In May, 2019 I walked the 500 mile Camino de Santiago. More specifically, I walked the Camino Frances. There are many Camino paths, all of which lead to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. The Camino Frances is the most popular route. You can see a map of it here. You may have seen the movie The Way by Emilio Estevez. It stars his father Martin Sheen. If not, I recommend it as a decent watch. It will give you a mostly realistic idea of what the Camino is all about.
Pilgrims have been walking the Camino for over a thousand years. In midieval times there were three great Christian pilgrimages: to the Holy Land, to Rome, and to Santiago. Santiago means Saint James (Saint Iago). St James’ bones were a big deal back in the day and over a million pilgrims a year used to walk from their homes all over Europe down to Santiago to pray to them. The traditional pilgrim wore an outfit like this:
The gourd was a pilgrim’s canteen. The idea that “the trail will provide” was likely invented on the Camino. Another cool Cliff Claven fact is that the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitalers existed to protect pilgrims on the great Christian pilgrimages. All along the Camino are ruins of “Hospitals”, which were more refuges for pilgrims than what we think as modern day hospitals. Apparently bandits were a big problem and the Knights protected the pilgrims (sometimes).
I walked the Camino for a few different reasons. The first is that it has always been on my bucket list. Bucket list busting is my primary occupation these days. The second is that I needed to let some personal stuff go, mostly related to my divorce. Third, and most importantly, I dedicated my Camino to my stepfather, John Peterson (JP). He has a nasty kind of cancer and I wanted to go sit in every iglesia, cathedral and holy spot on the way to pray for him and send healing thoughts and strength. I carried a picture of him which you’ll see later in this post.
People who walk the Camino are called pilgrims, or peregrinos in Spanish. In order to stay in the hostels (albergues in Spanish) along the Camino peregrinos need a Credencial. It functions a bit like a passport. Here is a picture of mine.
When you get to Santiago you get a Compostela, a certificate certifying that you walked the Camino. To get the Compostela you need to get two stamps per day in your Credencial proving that you actually walked the Camino. Every albergue, hotel, guest house, cafe, bar, or cathedral will gladly stamp your Credencial. The Camino is, and always has been, a peregrino economy. Here are some of the stamps I collected on the Camino:
There are lots of options for accommodations along the Camino, but most pilgrims stay in albergues. Think of them as hostels. Here is a pic from one:
They are really inexpensive (5-15 euros per night). It is often a bed in a dorm or hostel, but just as often a shared room in a much more charming guest house. For a few more euros many have single rooms and/or double rooms for couples. Some of my friends have heard me talk about the albergues and think they wouldn’t want to stay in them. For me, they were one of the best parts of the Camino. People from all over the world and all ages stay in them. Like a pilgrim of old you carry only what is on your back and live a simple life for the month or so you’ll be on Camino. In my opinion, staying in a room by yourself (or with your partner) every day diminishes the experience.
Eating on the Camino is also a really fun experience. In many of the albergues they offer a communal meal. These were always my favorite dining experiences.
Almost every restaurant on the Camino, and all the albergues that serve food, offer a “Pilgrim’s Menu”. A first, a second, a dessert, and wine. Wine always comes with the meal (and is literally cheaper than bottled water on the Camino). Just another great reason to walk the Camino!
If you are a foodie you’ll be disappointed. The food usually isn’t spectacular, but the company almost always is. Some albergues serve breakfast. I never ate it other than the rare times it was included. I preferred to get 5-10 miles in early before I ate breakfast (something I do on the backpacking trail as well). Here is a typical breakfast from one of the thousands of cafes catering to peregrinos you’ll find on the Camino:
If you are paleo you are well and truly screwed on the Camino. Bread is a critical part of every meal. I’m not much of a bread guy and I got seriously sick of Bocadillos (sandwiches).
Day 1: St Jean Pied du Port to Roncesvalles – 16.3 miles
I flew to Biarritz, France, and then took a train from nearby Bayonne to St. Jean Pied du Port – the traditional starting place of the Camino Frances. The charm starts immediately:
I got my first stamp at the peregrino office in St. Jean Pied du Port and started climbing the Pyrenees. Ironically, the hardest day of the Camino is the first. St. Jean is almost on the French/Spanish Border and you cross into Spain and the province of Navarre on the first day. Most peregrinos don’t do a lot of backpacking or hiking in the high mountains and are somewhere between afraid and terrified of the Pyrenees. If you’ve read any of my other trip reports you’ll know that this was just another day in the office for me. I wish every day of the camino would have been like the first in the Pyrenees instead of the dreaded flats I would experience for most of the walk. But I get ahead of myself…
Here is a pic of me and a teensy Italian woman that wanted to take a pic together.
