Well, you’ve landed on the right blog. The historic Camino de Santiago or “The Way” (as in the actor, Martin Sheen’s 2010 movie) is a long hike—some 500 miles to be exact. The Camino Frances or French Camino is the most popular pilgrimage route beginning in the Basque Pyrenees in France and concluding in Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain.
What’s it going to take:
Well, it’s kind of like studying the menu. Did you want the whole 500-mile enchilada or the 60-mile tapas? There’s quite a difference in mileage and that will guide your preparation. But let’s say, for the sake of this blog, you choose the former.
Timing is Everything
How much time can you allocate to this physical and spiritual challenge? My wife, Aurora, and I, both semi-retired, hiked the Camino last year managing to complete it in 31 days which is about the norm. Sure, some do it in less, like the Spanish speed demon I referred to in my soon to be published book “It’s Your Camino: One Couple’s 500-mile Pilgrimage across Spain.” Others, if provided the luxury of time, might do it in a more leisurely 40 days. Some are restricted by gainful employment and will choose to parcel it out in two week increments over two years. We found many of the European hikers or “pilgrims” opting for this itinerary. Count on approximately 30 to 32 days.
Allow me to review some of the Camino requisites. They follow in no particular order.
Faith and perseverance
“You gotta wanna” my Brooklyn, New York high school teacher used to say about succeeding in his class and the same principle applies to a hike that will pit you against the elements, boredom, fatigue and sometimes your fellow pilgrims like my encounter at the albergue (cheap dormitory like housing) with the gruff, unlikeable Romanian. But that was an outlier so don’t worry too much about your fellow pilgrims. You must believe you can do it and stick it out. The reward is great.
A good attitude seems to go hand in hand with faith and perseverance. Most of the people we met who showed those two qualities seemed, for the most part, to possess such an attitude. I remember running into a pilgrim in the cathedral of Burgos while I described how awesome the cathedral was. Little did I know he would vent his spleen about churches and corrupt clergy. Now I am careful not to make comments aloud.
I learned this lesson the hard way in Spain doing a college year abroad. My family had only enough money to send me to Madrid -but not for the proper clothing that would accommodate my outdoor hobbies such as hiking and mountain climbing. For the Camino, we researched YouTube for what other pilgrims were wearing and packing. This was incredibly helpful so when we dropped in on REI or other sporting/camping good stores, we already knew what we wanted and how much it cost. Never scrimp on good gear! And it paid off in spades. Despite finishing the journey in great pain due to a pre-existing knee condition, I did not accumulate a single blister while my wife complained of one. Pay special attention to your shoes and socks. And please don’t try the Camino with sneakers or oversized hiking boots—we were witness to one sweet young lady from New York who paid the price for hiking in sneakers—she had to get off the Camino and heal up for a few days; a girl from Colombia struggled every day with her heavy boots.
Critical to the success of your endeavor, this is something you cannot overlook. You’ve got to be in decent shape before taking that first step in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Fortunately, my wife and I have been hiking for years so we relied on muscle memory, but even that will take you only so far. We practiced several months before we left for the Camino, starting with short distances and light backpacks, gradually building up to replicating the actual stages.
Don’t overlook your budget and have a Plan B. You may be several grand out of pocket for RT airfare and gear before you’ve even started. Can you endure some sleep deprivation? Are you willing to spend night after night in rooms that lack privacy, where you are sleeping six inches away from a total stranger? If you can handle that, good for you. Your budget then shouldn’t be a factor.
Change of Plans
After a few nights of reliving our college days in youth hostels, we were tired and unhappy. The only way to salvage our trip was to upgrade our stays to hostels offering a private room and shared bath. We hadn’t planned on modifying our budget but we knew we didn’t have too many options. We promised each other we would work harder to make up for the unexpected expenditure.
Finally, you’ve got to be honest with yourself; you’ve got to be flexible enough to make changes. Remember “It’s Your Camino” and you own it. So, you walk it as you see fit. You do it in a manner you feel comfortable with and not rushed or pressured. If something is hurting, address it, even if it means taking off a day or two. If there is a stage that you cannot physically do, then grab a cab or a bus and move on to the next stage. The Camino is not a competition.
Don’t lose sight of the fact you are hiking the Way of Saint James or Camino for any number of reasons—a physical challenge or the chance to decompress from the world, for the chance to appreciate history and beautiful landscapes or find meaning in life.
All challenges are worth the journey; my wife and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Hope this helps.