Editor’s Introduction: The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way, is a 2 month walking pilgrimage across Spain. What once was solely a religious pilgrimage, is now also a journey many backparkers embark on. It’s a right of passage amongst travelers, for 2 months spent walking will teach you many hard-learned lessons about life. The journey begins at in the French Pyrenees and ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, as you walk town-by-town across nearly an entire country.
Below, Athony Manrique, who is a writer capable of making us feel we’re standing right there with him and an avid world traveler, and who wrote Waves of Anxiety here on OMM, a journal piece about his preparation just before for the Camino, presents to us 9 insights and tips he picked up along The Way. For those of you dreaming of an adventure that will show you a country, as well as who you are, inside and out, I dare say you may have found the next journey you’re meant to embark on. - Lauren Rains
As I look back through pictures of the Camino de Santiago and keep contact with new friends I often feel as if there is a hole in my life. I feel like I am missing the walking, the fellow pilgrims, the big skies and the little yellow arrows. But really there is no chasm but a vast chamber that I can delve into for the rest of my life.
We laughed and joked about this in the early stages. But as we began to let down our defenses the Way really did unravel before us. I´m not talking about the little yellow arrows or rock cairns that point you in the right direction; we´re talking unbelievable coincidences, profound meetings and waymarkers that you thought were setbacks.
Here are a few tips that might help you along the Way*.
1. Don´t believe in yourself, and then do.
So many people we met along the Way had started the Camino full of doubt or with an injury. My knee would not allow me to walk just a week before we started. Weeks later, I had walked 800km. Many of those kilometers were alongside my great friend Ollie who literally limped for hundreds of miles with a terrible knee injury which, by the end, was barely an issue anymore. For many pilgrims, it is akin to a miracle to see how a little (read: a lot) of walking can change your life.
2. Spend a few hours a day, in full hiking gear, walking in your shower.
If you go when we did, in October and November, it is going to be cold and wet. Wetter than you are prepared for. Even in full waterproof gear you can come out the other side of the day soaked to the bone. Everything is heavier, everything is harder. Northern Spain- particularly Galicia (which accounts for the last week or so of your walk) is one of the wettest places in Europe. Yep, we were surprised too.
3. Remember where you are.
You are not in a guidebook, nor a postcard. And you are certainly not in most of the pictures you will see on the internet. You are on planet Earth, where it rains and gets cold. Emma and I had a particularly profound day on which we realized we were incredibly lucky to be utterly waterlogged rather than sitting in offices or selling stuff to people. We didn’t evolve to spend all of our time indoors, and it is an enriching privilege to spend so much of your time outdoors. But you have to be fully outdoor minded and take it for what it actually is.
4. Do not be afraid to go it alone.
Stella considered never starting the Camino, from fear of walking alone. We met many people along the Way who had considered the same. Most of them were with their new friends, who they had been walking with for hours, days, weeks or even months. Many others told us of the depth of experience they were having on their own. We did not meet a single regretful person.
5. Take a tent and a stove.
99% of the forum posts and articles we read beforehand told us to take neither; they are not necessary, apparently. But then neither is it necessary to walk the Camino de Santiago. Yet both will enrich your experience of life. Some of my most treasured memories are of waking up on The Way. We saw deer bound literally feet from our tent, witnessed the most humbling sunsets and rises and fell asleep to the sound of river water. Admittedly, we did also stay awake whole nights through cataclysmic thunder storms, spent most of our time wet, and woke up to a frozen tent on numerous occasions. Yet, it was fun, and there is little that beats the clarity of the morning after a storm. You’re going to be wet anyway and the frozen tent is no problem if your sleeping bag is up to scratch (safe to minus 5 coupled with a good liner is mostly sufficient for October/November).
6. Go minimal.
I say this with a dash of hypocrisy because my bag weighed 12kg at its lightest and 18kg at its heaviest. So many of the injuries we saw and the complaints we heard were because of this godforsaken pack. Anything surplus is a hindrance. Gun for 8 to 10kg tops and you should be just right.
7. Take your burdens in with you.
This walk is not going to solve your life, but you will certainly have the time to work through those things that have been on the back-burner for a while. Our Spanish hero Juan realized that WWOOFing might be the way for him and that, perhaps, one day, he will become a vegetarian. After completing the Camino, David packed in his life and set up a small, pre-fab alburgue near the mountains. Emma and I realized that we adore camping and being out-of-doors and the whole thing has sent us on a whole host of new adventures. At el Cruz de Foncebadon, people leave many things; from pictures of the loved and lost, dead shoes and even used underwear; but there is a different space all along the way to leave so much more.
8. Listen to those who know.
If you meet someone that has walked the Camino de Santiago a number of times, take their advice. If it wasn’t for Oliver (a German born Spanish Hospitalario) then our Camino would have been extremely different. He prepared, braced and excited us for many things that I won’t share with you here. You will find your own guides.
9. Wear something light on your feet.
So many people told us of so many blisters and of so much pain. In the mornings people would hobble and limp and agonize their feet back into their boots. And that was exactly the problem. Out of four of us who wore trainers (and minimal ones at that) for the duration of the Camino, we accrued a grand total of zero blisters.
10. Let the Way be your guide.
I write this through gritted teeth because it sounds like a film or book sub-heading or something that I might judge people for saying (or an out-of-touch Jedi). But the Way is real. We laughed and joked about this in the early stages. But as we began to let down our defenses the Way really did unravel before us. I’m not talking about the little yellow arrows or rock cairns that point you in the right direction; we’re talking unbelievable coincidences, profound meetings and waymarkers that you thought were setbacks.
The three best places to stay:
1. Albergue Verde, Hospital de Orbigo
It is one of the few vegetarian albergues along The Way, and the food is outstanding. The hospitalarios are ridiculously kind and will cook you one of the finest meals you’ll eat on your pilgrimage. And then you can spend the night singing songs with them and your new friends. In the morning, you can use the yoga room to discover just how inflexible you are.
2. Tomas’ house, Manjarin.
You’ll spend your day climbing the mountains, bewildered by the views. And then you’ll come into the smallest town, with an official population of one (and many animals). Yes it’s small, and no, it’s not luxury, but Tomas is an important man on the Camino de Santiago and his log fire will keep you warm enough. Some people say he’s crazy, but he’s not, and they’re idiots. Tomas delivered a profound speech to our group of young pilgrims and we passed an exceptionally special night under his roof. On a clear night you’ll be able to see the solar system pressed close by. And if you’re lucky you’ll hear the wolves howling as you drop off to sleep.
3. Somewhere you shouldn’t be.
Find a place, quiet and out of the way, and pitch your tent there. Build a small fire to keep yourself warm and to cook your food. There are so many beautiful spots to pitch your tent, just be sure to leave no trace.
Useful Camino de Santiago Resources:
http://www.caminodesantiago.me/ Has an abundance of information on preparing for the Camino, and the forums are great.
A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago by John Brierley. Almost everyone we met who had a copy of this book thought it was laughably clichéd, horribly sanctimonious and often just plain wrong. In fact, we ended up in trouble a few times because of bad information, with empty bellies and angry because the maps were so off. But it gave us so many laughs and it was a pleasure to tear out the pages at the end of each day (and morale can be hard to come by on an ice-cold morning when all of the albergues he said were open were actually not).
* We walked the Camino Frances, beginning in St Jean Pied de Port and ending (sort of) in Santiago de Compostela)