Here are ten things to consider.
Walking the Camino de Santiago (the Camino Frances) was one of my biggest dreams. I can’t even remember when I first heard about it but it had always been in my heart to walk this pilgrimage. After I decided to go, I started preparing in any way I could. I read books, watched movies, spoke with people who had done it, looked at weather reports, read blogs, compared packing lists. I took all my hiking and athletic gear out of their respective homes and sifted through what I was definitely taking, what I might take and the things that didn’t make the cut went back into storage. I went on long walks with different packs to see which felt better, packed more easily, and had all the bells and whistles I needed (hip strap pockets, for example, or an easy way to store trekking poles). I wore different outfits for long walks to see what was comfortable and what would cause problems (bottoms with pockets were much more convenient to hold my phone or a snack; shirts that were too short would ride up under my pack and were quickly scratched from the list). I started weight training to strengthen my shoulders, back, core, legs and arms. I ran or cycled to keep up my cardio. I even started watching Pocoyo on Netflix to practice rudimentary Spanish.
But in the end, none of the above made much difference. The things that were real game-changers were things I hadn’t really considered. All of these things had come up briefly in conversations, online discussions, and in blogs. But had I read all of these things put together in one list to think about before going, I may have done things differently.
NOTE: This list is compiled from my own thoughts and experiences and certainly may not be true for others. Take from it what you will. These are things that I wish I had considered a little more in-depth beforehand.
1. Do the whole thing.
My dream had always been to start in St. Jean Pied de Port. But because I was travelling with others and time was a factor, we decided to start in Burgos, which is just over halfway. I loved my time on the Camino and I don’t in any way regret doing it, even though I started in Burgos. However, I do wish that I had stuck with my original dream of doing the whole thing.
You only have to walk the last 100km to get the compostela of completion. This makes it possible for people with very little time to get their certificate, starting in Sarria. But if you only have limited time, you might want to consider starting in St. Jean Pied de Port and doing what you can in the time you have. Then the following year, picking up where you left off. I met several people who did it this way and they loved every minute. There is a high probability that you will love your time on the Camino and this way, it gives you the opportunity to return several times to complete the whole thing.
The pilgrims who start closer to Santiago don’t experience the same trials and tribulations that those who’ve already walked 200 or 300 or 700 km have. Also, the longer you walk, the more pilgrims you recognize. You see the same pilgrims again and again because you’re all walking to the same places. So friendships are formed even if you don’t see them every day. Sometimes, you wouldn’t see someone you knew for a week and then you end up in the same albergue 150 km down the road. If you start in the middle or near the end, you may not create the same kinds of friendships built out of the experiences that everyone else has had. I started in Burgos and I met the same people again and again and after only a few days, I started to recognize people and be recognized and it was a great sense of community. And these pilgrims had already known each other for two weeks.
It’s these friends that you meet on the Camino and bond with that are a really important part of the Camino experience. I met people that I will remember forever. I will remember their stories and what I learned from them. I just wish I had more time to do so. And so the next time I walk the Camino, it will be from St. Jean.
2. Do it alone.
There were pilgrims who came with a friend. But most of the long-term pilgrims I met came alone or with a significant other. Because you’re never really alone anyway. If you are on your own, people are more likely to start conversations with you, invite you to dinner, and walk with you. If you are with someone else, others may find it more difficult to join in or may feel that you don’t need to be invited to join. When I was on my own, I was never alone. We all seemed to look out for each other.
In fact, the times I was alone, it was wonderful to be able to decide to do whatever I wanted. Perhaps another pilgrim would persuade me to walk another 3 km to the next town but ultimately, I was only responsible for me. I ate when I was hungry, I went to bed when I was tired, I could walk with other pilgrims or walk alone. I was master of my own destiny. I loved it.
