- The Pilgrim's Credential:
What kinds of people walk the Camino de Santiago?
All kinds of people walk the Camino de Santiago! According to the records of the Pilgrims' Welcome Office in Santiago de Compostela, 145,877 people completed the pilgrimage in 2011. Of them, 83% arrived on foot, 17% arrived by bicycle and a few hearty souls rode horseback. Pilgrims came from Spain (54%), Germany (10%), Italy (7%), France (5%), Portugal (3%), the US (1.7%), Canada (1.5%), the UK (1.2%) and over 100 other countries. A little over 9% were 18 years of age or younger, 35% were between 19 and 35 years old, 50% were between 36 and 65 years old, and just over 5% were older than 65 years. Finally these 2009 pilgrims included students, salaried employees, technicians, retirees, teachers, blue-collar workers, civil servants, homemakers, artists, farmers, unemployed people and priests - among many others.
I'm not Catholic. Can I walk the Camino?
While the Camino de Santiago is based in Catholic lore and tradition, one does not need to be Catholic to walk. Indeed one does not need to even be religious or spiritual. About the only time this will be a question is in the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos in Santiago when you appear to obtain your compostela. You will be asked your motivation for walking and those who do not state "religious or spiritual" as their reason for making the pilgrimage will be offered another document, a certificado, to commemorate their having completed the Camino. While many will walk the Camino for out and out religious reasons, others will look on it from a more secular viewpoint. A pilgrimage, after all, is not necessarily religious. Consider the throngs who take a pilgrimage to Graceland!
How difficult is it to walk the Camino?
Every peregrino will have a different answer for this question. The Camino is not a Himalayan expedition, but it is not a Sunday stroll through the park either. On the Camino francés, the terrain from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago will include crossing a lower ridge of the Pyrenees, walking on farm roads through areas of rolling vineyards and across the meseta, the high, flat plains of Castilla-León, climbing and descending several mountain passes with altitudes of up to 5,000 ft (1,500 m) and finally traversing the forested river valleys of Galicia. Weather varies according to the season and the local climate zone, and can range from extremely hot and dry to cool and wet to cold and snowy. See our weather and climate links for detailed information.
Camino veterans will say that physical preparation is absolutely necessary. It is one thing to take a hike of 25 km on a nice afternoon, but it is quite another matter to repeat this hike day after day for a month. Those who have had previous camping, backpacking or hiking experience will be a step ahead. That said, there are still multitudes of pilgrims who begin their Camino without having done any physical preparation at all. Carrying a pack will pretty much be a necessity but because there are support services all along the way—places to stay and eat—carrying a large pack is not at all necessary. In fact, packing light may be the most important ingredient for a successful Camino. (For further thoughts about this, see "Do I have to carry a backpack?" and “What should I take?” below.)
And now for something completely different: A brief history of walking.
How easy is it to follow the route?
In Spain, especially on the Camino francés, the entire route is extremely well marked with yellow arrows. Sometimes these are crudely brushed onto a wall or post, sometimes they are 'formally' created signs. You will always encounter them at division points or intersections in the road or path. Following the Camino through the larger cities is probably the most problematical issue, as the arrows can tend to get lost in the clutter of other signs and sometimes you may walk straight ahead for many blocks after which there will be one arrow pointing left or right. Still, if you go astray, usually a 'local' will quickly straighten you out. And you can always use "¿Dónde va el Camino?" ("Where does the Camino go?") or something like that.
Which route should I follow?
There are many routes, many Caminos, to Santiago de Compostela. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims began their pilgrimage from their front door, whether that was in Jaca or Sevilla, Paris or Ostabat, Brussels or Vienna: there were as many routes as there were pilgrims. The best known route today, the one that most people mean then they talk about "the Camino", is the Camino francés, which crosses the north of Spain from the French border through Pamplona, Burgos and León all the way to Santiago. But many other routes have been marked and are available to modern pilgrims, starting both inside Spain and beyond its borders. Inside Spain, other well known Caminos include the Vía de la Plata which begins in Sevilla and passes through Mérida, Cáceres and Salamanca; the Camino primitivo which begins in Oviedo and passes through Lugo before meeting the Camino francés shortly before Santiago; the Camino del Norte which begins in Irún at the French border and follows the northern coast before turning inland near Ribadeo. There are now also recognized and well marked routes in France, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria … almost everywhere in Europe. We invite you to visit our Route Overviews page for further food for thought. In addition, our statistics page (9/2/12) has some information about traffic on various routes.
Where should I start?
Once you have decided on which route you wish to follow, you will have to choose a starting point. Yes, you can start anywhere you want. In 2009 on the Camino francés, about 20% of the pilgrims who eventually arrived in Santiago began at the French-Spanish border, at either St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France or Roncesvalles in Spain. Another approximately 20% started at Sarria to just fulfill the 100-km requirement for the compostela. But no matter which route you follow, remember that the Camino is, in essence, just a long path, and aside from the 100 km requirement for a compostela, you can walk any part of any route that you wish.
