Last week I went for a walk in Spain, hiking the last 118 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
I first heard about the Camino because I’m a big fan of the writer Paulo Coelho. He wrote his book “The Pilgrimage” about his experience on the Camino. The full walk is 780 kilometers and while there are many routes, the traditional one crosses northern Spain ending at the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried here.
People walk the Camino de Santiago for a variety of reasons ranging from spiritual growth, personal meditation, praying for miracles, adventure, tourism or just pure curiosity. Me? I wanted to clear my head. I just finished writing my second book, which left me very mentally drained so the idea of walking in silence for 5 hours a day sounded like a good reset. Plus, I’ve been curious about the Camino for a long time…
My trip started in Sarria, which was an easy journey from Athens (directions about that are below). I stayed in monasteries, hotels and pensions along the way. Most days I walked 4 to 6 hours. The path itself is incredibly well marked so it was very easy to follow. And I was impressed with the beauty of that part of Spain. The big surprise was that it’s foggy—and I love the fog! It’s so romantic and medieval… The landscape is vibrant and lush, and if you have magical thinking like I do, the journey is vivid, animated and kind of enchanting.
The walk itself served as a metaphor for Paulo Coelho who grew to appreciate the beauty of simplicity during his journey. I think anyone who is at all reflective gets some lessons from the Camino, and I too had mine.
Walking 20+ kilometers a day is a good reminder of the importance of being present. The times I was constantly measuring my progress to the endpoint made for a tortuous journey. But when I just paid attention to what was right ahead of me, the walk was colorful, rich and full of life. And I seemed to get to my destination faster too.
It’s not what happens, it’s how you react to what happens… At first, I was surprised at how many other “pilgrims” were on the trail with me. I had envisioned I’d be mainly alone walking through nature. But on the first day, there were lots and lots of people around me. And then I started to get irritated with them—how loud they were talking, what they were talking about–especially one group who seem fixated on discussing their tightly scripted itinerary and comparing everything to how it is “back at home..” I started changing my pace to try to get around the really annoying people, and this was kind of ruining the experience for me. Then I remembered I had my headphones, and I could just listen to music. And that changed everything. From that point forward I was in a little bubble of Kundalini Yoga music and nature, and I really didn’t care who was around me or what they were talking about. So nice! And oddly, after that first day, the number of people around dropped off, and I was never bothered by anyone again.
The world is full of helpful people who want your happiness. One part of the journey included a makeshift café on the trail with a huge spread of pastries, cheeses and beverages offered on a donation basis. The owner beamed kindness and generosity, and all the travelers seemed a little more polite and connected with each other at that stop. The power of donation-based things. 😊
Just because you think you’re badass doesn’t mean you are. I didn’t bother training for this walk because I’m fit and athletic, and it is only walking right? I figured I could just slow down if I felt tired…But of course, walking 15 miles/24 km a day isn’t an issue of feeling tired. It is actually overworking your body. This isn’t the first time I’ve exercised horrible judgment relating to how far I can push myself. There was the time I tried to swim from Alcatraz to shore without training (I had done it 2 years prior with training so I thought it should be roughly the same). Or the time I didn’t read the event registration carefully and ended up doing a ½ ironman triathlon over the course of a weekend, also without training. Both events were a total disaster. You would think I would learn. But no. So the lesson was served up yet one more time. By the end of the second day, I had walked 30 miles/48 km, I was limping, and I was worried I had pulled my Achilles tendon, an injury I haven’t had since I stopped being a competitive runner…. Thanks Universe. I got it this time…
If you are offered an easy way out, take it. In my experience, life is difficult enough without fabricating hardships for yourself. I hadn’t done a lot of research before the trip so I was thrilled upon my arrival to learn that for 3 euros per day, I could send my luggage ahead of me by car. Perfect. I took advantage of that offer every single day and remain convinced that that, along with my morning coffee, were my best investments on the Camino.
