What is the Camino de Santiago? Is it worth the pain? Can you do it in running shoes? We answer all these questions and more, giving tips from personal experience
The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s epic hikes, typically beginning somewhere in Spain, Portugal or southwestern France, and ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Specifically, the finishing point is the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great within the city’s cathedral, as the route was first established in the 9th century as a major pilgrimage trail in medieval Christianity. Today, the Camino de Santiago attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year, religious and non-religious alike.
People hike the Camino for reasons personal to them. Some see it as an exercise in spiritual growth, particularly the religious; some do it for want of a break in their everyday lives and a period of introspection; whereas others are into hiking generally and get a great sense of accomplishment from covering several hundred kilometers. I got the low-down from Dorota Žigová on what it’s like to hike the Camino de Santiago, having taken to the trail herself in August 2021. First, she told me about her own reasons for doing it, as well as what she took from the experience.
“I did it alone and I would absolutely recommend this to anyone, especially if they’re going through a tough time in their life, because it’s a great way to recharge yourself emotionally. It’s a totally new experience, a new routine in a new environment, where you can find out a lot about yourself. It was the first time I traveled solo, and this might sound dramatic, but it really changed my life. Now I’m confident that I can accomplish anything I set out to do.
Ever since I hiked the Camino, I’ve become more independent, more spontaneous, and less afraid to throw myself into new things. And sometimes, when I’m feeling down, I think about the simple pleasures that I had at the time — a decent meal and a cold beer at the end of a long day, for example — and remember how such small things made me feel on top of the world.”
Dorota admits that hiking the Camino de Santiago was really hard, especially on the second day, when her feet were starting to hurt. But her spirits were lifted by little things.
“There were a lot of encouraging messages from other pilgrims on the walls at the first place I stayed. One of them read Pain is temporary, memories last forever. I repeated this to myself whenever I was hurting from then on.”
View this post on Instagram
Indeed, the hike is a challenge — sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect, and indeed, it’s very much worth it. Whether you’re already planning your pilgrimage or your curiosity has only just been piqued, Dorota and I have answered some of the most common questions about walking the Camino de Santiago with practical tips and personal anecdotes. ¡Vamos!
Which are the main routes on the Camino de Santiago?
There are tens of different ways to walk the Camino, and even more if you count starting points in places further afield such as Germany, Switzerland, and other Central European countries. We’ll tell you about the most trodden routes.
The oldest route is called the Primitive Way and begins in Oviedo in the northern Spanish principality of Asturias, not too far away from the middle of the Biscay coastline. It’s on the shorter side — about 320 kilometers long.
Like the Primitive Way, the Portuguese Way is one of the shorter, easier routes. It’s generally a lot of town-hopping, whereas the Primitive Way is a lot more rural a route through stunning natural landscapes. Pilgrims typically start the Portuguese Way either in Lisbon (610 kilometers away) or in Porto (265 kilometers away).
The French Way is the most popular route, with an estimated 60% of Camino pilgrims walking this way. Starting in the commune of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, it’ll take you through the mountains and by the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León. In its entirety, the French Way is nearly 800 kilometers long, and it’s considered more physically challenging because of the incline at the beginning.
Dorota: “I took the Portuguese Way. I walked from Porto to Santiago, and the route took me via Arcade near Pontevedra where I spent a day on a beautiful beach, which was a highlight. But next time, I want to walk the Primitive Way because I’ve heard the views are amazing.”
How should I get to my starting point?
View this post on Instagram
The Primitive Way
Asturias Airport is the airport that serves Oviedo. It’s relatively small, but a good few low-cost airlines operate flights here. The pilgrimage itself starts at Oviedo Cathedral in the city center.
The Portuguese Way
Flying to Lisbon (should you opt for the longer hike) is relatively easy to do from wherever you are in Europe, or even from elsewhere in the world. Take the metro from the airport to the city center and get to the cathedral to begin. Lisbon Cathedral is in the Alfama neighborhood — pretty central — right by the Sé bus and tram stop.
Dorota: “I flew to Porto and took the metro from the airport to Mercado station, and I started walking from there. But most people start from Porto Cathedral, the nearest metro station to which is São Bento.
My return flight was from Porto as well. I took a bus back from Santiago and because I completed the route quite quickly, I had three days by the sea in Porto to rest my poor feet!”
The French Way
Getting to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is more of an ordeal, but you’ll be rewarded by the quaint, medieval air of the village and the spectacular mountain views to come. Biarritz Airport is the closest, and from there you’ll need to take local trains and buses on a journey that takes a couple of hours. The main bridge over the river Nive is the Camino starting point.
When is the best time to walk the Camino de Santiago?
Dorota: “Some would say that it’s too hot to do it in summer and so it’s better to do it in spring or early fall, but I got lucky with the weather and I had the opportunity to swim in the ocean on multiple occasions. As long as you have sunscreen and a hat, you’ll be fine to walk it in summer.”
In general, winters in this part of the world are mild — adverse weather conditions won’t be a significant concern. However, be mindful that there’ll be fewer hours of daylight, and of course, hiking in the dark comes with additional risks.
How far will I walk each day on the Camino de Santiago?
This will vary depending on how much of an avid hiker you are, and on your general fitness level. Aim for 20 kilometers a day at first, and listen to your body. If you feel well enough to push yourself, go ahead and increase your target, but gradually.
Dorota: “The first few days, I was walking too much — up to 40 kilometers — and my body was really suffering from it on the third day. Those who want to enjoy the walk at a more leisurely pace will walk between 20 and 25 kilometers.”
How long does the pilgrimage take?