For information about getting to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Roncesvalles or some other common starting points, visit the Transportation in Spain section of our Internet Resources page.
How long does it take?
There is no simple answer to this question. Whether on foot or bicycle, how long your pilgrimage will take will depend on many variables, such as what kind of terrain you will be crossing, how much you want to travel each day, how many rest days you wish to take during the pilgrimage and, naturally, your physical abilities. The hilly countryside near Le Puy, France, may limit walkers to 15 or 20 kilometers per day, while the flat expanses of the Spanish meseta will allow some to walk 30 or more kilometers per day. You may choose to finish your day’s walk early in the afternoon, or you may prefer to continue walking until late in the day. The distance you travel in a day will depend on your pace, as well as on how often you stop to rest, to visit cultural attractions and to talk to people. You may wish to take a day off from time to time, or you may prefer to walk every day.
Most guidebooks for the various pilgrimage routes offer suggested itineraries. For the entire Camino francés, a distance of approximately 750 km (~450 mi), walkers commonly take about 32 to 35 walking days. Cyclists might count on about two weeks. Other examples would be for the Camino primitivo, 13 to 15 walking days from Oviedo to Santiago; for the French Chemin du Puy, 30 to 34 walking days from Le Puy to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port; and for the German Münchner Jakobsweg, 10 walking days from Munich to Lindau-Bregenz. Take your pick; the possibilities are nearly endless.
Is there a limit to the length of time I can stay in Europe?
Actually, yes, there is.
And for U.S. citizens generally speaking it is 90 days. There is a consortium of 26 European countries, which comprise the Schengen Area, more or less but not exactly the European Union countries, that have agreed to abolish internal border control but to strengthen external controls. The U.S. Department of State has a Schengen Fact Sheet that has all the information needed for U.S. passport holders. Without going into the possibility of difficult to obtain visas, the basic rule is that one can stay in the Schengen Area for 90 days within a 180 day period. For most people that would mean that after you have stayed in the Area for a continuous 90 days, you have to leave for 90 days. Although you may read about people who ignored this rule and got away with it, if you are caught trying to leave the area in violation of the regulations, a very stiff fine might apply and you might have your passport stamped so as to be unable to reenter the Area at all in the future.
What time of year should I go?
Perhaps the first question here should really be, “When can I go?” If you are a student or if you work, you may have to go whenever your vacation time allows. But if you have the freedom to travel when you wish, then there are a couple important of considerations that present themselves: weather and crowding. July and August, even in the north of Spain, are normally HOT. Mid April through June and September through early November can be the most pleasant times of the year to walk. And the cold and wet conditions of the Spanish winter have always presented their own unique challenges to the pilgrim. No matter when you walk, however, if you are on the road for weeks or even months, chances are very good that you will encounter a wide range of weather conditions to keep your journey interesting. See our weather and climate links for detailed information.
In addition to the weather, you may also want to consider how many other pilgrims will be out there walking with you. Overcrowding on the Camino francés is notorious during the months of July and August, when most European students and working people take their long annual vacation. The other Caminos in Spain and throughout Europe do not experience similar multitudes, but since their infrastructures are not designed to handle huge numbers of pilgrims, they may feel crowded. If you would like to examine some graphs that indicate heavily walked years and months as well as some other interesting patterns and trends, we have a page of statistics (Updated 1/9/13).
If you seek the medieval spirit of the pilgrim or if you consider the pilgrimage as a spiritual journey, you may find winter the perfect season to walk. Even on the Camino francés, crowds are nonexistent. Your first and foremost consideration however must be your preparations for the weather. Northern Spain has a true winter! You may find yourself walking in snow at Puente la Reina, freezing fog on the meseta, rain at León and warm sunshine in Galicia. You should consult the climate information we have on our Internet Resources page. On the Camino francés, most pilgrim services such as albergues and restaurants remain open during the winter; on other routes, winter services may be less available.
What year should I go?
It might seem odd to consider that the year to travel the Camino would make any difference but there are some sporadic factors to take into consideration. Undoubtedly the most important factor is the Jacobean Holy Year, those years when Saint James feast day, July 25th, falls on a Sunday. See below for a further description of the issues.
What is a Holy Year?
A Holy Year is any year when Saint James feast day, July 25th, falls on a Sunday. 2010 was the last Holy Year and the next will not occur until 2021. In those years what that means for the pilgrim as a practical matter can be summed up in one word: crowds! Statistics issued by the Pilgrims' Welcome Office show that the number of Compostelas issued during Holy Years has been several times the number issued during the preceding year; for the last Holy Year of 2010, there was almost a two-fold increase from 2009.
In the Catholic Church, a plenary indulgence is still granted to those who visit the Cathedral and the tomb of the Apostle at any time during a Holy Year, make their confession, attend Mass and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.
A plenary indulgence in Catholic theology is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment due because of sins committed and is granted to those who visit the Cathedral and the tomb of the Apostle at any time during a Holy Year, make their confession, attend Mass and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.
Are there guidebooks for the Camino?
