Walking the Camino de Santiago – Tips & Inspiration from a Pilgrim
Travel in and of itself is a powerful experience so it’s no surprise that walking the Camino de Santiago is considered a life-changing trip for countless travelers. I like to think of this pilgrimage as a reminder of how people expanded themselves with travel back in the day, and I mean way back, like Medieval times.
This famed pilgrimage continues to draw millions of people every year and many of my travel clients are asking me how they can do it as well. So I’m excited to introduce you to a recent pilgrim of the Camino de Santiago, my brother Mark Maloney. Here is his story and his firsthand tips for walking the Camino de Santiago that we hope inspire you to experience it for yourself. – Amalia
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Meet a Pilgrim of the Camino de Santiago
Hi everyone. I’m Mark, Amalia’s brother, and I have currently been living in Asturias in northern Spain for just over two years. I was born in Central Florida 35 years ago and, over the years, have had the privilege to live and work throughout the US and Spain.
Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed adventuring in the outdoors wherever I go, via climbing, fly fishing, and especially through hiking and camping. Because of this, I was especially excited to visit and eventually live in northern Spain. Ever since I began daydreaming of this “natural paradise”, walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela has been on my radar.
In my opinion there is no better way to immerse yourself in the countryside, culture, food and diversity of Spain and Europe. You meet people from all over the world along with the local Spaniards and share in the beauty (and struggles) of a thru-hike while enjoying and celebrating some of the little things of the daily life you experience while walking.
Walking the Camino de Santiago in Stages
I began my first leg of the Camino del Norte, along the northern Costa Cantabrica. My starting point was in the city of Santander, a favorite summer getaway for foreigners. Surrounded by beaches perfect for surf schools and with a lively city center full of pinchos bars I promised myself I’d return to spend more time there, but was glad to start my walk along the coast.
I passed through small medieval coastal towns like Comillas and Llanes, plunging down into hidden pristine beach coves, traversing the sea cliffs where “bufones” erupted periodically like geysers along the path, and exploring bigger towns like Ribadesella.
After a break to rest my tired feet, I decided to strike inland on the Camino Primitivo (the primitive way). This route of the Camino de Santiago starts in the charming town of Oviedo and is actually the original way that was first walked by the Asturian King Alfonso II in the ninth century. I’ll share more about this, and the other Camino routes, further below.
Returning to the Camino de Santiago
It would be several years before I could return to finish my Camino in July of 2023. This time, I continued from the town of Tineo, west of Oviedo, along the Primitive Route (Camino Primitivo). I recommend staying in the Palacio de Meras in Tineo, which has a pilgrims-only section with the traditional shared dormitories.
I met up with a former roommate in the heart of the rustic and rural countryside and we soon crossed the highest ridge and most rugged stage of the Camino Primitivo, aptly named the Hospitales Route, along which are strewn the ruins of small “hospitals” where in the past weary pilgrims could treat their injuries in an otherwise not-so-hospitable region.
Nowadays there is an alternative route and better infrastructure that would be preferable to some, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Although it was definitely more of a rugged hike, through a bit of research we were mentally prepared for the toughest part of the Camino and it was not as bad as we thought it could be.
We were rewarded with sweeping sunrise panoramas of mountains floating on an ocean of fog, free-roaming horse families, and sheep and cattle happily grazing in an endless green landscape.
Arriving at Santiago de Compostela
Crossing into Galicia the architecture and general style of the villages and towns changed, and the infrastructure for pilgrims increased as we joined the Camino Frances and Norte before finally entering Santiago de Compostela and arriving at our shared goal: the Cathedral of Santiago. The closer I got the more the feeling of celebration grew, helping to push me to the end of my journey.
When we passed under the arch of the cathedral and entered the Praza do Obradoiro it was to the sound of Galician gaitas (bagpipes) and hundreds of laughing and crying pilgrims completing their journeys from all over Spain and even the rest of Europe.
After I returned home, I shared my stories with my sister Amalia and our family, and when she asked me to share it here I was happy to do it! Of course I know there are lots of questions folks have while considering their first Camino so I got together with her to answer some of those questions below. I hope it helps you to begin your Camino!
