Camino de Santiago - tips from my experience
I walked the Camino de Santiago, Frances route, two years ago. Here I present a few tips regarding things that I would have liked to know beforehand:
1) The camino isn't difficult. This statement must be qualified- I mean that the camino is not hiking, does not involve wilderness bushwacking or severe terrain. For the most part it involves walking on flat, well-maintained trails or concrete. There are three days of what I would call actual hiking (involving significant incline/decline) and more rugged terrain. These days are: 1) The initial leg from St. Jean Pied du Port to Roncevalles, 2) 10km or so before the village of Foncebadon, 3) the ascent to O'Cebreiro in Galicia. That being said, I should clarify that I'm not saying it's a walk in the park. Carrying a heavy pack for several weeks in a row is going to be a strain on most people's bodies, even on flat ground. But it's more a walk than a hike. I intended to train for the walk, but I only ended up walking one test day of 25km at home with a loaded pack. Better than nothing. If you're really out of shape, you may want to train a bit beforehand. I saw a few poor souls suffering on the camino, and a few that had to drop out.
2) Wear shoes/boots with ankle support. I didn't, because I thought I should go with lightweight and airy running shoes. Turned my ankle in some mud and wished I would have had hiking boots on. Wear boots and don't worry about the heat. Just get good quality moisture-wicking socks. And ensure your boots are broken-in ahead of time. Otherwise you'll get more blisters than you've ever imagined.
3) The camino isn't (necessarily) religious. I was initially reluctant to do the camino as I thought it would be full of people evangelizing and singing hymns (not my idea of a good time). It wasn't. The group of friends I made were there for various reasons (cultural, new-age vaguely spiritual, existential, social) and all had a great time and learned a lot in their respective ways. You don't need to be religious to enjoy this.
4) The camino is/can be very, very cheap. I left Canada with $200 in my pocket and $2000 on my credit card. I didn't run out of money until after walking the full french route of the camino (at a leisurely pace- just under five weeks), driving back across Spain, checking out the BBK music festival in Bilbao and visiting Madrid for two and London for three nights.
a) the auberges/hostels on the camino cost almost nothing. The most expensive one we stayed at was 10 euro, but that was unusual. Most are 5 euro or under. Some are free (donate!).
b) eat supermarket food / drink supermarket alcohol most of the time. There are .22cent beers in some grocery stores and $2 bottles of wine. There are also more kinds of olives than you can imagine. You can live off olives for a while. The 'pilgrim menus' that most bar/restaurants offer are usually about 10 euro and weren't very good or very substantial, in my experience. Some hostels have kitchens, but some don't.
c) if you're really cheap (I am) you can buy a jar of instant coffee and (if there is one) use the auberge kitchen to make your own coffee sometimes. Though you should really try the Cafe con Leche. It's delicious.
d) the point of being cheap now is so that you don't have to be cheap in the future - no one wants to be cheap the whole time.
5) You probably don't need to worry about there not being a bed for you. Never saw it happen and the year I was walking was the holy year of St. James, which was supposed to be busier than average. Although, I started walking quite early every day. If you wait too long to check in, you might have a problem.
6) The auberges have curfews - usually midnight (there are some exceptions - the municipal auberge in Leon being one). The Spanish people party until 6am on almost every weekend, it seems, so be careful not to party your face off and forget about where your bed is.
7) Pack light, but not too light. I pack very light. I brought two shirts, two pairs of boxers, one pair of shorts and one pair of pants - all hiking/athletic attire. I intended to wear these for both walking and hanging around in cities/towns. While I got by just fine, I felt like a tool in the larger cities. I didn't want to look like a pilgrim when going out for a drink after dinner. So I ended up buying a casual shirt. Maybe you're not as vain as that, but I really felt better not wearing my shiny athletic shirt around cities. One extra shirt doesn't weigh much. Also, don't bring a camp stove. There's really no need.
8) Camp soap - get some. Wash your clothes, your body, dishes, and generally everything with it.
9) I brought my tent. Thought I would keep costs down by wild camping. I ended up only using it three times on the camino (it did come in use after the camino) and only once out of real necessity (when the only beds left were in private rooms for 20 euro each). I recommend not bringing a tent. You simply won't want to wild camp once you start making friends. Most pilgrims don't have tents, so you'll have to leave the hostel or bar or wherever everyone is hanging out and trek back to your tent alone each evening. And that sucks. On the other hand, the few nights we did camp were very memorable. One was during a terrifying thunderstorm that soaked us all night and another was spent overlooking the green valley outside SJPP. Watching the lights come on in the villages throughout the valley as night fell was amazing. Another time we accidentally camped in a horse pasture and woke up to a herd staring at us. Don't do that.
10) You can easily get by with minimal Spanish. Learn key phrases and basic numbers and you'll be fine on the frances route. The locals are used to pilgrims and are used to dealing with foreigners.
11) You don't need to plan your schedule AT ALL. You won't want to stick to it even if you do. You will meet many people and modify your schedule to compliment what you learn from them, or to stay together.
12) I regretted not bringing my mp3 player. I thought I would like to escape from technology, but I found that I wanted music for days of solo walking. To each his own, but if I were to do this again, I would bring music.
If we can add to it.... learn about Compeed... it is expensive, but when we did get blisters, it saved our feet. No question.
We both wore running shoes, and and although we made it, and even wore the same shoes for a half marathon 2 months later, it wasn't ideal... if doing it again, I would get hiking shoes, like Merrells or what not.
We do not consider ourselves cheap travellers by any means and we completed the Camino by spending just under $2,000 for each of us over the 35 days. Now this included one doctor visit, and a handful of hotel rooms in the bigger cities just to take a break, so yes, you can absolutely do it for cheaper.... but we still felt the $100/day mark (as a couple) made for a decently affordable journey. I did include a link to our full Camino budget post.
We saw or heard of a lot of people leaving behind tents and sleeping bags (or sending them back home). there is no need for either. Buy a silk sleep sheet. Most places will have blankets if you need. If you are worried about the cleanliness of this blanket (which is understandable), the sleep sheet will act as your protective layer.
Good luck and Buen Camino!
That night I slept on the floor of a large barnlike room because I felt squeezed in one of the 60 bunk beds like a sardine. It was not the first time the thermorest mattress cam in handy, and so did all my clothes that I needed to wear in order not to freeze.
But, it was only one time in the entire two weeks no one had a blanket for me. Before I almost never needed it when I did carry it. Hint.. if you carry no sleeping bag, carry some kind of warm thermal layer. Never hurts to have something to use as a pillow sometimes.
Most nights I just used it as a blanket, some nights I didn't need it and a couple nights I was glad to have it. It compacts down to just larger than two fists, so really it shouldn't be hard to fit in any pack.
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