Things we learned on our journey along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Though we tried to group them into categories, these are in no particular order we just wrote them as we remembered things we discovered on our journey.
The biggest thing we would have done differently is to have prepared better for the hiking. It can be very strenuous, but the biggest problem we had was that we hadn’t prepared for the very uneven surfaces we would be walking on. Our blistered feet came mostly from two sources: 1) not having our boots laced properly for such uneven surfaces 2) not stopping and caring for our feet immediately upon noticing a sore area.
Be kind to yourself, walk slower if you are sore, stop frequently if you are tired, take care of yourself if you are injured. Don’t overdo to the point of really hurting yourself, if you do then the journey will become a hardship and not a joyous experience.
We also encourage the first-timer to READ EVERYTHING. We found that we would have missed out on a great deal of the Camino culture if we hadn’t taken the time to read other peoples’ journals of their experiences, the dedicated Camino Web sites and our guidebook, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, by John Brierley. We even re-watched an episode of Rick Steve’s Europe in which the Camino was mentioned. Alan ordered us a couple of other guidebooks, but we liked Brierley’s the best and only planned to bring one (paper is heavy – they make it from trees!)
Camera vs iPhone
We left our “good” cameras at home. Weight was a priority and we opted for our smaller and water-proof cameras. We also each brought an iPhone for connecting with family and friends through social media.
The iPhone was all the camera we really needed. Alan did use his camera a few times, Tracy only used hers after her iPhone was stolen.
Photos are great but unless you’re a professional or planning to print them for wall posters when you get home a camera-phone will more than cover your photographic needs, it certainly did for us and most people wouldn’t recognize Alan without a camera in his hands.
The iPhone photos had great quality and our biggest use of the photos was for social media and our blog. But by using the iPhones we were able to upload photos for friends and family at the end of each day.
Charging iPhones and Cameras
We never seemed to have a problem charging our phones. There are plugs in most dorms and sometimes in restaurants and a few times in the restrooms. We charged them whenever we found a plug, but since we were only using them for photos and a daily post, we could go two days without a charge if necessary.
We had the two-prong European adapters with us as they are needed for our electronics in France as well. If you need to charge your phone or camera be sure to pick up an adapter before you arrive.
Even after all this time, Tracy’s toe is not entirely healed. Footcare really is of the utmost importance while hiking on the Camino. We cannot stress that enough.
- Good socks and plenty of them so that you never have to wear a wet pair
- Nail clippers to keep nails trim and in shape
- Lotion for massaging tired feet and keeping them from getting dry and cracked
- Good supportive sandals for the end of the day, Teva-like with good arch support.
Tracy started this journey with a pair of flip-flops and immediately realized the error in that. Once she found a sporting good store (in Carrion de las Condes) and purchased a good pair of sandals she rarely had sore feet in the morning.
Many of the people we met were using the threading method of blister care. This is a method of drawing a length of thread through the blister and leaving it in place to drain. We tossed this idea for two reasons 1) additional rubbing of a sore area, 2) optimal conditions for infection.
We opted for standard soap and water cleansing, bandaged while hiking, un-bandaged while in sandals.
Whichever method you choose, be sure to take good care of your feet . . . you’ll be on them everyday.
We had heard many former pilgrims mention bringing Compeed brand bandages. We also make this recommendation. They are flexible, comfortable, water resistant and nearly clear. You leave them on until they fall off on their own. Tracy used one of each on the back of her ankles, the one with the Compeed healed faster and without scabbing.
If you cannot find Compeed before you leave, it is available at every Farmacia along the Camino.
Rain Jackets vs Ponchos
We were very pleased with our rain jackets. Tracy’s had a hidden hood that rolled into the collar. Alan’s had a standard hood and zip-out liner. Tracy’s was just as water-resistant but the fabric was more flexible and easier to roll-up and store in her pack. Alan’s had a stiffer fabric and the hood would get in the way. We both had Tilley hats so we never really needed the hoods of the jackets.
We debated the poncho idea, but after seeing them in the wind and rain, were happier with a rain jacket and a water-resistant cover for our packs.
The jackets held more heat and required removing the pack before taking them off, but overall we preferred the jacket.
