Looking for Camino de Santiago advice? You’re in the right place! My pal Reagan did the entire 780 kilometer (nearly 500 miles!) trek and lived to tell the tale. Here’s how she did it:
Why did you choose to do the Camino?
I’d heard about the Camino when I was younger, from the movie called The Way that stars Martin Sheen. So I was always interested in walking it one day, but honestly thought that I would do it when I was retired in my 60s. But, as luck would have it, it was at that point in senior year where I was trying to get a job and was being rejected from every place I applied to.
One of my college friends Julia (who also went to Mount Holyoke) said she was going to walk the Camino and I asked to join because I literally thought “Why not?! What else am I going to do this summer since I’m unemployed.”
But in all seriousness, I felt that I needed time to contemplate what I was going to do after college. I’d just spent 20 years of my life in school, so finally being able to do nothing but walk for 5 weeks seemed like a good way to come to terms with adulthood.
I wanted free time before jumping into a career.
Why did you want to do walk the entire Camino, instead of just a portion?
I honestly wish I had done portions of it instead after the injuries and bedbugs, but Julia and I had a plan that we wanted to stick to based on a guidebook by John Brierley and felt that completing it would be a real accomplishment for us both.
We also both thought that since it’s so expensive to fly to Europe, it’s a lot easier to take the five weeks and do it all in one go rather than in segments. In hindsight, I probably should have planned for more rest days and extra travel but the 32 days it took us was just enough time.
Quick Camino de Santiago advice: Make sure to budget rest days into your schedule!
Which town was your favorite to stop in?
There were so many, it’s hard to choose. After a while, they all started to blur. But I’ll say this:
- Best party town: Leon and/or Pamplona
- Best Cathedral: Burgos
- Best “bum-f-middle-of-nowhere” town: Tardajos (because it had the best Albergue!)
- Best “Provincial Town” or Most Quaint: Villafranca del Bierzo
- Best Town Story: Santo Domingo de la Calzada,
The story goes, “there was this family of German pilgrims walking the Camino in the middle ages, mother, father and son; they stopped at a bar and the bar owners daughter fell in love with the son but the son did not reciprocate so she got mad and put a silver chalice in his bag and then accused him of theft. So they hung the son.
The mother and father continued on to Santiago and on their way back to pay respects at their son’s grave, they found him still alive hanging. The son told them to get the bar owner to cut him down. So they went to the bar owner and told him that their son was alive.
The bar man replied, “Your son’s as dead as these hens I’m eating” and then the hens came alive. So the church in Santo Domingo keeps live hens and roosters in the monastery and in the cathedral itself. They were approved to do so by the Pope.”
Moral of the story that I took away was not to mess with women. That Barmaid caused all of this cause a boy didn’t reciprocate. Her name should be up somewhere, not a chicken.
Your least favorite town?
There were two I think, one was Najera where there wasn’t much to do and not the best albergues. The other was this albergue a little outside of Triacastela that sounded good on paper (vegan/vegetarian dinner, hammocks, all ecological) but honestly, it was the worst just because it was where I got really bad bedbugs. There wasn’t much in the town either.
Quick Camino de Santiago advice: at the first sign of bedbugs LEAVE your accommodations and immediately begin the clean up process.
What was a major obstacle on your journey?
The biggest obstacle was the physical side.
I’ve always been a physically healthy person. I’d participated in sports all my life and I’ve never broken a bone or had any major physical injuries thankfully.
But, unfortunately, I pulled a groin muscle only a few days into the journey, so I had to take buses for a while along the way. It taught me compassion, especially for my grandparents who have a hard time walking and for those who need accessibility.
I learned a lot of patience and how to pace myself. The hardest part was just remembering that just because I’m not necessarily a fast walker doesn’t mean I can’t get to the same place as someone who is faster. It just meant that it took me a little longer. It was an interesting metaphor for my life as a dyslexic, that I just need that extra time and not everything is a competition.
Quick Camino de Santiago advice: know your limits and rest if you need to.
Did you ever feel like just quitting the Camino?
Oh my god, yes! like at least 2x a day I thought about it. Especially when my feet were throbbing.
The first day was really the worst and there was a point where I thought about going to Finland with this Finnish couple I met, but once I got into the pace of it, it quickly becomes meditative. There was only one really bad day when I pushed myself too hard after only just recovering from my groin injury. I ended up in a field, lost and in a lot of pain in my leg.
To put it bluntly, I had a mental breakdown for a good 20 minutes before retracing my steps and finding Julia. But that was a moment when I was close to lying on the ground and calling it quits.
What made it bearable is seeing that I wasn’t alone. Later that day, I talked to fellow pilgrims and heard some worse stories about a guy who broke his leg or another had shin splints. There’s this great misery-love-company feel so you know that you’re not alone. My best Camino di Santiago advice is to remember that your pain is the same as the person right in front of you or behind you. You’re all in it together and everyone is there to support you. It’s what kept me going.
Should you have prepared more?
I definitely thought it was going to be easier than it was. I did do some research before hand, like reading a guidebook and watching a ton of youtube videos and movies, but in the end, I got lazy and went from “Couch to Camino.”
But from what everyone was telling me on the Camino, your first time is always the hardest cause everything is new. Next time, (some Camino di Santiago advice to heed) I’m packing a lot lighter and hitting the gym before I go.
Quick Camino de Santiago advice: work up to all the walking you’ll be doing.
What kinds of people did you meet on the Camino?
All kinds of people.