Q&A About Walking the Camino de Santiago
Why did you walk the Camino de Santiago?
I think what first drew me the most to walking the Camino de Santiago was the idea of not only removing myself from my daily routine but (temporarily) immersing myself in a simplified lifestyle, and enjoying the small things immensely, like food and drink. Anyone who has done a serious hike knows that beer tastes so much better after a long day of walking! All this, while making my way towards the goal shared by every pilgrim.
When returning for the second time the other reason I had found was the sense of community and the shared struggles and simple pleasures between myself and other pilgrims along the path. There is an unavoidable joy of serendipitously finding companions along the hundreds of kilometers many times over, seemingly by chance. Some people prefer to undergo the journey alone, viewing it as a personal experience, but I believe that nobody does the Camino de Santiago without making a few friends along the way.
Overall, what was the experience like of walking the Camino de Santiago? What did you get out of it?
Having grown up backpacking and camping in the Appalachian mountains with my father, I can say that I feel spiritually/emotionally recharged after an outdoor adventure where I step away from normal life. On the Camino I was surprised to feel socially recharged as well, and, although I was physically tired during the journey it was always easy to have lots of laughs and good times with other pilgrims at any time.
I always met new people from all over the world and learned so much about life in other parts of the world in their own words. When I returned home I had lots of energy to spare, physically and socially. While walking the Camino de Santiago, I also really enjoyed going out for food and drinks in a different place every day.
Who did you meet on the Camino?
I met so many people of all ages and from so many different places throughout Spain and the rest of the world. I met a Polish Catholic priest leading a flock of four friends, complete with his ceremonial vestments, to a Capetown native who ran an ultra marathon in the Sahara, to four retired police officers who first met on the infamous Pacific Crest Trail and referred to each other only by their quirky yet hard-earned “trail names”, and so many more.
I started my latest walk with a good friend who grew up in Germany, and we had such a great time we walked the whole way together. We quickly befriended a quiet young man from Prague. Soon, the three of us were inseparable and we constantly shared so much about our lives, we shared a ton of laughs and became good friends, still keeping in touch while scattered across the continent.
What are the different routes that exist for the Camino de Santiago?
There are countless routes that weave throughout Spain and beyond. The longest I heard of from pilgrims I met was all the way from Rome. The two most popular routes generally begin at the border with France, the Camino del Norte and Camino Frances. The Camino Norte follows the northern coast of Spain, passing through Donostia-San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Gijon, and north-central Galicia. During the high season this way has the coolest weather, but also the wettest. Be prepared to walk in the rain and do your best to stay dry!
The most well known and popular way is the Camino Frances which passes through the western Pyrenees mountains, through Pamplona, Logroño, Leon, Zamora and other historically famous cities and towns. This is the way famously portrayed in the movie “The Way” (2010) starring Martin Sheen. It has hotter, drier weather and I would not recommend it in July or August because of how hot it gets. Another plus for this way is that, due to its popularity, it’s not hard to find food, drinks and beds frequently and more consistently, allowing for a more improvised feel to your journey, if you prefer that.
Other less well known routes include the Camino Aragonese which traverses the Spanish Pyrenees from Catalonia before eventually joining the Frances. There is also the Ruta de la Plata which starts all the way down in Seville and heads north to join the Camino Frances in Zamora.
There is even a route from Portugal and one from Madrid! There are so many variations now that it forms a web across all of Spain, allowing you to explore almost anywhere in the country in such an adventurous and authentic way.
What was involved with getting ready for walking the Camino de Santiago?
Depending on your travel style and level of comfort there are plenty of resources online. There is Gronze, YouTube, and lots of apps that help you plan and track your daily stages, as well as find hostels, food, historical landmarks, and more. It’s a good idea to find one you like and get acquainted with using it to create and edit daily stages based on distance, elevation profile, and other details.
