Hello and welcome to the first guide in my series on How to Survive El Camino de Santiago, a 780km walk across Spain and how I did it as a single female traveller in only 25 days. This brief guide to how to get started walking the Camino, where to get a Pilgrim’s Passport, what is that weird shell, the religious background as well as some cheeky ways to use the term “Bien Camino!”[line]
What is El Camino de Santiago?
El Camino translate to “The Way”. It is a Pilgrim’s walk to the Shrine of Saint James in Santiago, in Galicia, Spain. Also known as Santiago de Compostela, The Camino, El Camino de Santiago etc. Simply speaking, you follow scallop shells and arrows and sleep in albergues using your pilgrims passport until you get to the shrine. You carry everything on your back and since you are walking through an entire country you go through small and large villages, large towns, farms, highways, forests, hills and over mountains. It’s pretty rad.
There are about 8 walks starting from many different parts of Europe, but for the purpose of this guide, I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port, in the Pyrenees France. Almost known as the French Way, it is 780kms across Spain.
Originally people, or ‘Pilgrims’, made their way to the shrine on foot or horse and were taken in my local villages. Obviously they had no GPS, advanced hiking gear and routes weren’t well maintained. These days the routes are well established and have many communities and businesses built up support Pilgrims.[line]
What is a Pilgrim?
Loosely speaking, a Pilgrim (Peregrino) is anyone who decides to start walking El Camino. I met hundreds of people from all around the world. More about the people I met in Part 2 here.[line]
Do I have to be religious to walk
El Camino de Santiago?
It is not longer just a religious walk; people of all ages, creeds, races and sizes can do the walk. It can be done for spiritual, recreation or fitness reasons. Either way, you are still for all intensive purposes known as a Pilgrim. I’m not religious, but I am spiritual and did the walk for spiritual reasons.[line]
What is an Albergue?
Pilgrim hostels set up along El Camino to support Pilgrims. They range from rooms in a hostel, renovated churches, peoples houses or I even stayed in a teepee! Some fit 10 people, some fit 100. Some are privately owned, some are governed (municipal). More on Albergues in Part 3 here.[line]
How to get started..
the Pilgrim’s passport
To walk El Camino you will need a Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrims Passport) that will allow you to stay in albergues and so you can get your Compostela (Certificate of completion) at the end.
It is simple to get a passport, just show up to the Pilgrims office and they will give you one. When I started at Saint Jean also gave me a piece of paper that has distances to each town, what albergues are there, how much each is, if they have cooking facilities and other brief facts about the albergue. There are also country specific Pilgrim’s passports (e.g if you are American you can get an American Pilgrim’s Passport) but these obviously cost money and need to be ordered a few months in advance. This was too hard basket for me so I just got the standard one. From memory, it was only a few euro or was a donativo (donation).
It is important to get a stamp at each albergue you stay at, at least for the last 100km; not only for a personal record but so you can get the Compostela. You can also get stamps from Churches, bars and restaurants – it’s really nice and a great way to document your travels and they are all different. I got a Compostela at Santiago, Finisterre and Muxia – which are all three different Camino walks.
Originally, walking to Santiago and getting a Compostela meant securing a VIP ticket to heaven: the Compostela was considered an important paper, one to show St Peter at the gates of heaven. For me.. It just looks pretty ^__^.[line]
The friendliest way to acknowledge people as you pass them, greet them, or leave a bar / albergue etc. is to say ¡Bien Camino! This means (have a) good Camino. You can say it to other pilgrims but other non-pilgrims along The Way will say it to you as well. It’s like an all-in-one phase.
This also works as a subtle hint if you want to ditch people or if someone is really annoying you. As my friend Daniel explained, “this girl I was walking with was really boring and annoying, so when she stopped for coffee I wished her Bien Camino and ran off”. So as well as a friendly greeting, it can be a nice euphemism for “f’off now please”. #sorrynotsorry.[line]
The Scallop Shell
Ok, these, in my opinion, are terribly dorky. But.. When in Rome right? Many people buy or find a scallop shell and attach it to their bag as a sign they are walking El Camino. Back before the 13th Century, before the Credencial del Peregrino was bought in, it was proof of having walked to Santiago de Compostela. Nowadays these are a symbol in general for El Camino and you will see them all along the way paved into side walks, gates, houses and are also a handy visual help to identify you are going the right way.[line]
Why are there yellow arrows
and What is Ultreia?
