El Camino de Santiago: What You Need to Know

Thinking about backpacking across northern Spain? Or just interested in hearing about the experience? Either way, this post is for you! Read all about the Camino de Santiago from a pilgrim’s perspective.

Back in 2015, I hiked the last 300 kilometers (186 mi) of the Camino de Santiago. It remains one of the most unique experiences of my life – and I would love to return one day and traverse the full trail.

But for now, I’m here to share my memories and impressions of the Way. And I will offer important tips for aspiring pilgrims!

This post will tell you

  • what the Camino de Santiago is
  • where it starts
  • how to plan for your own Camino experience
  • why the shell is the symbol of the Camino
  • what it’s actually like on the Camino

This post may contain affiliate links and I may receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see my disclosures.

If you want to know all about the Camino and how to prepare, keep reading. If you are mostly interested in hearing about my personal experience, then head to the My Camino Experience section.

What is the Camino de Santiago?

El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in Europe. Catholic tradition tells us that St. James the Greater, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, traveled all the way across the Mediterranean from Israel to Spain to preach the Gospel.

Eventually he returned to Jerusalem, but after his martyrdom his followers conveyed his body back to Spain for burial. The first pilgrims visited his grave in the 9th century after a miraculous rediscovery.

The city that arose around the tomb received the name Santiago de Compostela, or St. James of the Field of Stars. Eventually, in the 11th century, a cathedral was built over St. James’ tomb.  Numerous pilgrims journeyed from all over to pay their respects and ask for the saint’s intercession. 

Today, some people still make the pilgrimage for religious reasons. But many also hike the trail to connect with nature, experience Spanish culture, or simply for hiking pleasure. I met Mennonites and Jews and agnostics on the Camino, and we all came together as pilgrims, regardless of faith or motivation. 

The Camino is a chance to slow down and rethink your life – whether that means connecting with God, connecting with yourself, or both.

Where does the Camino de Santiago start?

Traditionally, a pilgrim started at their own home and walked to Santiago, no matter how far that might be. In modern times, things have changed a bit. After all, you can’t just walk to Santiago if you live in the Americas or Australia. You need to fly to a starting point.

As a result, a few major routes have appeared. The most popular is the Camino francés (the “French Way”) which originates in St. John Pied de Port in France and stretches 780 km (500 mi) across northern Spain.

On the intense first day, pilgrims hike over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain. It takes most people around 30-35 days to complete the entire trail.

Map showing the route of the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain
The Camino francés stretches across Spain from St. Jean Pied de Port (marked as S. Juan on this map).
Paulusburg, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The second most taken route is the Camino portugués, with a starting point in Lisbon (roughly 610 km / 380 mi). There are many other ways, as well, and you can pick up at any point on any of them. In fact, the vast majority of pilgrims begin in Sarria in Galicia and walk the last 100 km of the Camino francés.

But some people do still just walk out their front door. I met a man from Poland who had done just that. Thousands of miles! In fact, ever since my Camino experience, I have started noticing Camino signs everywhere. I have come across them as far away as Ukraine!

How do you plan for the Camino?

Camino Guides

The first thing that you should do if you are serious about the Camino is buy John Brierley’s Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. This is THE guide book for the Camino francés. Maps, hostel recommendations, restaurant options, suggested day plans . . . it’s all in there.

My friends and I used this book to plan our route (roughly) in advance, and we referenced it on the road constantly. I would not have survived the Camino without this book.

Seriously, it is a must-have resource. Go take a look at it here.

Brierley’s Camino de Santiago guidebook, my pilgrim’s passport, and a cute shell bracelet arranged on a purple background
Camino essentials

There are also many websites dedicated to helping prospective pilgrims. Here are two suggestions:

  1. American Pilgrims on the Camino is excellent, whether you are based in the US or not.
  2. caminoways.com offers organized Camino trips, but there is also a wealth of information on their website for self-guided pilgrims.

These websites will also give you updates on how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting pilgrims on the Camino.

Get a Pilgrim’s Passport

Don’t forget to acquire your Camino passport, also known as a Credencial. Your Credencial will include your name, your citizenship information, and your starting point and date. It is proof that you are indeed a pilgrim.