It probably comes as no surprise that this experience can take its toll on a friendship, even the strongest ones. There are no masks on the Camino. Everyone is their true, authentic self because there is no reason to be anything else. It is liberating and beautiful. We are much more truthful and authentic with strangers, as well as more forgiving and non-judgemental, than with people we have an already established history with. So what you see in a friend may be very different from what you already know of that person. Who YOU are without the labels and hats you wear at home may be very different from the person that others have known. The Camino is an intense and intensely personal experience. Not all friendships can survive the Camino.
3. Know why you’re walking.
When you reach Santiago and get your compostela, you will need to simply check a box that asks you your reasons for walking – spiritual, religious or touristic reasons. That’s the easy part.
If you don’t know why you’re walking, it makes the really hard days that much harder to get through because you don’t have a reason to get you through. If you are walking for the adventure, then you accept that it will be hard but the goal of finishing can keep you focused. If you are walking for spiritual or religious reasons, then perhaps your faith is what carries you through those tough times.
Make sure you are walking for your own reasons. I went for a shorter amount of time, from Burgos, with a couple of friends because they wanted to. But when one friend went home after a few days and the other did her own thing most of the time, I began to wonder why I had come in the first place. People would tell me these incredible stories of their lives and how they were inspired to walk the Camino and I felt wholly inadequate when they inquired as to my reasons for being there. In all honesty, I made the decision to walk the Camino for reasons that were not my own. There were a lot of questions in my head for a while and I often felt lost and at times very unhappy and disappointed with how some things had turned out.
In the end, my reasons became clear.
4. It’s going to take a toll on your body.
It doesn’t matter what kind of shape you’re in. If you’ve never done something like this before, your body will hurt in ways you might not have expected or imagined. This is normal and almost all pilgrims go through a tough first two weeks, getting their bodies in shape for the work you’re making it do every day.
Injuries can happen to anyone. I heard of a college athlete who sustained a stress fracture in his leg after only three days. I know a pilgrim who developed tendonitis in both ankles. The weight of my pack compressed a nerve in my back that would quite frequently make my left leg, from hip to knee go numb. I also lost two toenails. And for every blister and injury, your body starts compensating and that could develop into another injury. My left knee started hurting because of the way I was limping to avoid hurting my already damaged toe. Blisters start developing in your heels because you’ve bandaged your toes so thickly, your feet no longer fit comfortably into your boots. Plantar fasciitis is extremely common and even the sun can add to your discomfort. I forgot sunscreen on the back of one leg one day and couldn’t sleep on my back for four days because of the pain of the sunburn.
I can easily push my body through pain for a day or two through an event, a hike or an obstacle race. But this adventure takes weeks. You will need to find your own balance between pushing your body and resting so that your body can recover enough to keep going every morning. Listen to your body. If your body is telling you to stop, then stop. If you are feeling great, then keep going.
That being said, by the third week, I had very little pain (except for the numbness in my leg) and I thanked my feet every day for getting me to the next place. Even though they were pretty mangled.
5. It’s going to take a toll on your mind.
This is the long, slow game. Many of us can get into the right mental frame of mind when doing a physically arduous event for a day or a weekend. I’ve done a sprint triathlon, a half marathon, obstacle races and I’ve hiked the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks. I’m no stranger to working through pain or the mental monotony of 20 km of hiking or running. But I’ve NEVER done it consistently for weeks. And that is where it gets tough.
Not only will you have to physically deal with the pain of any injury you have day in and day out, you will have lots of time to think about it. And during this 4-6 hours of walking every day, you also have time to think about all the other major ongoing issues in your life – an unsatisfactory career, waning friendships, your life’s purpose, just to name a few. Depending on the question, you can find yourself mentally in some very dark places. Just keep this in mind.
And then there’s the fact that because you are living such a minimalist life with a bunch of other people who are living just as primitively as you, it’s easy to start letting go of social conventions. Hence the ongoing reference to ourselves as “dirty pilgrims” whenever we went into a more upscale establishment.
6. It will be transformative but not necessarily how you might expect.
Quite simply, a person cannot be pushed to his or her physical, emotional and mental limits and not come out unchanged. Whether it’s a change of perspective or a new purpose in life, whether you find a life partner (I’ve heard it happens more than you might think) or decide to make a clean break from some aspect of your life. It’s never just a really long walk.