You will see the word Ulteria as well as the arrow all along the Camino. I kinda like to think of it as follow the yellow brick road.. or follow the yellow arrowed road!
The yellow arrows mark the path and range from officially drawn ones to ones drawn by pilgrims to help make the path more clear.
The name Ultreïa is a mix from latin and an old french language. It used to be shouted between former pilgims of the Midle Age as a wish of an unfailing courage.
The true words seem to be ““E ultreïa, E susseïa” as : “Go upper, go farther![line]
When is the best time of year
to walk the camino?
I really liked the time I did it – the end of summer and the start of Autumn. It is a lot cooler and there are less people but not yet winter. At that time of year you won’t die from heat and you won’t need as many clothes.
The peak time is July as a lot of Europeans are on holiday at that time and the Camino is a great cheap way for them to travel. So I guess it comes down to what you want from it – from what I’ve heard, the peak times it is very competitive to get to Albergues – a lot are full so you have to get up earlier and find a place quickly – which to me makes it less fun. It’s not a game of survivor, walking all day is hard enough without having to compete for a place to stay. However, more people can also equal more fun, which is great if you want to do it mainly to socialize.
For me, it was a personal experience and I wanted spaciousness so the off-peak time was ideal. At the time I did it, it was beautiful to wake up and walk just as the sun was rising. The mornings were cool which made for a breathtaking way to start the day.
How much money do I need to walk the Camino?
Like all travel, it’s how lush you want to eat and sleep that determines your main costs. As there is a Camino-unity surrounding the walk, the Camino can be done really cheaply. Most people do the Camino on a budget if between €20-€40 a day and I had a friend who was camping and was aiming for €5 a day! More information on food & accommodation in Part 3 here.[line]
Is it safe for girls to walk the Camino alone?
Absolutely – it is so safe! I know there have been some incidents in the news but they are rare. Just travel smart – if you are walking alone tell a buddy where you are and what town you expect to end up that night. Don’t walk late at night alone in dodgy cities without keeping your wits about you. Don’t get super drunk and go off with groups of strangers – all common sense rules you should already follow in your normal life! There is more reason to walk the Camino than to not to walk it it and you shouldn’t let a very small ‘what-if’ fear rule you.
There is a whole community around the wellbeing of Pilgrims, so the walk is pretty well established and everyone is friendly and wants to help each other. I got lost several times and had no issues finding someone to help me get back on track.[line]
Basic Camino etiquette
SHARE THE LOVE
Got left over food? Offer it to those around you or leave it out for others with a note saying they are welcome to it – they will be so grateful to have it! Some of my favourite memories were of walking into an albergue exhausted at 7pm then being offering pasta! Although you shouldn’t expect anything back, what goes around comes around and if you give, you will receive. That is the joy of the Camino community.
DON’T BE DIRTY
It is just rude to leave rubbish on the trail or to leave a mess in an albergue. Most of the time albergues are run for the love, not for the money, so be a good human and give a little bit of respect to the owners and fellow pilgrims along the way.
SILENCE NOISEY CREATURE!
If you are going to go out late, whatever, do what you want. But there are people sleeping who are waking up at 5am to get cracking with their walk, so don’t come in late, start rapping, talking loudly and turning on the lights you jerks. Hehe rant over.[line]
Is there Wi-Fi in the Camino?!
Most Albergues, cafes and places along the way have Wi-Fi, but obviously most of the day you are walking. You can also get a Spanish sim card if you really need to. However, having no internet most of the time was actually a blessing – it meant all I had to do every day was wake up, eat, walk, eat, stretch and sleep. I only had Wi-Fi when it was free so most of the time I was fully present which gave me lots of time to think and to connect with other people. It was nice to disconnect.[line]
Ok, I got the basics.. now what?
Now you’ve got the basics, fine out why I walked 56.4km in one day (and why you don’t have to), how to manage your health and body while walking El Camino de Santiago, why a guided tour is a stupid idea and also all about the crazy characters you meet such as the man who told me my heart and vagina were closed.