Hiking Spain’s Camino de Santiago

The tradition of hiking Spain's Camino de Santiago began more than 1,000 years ago as a medieval pilgrimage to the relics of St. James held in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Now considered to be the European answer to the Appalachian Trail, the Camino is walked by travelers from around the world for reasons ranging from spiritual to historical, and cultural to sport. 

Photo By: Marek Zabriskie

Photo By: Jonas Hill

Photo By: Jonas Hill

Photo By: Marek Zabriskie

Photo By: Jonas Hill

Photo By: Jonas Hill

Photo By: Jonas Hill

Photo By: Jonas Hill

Photo By: Marek Zabriskie

Photo By: Jonas Hill

Photo By: Marek Zabriskie

Buen Camino

Though the thru-hike can begin many places across Europe, all European routes converge in St Jean Pied-du-Port. From there, the most shared and scenic route to Santiago de Compostela is the Camino Frances, or French Way. Crossing the French-Spanish border, the route extends 800 km (500 miles) and takes roughly 30 days to walk.

The Symbol of the Camino de Santiago 

Blue trail markers with the symbol of the scallop shell appear throughout the route. There are countless stories and myths for why the shell is the symbol of the Camino. One conventional explanation: the Camino ends fairly close to the Atlantic Ocean and Pilgrims have taken the shells home as souvenirs.

Packing: Smart and Light

It’s easy for first-timers to overpack when preparing for the Camino. At all cost, avoid lugging an 80-pound backpack for 30 or more days. While an extra pair of shoes, socks, rain gear, a book and walking stick are bare necessities, there is a good chance that whatever else you need can be procured at your next stop.

Accommodations for Pilgrims

Though there are still facilities run by religious orders that date back to the Medieval period, standard accommodations for pilgrims are small hotels and hostel-style dormitories, called "albergues." While not every albergue is created equal, the digs inside Albergue de Güermes are unusually nice.

Comidas de Santiago

Support and infrastructure from the Spanish people are a major reason for the Camino’s longevity as a pilgrimage. Though accommodations often offer a food service, you can also take meals or "comidas" in the hundreds of restaurants, cafes and bars in towns along the way. Spanish villages like Najera host festivals throughout the fall where endless paella and wine can be had by hungry pilgrims, sometimes for free. 

A Life-changing Journey

Many describe the Camino as having a strong spiritual component. Whether to meditate on a problem or take stock of one’s life, pilgrims have undertaken the journey for centuries to answer some question. There are as many different questions seeking answers about life, love, passion, and career as there are pilgrims walking.

When to Hike the Camino

Picking the right time of year depends on your preferred temperature for hiking and how much you can tolerate larger crowds. Summer is the Camino’s busy season when finding nightly accommodations will be more difficult. April, May, September and October are cooler and less crowded.

Rare Conversations

There is an essential connection between walkers traveling the same path toward the same goal. With 800 kilometers to trek, most walkers are open to conversation. Sometimes these conversations can ramble on for several days in a way that is rare during the busyness of normal life.

Community on the Camino

Though travelers will find solitude for quiet introspection, community is an essential part of walking the Camino de Santiago. It’s quite common for strangers walking alongside one another to discover that they are soon sharing meals, lodging and stories with new friends. 

How Difficult is the Camino?

While walking the Camino Frances isn’t as rigorous as hiking the Appalachian Trail, the diverse terrain requires stamina. The route crosses the lower Pyrenees Mountains, winding through farmland and vineyards, across the high flat plains of Castilla-León, climbing and descending several mountain passes and, finally, traversing the forested river valleys of Galicia. 

End of the Camino

The official end of the Camino occurs at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. There, pilgrims earn a certificate of completion of the Camino de Santiago. However, from this spot, the journey for medieval pilgrims was only half over. The second part of the journey was about getting home.