Yes, there are many and you will want to have some reference with you for route-finding and for finding accommodations. The guidebooks that are most recognized include those written by John Briery, by Bethan Davies and Ben Cole, by Alison Raju, and of course the annually-updated Confraternity Guides. For those who read Spanish, the guides written by Paco Nadal and that written by Millán Bravo Lozano are the most widely used, the former for its frequently updated practical information and the latter for its venerable content on the route, its history and its traditions. For locating food and accommodation on routes in France, the definitive guides are those in the Miam-Miam-Do-Do series although these are only available in French. These and other guidebooks may be found on the American Pilgrims' books page. In addition, you can always use your favorite search engine to locate both printed and online resources.
Are there alternatives to walking the Camino?
Yes, but traversing the Camino using muscle power one way or the other is a requirement for certain benefits. Today between 15 and 20% of peregrinos, for example, bicycle the route. In order to use the majority of albergues and in order to receive the compostela from the cathedral in Santiago, you must be either on foot or bicycle (or rarely, on horseback).
What information is available for cyclists?
At present the American Pilgrims' web site is oriented toward the walking pilgrim, but much of the information presented applies to cyclists as well. For more information directed specifically toward cyclists, you should consider joining the Yahoo special-interest group Santiago Bicicleta. The British Confraternity also has a useful booklet, The Cycling Pilgrim. Entering something like "camino santiago bicycle" (without the quotes) in your favorite search engine will produce a plethora of sites. Also see the cycling section on our Internet Resources page.
Is it possible to do the Camino on horseback? With a burro?
Yes, although it will take some serious planning. The British Confraternity has a useful page with advice for horse riders and with further web site links. Thinking about using a burro? You'll want to visit El Burro Peregrino (Spanish).
Should I walk alone or with a friend?
This is a very common question and of course ultimately the decision is a personal one. That having been said however, you may be finding yourself in the position of having decided to walk or cycle the Camino but you haven't been able to find a companion to go with you. And the idea of taking this on solo is daunting. Your concern about going solo is probably warranted but the axiom is "No one walks alone on the Camino." There are several approaches to a solution:
• Advertise. You might consider posting your request for companions on one or more of the Camino-related forums on the Internet. You can find several of these on our Internet Resources page and we especially recommend the first three. A note with a subject line "Looking for pilgrims leaving Leon July 11" or "Looking for 2011 pilgrims in Atlanta area" might produce something. Among the first three forums, our own is new but is U.S.-oriented. Santiagobis is international in its readership and it has a huge membership. Pilgrimage to Santiago is international and very highly regarded. All of these are free but you will have to register to use Santiagobis and Pilgrimage to Santiago. Unfortunately peregrinos in the U.S. are a pretty diffuse bunch.
• Socialize. If you are at all receptive to meeting other people, on the Camino you will very quickly find yourself being part of a westward-moving community of friends. Indeed a large number of people make life-long friendships on the Camino. Before leaving home (or afterward for that matter) we recommend becoming active in an American PIlgrims local chapter. See the Local Chapters page to see if there is one near you.
What can I do to get physically and mentally prepared before leaving for Spain?
You are about to undertake a serious venture, both physical and psychological - or mental or spiritual or religious. As for physical preparation the essence of it is to walk and to be sure that you are comfortable with your pack and footwear. Your daily distance on the Camino will depend on your personal desires and abilities but you must remember that to walk some distance, say 20 km, one day is one thing - to do it day after day for several weeks or a month is something else entirely. So practice your distance but try at least once to walk your distance two days in a row.
Mental preparation should involve becoming prepared to not be too hung up on making a plan and the becoming upset when it doesn't unfold as you had hoped. It is often said that the Camino is life writ small, that it is an analogy for life and there is some truth in that. Developing the ability to accept what is imposed on you and to making the best of it is an admirable trait generally. You will not really understand this until something stares you in the face on the Camino, something that will require you to make a new plan, to accept the change. Every year a portion of those who set out on the Camino have to drop out due to an emergency at home or something like an injury that prevents finishing.
For those with some kind of physical impediment there are a few sources of information. We would suggest looking at the Giía de Accesibilidad del Camino Francés (Spanish and Gallego) maintained by the Xacobeo de Galicia (an arm of the Galician government). This site covers the francés from O Cebreiro to Santiago. The company Ibermutuamur has an extensive section of its site titled Guía del Camino de Santiago para Personas con Discapacidad. (Spanish) One specific page of interest is a detailed description of the nature of the route and difficulties that are to be encountered. (Spanish)
How do I get from the airport to my starting point for walking?
The public transportation systems in Europe are a marvel for North Americans and in Spain that includes both rail and bus. Please consults out Internet Resources page, the section "Transportation in Spain".
How to I return home?
Traveling from North America, you will probably have a trans-Atlantic airline ticket with a fixed return date as open return tickets can be extraordinarily expensive.