Including rest days (which should be taken — again, listen to your body), you can expect your journey to take, on average:
17 days on the Primitive Way,
25 days on the Portuguese Way, from Lisbon,
11 days on the Portuguese Way, from Porto, or
30 days on the French Way.
How should I prepare for the Camino de Santiago?
For your physical strength, it’s worth getting into the habit of hiking or at least, taking some form of regular exercise, in the months and weeks leading up to your pilgrimage.
Next, you should obtain your pilgrim credential — a passport-type document in which you collect stamps along the walk. You can get this at the designated starting point of each route. Alternatively, you might even be able to find somewhere in your local area that sells it.
Dorota: “There’s one shop in Brno, where I live, where I got mine.”
The pilgrim credential gives you access to accommodation on your route — designated pilgrim hostels knowns as albergues. Moreover, if you collect a certain number of stamps, you can get a certificate of pilgrimage when you arrive in Santiago de Compostela.
Dorota: “In some ways, I wasn’t prepared at all. I didn’t know in advance where I was going to sleep each night, but everything seemed to figure itself out as I went. If I didn’t know where I was going, I’d ask others. On the other hand, I actually started to learn some Spanish just several days before the trip, and I’ve kept it up ever since.”
What shouldn’t I forget to pack?
View this post on Instagram
First of all, your backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 10% of your own weight. If it does, it’ll slow you down and generally make the hike much harder on your body.
Even though the hike might well take weeks, try to bring as few (and as lightweight and breathable) items of clothing as possible. Many albergues have washing machines for pilgrims to use.
Here’s a comprehensive list of things to take with you:
- A light sleeping bag
- Two pairs of shorts (depending on the season)
- Two pairs of pants
- Two T-shirts
- A sweater (even in the summer, it can be cool outside early in the morning)
- A light rain jacket
- Socks (wearing two pairs at once will help prevent blisters)
- Underwear (sports bras rather than regular bras)
- Flip flops (for wearing in communal showers and/or when resting)
- Essential toiletries (multipurpose toiletries are best, for example, 2-in-1 shower gel and shampoo)
- A toothbrush
- A disposable razor
- A reusable water bottle
- A hat
- Hand sanitizer
- Zip lock bags (in which to keep any trash until you can dispose of it properly)
- Small, non-perishable, high-energy snacks
- Instant tea/coffee (refreshments don’t tend to be available at albergues)
- Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
- Cash (lots of small businesses won’t take card payments)
Of course, the definition of ‘essential’ will vary from person to person, but earnest economizing is at very the core of packing for the Camino. It’s easy to overpack for any trip, but on most vacations, you don’t have to carry all of your possessions on your back all day, every day. Take only what you know you’ll find useful.
Dorota: “It was the longest time in years that I’d gone without wearing any makeup. If and when I walk the Camino again, I won’t take so many cosmetics with me. I also brought two books to read, when one would have been enough.”
What kind of footwear should I have?
Wear comfortable shoes that your feet are already used to. It’ll take you some time to break in brand new footwear, and with the amount of walking you’ll be doing, this is likely to cause you a lot of pain. At the same time, you want shoes that are at least somewhat robust, that are secure and a good fit, and that can withstand the elements. In other words, don’t walk the Camino in Converse shoes… or Crocs.
What about running shoes? Lots of pilgrims have sworn by them, but they’re really only a good option in dry weather. The summer months in Iberia do tend to be dry, so it may be worth planning your hike for this time of year if you intend to wear running shoes.
Dorota: “The towns along the Portuguese Way are paved pretty entirely with cobbles, and between them, the roads are rocky. This is a big part of why my feet hurt so much. Once I got over the border into Spain, it wasn’t as bad, but still, the terrain was mostly hard and uneven.
I assumed it’d be ideal to have proper walking boots, so I bought some. This was a mistake — I had to switch to worn-in, comfortable sneakers after a couple of days.”
Where will I sleep on the Camino de Santiago?
Dorota: “At the start, as I say, I went along with no idea about where I was going to sleep each night. But then I met an Italian girl who helped me — she told me that day where she was going to stay and we walked there together. I saw her again sporadically along the way.
I downloaded the Camino Ninja App. It was really good because it found accommodation close by to wherever I was, with contact details for albergues. Some of them, though, don’t take reservations and beds are given on a first-come-first-serve basis. Sometimes I stayed in albergues, sometimes in hostels; sometimes I booked in advance, and sometimes I didn’t.”
Although it’s not free to stay at an albergue, the most you’ll pay for one night is around €20.
Dorota: “Albergues are very basic — everyone sleeps in one room. But some other places even had a pool!”
How much does it cost to walk the Camino de Santiago?
Dorota: “I got a return flight from Vienna to Porto for less than €100. Excluding my extended stay in Porto at the end of the trip, food, drink and accommodation for 11 days cost me around €300. I did eat out a lot, so you’ll probably spend less than this if you buy from supermarkets and make your own meals.”
Using Dorota’s budgeting as a benchmark, you can expect to spend about €27 per day. But naturally, some pilgrims will spend more than this, and some will spend less. It’s a good idea to factor in more money to spend either side of the hike, at your starting point and in Santiago de Compostela.
And finally, when it comes to flights, from wherever in the world you’re coming to join the trail, Kiwi.com has you sorted. Our advanced Kiwi-Code and innovative travel hacks find the best deals from 95% of the global ticket inventory, so that you can snap them up. Take a look, step outside your comfort zone and prepare to hike the Camino. It might just be the experience of a lifetime that you’re looking for.
Did you like this article? For more travel inspiration, visit Kiwi.com Stories.