Every day you gather stamps at locations along the Way. Hostels and churches are the main places to get your Credencial stamped, but sometimes museums or town centers also have their own designs.

Camino de Santiago credencial unfolded to reveal stamps and seals
Credencial_del_peregrino

Your Camino passport is extremely important. Without it, you won’t be able to stay at most Camino hostels, since they use credenciales to verify pilgrim status. Furthermore, if you want to get the Compostela (see below), you will need a Credencial.

How do you get a credencial? If you are beginning at one of the major starting points, you can simply secure a Camino passport once you arrive, right before you set off.

But if you are beginning further along, you should order your credencial in advance. If you’re in the US, American Pilgrims on the Camino is the way to go.

Pay attention to Compostela requirements

What is a Compostela? Basically, it is a certificate of completion that you can receive in Santiago. It attests that you have completed a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. But here’s the thing: they don’t just hand them out to anyone.

You have to fulfil the following requirements:

  1. You must have completed the last 100 km on foot or the last 200 km by bike. (Yes, you can bike the Camino!)
  2. You must have at least 2 stamps per day on your Credencial. Make sure the stamps are dated! If the hostel doesn’t write in the date, do it yourself.
  3. You must have walked the Camino at least partially for religious or spiritual reasons. This doesn’t mean that you have to be Catholic or even Christian – just that you had some sort of personal spiritual growth in mind.

So, if you want to receive a Compostela at the end of your journey, make sure you cover at least 100 or 200 km (depending on whether you are walking or biking).

Old fashioned looking document in Latin with a color illustration of Jesus and a border of vegetation
My Compostela (in Latin!)

Decide where to start

As I mentioned above, pilgrims can begin anywhere they want to on any of the Camino routes. Your choice will depend on how much time you have, how many miles you want to cover per day, and whether or not you want to obtain a Compostela.

Ask yourself what your priorities are. Are you most focused on the religious and spiritual experience? If so, maybe you should take a more leisurely physical approach.

Are you in it for the hike? Then maybe longer days are for you. Do you want to stop and visit cultural sites? Then make sure you plan in extra time for tourism. You can use pilgrim.es to find more information on the different routes and possibilities.

Sarria is an extremely popular starting point because it is a little over 100 km from Santiago and thus satisfies the requirements for the Compostela. However, if you can, I would highly recommend starting before Sarria.

Why? Because the last 100 km of the Camino is the most crowded and commercialized segment. If you want a more authentic experience, consider Leon – 306 km out.

One last note: some people train to prepare for the hike. I didn’t do anything at all, and I survived (although some days were rough). The Camino will be challenging no matter how you prepare, but if you are concerned about your physical fitness, you can find all kinds of resources on the internet detailing the level of stamina required.

What should you pack for the Camino de Santiago?

It can be stressful to figure out what you should take with you. That’s why I have prepared a Camino packing checklist that you can download.

Just sign up for my newsletter, and you can access the packing list right away! The checklist includes tips and notes for prospective pilgrims.

Camino Packing List

Subscribe to my newsletter to download your Camino checklist and tips. You will also receive emails about new blog posts and special offers!

    You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy

    Once you have your guidebook, your paperwork, and your luggage, head to your chosen starting point in Spain. And then follow the shells.

    Why is the shell the symbol of the Camino?

    You see shells everywhere on the Camino – on hostels, on souvenirs, and, most importantly, on road signs. The shell is what tells you where to go. It’s kind of like following the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz – the shells will lead you to Santiago.

    No need for Google Maps or any newfangled technology. You can put your gadgets away and simply enjoy being outdoors.

    In more populated areas, there will be road signs with yellow shells and arrows. Sometimes there will be bricks or paving stones marked with the symbol. In the country, things can get a bit more complicated. Yellow markings are spray painted on rocks or trees, and there were a few times when my friends and I had to search for our next marker.