I personally recommend Buen Camino, an app for walking the Camino de Santiago that is available on Android, Apple and Google. It’s free but accepts voluntary donations via the app. I’ll get into what and how to pack below and this will depend on how you want to travel.
As for the pilgrim passport, known as your credencial in Spanish, you can purchase it for three to five Euros in the main cathedral of the larger towns, as well as at tourist information centers. Make sure to bring your valid passport or European ID with you. Your pilgrim passport will allow you to stay in the official hostels (albergues) as well as having priority in many private hostels and even hotels like the Palacio de Meras in Tineo, Asturias.
It’s also extremely important that you find the right shoes and break them in before your Camino. Do this by getting used to walking at least 10 miles or so as often as you can in the weeks or months before you begin. I learned through painful experience to use light trail runner type shoes that breathe well and dry quickly!
Finally, I recommend learning some Spanish vocabulary and learning about the culture of the areas you’re going to walk through.
READ MORE: 5 Tips for Learning Spanish in Spain
How far do you have to walk the Camino de Santiago to receive the certificate of completion?
To receive official latin documentation known as your Compostela, you just need to have walked at least 100 kilometers and arrive in Santiago carrying your pilgrim passport, complete with stamps for each hostel you stayed at.
Many people do this, including our mother, and it is a great way to experience the Camino de Santiago, especially if you have less time and to best suit your physical endurance level.
What about accommodations on the Camino de Santiago? Did you book albergues in advance?
This question is always on the mind of many pilgrims, especially first timers getting used to the schedule. There are two kinds of accommodations – municipal albergues and private ones. Which type you stay in will determine if you do as most pilgrims do, which typically means you wake up just before sunrise and walk during the cooler half of the day. This also gives you a greater chance of securing a bed at an official (municipal) albergue. Municipal albergues on the Camino de Santiago typically cost around eight Euros a night, compared to 15-20 Euros a night in a private one. Be aware that municipal albergues do not accept reservations as a rule and tradition of the Camino.
In the busier season these official, subsidized albergues can fill up quickly, with a line forming at the door of early-birds who can make it to their destination by 1:30 pm which is when these places open their doors and accept pilgrims.
Private albergues take reservations via email or telephone, although on my last trip there were a couple which required credit card info to be given in case of a no-show.
In all my personal experience there has only been one time where I was unable to find a vacant bed at my destination and the Camino provided some fellow pilgrims to rescue us when it seemed hopeless! It is a bit more adventurous and romantic to walk without making reservations, just check with hosts of the albergues/hostels where you stay and fellow pilgrims about your next stage. Having said that, I ended up making reservations in about a third of the albergues I stayed at because sometimes it’s just one less thing to worry about while you walk!
How affordable is it to walk the Camino de Santiago (average prices for meals, albuerges, and special pilgrim rates at nice hotels)?
Short answer: You can walk the Camino de Santiago on a shoestring budget starting at 35-40 Euros per day for bed and food. From there, your budget can vary depending on indulging in a rest/spa day complete with your own hotel room. The sky’s the limit really! Check with Amalia who as a Fora Certified Travel Advisor can help plan your Camino de Santiago walk.
In nicer accommodations, individual rooms start around 50 euros. A four to five star experience at a bonafide Parador hotel on the Camino de Santiago, can range from 100 to 200 Euros a night depending on the month. Make sure to ask them about a discount for peregrinos (pilgrims).
A good and satisfying meal (menú del día) after a long hot day starts at around 12 Euros, including wine or beer. But in the bigger towns and cities you could enjoy some seriously great gastronomy for around 20 Euros.
Long answer: So the world is definitely not the same after the Covid pandemic, and this is a good and a bad thing when it comes to the Camino de Santiago post-COVID. Prices for beds and food have gone up due to inflation and the tough times have forced some hostels and restaurants to close their doors.
On the other hand, horror stories about bed bugs are a thing of the past thanks to new sanitary rules being strictly followed and enforced throughout the entire network of the Camino. Disposable sheets and pillowcases are given to every pilgrim and beds, bathrooms and common areas are religiously disinfected every day.