Decide which you prefer rather than bringing both, weight is a constant source of reassessment on the Camino
ATM/Cash Only Economy
Most businesses along the Camino de Santiago are cash only. Many of the larger towns have ATMs so replenishing cash reserves is possible. How much you carry depends on your spending styles and need. We never had a problem or felt threatened in any town we were in, but Alan is over six foot tall and doesn’t look like an easy target. Carry what you need and replenish when necessary but take the same precautions you would at home. Most albergues DO NOT have lockers, so plan accordingly.
Additionally, some of the smaller villages cannot handle large bills. We always looked at the population of the villages we would pass the next day so that we could plan accordingly for cash and small bills.
One of the easiest ways to minimize costs (and meet new people) is to cook your own meals. Most of the albergues we found on our journey had kitchens with cookware. Until we reached Galicia – then we noticed that the Xunta albergues didn’t have kitchens or if there were a kitchen, it was not equipped with pots, pans or dishes. There were a few municipal albergues without kitchens and some private ones with restaurants rather than kitchens, but there were plenty of places that we stopped that had both a restaurant and fully-equipped kitchens.
While we did not use the kitchens, opting to splurge on the pilgrim’s menu or local/regional cuisine, but we’re foodies and like trying lots of new things. We did keep a supply of chorizo, bread and fruit for lunches on the trail. Many of our friends, like Enzo and Elena, made use of the kitchens each night.
Setting up Your Pack
Stress on the feet and body should be high on your list of things to minimize. Some of the things we used to minimize stress on our back and feet while hiking included:
- Use of packing cubes to keep everything organized properly for optimal pack balance and to prevent the weight shifting; this also made things easy to find.
- Securing all things so that nothing dangled to swing and shift our balance while hiking.
- For Tracy, who was dealing with a torn bicep she opted to use a camelbak/water bladder for water so it was easy to get to without having to bend her arm behind her. Alan used a metal water bottle.
We encourage a first-time hiker to get their packs early, read the instructions on your pack, and make several trial runs to determine the best packing method.
During our pre-Camino training, Tracy was reading the owner’s booklet that came with her backpack and realized that she had been wearing it incorrectly. She had been wearing the belt strap at the hips and found that the pack was designed to ride above the hips. Once she adjusted the placement of the belt strap, the back problems she had been experiencing disappeared.
We made several long hikes before we left with different amounts of weight in the packs. We determined that Alan could comfortably carry up to 30 pounds without stiffness or soreness the following day, but Tracy’s limit was 15 pounds. She readjusted the “must bring” list to accommodate her comfort limit and did not deal with any back strain during the trip.
Many Camino sites use the 10% rule, only carry 10% of your total body weight. This is a good starting point but again, 10% could be too much for tiny or older bodies. Add weight to your pack and take a walk then see how your body feels the next day. Are you shoulders sore? Do your hips ache? How do your feet feel?
We were not both experienced hikers, but with a little pre-planning managed to hike a very long distance while carrying our packs.
It was amazing how many people mailed things home, or just abandoned them at the albergues because they realized the weight was too much to carry day after day, or that they had brought things they truly didn’t need.
Reasses – Reassess – Reassess
Be willing to reassess your hiking strategy, your packing strategy, and your destinations. We kept reminding ourselves to be flexible about all three of these but found that we also learned to reassess our communication, the way we encouraged and supported one another, and most especially putting our type-A personalities on the back-burner in order to enjoy the experience.
We only had one instance during the entire trip where something went very, very wrong. Tracy’s iPhone was stolen in Ponferrada through a grated, glass-less, window on the first floor. The phone was charging in the wall socket and someone reached in and stole the phone, plug and all. Along with the phone our bunkmates shoes, groceries and hygiene supplies were also taken.
Always be aware and though it is easy to forget amid the camaraderie of the Camino that not everything is safe. If it’s too important to be replaced if lost, perhaps its best to leave it at home. If you must take valuables with you, keep them close.
While we didn’t use headlamps for our journey, many pilgrims do. If you are planning to get up before dawn and bring a headlamp, please be aware that shining that bright light into someone’s face at 4 a.m. is just plain rude. If you need it to pack your belongings, keep it on the bed or in your hand while you gather your things.
We recommend packing your gear before you go to bed, leaving your morning stuff on top and easily accessible.