7. You will learn a lot about yourself.
As I mentioned above, there are no masks on the Camino. Which means that when you have no filters or external expectations put on you, you find out who you really are, what you really value and where you want your life to go. You find out the Truth. I learned I was stronger than I thought I was. I learned that at this point in my life, I enjoy small towns much more than I do big cities, to take one day at a time, that it’s ok to be alone. I learned how to be more giving and compassionate and how to listen more effectively. And those are just the really basic lessons.
Some lessons I’m still learning. Some lessons I didn’t learn until I returned home. And some lessons that I learned I didn’t like. And that may take some time and emotional space to process as well.
8. Be true to yourself.
Don’t compromise. Do what feels right for you. This is your journey. Get the most out of it by doing it the way you want to. If you go alone, you won’t be hurting anyone’s feelings by making decisions for yourself. Every other pilgrim is doing the exact same thing. In several places, there is more than one route. There were many times I considered doing the more natural path and didn’t. If you want to go the Roman Road but your walking partner would rather stick to the highway because it’s easier, then bid your fellow pilgrim a Buen Camino and walk YOUR way. Chances are you’ll meet up down the road again anyway. Seeing all the alternate routes is another excuse for me to walk the Camino again.
9. Go your own pace.
As you walk, you will meet the same pilgrims again and again. But then it’s easy to start feeling the pressure to keep up or to slow down to stay with the same group of people that you may have bonded with. However, it’s really important to stand firm in your own pace. If you don’t, you risk injury or disappointment. This is not a race. As a fellow pilgrim said, “This is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, not Santiago de Competition.”
It’s also good to consider albergues and restaurants that are located in the mid-stages if you feel that one of the stages in the guidebook is too long or short for what you can do on any particular day. The guidebook is just that – a guide. It is split up into roughly even sections that end in a hub or at the end of a long piece of difficult walking. But there’s nothing written that says you have to finish (or start) where the guidebook does. If you don’t want to climb the entirety of that tortuous 8 km uphill climb at a ridiculously steep grade and there’s a place to stop halfway, then stop. La Faba is almost halfway up a massive hill and is an absolute gem of a village. (I don’t even think it qualifies as a village, to be honest. Or even a hamlet.) It might make the next day longer but in the case of La Faba, half the next day’s mileage is downhill so it was definitely doable. I passed many charming albergues in the small villages between hubs. I would love to check them out next time.
10. Be present.
Walking the Camino is a very unique way of seeing Spain. I had no idea Spain was so ecologically diverse and so spectacularly beautiful. While only a fraction of the size of Canada, Spain has just as many different eco zones as we do. It has mountains, prairies (plains), lush forests, rolling farmland, mediterranean heat (not on the Camino Frances though), and urban landscapes. It was hot and dry in the Meseta. The fields of gold met the vast blue sky. The sun was overpowering at times. In Galicia, the weather was much cooler and damp. The trees that lined the path were overgrown with vines and their thick branches created a canopy of shade. Outside of León, the farm animals wandered freely over the green hills, munching grass and dainty wildflowers. The Camino was undulating rocky paths. Even though the footing may be unsure and eroded at times, stop and look up. Look around. Don’t be afraid to take photos or to just mark the moment indelibly in your memory.
You will be walking the same way pilgrims have done for centuries. You will pass by the same scenery, walk along the same paths, have the same needs as all the pilgrims who came before you. Just as they did, you will walk into a town or village or city, look for a place to sleep, get clean and then find something to eat. You will share stories with other strangers in the land, you will have spontaneous moments of laughter and joy. You will suffer hardship and others will help you through it as you will help others in their time of need.
Be mindful of the opportunities that arise before you. Be present.
Enjoy every minute of it.
I will be going back to the Camino. As a fellow pilgrim said when asked why he was going to be walking the Camino for the third time, “The Camino isn’t done with me.”