Municipal albergues cost about 8 Euros per bed per night, while private ones are 15 to 20 Euros per bed per night. Sometimes dinner and/or breakfast is included for another 10 euros.
Before COVID it was possible for a young adventurous type to get by on as little as 25 euros per day, including eating out once a day! In 2023, I was spending 15 euros on a big lunch, and 5 to 10 for a few drinks and snacks in the evening, so with bed included I was spending on average about 40 euros per day, realistically speaking.
You can save a bit by cooking your own dinner in albergues/hostels that have a community kitchen (think pasta!), snacking on simple spanish sandwiches (bocadillos) via the local grocery store, and from splitting costs with a few companions.
Doing Laundry When Walking the Camino de Santiago
Doing your laundry daily is so important for being able to pack light and not feel super gross and exhausted after a long day. Most hostels have washers and dryers, but it’s expensive, up to 10 Euros.
Instead of getting gouged, I packed only two changes of clothes and washed clothes every single day by hand, with a bar of soap. I actually ended up loving this little daily ritual and now I never take doing the laundry for granted! Virtually all albergues have a sink with a washboard for doing it by hand and lines to hang up clothes to air dry. If you have a rainy day consider hand washing then sharing a machine dryer with other pilgrims.
What times of year do you recommend walking the Camino de Santiago?
For any route, late Spring and Autumn (September to November) would be optimal. The Camino Frances and the Ruta de la Plata from Seville, are especially hot and for that reason I don’t recommend them in July or August. Some routes are becoming more popular all the way through winter as well, but do your research to make sure hostels are still operating at this time.
What tips can you give about what and how to pack for walking the Camino de Santiago?
Pack light! I had three changes of underwear and socks but only two changes of shorts and shirts, and I hand washed each set daily after use. In the Spring or Autumn, consider long quick-dry pants instead of shorts. Don’t forget some comfy sandals to let your feet recover as you hobble around town looking for food and drinks.
Bring a down feather puffy jacket that compacts easily for chilly and rainy evenings and a large good quality poncho that can comfortably cover your pack and you. Alternatively you can use a rain jacket and a separate pack shell, both of which are very effective and affordable and can be found at Decathlon, an outdoor sports store you can find in any Spanish city. In fact just about everything you need can be found there, but I personally would make sure I had excellent shoes that I know work well for me already.
Something I wish I had on my last trip was gaiters (poláinas in Spanish), which protect your lower legs/ankles and keep your shoes from getting soaked on a rainy day. For hygiene, I keep it simple since sweating daily and getting plenty of sun ensures that just a simple combination of soap and shampoo will keep me fresh enough and save lots of space and weight.
And of course good sunblock, a toothbrush and travel size toothpaste. Along the way you will constantly see pharmacies where you can get plenty of things to help battle every pilgrim’s arch enemy, blisters.
While some pilgrims carry a larger, extended trek backpack with even a sleeping bag and cooking utensils, this is really not necessary since a big part of the experience is staying in the albergues/hostels along the way. I packed a daypack with hip belt/support that held up to 20 liters, which helped me keep things light. For a lighter pack, 20 to 30 liters works great but make sure it has that hip belt/support.
What services exist for walking the Camino de Santiago (courier service, tour groups, etc.)?
You can lighten your load while you walk, and relax knowing that you can pack for comfort by sending your bags ahead to your next hostel via Correos, the domestic mail delivery service in Spain. Virtually every town that has an albergue/hostel has a Correos storefront (think FedEx/UPS) and it only costs 5 euros per bag. Click here to check online for any size/weight restrictions and more information.
On my walks I saw lots of pilgrims traveling in groups organized by their local town clubs, scout groups, and many other types of organizations. I also saw people with bespoke travel plans designed to make the most of enjoying fine dining and hospitality along the way.
There are endless options for specific sections of the camino and places to discover before and after the camino. For example, a weekend to heal your tired feet on the beaches of Fisterra and the surrounding coastline, or a gastronomy tour of Santiago de Compostela (I was super impressed by the quality of the seafood alone!), are great ways to celebrate completing the Camino de Santiago. So that you can focus on enjoying the Camino, reach out to Amalia for her custom travel planning services.