Unpacking in the Albergue
We saw this a lot in the beginning of our journey, less so from the mid-way point. Often when we would arrive at an albergue bunk-mates or neighbors would have their things scattered all over the floor, often in a large pile. It would be difficult to make up the bunk while trying not to trip over someone’s things. At different times we both nearly injured ourselves trying to miss someone’s strewed about belongings on the floor.
Be courteous, this isn’t your bedroom, if you unpack everything and leave it laying about you’ll cause issues for others and maybe even forget to repack things that have been scattered about.
Other than two instances on our 42-day journey, we were able to find free wifi (in Azofra we paid 1 euro for 30 minutes) for communication with family and friends via social media. Most places have passwords for their networks, just ask when you check in and they’ll let you know the password or the closest bar/café where you can get connected.
We liked being able to live blog via Facebook but didn’t stress on the days we couldn’t connect – we were on pilgrimage and took that extra time to meet new people and explore the towns where we were staying.
We know that many of our fellow pilgrims taxied their bags ahead each day. If you are planning this option, please be aware of the following instances:
A fellow pilgrim who taxied her bags too far ahead, further than she meant to on a cold and rainy day.
A fellow pilgrim who hadn’t called the next albergue, just used the name and phone number from the guidebook. When he arrived, the albergue had been closed for a number of months and his belongings (which had been left on the doorstep) had been stolen.
The Jaco-transport lady in Leon who was screaming at a 90-year-old nun who didn’t speak English, because she thought that’s where she had sent her bags.
If you use this option, please remember it isn’t the albergue’s responsibility to accept your things, while most have a space reserved for taxi drivers to drop bags, they do not accept the responsibility of them. You ship them at your own risk.
While we were lucky and did not need the use of a hospital, we did have need of a Farmacia a few times – bandages and sprain support. The Farmacias in Spain are like going to a local clinic, the pharmacist is a medical professional and is always a good starting point for injury. The Farmacia symbol in Spain (and many other places in Europe) is a green cross.
Hospitals in Spain are a lot less expensive than in the US, but it’s still worth your time to check with the Farmacia first unless you are certain that you need a hospital.
There are dogs along the Camino. On our journey we encountered several dogs. Most of them were totally unimpressed with us. They see thousands of pilgrims a year walk by and other than a few who were begging for attention and one young pup who was barking at a playmate, never had any problems at all.
We did hear a rumor of an older lady hiking near Sahagun who was attacked by a “gang” member and his pit bull type dog who had to be rushed to a hospital, but we didn’t actually give the rumor any credence as pit-bulls are rare in Spain and we hadn’t seen a single “gang” member even in some of the larger towns.
That’s not to say that they don’t exist, we just didn’t see anything even resembling a pit bull, a breed we are very familiar with. As with any animal, be cautious.
In fact, the best thing you can do is to not interact with them at all. The worst thing that could happen is for an animal to follow you in hopes of attention or treats and get too far from home where it isn’t safe for them.
Our joke on the Camino is that cyclists or what we termed “pedal-grinos” always came in groups of four. That wasn’t exactly true, but more often than not, there was four, usually in team colors. We assumed for the big bike race in Burgos since we saw most of the matching outfits prior to reaching Burgos.
Many of the cyclists use the traditional path used by pilgrims on foot. It is a good idea to stay alert for the sound of a bell. In Spain, and France as well, the bell is used to signal someone on foot that they are approaching you. The best idea is to step to the closest edge and give them the middle path.
However, not all cyclists use the bell, so try not to lose your patience when they don’t. We tried to see these instances as a reminder to stop and look behind us once in a while. Sometimes the view behind is even prettier than the one in front. Make every situation a win-win!
Getting the Most from the Journey
The best advice we can offer here is to leave your “Type A” personality at home. There will be a line at check-in, there will be a line for the shower, the restroom, the laundry. Be patient, your turn will come. Take the time to visit with others in line instead of letting your patience deconstruct your day.
Even meals in Spain are not rushed, most meals in Spain take twice as long as in the US because they don’t expect to turn over the tables every 20 minutes.
Having been retired to France for four months before beginning our journey helped to keep our patience in check. We only needed to remind each other sporadically to keep cool.
We practiced the idea of Camino kindness. An offer of borrowed shampoo or pain reliever for someone in need was returned to us a couple of times. Don’t be afraid to ask if you are in need, but be willing to put yourself out there and make the offer to return the kindness. The Camino isn’t just a physical journey but a psychological one as well. You get as much as you give in more than just the physical sense. Be open to all experiences and practice kindness.