    Stone Camino marker featuring a yellow shell and yellow hiker with a walking stick
    A Camino marker at my starting point in Leon

    So anyway, why does the shell symbolize the Camino? There are different explanations. Most likely it is because pilgrims often walk past Santiago to reach the coast at Finisterre. Many of them picked up shells on the seashore to take home as souvenirs, and thus the association arose.

    But there is also a legend. Remember that I said that St. James died in Israel, but that his body was brought back to Spain? Well, there was a storm at sea and the ship sank. Everyone thought the saint’s remains were lost forever, but then his body washed up on shore in perfect condition, covered in sea shells.

    Whatever the true reason, the shell is now one of the most recognizable symbols of the pilgrimage to Santiago. Pilgrims hang shells on their backpacks to signal their status.

    White shell with faded red cross hanging on a backpack
    My weather-beaten shell, hanging on my Camino backpack

    And now, let’s turn to what it’s actually like on the Camino.

    My Camino Experience

    Three friends and I decided to hike the Camino de Santiago in May 2015 at the end of our study abroad semester in Italy. Due to various time constraints, we only had 12 days, so we could not traverse the entire Camino francés. Instead, we began our Camino journey in Leon. 

    From Leon to Santiago de Compostela is 306 km, so we had to walk an average of 25.5 km, or 15.8 mi, per day. This is a fairly strict schedule, and if I could go back, I would take more time and set a more relaxed pace. Our longest day was 36 km (22 mi). That was rough!

    An Average Day on the Camino de Santiago

    So, what do you do on an average Camino day? Some people get on the road at the crack of dawn or before, and my friends and I did that a few times.

    But for the most part, we headed out of our hostel around 8:00 am (after a quick breakfast). The road was quiet and peaceful in the early morning, since not as many pilgrims were up and about. It was a great time to reflect and think.

    Around 10:00 or 11:00 am we would stop for a brief snack break, and then we would take a longer rest in the early afternoon for lunch. If there was a town to stop in, we would buy a bocadillo (sandwich) at a restaurant or food stand. Cheap and delicious!

    But if we knew we would be in a less populated area around lunch time, we would stop at a grocery store in advance to pick up lunch supplies. This is what led to us eating peanut-butter and Nutella sandwiches for multiple days!

    After lunch was the toughest part of the day for me. I was tired and ready to be off my feet, and the last few hours of hiking dragged by. We tried to stop around 4:30 pm every day, but sometimes we would get slowed down.

    On our infamous 36 km day, we didn’t make it to the hostel until 7:00 pm. Yikes!

    In the evenings, we would shower, eat dinner (usually at our hostel), and then get caught up on laundry or other chores. I usually read or journaled a bit before going to sleep.

    Camino Hostels

    What are accommodations like on the Camino? All along the Way there are designated albergues (hostels) where pilgrims can stay. You have to show your passport and your Credencial in order to be admitted. Camino hostels are generally cheaper, safer, and more fun than other hostels.

    You sleep in a big room with a dozen or more bunk beds and use a communal shower. Prices generally range from €6-12 per night.

    Often you can pay a few euro more for a private room, but we rarely did that, since we were on a tight budget. Hostels usually offer breakfast and dinner (sometimes for an extra charge, sometimes not) and have laundry options.

    Private-run hostels are the best and most enjoyable. The owners love talking to pilgrims and they create a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. Plus, they make delicious food – the best paella I have ever tasted came from a hostel near Leon!

    Once we stopped for the night in a teeny-tiny town that literally consisted of two buildings and a cow-pen. Fortunately for us, the lady who lived in one of the buildings was happy to host us in her home.

    A Note for Future Pilgrims

    The hostel experience is much better earlier on the Camino. Once you pass Sarria, there are basically two choices: 1) expensive private hostels and 2) cheap public hostels run by the Galician government. Neither has the same sense of community as the private albergues we stayed at between Leon and Sarria.

    And in the public hostels, make sure they have blankets. Some of them don’t, and there was one infamous incident where I shivered the whole night under my towel. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep and the next day was rough.

    Also, watch your belongings closely at all times. I had a great time in Camino albergues and I never had any difficulties with safety, but of course you should always exercise caution.