What were the surprises you experienced when walking the Camino de Santiago?
Throughout my journey I was continuously surprised by chance reunions with other pilgrims I’d met along the way. With everyone traveling at their own pace over hundreds of kilometers, it’s always a nice surprise to run into someone two or three weeks later and catch up with them about the journey so far.
Another pleasant surprise was arriving in a town called A Fonsagrada just after crossing into Galicia and getting a bed in the recently renovated municipal albergue. They had an incredible roomy interior full of light and a wonderful blend of modern and old world style architecture. My friend and I even got our own room for no extra charge (pure luck) and neither of us snored! The showers were also awesome. This goes to show that sometimes you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to stay in a really nice place.
What was it like arriving into Santiago de Compostela?
Arriving at the end of my Camino in Santiago de Compostela was exhilarating, but I was especially blown away by the food scene and the nightlife. There are so many cool things going on and it’s definitely worth taking an extra day or two to explore this city. From impromptu live performances of classic Spanish boleros in the main plaza of the cathedral to the huge historic, preserved fish market complete with gastro pub crawl and a Michelin Star restaurant, to tons of museums of classical and modern art and local history.
Also, with your pilgrim passport you can attend a daily pilgrim’s mass inside the massive Gothic Cathedral of Santiago, an amazing experience that brings the culmination of this incredible journey to an end.
What are the top three things you would tell someone who wants to walk the Camino de Santiago?
First, a couple of practical things: prevent and treat blisters! This is the bane of any thru hiker and should be taken seriously, starting with finding the right shoes for you. For me it’s important that my feet can expand and breathe so I have light, quick dry trail runners with thick shock absorbing soles that are light but stiff along the main axis of your foot.
Keep your feet, socks and shoes as dry as possible at all times, whether it’s from sweat or rain. If you do start to develop blisters visit a pharmacy ASAP and describe where and how big it is and follow their recommendations.
A new tool that helped me on my last trip was a small needle; just poke the blister with the needle if it’s full of liquid and make sure it stays as dry as possible before you begin your next stage. If you can turn them into calluses, you will prevent future blisters as long as you keep them dry.
Second, earplugs/earmuffs! Yes you’ll be super tired when you go to bed but in a shared dormitory style hostel/albergue there will always be multiple people snoring. It’s just a part of the adventure! Effective and comfortable earplugs can help you get more sleep, just don’t sleep in too late! The host of my last albergue said that there are so many unique, diverse and wonderful people to meet and befriend on the Camino, but there is one thing that can turn even the most mellow vibes, happy-go-lucky peregrino sour: loud snores!
The last thing to say is that despite these and other hardships, and actually because of them and so much more, walking the Camino de Santiago is an unforgettable experience I will always recommend. I shared these hardships and trials with other pilgrims who were strangers at first, and before I knew it, they became fast friends, helping to egg me on and reminding me that life is best lived when shared with people I love. And it’s not really so hard to find people that truly want to have that.
The Spirit of Walking the Camino de Santiago
Yes it’s wonderful to see exotic and foreign places, but I’ll say from personal experience that discovering an epic landscape, a hidden icy cold waterfall on a hot day or the freshest most delicious bread you’ve ever tasted in an ancient village of a dozen inhabitants, is infinitely better when shared.
After all the research and investigation, you begin walking and figure out for yourself, along with your companions, how to do it. Before long you realize you’ve undertaken a journey in which you rediscover an unbroken sense of humanity the same way it’s been done for a millennium, in the same land, on the same ancient paths where kings, monks and common folk went in search of discovery and of understanding of themselves and others, and of the bad and the good in the world we share. ¡Buen Camino!
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Written by Mark Maloney
Born and raised in the US, Mark currently lives in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain for over two years after having studied artisan woodworking in Zaragoza. He loves being in the outdoors, hiking and fly fishing, and is obsessed with mushrooms of all kinds. You can find him enjoying good local gastronomy and craft beer at home and wherever he travels.