It really was any and everyone you could think of. There were the more religious pilgrims, the retirees, the Americans, and a lot of Europeans: Swedes, Finns, Germans, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italians, Brits, Scots, Irish, Norwegians, etc. As well as Koreans, Japanese, and Columbians.
There really isn’t a stereotypical Pilgrim because everyone is doing it at different stages in their life or for different reasons. There were for sure the hikers and those that were more outdoorsy, but a lot of the people I met were ordinary people who just got up one day and decided to go.
What I did love about it was the number of solo female hikers. I met a lot of women and it is one of the few trails where solo female hikers feel the safest. I never felt like I was in an unsafe situation and I was by myself plenty of times.
But what I loved most about meeting fellow pilgrims was how open everyone was. I think because people are so open the experience and the hardship of the Camino, they are more open to talking to random strangers or sleeping in less than ideal places with 30 other people in the room. Everyone acknowledges each other on the Camino by saying “Buen Camino” no matter what language you speak. It has an “adult camp”-like feel.
Everyone is there for different reasons, whether it’s personal, losing weight, or just wanting to travel. You meet some really interesting people and I was able to have my own Camino-family that I met up with at the Albergue at the end of the day. They all watched out for me.
The best part of the Camino is the people you meet and make friends with. Even though we came from different places and backgrounds, we ended up bonding. At the end in Santiago, our Camino-family met up again spontaneously after having walked different paths. It was like seeing friends at a college reunion. I still keep in touch with some of them.
Quick Camino de Santiago advice: be open to making friends (no matter how tired you are!)
Was there ever a moment you felt completely at peace?
It’s hard to say.
I felt more at peace at the very end when it was done, but there were some moments that I really cherish, like moments when I was walking along beautiful scenery at sunrise or bonding with fellow pilgrims in an Albergue.
But the moment I remember best was when Julia and I got up at 3AM am to beat the 90+ degree heat and walked through part of the Meseta (flat-grass land area in Spain). We were by ourselves completely in the dark walking through this field, and above us, we could see the milky-way and all the stars so clearly. We were talking about college and making jokes and it was just a lovely moment. I mean, when in someone’s life time can you say you reminisced with a college friend while under the milky way at four in the morning in Spain!?
Can you recommend a packing list for the Camino?
First off, bring less than you think. I have a packing list on my blog (among other bits of Camino Di Santiago advice) that I wrote while walking, but here is a brief list:
(Note: You can buy the Seashell that pilgrims wear on their backpacks, along the Camino. A lot of stores sell them)
- Backpack (between 30-40 Liters)
- Hiking boots and Hiking Sandals
- Water bottle (like this one or this one)
- Trekking pole
- Sleeping bag (something light weight)
- 2 shirts, 2 pants/shorts
- 2 pairs of merino wool socks
- 2 pairs of underwear/bras etc.
- Wind breaker / Rain jacket
- Swiss Army knife
- Big safety pins (for hang-drying laundry)
- Guidebook with maps
- Sleep mask and ear plugs (there are snorers) or alternatively Sleeping Pills
- Small First Aid Kit (filled with band-aids + a sowing kit + medical tape + Blister kit)
- chargers for Phone (plus converter)
- analog watch
- Dr. Bronner’s Soap 8 fl oz (for body wash and shampoo)
- Spray deodorant (that also acts as a body spray because everyone smells foul at the end of the day)
- Diva Cup
Most things you can get at the pharmacies in Spain like sunscreen, blister kits, etc.
The things I wish I had bought and highly recommend is a can of bed bug spray, flip flops or something to wear at the end of the day with arch support, and a whole bottle of Aleve (those achy muscles will thank you!)
Quick Camino de Santiago advice: follow this list and pack lightly!
What was it like to finally finish?
It felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, except maybe when I was a competitive swimmer in middle school (a story for another time).
On the last day, when we entered into Santiago de Compostela, it took another hour just to get to the city center where the cathedral is (“the finish line”).
Once I saw the spires of the cathedral, I felt a surge within me and my body just went into this no-pain-mode. I literally ran to the front of the cathedral and fell to the ground. It felt like all this weight was off my shoulders, some what literally.
There really is nothing like it, to feel this sense of personal accomplishment. When you asked earlier about “a moment I felt completely at peace”, it was really following this moment. The whole next day, we hung out in Santiago and I felt like I had woken up from a yoga class – feeling relaxed and slightly sleepy.
I walked around kind of glossy eyed, but also so proud of myself for finishing something that I thought I physically wouldn’t be able to do. I imagine it’s what Michael Phelps or Simone Biles must have felt like when winning an Olympic gold medal.I don’t have an Olympic Gold Medal, but I do have a nice certificate with the distance I walked, as well as my Pilgrims Passport that has stamps from every place I stayed.
In the end, my takeaway from the experience was that finishing the Camino solidified my belief that all things happen for a reason and that life is a journey we take day-by-day, it isn’t a race, everyone does it in their own time. We may not get stamps along the way, but it’s the accumulated experiences and people that step into our lives that are the most important.
Reagan – a Peregrino (Pilgrim), native New Yorker, and photographer who has a love for travel. She is a recent graduate from Mount Holyoke College and currently is working, like a typical Millennial, at a non-profit that supports Photographers, called Aperture Foundation. She hopes to one day live in Italy and ride a Vespa. Fun fact: she’s almost fluent in Italian, can play piano, guitar, and viola; and favorite bands include Coldplay, Iron & Wine, 1975, Fleetwood Mac, Lord Huron, and Fleet Foxes. You can find her blog here and her Instagram here.
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