She couldn’t believe I was in shorts. It was May 5th and a bit chilly, but nothing you wouldn’t see every day in the Cascades or Sierras where I normally roam.
There are tons of significant religious artifacts along the Camino. Here is an example of a famous one in the Pyrenees:
Roncevalles is the traditional stop for most pilgrims on their first night – a tradition I followed. I met this guy while I waited in line at the Roncevalles albergue:
His name is Kriztian and he is from Hungary. You’ll see a lot more of him in this trip report. We had dinner together in the communal dining hall that night. He looks like a Russian mob enforcer, an image further cemented by the fact that he would do handstand pushups every night just so his body wouldn’t get soft.
The albergue at Roncevalles is very modern and well done and sits inside the grounds of the church complex. It is a great setting for your first night on the Camino. Here is a pic of the Cathedral at Roncevalles. There was a small choir singing in the background. It was heavenly.
Day 2: Roncesvalles to Zuriain – 19.2 miles
My custom on the trail is that I like to get up early and get some easy miles before the heat of the afternoon – which I did this day. It was cold and windy but I stubbornly wore shorts to show everyone how tough I was. I met this mother/daughter duo from Canada that morning.
You’ll see a lot of kid/parent duos on the Camino. What an amazing way to connect with your kid!
I stayed in the below very charming albergue the second night. Notice the weather went from cold/windy in the morning to quite warm in the afternoon. Par for the Camino course.
I slept in a shared room with this cast of characters:
Left to right: Hungarian, Romanian Argentinian, Hungarian (Kryztian). They are holding a picture of JP and sent him their prayers.
This was the first time I saw Kriztian do his upside down pushups. Crazy man!
Day 3: Zuriain to Puenta de la Reina – 22.7 miles
All along the Camino you see old bridges, edifices and monuments like this:
I think this bridge was Roman. If you love history (like I do) you’ll get a thrill every time you walk by these antiquities – which is usually several times a day.
Day 4: Puenta de la Reina to Villamayor de Monjardin – 19.4 miles
The most exciting thing about this day was going through Pamplona, the city where they run the bulls. Here were the only bulls seen in Pamplona that day:
I did a lot of praying for JP in the Cathedral in Pamplona:
I had dinner with these two Swedes in our albergue the previous night. I ran into them again at the end of the Camino.
Day 5: Villamayor de Monjardin to Viana – 19.4 miles
You see trail art all along the Camino. In some ways it is like a 500 mile art museum.
These two Italian cuties sent a prayer to JP.
This is a really famous spot on the Camino:
Day 6: Viana to Najera – 25.3 miles
We crossed out of Navarre into the Rioja region a couple days earlier. Vinyards everywhere!
In the village of Irache they have a wine fountain with free wine for pilgrims. Here is a pic of me at the wine fountain. Some of my favorite trail magic ever!
Day 7: Najera to Groñon – 17.8 miles
Here is a typical scene on the Camino. I was amazed at how many people walk the Camino. I’m used to the high mountains where you might see a handful of people a day (or week). On the camino you see a handful of people, or more, almost every step of the way. The few times I had the trail to myself were heaven.
I had never seen bush vines like this before:
This is Viola, an actress and artist from Denmark. We walked together for four days and are still close friends. She came to visit me and did her Camino art project at my house in Liberty Lake, Washington.
Day 8: Grañón to Villafranca Montes de Oca – 17.5 miles
More Camino art:
You see cool buildings like this all along the Camino:
This is Richard, a retired American who lived mostly in the UK during his working years. We spent a morning walking together talking about The Singularity. You meet the most fascinating people on the Camino.
Another idyllic Camino scene:
Lots of pilgrim statues like these on the Camino:
This was one of my funnest days on the Camino. Viola (Denmark), Christina (England), Josh (USA), Jensen, (USA), me. Kryztian showed up later. We got shizzle faced that afternoon after drinking several bottles of wine.
Day 9: Villafranca Montes de Oca to Burgos – 25.4 miles
The Scallop shell is the symbol that indicates the Camino and has much religious and spiritual significance. You see it in many, many forms all along the Camino.
Storks are another common sight on the Camino.
This forest used to terrify pilgrims because it was full of bandits. Often the Knights Hospitalers or Knights Templars would escort the pilgrims through. Note: if you are seeking single track mountain trails the Camino is not your walk. The huge majority of the Camino is on paths just like this (just flatter).