Usually this will dictate that the North American peregrino will want to allow a few days of grace time for walking or cycling in case the preplanned schedule can't be maintained. It also implies that getting from Santiago back to the city of departure to North America is a concern. Generally the advice is that as soon as it is clear when arrival in Santiago is going to occur and when departure from the same is known, a train, bus or airline reservation should be secured. Visit our web links page for links to the sites of various transportation services. Also, any travel agent can make these arrangements for you. Need the Santiago airport bus schedule? Click here!
What kinds of transportation are available on the Camino itself?
There is bus or train service along most of the Camino francés and it is actually quite common for peregrinos to use transport from time to time for various reasons. Perhaps a personal schedule restriction is looming, perhaps an injury is preventing walking for a few days, perhaps the weather has become untenable. In places where there is no bus or train service, usually a taxi can be arranged. Please note that this flexibility about using transport does not extend to using transport within the 100 km limit for obtaining the compostela (200 km if cycling). This 100 km stretch must be completed on foot (200 km if cycling).
The Pilgrim's Credential:
What is a credential or pilgrim's passport?
While walking the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims carry a credential (credencial), a small, folded document in which the pilgrim authenticates his or her progress by obtaining stamps (sellos) along the way. Sellos can be obtained from many sources including many bars, hotels, town halls, museums and churches and from all albergues.
The credential or 'passport', as it is sometimes called, is not to be confused with an official, government-issued passport. The former is strictly a record of passage along the Camino; the latter is a required document for international travel. Also see "Do I need a visa in addition to my U.S. government-issued passport?" on this page.
When registering at an albergue, you will be asked to present your credential to verify that you are walking or cycling the Road. In addition, upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, at the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos (Pilgrims' Office, Rúa do Vilar 1, MapQuest map, Google Earth image), you can present your stamped credential to confirm that you have walked at least the last 100 kilometers or cycled at least the last 200 kilometers, whereupon you will receive a compostela, a wonderful document that certifies your pilgrimage. See the entry immediately below for more about the compostela.
Pilgrim credentials can be obtained from numerous sources—including from American Pilgrims—before setting out on the Camino, or from locations actually on the Camino.
What is the compostela?
In most cases peregrinos will be interested in obtaining the 'official' documentation for having completed the Camino whether or not they are walking the Camino for out and out religious reasons. The words used on the Archdiocese’s website are: "devotionis affectu, voti vel pietatis causa" - “the motivation being devotion, vow or piety”. This document is called the compostela and is a form in Latin issued by the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos (Pilgrims' Office, Rúa do Vilar 1, (MapQuest map, Google Earth image) in Santiago, near the southeast corner of the cathedral). You can obtain your compostela by presenting yourself, some form of official identification (like your government-issued travel passport) and your completed pilgrim's credential. You must have documentation showing that you have walked at least the last contiguous 100 km (or cycled the last 200 km). On the francés this is from Sarria (or Ponferrada). For starting points on all the routes that enter Santiago, click HERE.
At the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos you will be asked your motivation for walking. Those who do not include "spiritual" in their reason for making the pilgrimage will be offered another document, a certificado, to commemorate their having completed the Camino.
Where can I get stamps (sellos) for my credential?
Sellos can be obtained at most hotels and inns, restaurants and bars, churches, museums, city halls, police stations and at all albergues. If you're wondering what the sellos look like, you might check out the site Los Sellos del Camino (Spanish).
A note about sellos: Generally one sello per day is sufficient but the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago advises that all pilgrims should obtain two per day during the final 100 km if on foot or the last 200 km if on bicycle. On the francés this would be Sarria (112 km) or Ponferrada (205 km) respectively. Please note that this applies even to pilgrims who have started outside the 100 and 200 km limits.
Why the scallop shell and where can I buy one before leaving home?
Pilgrims to Santiago since at least the Middle Ages have traditionally carried or worn a scallop shell as a symbol of the pilgrimage. On our History page we have a full write-up on the symbol. Although the shells are very easily found for sale on the Camino, many wish to buy theirs before leaving home. In fact they are readily obtainable on the Internet, typically for $1 to $2 plus some shipping. You'll probably want one about 3 in across. In your favorite search engine do a search on something like <seashells retail> or <scallop shells> or you can visit a catering supply outlet. You'll have to drill two small holes in the shell 'wings' for the cord and, unless you're artistic, it won't have the Cross of Saint James on it.
Eating and Sleeping:
Where does one stay at night?
Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has been going on for more than a millennium and during that time
a strong tradition of support for peregrinos has developed. Through the Middle Ages this included hospices chartered and/or operated by kings and queens and religious orders. The tradition continues today in Spain in the form of albergues de peregrinos (or refugios, the terms are interchangeable).
An albergue operates essentially like a youth hostel except that they exist for pilgrims. They provide basic overnight facilities. Most have dormitory-type sleeping arrangements, usually two-tiered bunks, and (sort of) communal bathing and toilet facilities. Some have a set price per night (typically 6 to 10 euros), others are donativo (donation). Some serve meals, some have cooking facilities available, and some have neither. Most open in the early to mid-afternoon, require that you be on your way by 8:00 the next morning, and only allow one night's stay. Some put restrictions on cyclists and walkers who use backpack transport. Until very recently, albergues were usually operated by municipalities, regional governments, confraternities or religious organizations but in recent years the number of privately-owned albergues has increased rapidly. In Spain, reservations cannot be made ahead at municipal albergues, but reservations can sometimes be made at privately operated ones. In order to stay at an albergue, a pilgrim must present an up-to-date credencial.