    Some hostels have storage lockers that you can put your valuables in. When lockers weren’t available, I would sleep with my documents, wallet, and phone in a bag under my pillow or between my body and the wall. This system worked for me and I never had anything stolen.

    Pilgrim Community

    One of the best parts of the Camino is the sense of camaraderie and support among pilgrims. The road echoes with people cheerily wishing each other a good journey (“Buen Camino!”) all day long. We met travelers from all over the world and learned about their lives. We would walk for a few hours with a new friend or grab lunch together. At night, in the hostels, we had plenty of time to get to know other pilgrims.

    Pilgrims are quick to encourage each other and help each other out when needed. I remember one evening my friend had horrible blisters on her feet. One of our fellow pilgrims, an Israeli, insisted on tending to her feet. He carefully sanitized a needle, drained all her blisters, drew thread through them to keep the pus from building up again, and bandaged them. All of this occurred only about 30 minutes after we met!

    We encountered pilgrims of all different religions, nationalities, professions, and ages. I was especially impressed by the numerous people in their 60s who were taking advantage of their retirement to walk the Camino.

    It was a humbling experience for 19-year-old me when people over 40 years my senior hiked briskly by as I was puffing along. Those elderly pilgrims reminded me that it is never too late to get out in the world and embrace a new adventure!

    Sights Along the Camino de Santiago

    This probably goes without saying, but the Camino de Santiago is beautiful. The scenery is stunning, especially earlier on, further from Santiago.

    Some days you can walk for hours without arriving at a village or seeing anyone at all. You can simply enjoy the beautiful vistas around you and contemplate the marvels of nature.

    Mountains, valleys, fields . . . northern Spain has it all. And you will often see pilgrim monuments as well; sometimes a statue, a cross, or just a pile of stones.

    The closer you get to Santiago, and especially once you pass Sarria, the number of pilgrims increases. Sometimes the route is quite congested! But there are still gorgeous views on all sides.

    And we mustn’t forget about the animals. For a large portion of the Way you are walking through farmland, so you will see all kinds of cute companions. One morning my friends and I got stuck in a cow traffic jam! And we saw lots of adorable baby horses, cows, sheep, and goats.

    Arriving in Santiago de Compostela

    When you arrive in Santiago, you may want to go straight to the Cathedral and the Tomb of St. James. But be warned: for safety reasons you cannot take backpacks inside. For this reason, I recommend checking into your hostel first, storing your backpacks, and then heading to the end of the pilgrimage.

    Stone façade of the cathedral of Santiago from below with a statue of Saint James silhouetted against the sunny sky
    The Façade da Acibecharía of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrim’s final destination

    At the Cathedral, you can visit the tomb of St. James and say some prayers. Whether you are religious or not, it is a great feeling to stand in the Cathedral and realize that you have made it – you have completed your pilgrimage.

    I highly recommend that you attend a pilgrim’s mass; they occur several times per day. If you’re lucky (like we were), you might get to see the famous Botafumeiro – the world’s largest incense burner – in action.

    YouTube Video: Cathedral staff swing the enormous Botafumeiro during Mass at the Cathedral

    And, if you want to get a Compostela, don’t forget to do that! You can get your final stamp and your certificate at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office near the cathedral.

    Final Thoughts on the Camino

    I hope that you enjoyed my tips, my photos, and my memories of the Camino! If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend that you embark on this unique journey. You will learn more about yourself, more about the world, and more about humanity . . . I know that I certainly did.

    Want to hear more about the Camino? You can watch the movie The Way, which tells the story of a father who walks the Camino de Santiago in memory of his son. Check out the trailer on YouTube.

    Don’t forget to purchase Brierley’s Camino guidebook. And remember to get your Camino de Santiago packing list! If you’re already one of my subscribers, don’t worry – you won’t get added to my email list twice.

    Camino Packing List

    Subscribe to my newsletter to download your Camino checklist and tips. You will also receive emails about new blog posts and special offers!

      You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy

      YOU MAY ALSO LOVE:

      2 Comments

      1. I would love to do this some day. Maybe a goal for retirement.

        1. I highly recommend it! I hope I have the chance to go back myself.

      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

      I accept the Privacy Policy