Day 10: Burgos to Hornillos del Camino – 16.5 miles
Short day today because I spent the whole morning in Burgos visiting the spectacular Cathedral there.
Burgos cathedral is the resting place of kings and queens:
El Cid’s coffin. It is very small so not sure I’m buyin it.
That night in the village of Hornillos del Camino we celebrated Viola’s birthday and all said goodbye. It was another special night. We were in a cafe run by an Irish woman. A different Irish woman who was walking the Camino had decided to stay with her for a while and help out. After dinner they grabbed a guitar and started singing the song Falling Slowly by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. They sang so beautifully it made us all cry. Then Jensen and Josh took a turn on the guitar. Man could those boys play! It was an amazing night that filled my heart all the way to the brim. This is the only pic I got of that night. Must have had too much wine!
The Irish woman who was walking the Camino gave us all some advice that night. In a very thick, and fairly inebriated Dublin accent she told us that when we got to Castrojeriz the next day and saw the blue bicycle to “go in”. I asked her what that meant and she said “thas awl oim goina say”.
Day 11: Hornillos del Camino to Itero de la Vega – 19.6 miles
This day started early with a bad wine hangover, but I didn’t feel it much because my heart was still so full of music from the night before.
On the way to Castrojeriz is this amazing ruins of a convent:
Castrojeriz is a beautiful town with the ruins of a castle above:
By mid day my head was still groggy from my hangover and I walked about twenty five feet past this blue bicycle before I stopped and remembered the Irish woman’s advice from the night before:
This sign was on the outside of the building along with another sign saying that all were welcome and a request to observe absolute silence:
Inside was what I can only describe as an Ashram. There was meditation music playing and a pilgrim meditating. He left shortly after I got there and I had the place all to myself for two hours.
There were really cool pieces of art on the walls with inscriptions under them. This was my favorite:
There was even a backyard with an old Roman wine cave (bodega) in it:
The Camino is full of wonder. If you ever walk it (or bike it) don’t pass by the blue bicycle in Castrojeriz without going in!
Day 12: Itero de la Vega to Carrión de los Condes – 21.7 miles
The Romans were really awesome, in my humble opinion. All along the Camino you see many Roman roads like this:
I met this cool Spanish family walking the Camino Frances.
Day 13: Carrión de Las Condes to San Nicholas del Real Camino – 20.2 miles
Below is a photo courtesy of Robert from New Zealand. We walked together for two days. This photo captures well the feeling you get walking the Camino in the early morning.
It was spring and blooms were everywhere:
Day 14: San Nicolás del Real Camino to Reliegos – 24.4 miles
I had several meals with this fun Welsh couple, Ian and Pat:
More Camino pilgrim statues:
Day 15: Reliegos to León – 16.1 miles
When I got to Leon I decided I needed a little me time after spending every previous night in an albergue. I got a nice hotel room overlooking the central square in Leon:
It had a big clean bed – with sheets!
And an indescribable luxury – a bathtub!!!
I bought a really nice bottle of wine, a huge chocolate bar, and had a pizza delivered. Then I binge watched Netflix for the rest of the day. It was the only day on my walk that I checked out of the Camino. It was heaven.
Leon and Burgos have the two best cathedrals on the Camino (not just according to me!). Lots of debate over which is the most beautiful. Although they are both spectacular, I pick Leon. It is all about the glass, light and height. Pics don’t do it justice. You must see it with your own eyes.
Day 16: León to Hospital de Orbigo – 22.5 miles
Yet another pilgrim statue:
Hospital de Orbigo is famous for its bridge and medieval jousting grounds.
Day 17: Hospital de Orbigo to Rabanal del Camino – 23.8 miles
Saw lots of bodegas along this part of the Camino. They keep the wine cool when it gets hot – which is for much of the year. It was May and it was already getting quite hot in the afternoons.
I just can’t resist these pilgrim statues:
A famous Gaudi designed building in Astorga:
On the right are Bob (80 years old) and his daughter – from Canada. I still WhatsApp with Bob regularly. I met two 82 year old men walking the Camino. No excuses people!
Day 18: Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada – 20.9 miles
The Cruz de Ferro is one of the most important spiritual places on the Camino.
Pilgrims are supposed to carry a rock from their home town and leave it at the cross. This signifies letting go of your burden. Here was my rock:
JP and I picked this rock at his house in Portola Valley, CA to represent his cancerous tumors. My hope was that leaving the rock would make the tumors leave JP’s body. I prayed really hard sending light and strength to JP at the Cruz de Ferro.
This fence was at least two kilometers long and full of crosses. I added a couple myself.