Courtesy of Arlene Mourier and David Yates of the American Pilgrims Old Pueblo chapter, these are links to files containing every albergue and similar lodging facility (note only albergues) on these routes:
• francés: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/84665557/Albergues_Camino_Franc%C3%A9s.pdf
• portugués (Lisbon to Santiago): https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/84665557/Lodgings_Camino_Portugu%C3%A9s.pdf
• inglés: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/84665557/Accommodation_Camino_Ingl%C3%A9s_Ferrol-SdC.pdf
Additions, corrections and deletions can be sent to the e-mail address of the Old Pueblo (Tucson) local chapter of American PIlgrims: OldPuebloChapter@americanpilgrims.com.
In addition there are several websites that maintain listings of albergues in Spain, among them caminodesantiago.me.uk and the Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago, but probably the most exhaustive list, updated constantly, is at http://caminodesantiago.consumer.es/.
What about bedbugs?
A major concern before leaving and a major topic of conversation on the Camino are bedbugs. Are they present on the Camino? Yes, they are present on the Camino in various places and at various times. But then they may also be found in five-star hotels. As they come and go however it is not possible to list specific albergues to avoid and the best defense is to learn what to look for in whatever bed you will be sleeping on and what signs to be concerned about. Be aware that, although they can be very annoying and perhaps hard to eradicate, they do not carry disease. A moderate amount of heat kills them - like 60°C or 145°F - so washing your things in a machine in hot water or tumble drying are effective treatments. For things that cannot be washed, putting them in a black plastic garden bag and leaving it in the hot Spanish sun for a few hours might or might not be effective depending on the temperature reached. For general information you might read the page on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The Illinois (USA) Department of Public Health has a superb page. Virginia Tech has a good treatise on heat treatment.
What is the difference between a refugio and an albergue?
These terms both refer to overnight facilities available to walking or cycling pilgrims who have authenticated pilgrim credentials. The terms are interchangeable.
What alternatives are there to the albergues?
Please keep in mind, however, that you are not required to stay at an albergue! When you wish, you can stay in a hotel or even a luxurious Parador. In fact, many pilgrims choose to stay in a hotel from time to time. Most however probably quickly come to realize that albergues are geared to the pilgrim lifestyle and that you can meet and interact with other pilgrims much more easily at the albergues. On the Mundicamino website there is a detailed list of non-albergue lodging for every stage of the most popular Caminos.
Where does one eat?
As with the vast infrastructure for overnight accommodations on the Caminos, the millennium-long tradition of support for pilgrims extends to eating. However as a peregrino, one of the first realizations that will dawn on you is that your daily cycle is quite out of sync with that of everyone else south of the Pyrenees. You will typically be arising about 6:00 a.m., wanting to eat about 7:00 in the evening and seriously thinking about bed by 9:00 or 10:00. This is all two to three hours ahead of the rest of Spain. Still there will likely be bars or restaurants on the route or near albergues that will cater to the patterns of the peregrino. Some albergues will provide meals and some will have cooking facilities for self-catering. You will become an aficionado of the menú del peregrino (the pilgrim's menu). You will learn to savor the mid-morning café con leche.
Other Practical Matters:
What should I take?
Obviously there will be numerous personal variables here and any 10 former peregrinos will have 12 lists to offer. Considerations will be: How much weight am I comfortable carrying for an extended period? How much experience do I have camping or backpacking? Just how clean to I really have to be? Do I have special needs or requirements, for example, serious, meaning 'heavy', photographic equipment? Take a look at the Camino de Santiago forum "Equipment questions" section for ideas. We can offer a few sample packing lists: The Confraternity of Saint James, Lynne Gilberg's, Glen Van Peski's and Ruth Potterton's. An additional suggestion: Take along at least a partial roll of toilet paper—and a plastic bag to carry the used paper until you can properly dispose of it! At some point along the way, you'll probably wish you had it. Get it all together and you have the well-equipped peregrino!
After you've decided what to take there comes the question of getting it there, specifically what can you carry onto an airplane. For the current list of prohibited or restricted items see the TSA's list of prohibited items. Probably the most common troublesome items will be a Swiss Army knife and hiking poles. Neither can be carried aboard a plane in carry-on luggage. And you'll need to think of a safe and reliable way to package the poles.
Do I have to carry a backpack?
The short answer to this is 'yes'. Assuming that you are walking it would be rather impractical to travel carrying your worldly possessions any other way. A suitcase - even one with wheels - would simply be non-functional on almost all of the Camino's terrain. If you will be walking but with vehicle support a suitcase would work but traveling this way would deny you access to a substantial percentage of the pilgrim albergues. So if you are traveling with complete vehicular support and you will be staying strictly in private albergues and/or hotels, then, yes, you could get by without a backpack.
