, I don’t know if it helps the blister heal but it does protect against infection.
- In the morning, make sure the blister area is dry and that it remains drained.
- Heat up a piece of compeed with your hands and then stick it over the blister.
- Cut a large-ish sheet of hypafix, stick that over the whole area including the compeed. It’s stretchy, so make use of that to get a nice tight clean fit. My blisters were mostly around the heel area, so I would make a full heel with hypafix.
Why cover the compeed with Hypafix I hear you thinking…when you walk a really long time, the compeed heats up and loses its grip on where it’s been stuck, this means it starts to move and pull the skin with it making the blister much worse. The hypafix somehow reduces some of the friction on the compeed and keeps it nicely in place.
- Do not remove any of these layers until you absolutely have to. By keeping it all covered you reduce risk of infection. Also the compeed it sticky and will tear the top off the blister if you try to take it off. My day-one foot coverings remained on for 1.5weeks. When I took everything off, I gave them an afternoon/night of air, and then put hypafix back on them to maintain a protective layer to prevent the new skin from irritation and further damage.
Note: If your blisters become red and angry, go see a pharmacist or doctor as soon as possible to treat any infections.
It took roughly one to two weeks to get used to the constant walking, high pain levels and to learn the most effective way to deal with blisters. The pain never went away, but it became familiar and tolerable. It ends up as just being a part of the walk.
I met so many weird, wonderful and amazing people along the way. I met some in passing; others I bumped into regularly; and others who I spent many days walking with who will be life long friends.
In discussion with the people I met along the way, I found that all the people walking the full Camino Frances were unemployed. We are all between jobs, changing careers or retired. Everyone was at some kind of crossroads. So for many of these people, they had the time to complete the Camino and it allowed them to mentally work through any issues they had and make some decisions for what they wanted to do in life. For some, like me, it was more about the physical challenge as well as the opportunity to travel at a slower pace and live a simple life for a while. For others it was religious reasons, and for some, particularly those who just did the 100km, it is for their CV (apparently it can be challenging to get a job in Spain if you don’t have a compostela)
The ages of people walking the Camino range from 12 years old with parents, through to people in their 70s and from a huge varieties of countries including: Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Finland, Spain, France, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Brazil and Korea.
Some people walk the whole Camino from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port like I did, others started before that (I met a guy who had walked from Le Puy in France, I met him 100km before Santiago and he had already walked 1400km), and others start later. Some people walk the camino in stages, 100-150km per year until they have completed it.
Aside from the families and couples, basically everyone I met had started out solo. Very quickly you have conversations at the breakfast table, on the trail, at a coffee stop or perhaps in the afternoon commiserating over sore feet. You form friendships, some of which involve conversations each time you pass each other, other times it means walking together in a group. A group that sticks together is usually referred to as a Camino family. From day 1 I had a camino family, formed over breakfast before we all set out. We walked together for the first week or more, when I started to branch off so that I could maintain my own pace and daily schedule. Pretty soon, I walked with a friend, still seeing my old walking partners, then eventually I melded into another group. Often we walked together, but other times we would choose our final destination and meet there so I could walk my own faster pace.
The second family I formed was the group I finished with: Allan from Denmark, Will and Hannah from Seattle, Steve from Boston and in the last week we also picked up Jake and Laura from New Zealand.
Starting out every day was a real challenge, but once my foot pain had dulled to manageable, I liked to take in the scenery, the sunrise and the sounds of nature as I walked. I really enjoy silence, so I would often walk ahead or start early so that I could walk solo and with nothing but the sounds of my own footsteps. This gave me time to think: ponder life, work, family, the camino, the next adventure etc.
I spent most of my time walking with others, this time was usually spent in conversation, sometimes in comfortable and companionable silence and other times playing word games (Will and Hannah had a particularly fun repertoire of word games and we spend a good deal of every day in stitches. In fact almost every day Hannah and I got to the point where we laughed so much we cried)
Sometimes when walking with the group or even without the group, it was nice to have other things going on. Occasionally I listened to Spanish podcasts to work on my Spanish language or listened to music. I love good dance beats, so when I wanted to walk at a fast pace and was struggling with the pain, I would put on some good tunes and it made the time and distance pass quicker and in a much more pleasant way.
The pace of everyone varies; it is really nice when you walk with a group of a similar pace. My first family was slower and enjoyed frequent long breaks that left me frustrated. But my second family had a reasonably similar pace to me so we often walked together. However, I started to find as the group got bigger the pace slowed a little. With a slower pace I felt time dragging and the pain in my feet was less tolerable. I also found that I had spent so much time in a group I wanted to have a few days solo for reflection. So certainly in the last week I mostly walked ahead at my own pace, often joined by Allan who marches along equally quickly and enjoys silence as much as I do, and we got through the walking day as quickly as we could. As strange as it sounds, I felt less pain by walking faster. (I think Allan was just in agony and did it to get the walking over and done with).
The entire camino is well marked with scallop shells and yellow arrows and sometimes distance markers, but there are a couple of things for me to point out.
Let me start with the distance markers. Within the space of 200 metres you could be told you are 610km from Santiago or 580km. Perhaps in Galicia they are believable, but everywhere else, don’t pay them much attention. Your guidebook, app or website will have a more accurate indication, though even they can vary up to a few kilometres.
Out on the open trail, it is really easy to find all the trail markers and particularly challenging to get lost. Within cities or towns it is sometimes a different story. Some cities do a great job of it and others less so. You need to be vigilant in looking for markers. Sometimes the yellow arrows are on the curb of the road, side of buildings or painted on the ground. Shells can also be on the ground on walls or on signs. If you aren’t sure if you are on the right trail, locals will typically point you in the right direction.
In regards to the arrows and trail markers, it is surprising how quickly you assimilate to the simplicity of following an arrow. Equally surprising is how disconcerting it is when you can’t find one and aren’t sure where to go.
Hannah and I both really enjoyed the simplicity and the message in following an arrow and continually moving forward. So much so, that we both got an arrow tattoo on our wrist.
Todos somos unos
It is so hard to condense into words everything I experienced while walking the camino, but a phrase that sums up my feelings effectively is: Todos somos unos, “we are all one”. We share in our experiences, we share in our joy and we share in our pains (all kinds). The Camino brings all types of people from all ages, nations and religions together in a harmonious way. It is a brilliant experience to walk the Camino and is a reminder of how humanity should be: full of love, kindness and unity where we all work towards a common goal.
The Camino, a once in a lifetime experience well worth doing!