Live in the Moment
This is one of the most rewarding journeys you may ever make. This for most of us will be a once-in-a-lifetime journey, don’t miss out on anything. Talk to people, even if you don’t speak much of the language. One of the nicest couples we met were Enzo and Elena and we only shared a vocabulary of about six words.
Look up from the road once in a while, the vistas are breathtaking. Don’t miss the beauty by being overly focused on the path.
A Leap of Faith
We decided to take a leap of faith with our journey. No taxied bags, no trains, busses or taxis for ourselves, no reservations (we made an exception for Santiago as we planned to stay more than one night).
We took that leap of faith each and every morning. We would head out without a confirmed destination or reservation and let the day unfold. We stopped when we couldn’t physically go any further and sometimes pushed a little to far (we are BOTH type-A personalities, sometimes slowing things down is a huge issue).
It can be done, it just takes a little bit of faith that things will work out – and a guidebook, taking a leap of faith doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be practical. Knowing where the albergues are located is a practical issue, the leap of faith is hoping that there will be room for you.
Visit the Churches
Even if your Camino isn’t a religious one, take the time to visit the churches. Some of the old churches are like museums, the art and architecture are well worth the extra few minutes and getting out of the Spanish sun for a spell won’t hurt your spirits either!
Our Lesson from Walter (tourist vs pilgrim)
Our friend Walter from Cork, Ireland told us a story of a priest taking some of his congregation on a pilgrimage in Ireland. When the group gathered in the morning, he reminded them all that while they climbed they would get tired, sore and probably grumpy. He didn’t want to hear any complaints stating quite firmly to his congregation, “You are a pilgrim, not a tourist.”
Remember on your journey to be kind to those around you, courteous to those serving you and patient while waiting – you, too, are a pilgrim, not a tourist.
*Tracy struggled with this especially at Cruz de Ferro.
Leave the Albergue
Most albergues have a curfew, so be sure to be back in time. But do leave the albergue and see the town. Say hi to the locals, visit the churches, in the bigger towns make time for some of the other sites. This is a once-in-a-lifetime journey, make the most of it.
Don’t be Shy
Talk to everyone. Wish them a “Buen Camino” or “Good Journey.” The biggest part of the Camino experience will be people that you meet along the way.
That doesn’t mean that once you’ve made a friend or two that you need to walk their speed. You should still walk your own Camino and continue to meet new people – or not, it really is up to you!
Learn Some Spanish
Learn a few phrases in Spanish or find a copy online of the Camino Spanish notes that several people have developed. Listen to how others say things like, please and thank you. Castellan Spanish is pronounced slightly differently than Mexican Spanish, and several areas especially on the Camino Frances still have regional dialects. But definitely try to speak the language, your hosts will appreciate it and you’ll broaden your Camino experience by trying something new.
The Camino is meant to be a spiritual journey whether you’re Catholic or not, or just making the journey for cultural reasons. Take the time to invest in the spirit of the Camino, be part of the magic of The Way. You won’t regret the things you accomplish, but you may regret the things you didn’t do because you were sore, tired, shy or intimidated. The people of Spain are warm and welcoming, the other pilgrims are friendly and the hospitalieros are enlightening.
Alan learned a very important lesson regarding the yummy and tasty wines of the La Rioja region – while it is quite all right to indulge, moderation should be taken into consideration, especially if you are on a pilgrimage. Not just for the wines of the region, but as an overall lesson for the Camino. Moderation in packing reduces stress on the body. Moderation of your expectations result in a place to stay that is a bunk, a roof and sometimes a meal.
In medieval times it was part of the pilgrimage that “pilgrims must suffer.” While that doesn’t hold the same meaning for pilgrims today, make a commitment to persevere regardless of pain. We had days that were tough due to blistered feet or tired, achy muscles, but those days we hiked shorter distances rather than giving up. We found that even the tiniest movement forward kept us from throwing in the towel. If time becomes an issue and you need to catch a flight, reassess and take the train or a bus to jump ahead and give your body a day of rest.
The most important lesson we learned was a simple one, Go. Make a commitment to yourself and go, because wherever your journey lies it will not begin until you do.