Obviously if you are cycling, the question will be worded differently but the answer is pretty much the same.
There are various types of walking trailers manufactured. Try a term like "hiking trailer" in your favorite search engine. There are some rough sections of the Caminos where these would be problematical.
And of course you can have a horse or burro do the work for you. See above.
Can I mail a package ahead to myself?
Yes, and in fact this is fairly common. Many do it after starting out to lighten their load; others may do it with aforethought, sending a package of 'city clothes' ahead to Santiago. The service in Spain, called lista de correos, is the same as poste restante or, in the U.S., general delivery. You can buy a box at the Correos (post office). Packages are addressed:
Your name with your surname first and in capital letters and underlined or boxed
LISTA DE CORREOS
Destination city with postal code and province (see below for some)
The Correos' general policy is to hold a package for 15 days after which they will return it to the city of origin. Needless to say that would be very bad news! You might write "PEREGRINO" boldly on the box and you might also add "Retener en lista de correos hasta el <day> de <month>" ("Hold until date" with the month spelled out in Spanish) but nothing says that doing all that will guarantee anything.
The lista de correos addresses of a few major cities along the Camino are:
Paseo Sarasate 9/31080 Pamplona (Navarra)
Paseo de Inmaculada 5/31200 Estella (Navarra)
Perez Caldo 44/26080 Logroño (La Rioja)
Plaza Conde de Castro 1/09080 Burgos (Burgos)
Jardines de San Francisco s/n/24080 León (León)
Calle General Vives 1/24400 Ponferrada (León)
Calle Calvo Sotelo 183/27600 Sarria (Lugo)
Orfas 17/15703 Santiago de Compostela (A Coruña)
You will need your passport for identification when retrieving your package.
Have a further question about mail service in Spain? Link to the Correos de España web site (click on "English" upper right corner).
If you will be in need of having a package shipped to Santiago and held there and for some reason the lista de correos service won't work, there is a commercial storage service offered by the venerable Ivar Rekve in Santiago. Click HERE for the address in Santiago, rates, operating hours and other information. There is also the Consigna Oficial del Peregrino (Official Left-Luggage Office for Pilgrims) which offers a multitude of services including holding of packages mailed to them.
By the way, the information for poste restante service in France can be found at the site for Discover France (English). Look for "General Delivery Service." Shipping from France to Spain, while certainly possible, would be an international shipment and might be pricey.
Can I have my pack transported?
Yes, there are now companies that altogether cover the entire Camino francés. Albergue hosts will know how to contact services in their area and can arrange for pickup and delivery. You can always engage a taxi for short segments. Be advised that if you make use of a support vehicle you may have difficulty in gaining access to some albergues although privately operated albergues won't care. Still in a few select stretches of the Camino francés over some of the higher and more arduous passes, the peregrino seems to be given a waiver from this restriction by all albergues.
Is the Camino safe?
In a word, 'yes'. Like traveling anywhere in the world, prudence is in order, but it is probably safe to say that the Camino is a relatively benign environment. It is often said that one never walks alone on the Camino and that is quite the case on the Camino francés, perhaps less so on the less-traveled routes. It is probably generally a good idea to have a companion, especially in more remote stretches. Very little of the Camino is in larger cities. There are occasional reports of theft in albergues and of uninvited approaches on the road but again these are relatively rare. An event of any seriousness should be immediately reported to local authorities and it would also be useful to post reports on Camino forums as soon as possible.
Concerning the last suggestion, the Camino de Santiago.me "Camino crime watch" forum is a good place to report incidences and to see what is being reported.
What about those dangerous Camino dogs?
Generally speaking, dogs along the Camino have by now become completely inured to the existence of the odd parade of peregrinos passing along the road. Still there are places on all the routes where there are working herd dogs whose job it is to protect their charges and they may not be so benign. The possibility of meeting an unfriendly dog is one reason many peregrinos carry a walking stick or staff.
You are STRONGLY advised NOT to take your own dog, well-trained and friendly though he may be. Actually this would be nearly impossible traveling from North American anyway. Certified service dogs are a completely different story and you will have wide privileges concerning this in Europe. Several sources of information on regulations and requirements are:
• Asociación Española de Perros de Asistencia (Spanish, many broken links in the English section)
• The Embassy of Spain, Washington DC
• A forum thread on the topic (personal opinions but some potentially useful references and questions)
Concerning wild animals, there are are snakes, wolves and bears, not to mention spiders and scorpions. But common sense will usually keep you well separated from these.
How can I keep in contact with the people back home?
Ah, the problems that face the modern peregrino! Cyber cafes do exist although they are not to be found in every hamlet. Where they do exist, they are usually very inexpensive. It is also possible to rent a cell phone or to purchase a cell phone in the U.S. that can be converted for non-U.S. use with the purchase of a different internal SIM card. Rick Steves has an excellent rundown on this vast and ever-changing topic. Another way to go is to simply purchase a phone card on arrival in Spain. The usual place to find an assortment of these in Spain is in an estanco (tobacco shop). Look for the yellow on brown sign. You will need to find a (land-line) telephone to use this card, but most bars seem to have a public telephone. Calling North America using these cards can be very reasonable.