Everyone has a story. I stopped for 3-euro paella one day at a random cantina on the trail. I stayed for a coffee, and the old man who served me the paella came out to chat. He spoke almost no English, but we established that I had come from Greece, and I was here for the walk. He became very focused on showing me something on his phone—this article, which turned out to be about him. Dude! I thought he was a paella server. It was a reminder everyone has a story. His was amazing.
Travel light. It makes all the difference. I was already sending my luggage ahead, but each day I’d head out with a daypack. At the beginning, I was carrying my laptop, raingear and a bunch of other ultimately unnecessary things. It didn’t seem like much but when you are walking for 5 hours, every ounce starts to matter. A few days in, I realized this and started sending more and more forward. By the last day, I strolled into Santiago with only my wallet and cell phone.. The days I was carrying very little were my best days by far…It felt nice to be so light and carefree. Like all lessons on the Camino, this one has a broader application so when I get home, maybe I’ll purge some of that extra stuff in my apartment…Simplicity is freedom.
Did I get what I wanted out of the walk? I did. I arrived feeling physically fine but mentally exhausted. I left physically exhausted but mentally refreshed. The walk cleared my mind in a way that laying on a beach didn’t. So I’m grateful for that… And there is something sacred about the walk. It’s hard to describe, but if you can tune out all the noise, you can feel it.
I saw lots of things on the walk but my favorite was the elderly couple slowly walking hand and hand down the trails. That will be me someday… ❤️
If you are planning to do the last 118 km of the Camino, here are some tips that might useful:
1) Getting there
I flew from Athens to Santiago on Luftansa for a little over 200 euros. Then I followed this handy advice summarized below:
You arrive in Santiago Airport and pick up your luggage if applicable. Santiago Airport is small. Once you go through the doors and arrive in the main lobby, you’ll see a bar/café corner just in front of you. Proceed to the right to the main entrance/exit. The bus to Lugo picks you up at the doorstep, right in front of the entrance. Go to Lugo. The ticket cost 9.60 euros.
Step 2 In Lugo, you will arrive at the final destination of this bus: the bus station. Get off, get your backpack and walk to the entrance where you’ll see an info desk/window. Ask for the bus to Sarria. Go to Sarria. This was a 35-minute ride and cost 3.70 euros. That’s it—then you are at your starting point—Sarria.
People complain about the food along the Camino and while I understand what they are saying, with a little research you can actually eat quite well. I had green smoothies, veggie burgers, fresh fish, vegetable stews, paella, grilled vegetables with avocado sauce, the list goes on. The main complaint is the food is repetitive (generally, this is true) but if you do a quick google search upon arrival, even tiny Spanish villages usually had some innovative vegetarian options. If you just sit down anywhere because you are tired and hungry, you might be disappointed as the standard-issue menus are monotonous and focused on mainly on meat and potatoes. Here was my favorite place.
There are lots of options for accommodations along the route. The basic deal is that for ~10 euros per night, you can stay in a hostel/albergue in a bunk style situation (shared room/shared bathroom). For 35-50 euros per night, you can stay in a pension or hotel in a private room with a private bathroom. I opted for the private room/bathroom option because I wanted peace in my environment but if you are doing the full walk (40+ days) or trying to stay on a tight budget, the hostels are clean and well-organized. If you are looking for luxury accommodations, this is probably not your trip. The hotels along the way are in small Spanish villages and while they are clean and comfortable, I didn’t see any that were luxury. For Santiago itself, I stayed in this hotel/monastery and loved it.
This is worth focusing on and probably the only reason I avoided serious injury. I did some research, and the advice that hiking boots are overkill was correct. You aren’t really hiking, you’re just walking along roads and gentle trails. I invested in Salomon Speedcross 4s, which are made for ultra runners. These were perfect—light, waterproof, comfortable and durable. I loved them, and you probably will too.
People ask if I went with a group and the answer is no, I went by myself. The Camino is extremely well organized and with a little research, you can figure out all the basic trip details yourself. I did see lots of people as part of an organized group so if you want that option, it exists. I think it’s a question of personal preference…For me, I was very happy with my choice to travel alone.
I hope this helps–thank you for reading!