I first heard about the Camino de Santiago in 1999. A walk across the Spanish countryside, on a pilgrimage trail carved by millions of footsteps over the last thousand years intrigued me, but it wasn’t the right time. So I filed the idea away until 2012, when I was at a crossroads in my spiritual life. I embarked on my first camino, and have since walked it twice more. Perhaps you, too, have been dreaming of walking this ancient path. If this is the year to make your dream a reality, here are a few things to solidify before booking your flight.
If you want to converse with people from around the world every day and have an experience like those in the movies “The Way” and “Six Ways to Santiago,” you’ll want to walk the Camino Francés — the most popular route — anytime between May and October. If, however, you are imagining a lot of time by yourself to contemplate life, walk any route except the Camino Francés.
When will you go?
The busiest months on the Camino Francés are July and August, though spring and fall are becoming more popular as people try to avoid the summer crowds on this route. You’ll find fewer pilgrims on the other routes, or on the Camino Francés, in the winter months.
How long will your journey take?
If you wish to receive the Compostela (a certificate of completion), you must walk the last 100 kilometers (60 miles) of any route, which will take one week or less. If you have more time, you can walk for a month or more depending on where you choose to start your journey. Many Europeans walk for one or two weeks each year, returning to the spot they left the previous year, until they arrive in Santiago. This may be cost prohibitive for most Americans, but I’ve met some who’ve walked half the route one year, and finish it the next.
Where will you start?
You can begin your Camino on any day of the year in any town along any route. One of the most popular starting points for the Camino Francés is the small French town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port (800km/500 miles from Santiago). Beginning there, however, means that your first day will be the hardest of your entire walk — a long climb and steep descent crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. If you have any misgivings about beginning this way (especially if you have any lingering injuries, or have never embarked on a long distance walk before), then begin further along the trail — in Roncesvalles or Pamplona.
Pilgrims who walk 20-25km (12-15 miles) per day can walk from St. Jean to Santiago in 33 days or less. However, smart pilgrims factor in extra days for resting, healing, or exploring some of the major cities along their route. Those with only one week to walk often start in Sarria on the Camino Francés.
Will you go it alone or walk with others? Planning it yourself or with a tour company?
There are as many ways to walk the Camino as there are people walking it. Some go with a spouse or friend and hire a company to plan the trip — staying in private rooms and having their luggage sent to their nightly destination. On the other end are pilgrims who set out alone, carry all their belongings, walk until they decide they are finished for the day, then stay in a hostel on bunk beds in rooms of 20-50 people. And then there’s every variation in between.
I’ve done my caminos in a variety of ways and can assure you there are pluses and minuses to every option. The key is to know yourself, your body, and what kind of a traveler you are. Light sleepers might not get much rest in the cacophony of a hostel. Those with knee or back problems may want to carry their own packs, but should know how to book a transport service for their pack, should they need one.
The final word
One of best lessons I learned on my caminos was this: Everyone does their own Camino. There is no “right” way. Whether you are seeking a week alone on a route where you’ll meet lots of new people, or seeking a break from the predictability of your life, or want a quiet time of reflection, all can be found on this path.