What kind of medical services are available on the Camino?
You should have some form of medical insurance in place and you should determine how it will work for overseas treatment. It is not unusual that out of pocket payment with later reimbursement is required. Traveler's insurance might be something to consider. It is common that treatment for minor problems will be afforded the peregrino gratis by the Spanish medical system. For treatment of a minor, self-treatable ailment, speak to a pharmacist. Towns of sufficient size will have designated 24-hour pharmacies. See below. For those who live within the European Union, having your European Health Insurance Card is a requirement to receive free emergency treatment.
Should I carry a first aid kit?
Yes, you should carry a small, personal kit, one heavy on foot care materials. But Spain is a first world country and most anything that you might need in the way of self-medication or self-treatment will be obtainable there.
For minor aliments, many people go to their local pharmacy (farmacia), these are easily recognizable by the flashing green cross displayed outside or in the window. In medium-sized and large cities farmacias take turns providing out-of-hours service (at night and on holidays) as the farmacia de guardia. You will be able to find out which one is open by looking in a local paper or in the window of any pharmacy where they usually display a list. Pharmacists in Spain are more highly-trained than in some countries or they are authorized to give out more advice and will provide treatment guidance for many common illnesses and ailments, but they are not a substitute for going to a doctor if there is something really wrong. Spain is a quite unrestrictive when it comes to the distribution of medications that are strictly prescription drugs in other countries (such as antibiotics), so these are commonly available over-the-counter. Medicines tend to cost significantly less than in other countries due to state imposed price restrictions.
How much is it likely to cost me on the Camino?
Obviously the answer to this question will depend on numerous personal choices. Will you be staying in albergues most of the time or will you be looking for hotels and hostales? Maybe you've had your eye on the five-star paradores along the route. Do you plan on using cooking facilities in the albergues when they present themselves or will you be eating out every meal? We will here assume that you will be staying in albergues and will be eating out for your main meal of the day. Private albergues will be set-price and you might expect 6 to 10 euros; you should try to leave a nice donation at those that are donativo. The menú del día will run you maybe 12 euros +/-. The mid-morning café con leche and a pastry about 4. Find a tienda for some lunch to be eaten sitting on the side of the road - another 4. Odds and ends arbitrarily 5. That makes roughly 32 euros. Can you do it for less? Absolutely! More? Absolutely! (Want to know how many U.S. greenbacks it will take to buy one of those euros? See the graphic in the next entry.)
How can I obtain cash while I'm on the Camino?
You will be using cash (euros) for the most part, not your credit cards. ATMs, where you can use a debit card to obtain cash, can be found at airports, in cities and in larger towns. Be sure that you have registered a PIN before you go and you should be aware that some systems will accept a four-digit PIN but not a six-digit one. Also you should notify your card-issuing companies of your travels before leaving.
The current exchange rate (cost of a euro in dollars) is displayed below in the graphic.
Do I need a visa in addition to my U.S. government-issued passport?
U.S. citizens carrying a valid U.S. government-issued passport can stay in Spain for up to 90 days for business or tourism purposes without needing to obtain a visa. In fact, this 90 period extends to most European countries. For the full picture on this and a lot more, see the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs' page on Spain. It is our understanding that there is no mechanism in Spain for a tourist to stay for more than 90 days, that is to say there is no such thing as a tourist visa, only visas for residency, work and students.
There may be different requirements for citizens of countries other than the United States.
What if I don't speak Spanish (or French, or Portuguese, or Basque, or … )?
The Camino has for more than millennium been an international phenomenon and it still is. Although English may be the lingua franca in tourist areas, you will be traveling for the most part through rural Spain and you are going to encounter many people who speak only Spanish or one of the regional languages like Basque or Gallego. Any Spanish skills you can carry with you will be of use and your attempts will certainly be appreciated—and your own experience will also be that much more rewarding. With other peregrinos it is almost always possible to find some common language or at least to set up an informal translation chain. Here are several tips paraphrased from travel guru Rick Steves on hurdling the language barrier:
- Speak slowly, simply and politely: Speak with simple words and pronounce every sound. Make single nouns work as entire sentences and begin each request with PLEASE (e.g. “Por favor, ¿el albergue?”)
- Avoid using English slang and try to use internationally understood words: Many Europeans will draw a blank if you say 'break' or 'vacation,' but they will understand when you say 'holiday.' If you say 'restroom' or 'bathroom,' you will get no room, but 'toilet' is direct, simple, and understood.
- Exaggerate the local accent and use hand signals and body language to communicate. Be uninhibited—self-consciousness kills communication.
- Take advantage of the similarities among the major European languages. Four of the most common languages on the Camino—Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese—are related and come from Latin. The French word for Monday (our “day of the moon”) is lundi (“lunar day”). The Spaniards say the same thing—lunes. If Buenos días means good day, sopa del día is soup of the day. The other two common Camino languages—English and German—are also related. Sonne is sun, so Sonntag is Sunday.
