How to be a pilgrim: a practical guide to the Camino de Santiago

Last year, 327,328 people got a certificate for walking at least 100km (or cycling at least 200km) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Want one too? Nancy Richards sheds some light on The Way

29 September 2019 - 00:00 By Nancy Richards
The Alto del Perdon, roughly translated as the Hill of Forgiveness, is a metalwork sculpture in Navarra, Spain, dedicated to pilgrims past, present and future.
The Alto del Perdon, roughly translated as the Hill of Forgiveness, is a metalwork sculpture in Navarra, Spain, dedicated to pilgrims past, present and future.
Image: Getty Images

It's not clear exactly when the first peregrino (pilgrim) set out to follow the Camino de Santiago de Compostela or The Way of St James, patron saint of Spain. The first written record was in 950AD, but non-diarists may have done it earlier.

What we do know is that they sure wouldn't have been kitted out with lightweight, fluorescent takkies, backpacks and retractable walking sticks, as they often are today.

What back then would have been a strenuous spiritual search, on which pilgrims risked death from exposure, hunger and bubonic plague, could today simply be a chilled rejuvenating me-time walk-cation.

With only two relatively short Caminos under my soles - 300km in Spain to Santiago and Finisterre, and about 100km in Portugal from Porto to the Spanish border - I am no expert, but I can offer some simple tips that may help you on Your Way.

FIRST, THE WHY

People's reasons for doing it are as infinite as experiences. For charity, self-discovery, spirituality, weight loss, the challenge, to find a mate, to leave a mate behind ... the best reason is because you can.

And why the Camino specifically? It is the oldest pilgrimage in the world. Said to be a haven for self-reflection, rising numbers suggest that while religion may no longer be the main motivation, there's a global quest for spirituality. To finish with a pilgrim service at Santiago Cathedral can be an emotional, humbling, and certainly memorable experience.

THEN THE HOW

A crucial early decision is whether you will do it on your own, or supported. I have done both - one carrying a backpack; one pre-arranged with bags transported - and the difference is significant. For simplicity's sake, I refer to these as Solo vs Supported.

Choose Solo and prepare to do some homework - which town to start in, how to get there, where to stay etc. You'll need to put together and carry a backpack and get a guide book.

The Camino pilgrimage routes may vary but the end point is the same: the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Galicia, Spain.
The Camino pilgrimage routes may vary but the end point is the same: the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Galicia, Spain.
Image: 123RF/alexat25

Your distance is up to you, but to qualify for a certificate, you have to have walked a minimum of 100km or cycled 200km. As for daily distances, you'll find your own limit, but somewhere between 15 and 25km is a decent daily average.

WHEN TO GO

Europe's spring (May, June) and autumn (September, October) are best. Avoid high summer - think heat, school holidays, crowds - and winter - cold, rain, snowy mountains.

As for your own "when", note that last year over 50% of pilgrims were aged 30 - 60 with around 18% 60 plus. So if you dream it, do it, before it's too late.

WHAT TO TAKE

As little as possible. With so many choices to make you don't need to be worrying about or schlepping surplus stuff. Especially clothes. A sleeping bag and two of everything, one on one off is a useful principle.

Supported, luggage weight is less an issue, but in pilgrim parlance "less is more". A day pack for maps, water bottle etc. Waterproof a must for both.

Supported, you'll get full details and directions for your trip, overnight stays booked (most likely with mod cons and breakfast included) and luggage transport between towns. Solo pilgrims, take your chance with everyone else and see what albergue (shelter), refugio (refuge) or other hostelry is available when you get to a town.

Solo in Spain, we slept memorably in barns, dormitories and on floors as well as albergues. Supported in Portugal, we slept in commercial (sometimes touristy) hotels, low on pilgrim vibe.

CHOOSE YOUR ROUTE

All Camino routes go through France and Portugal to Spain. There are many: 15 in Spain, seven from France and a growing number from Portugal, where they are actively developing tourism. Spain's routes are more travelled with generally more pilgrim infrastructure. The Portuguese routes are newer but growing in popularity.

The Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago is most popular, done by nearly 57% of pilgrims. The Camino Portuguese from Lisbon is second with nearly 21%. The first and oldest is Camino Primitivo done by nearly 5%.

Very popular, for obvious reasons, is the last 100km stretch of the Camino Frances, from Sarria in Spain to Santiago.

Popular routes along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
Popular routes along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
Image: @bonesandbonelessdesignhub

Strong, comfortable broken-in trainers or boots and good socks are essential. Walking sticks optional, but significantly reduce strain on knees. Also, make sure you have all your usual toiletries, basic first aid and own medication. In Spain, most towns, even villages have farmacias, filled with foot-care products. In Portugal fewer.

DON'T FORGET YOUR PILGRIM PASSPORT

This is for the stamps you'll get at all the stops - shops, cafes, chapels, even hair salons - along the way that prove you've really put in the footwork. Present it when you arrive in Santiago to get your certificate.

If you book with an agent, they will provide it. Solo, order one before you go through csjofsa.za.org or buy one at the Pilgrim Office at the start of your Camino for about €2 (R32).

WHAT'S IT REALLY LIKE

Like life, each route has its own characteristics. Whichever way, expect your walk to be both tough and easy through busy cities, isolated villages, open fields, forests, sometimes among crowds, sometimes alone. All that can be guaranteed is that every day will be different. And generally safe.

WHAT ABOUT COSTS?

Obviously, the costs will vary wildly depending on how you choose to go and which route you choose to follow.

As an example, Santiago Ways quoted €654 (R10,750) per person for a six-night trip from Sarria to Santiago (100km) on the Camino Frances at the end of October. This includes B&B, luggage transport, instructions and pilgrim passport.

Going solo, accommodation can vary from around €10 (R164) per person per night to €50 (R820) or more for a hotel.

With coffee and a sandwich around €5 (R82), and a bottle of water around €2 (R32), allow around €30 (R500) a day for food and drink. Add extra for emergencies.

Traditionally all pilgrims would be given a bed and food even if they had no money. Those days are dying but the Camino remains as much about giving as taking. Be prepared to help others in need, in whatever way.

CAN YOU GET LOST?

Written or spoken directions can be misleading, especially on less-travelled routes. A combo of guide book, way markers (painted arrows, shells, milestones) maps, locals, fellow pilgrims and instinct will get you there. Apps are available, but if ever there was an opportunity to disconnect and vanish from social media, this is it.

Take a phone for booking, emergencies and, of course, the odd selfie. A smattering of Spanish, Portuguese or French goes a long way in the quest for food, bed, help, and directions.

FIND OUT MORE

Agencies: There are many operators, but committed ones are caminoways.com and santiagoways.com.

Advice: The Confraternity of St James of South Africa is an invaluable resource for local would-be pilgrims. See csjofsa.org.

Guides: There are several guides by John Brierley, which are considered the "bibles". Free guides and apps are available on caminoguide.net.