This is the castle in Ponferrada. No self respecting history geek like myself could resist the opportunity to crawl its halls for an afternoon. It was grand.
Day 19: Ponferrada to Trabadelos – 22.1 miles
All along the Camino you see these donativos. (The ashram I visited in Castrojeriz was a donativo, as are many albergues). The idea is to take what you need and leave what you can.
It was cherry picking season and this cute old couple had picked their fill:
I constantly passed these small garden plots. Usually it was older couples tending them. I am often envious of the elegance and pace of life the Southern Europeans live.
Domestic chill pill:
This was my favorite albergue during the whole Camino (in Trabadelo). It was run by a relatively young and somewhat nervous Spanish woman who made incredible food and created an amazing space.
An American father/daughter combo who were walking the Camino together were staying at the above albergue with me. The dad, a retired army vet, was walking the Camino for the seventh time. He had stamps from his favorite albergues tattooed all over his legs:
Day 20: Trabadelo to Triacastela – 24.8 miles
The mountains in this part of the Camino, Galicia, are very beautiful and have really cool houses like this one:
Love my pilgrim statues:
Isn’t this the most regal looking donkey you’ve ever seen?
Day 21: Triacastela to Puertomarín – 25.5 miles
This day I passed through Sarria, a village one hundred kilometers (62 miles) from Santiago. Many pilgrims start here if they don’t have the time or desire to walk the entire five hundred mile Camino Frances. The Camino gets MUCH more crowded from Sarria to Santiago.
I met a big group of midwesterners who were very sweet and prayed for JP. They were on the first day of their Camino and asked me a million questions. The woman holding JP’s picture said my legs were so tan it looked like I was wearing nylons!
This family had a farm and a donativo right along the Camino and invited me to join them for lunch.
Everything was fresh from their farm – the wine, the butter, the lettuce – everything. It was a simple meal and the best meal I had on the Camino by far. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in my life. They only spoke Spanish and I remember thinking during that meal that my Spanish was starting to get decent!
Day 22: Portomarín to Palas del Rei – 15.5 miles
I had left Jensen and Josh behind after Burgos. They were running out of time before having to get back to school so they took a bus and were unexpectedly ahead of me. When I caught up to them we ended up walking the rest of the Camino together.
Here is another pic of these two hippy boys. I grew very fond of these guys.
Day 23: Palas del Rei to Ribadiso – 16.5 miles
Recipe for Camino happiness: soak your hot, tired feet in a very cold river with a frosty mug of beer in your hand.
This is Peter from the Nederlands playing a serious game of chess with Josh. His wife Twi, from Indonesia, is in the background.
Day 24: Ribadiso to O Pedrouzo – 14.8 miles
Nothing exciting happened this day, apparently.
Day 25: O Pedrouzo to Santiago – 13.9 miles
Walking the last day into Santiago feels a bit like graduation day. You come over a hill and look down upon Santiago and the cathedral. Here is a famous statue of pilgrims who see the Cathedral for the first time and are ecstatic after the long and arduous trek from their home villages.
Here is a photoshopped pic of me in from of the Cathedral. Just kidding. I really did walk five hundred miles.
Inside the Cathedral are the bones of St. James (supposedly). Praying to these bones is why all the pilgrims throughout the middle ages walked to Santiago.
It felt great to arrive in Santiago after walking, often for a very long way, for twenty five straight days. My fondest memory of that day was seeing Hans from Germany at the Cathedral. We had dinner together two nights previously. His daughter and girlfriend had flown in from Germany and surprised him at the cathedral. If that wasn’t enough, his girlfriend had just asked him to marry her. The dude was positively glowing.
The Camino was amazing. Truly. It was on my bucket list and should be on yours. If you are thinking about walking the Camino I recommend this website – www.caminoguidebook.com. I also recommend reading this blog post by my good friend Chris Hicken (Chicky). I read it before my Camino and it was very inspiring.
Overall, the Camino is very easy to navigate. I used an App called Guthook (I first started using it on the Pacific Crest Trail). I would highly recommend it as it has a GPS tracker and will alert you if you are off trail. It also has lots of other really helpful info on it (like where water is and all the albergues are).
I am an unrepentant gear junkie. Many have asked what gear I took on the Camino. I have a bunch of gear recommendations if you are interested – mostly what not to bring!
JP certainly benefited from all the prayers he received from pilgrims I met along the Camino. He was able to have surgery to solve his immediate problem. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing he is still struggling with his cancer. It is a reminder to us all that life is precious and every day is a gift.
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