- Use a notepad, because words and numbers are much easier to understand when they are written. To communicate something difficult and important (such as medical or dietary instructions), write it in the local language on your notepad. Or lacking that, write it in English.
What about keeping a journal?
One way to make your Camino even more interesting is to keep a journal. This could be simple jottings at the end of each day or it could balloon into the form of a nascent book. By keeping a journal you can train yourself to pay more attention to the interesting things that you experience and possibly even get more ideas about how to improve the trip. In addition, by keeping a record of what you are doing as you are doing it, you will have more detailed information to share with others when you return. And, of course, going back and reading your own travel journal months or years later can bring the trip back to life even more vividly than photos or video.
A few tips: Buy a journal that will last—something considerably more substantial than a spiral notebook. You will be collecting one or two sellos each day in your credential but why not collect dozens in your journal? Simply scatter them around on the pages and write around them. Use the journal as the place you keep contact information of others you meet on the Camino. Draw the occasional sketch—you don't have to be Rembrandt! Your sketch will capture the essence of what caught your eye and imagination. Before you leave home jot notes to yourself about things that might be useful or even critical along the way: The details of your air, bus and/or train itineraries, a few important phone numbers, some diversions that you want to see.
What does a pilgrim do besides walk?
Well, you know you're going to walk or cycle but what else are you going to do? Even in the Middle Ages there was a touristic element to pilgrimage so don't feel bad about following this example. If you will be walking for more than a week or ten days you should consider adding a rest day that will coincide with being in some interesting place. Some of the more obvious cities on the francés would be Pamplona, Burgos, León and Ponferrada. One advantage that cyclists have over walkers is that if an attraction is more than a half kilometer off the trail of yellow arrows, the walker is not likely to detour while the cyclist won't think twice.
What is typical day on the Road like?
Of course no day is 'typical' but this might be a common scenario. If you are staying in an albergue—and this is highly recommended—your day will typically begin about 6:00 a.m., although the 'bag rustlers' may have been up and about since 5:00 or before. You may also have endured a professional caliber roncador (snorer) during the night. A lot of peregrinos use earplugs! Sometimes a breakfast will be available in the albergue, although often not. Most likely you will be able to find something to eat nearby, but sometimes you may have to walk for an hour or more to find something open. Almost always this will be in a bar—Spanish bars serve a much wider purpose than they typically do in North America. Breakfast will typically be a café con leche - un grande, por favor, toast or bread, butter, jam and most likely freshly-squeezed orange juice.
Then you will walk. Or bicycle. Sometimes you'll travel alone, sometimes you'll find yourself traveling and talking with a complete stranger. You will learn to execute the 'language dance' wherein you determine the best common language between you. How late in the day you will walk will depend on many factors—your endurance, the weather, how many kilometers you want to cover, the spacing between towns. Many peregrinos stop for the day around 1:00 or 2:00 which is typically more or less when the albergues start registering for the night.
The albergues are where you will meet others on the Camino and this will become one of the most important memories of your experience. In the albergues a typical routine will be to claim a bed, dig some clean clothes out of your pack, take a shower, wash dirty clothes, take a siesta and then early in the evening find something to eat. In most of Spain eating in the evening before, say, 9:00 is very difficult—not to mention considered completely uncivilized! On the Camino it will generally be easier because there will be restaurants and bars catering to the daily cycle of the peregrinos. Then you will crash for the night, quietly praying to yourself that that guy next to you isn't one of the roncadores profesionales. Then you'll get up and do it all over again!
Can I work as a volunteer in an albergue?
Serving as a volunteer hospitalero is the ultimate way to give back to the Camino. Those who have gone on from walking or cycling the Camino to serving as an hospitalero say that this experience is if anything even more rewarding than the Camino itself. As one of its services in support of the Camino, American Pilgrims offers hospitalero training several times a year, one of these in conjunction with its Annual Gathering of Pilgrims. Please visit our National Gatherings page for information about the next session. For further information on becoming or on being an hospitalero, please visit our Hospitaleros page.
Spain, like essentially all of Europe, uses 230V, 50Hz electricity (North America is 120V, 60Hz) and they have outlets that are incompatible with standard North American plugs. A very useful website is the World Electrical Guide - scroll down to Spain and click on the two image links, C and F. So you will definitely need an adapter to accommodate your two-bladed plugs to their two-round hole outlets. (Pay attention to the presence or absence of the third, round grounding prong. Be sure that everything will plug together.) You may not need a voltage converter as these days most small electronic devices are compatible with both 120V and 230V. Look carefully at the device's electrical information label. A helpful hint: In albergues, electrical outlets are at a premium! Take along an electrical cube in addition to your adapter so when you do manage to commander an outlet, you can plug in everything that needs rejuvenating. And again pay attention to that grounding prong!
If you'd like to examine some graphs that indicate heavily walked years and months as well as some other interesting patterns and trends, we have a page of statistics.