Travel with a Purpose: El Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago. The Way of St. James. “A Really Long Walk”.

The route has been called by many names, but the journey to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain has been around for centuries. Officially the third most visited Christian site in the world, the popularity of El Camino has exploded in recent years, taking advantage of an upsurge in adventure-seekers and offering an experience unlike any other trip I’ve been on.

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It’s going to hurt…

Now this may seem like an obvious fact, but it’s one that you must see. The Camino is not easy. You are essentially carrying enough clothes and necessities on your back for anywhere between a week (El Camino Ingles) and a month (El Camino Frances), all the while walking an average of seven hours a day, much of it on hilly mountain tracks.

… but it’s so, so worth it.

Cliche we know, but believe me, walking into the square in front of the Cathedral in Santiago is a feeling unlike any other. Described as magic by some and addictive by all, the otherworldly feeling of accomplishment and bliss that you feel as you realise that you have completed the journey will instantly make you want to do another.

Slum it!

In recent years, the huge expansion experienced by the Camino has meant that it has developed some more ‘comfortable’ arrangements including nicer hotels and paradors for peregrinos to sleep in as well as taxi services that take your rucksacks to your various nightly stops but honestly, unless you’re desperate, don’t do it. So much of the Camino experience takes place in the albergues. These cheap hostels may be devoid of many creature comforts (if it has plugs and warm water be thankful!) and there will always, ALWAYS, be a snorer who keeps the entire room awake, but that is one of the best parts of the trip. It is at these hostels where you create bonds with your fellow walkers, forming groups to go to the bars, sharing tales of unique moments that have happened along the way and, ultimately, goes some way towards creating the community vibe that makes saying goodbye at the end of the trip somewhat harder than it should be.

Don’t be a stranger.

So much of the joys of the Camino are because of the company you pick up along the way. Countless a rainy day has become a blissfully enjoyable walk largely thanks to the stories of my fellow walkers. These are not only your main source of entertainment along the way (lets face it your iphone is not going to last eight hours) but also encouragement to ward off the pain. Not to mention purveyors of information, on my last Camino I turned a corner to see a group of ten pilgrims all offering different forms of aid to a poor girl suffering a blister! Say hi to your fellow walkers and I can guarantee that your final photo album will be filled with random strangers.

Learn the lingo.

No, I don’t mean walk around with a Spanish phrasebook in your pocket (although it would certainly be helpful with the route cutting through mostly rural areas where the majority of people will speak minimal, if any, English), but simply “Buen Camino”. The phrase, literally meaning “have a good Camino” will be imprinted in your memory by the end of the second day. Repeated at every coffee stop, church, hostel, shop and restaurant as well as coming at you from every local and pilgrim you see, the phrase begins to mean everything from “hello”, to “goodbye” and “have a nice day”.

Finally, enjoy the journey!

Perhaps more so than any other form of ‘tourism’ – if it can indeed be called that, the Camino is all about the journey and not the destination so take advantage of it. Yes it isn’t a walk in the park but it’s not a race, enjoy it. Take a break at a fountain to take in the artwork, stop off at a small town to pose for a picture in front of a statue or monument, wander around a church, have a drink of the local wine and treat yourself, have that extra slice of cake! Santiago de Compostela is beautiful but it will be the dingy hostels, beautiful scenery and unique characters that dominate your stories as you bore your friends back home rather than pictures of the finish line.

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