Camino de Santiago: 10 things they don’t tell you
If you are going to commit five weeks of your life to an event, you want to know what you’re in for, right? In preparation for walking the Camino de Santiago, I thought I had read everything about the Way of St. James. Turns out that there are a few realities on the camino that no one talks about. The author of the best guide book about the camino doesn’t even cover these topics. I want to squash that. So, what are the things they don’t tell you about the Camino de Santiago? Here is my list of the things that they don’t tell you or you don’t learn about the Camino Frances until you get there.
Ten things they don’t tell you about the Camino de Santiago
- Everyone walks at a different pace. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, but I thought it was certainly interesting. It is difficult and rare to find people that walk at your same pace. Almost without exception, if two people are walking together, at least one of them is frustrated with the speed. You can see it written on the pilgrim’s face. Either their walking partner is going too slow or too fast. The solution is to walk alone. People that walk the camino in groups or couples have a more pleasant time when they walk separately and meet up at the albergue (hostel for pilgrims) at the end of the day. The camino is a solo experience that is dotted by brief conversations with other walkers. It is extremely common to see one person about to overtake another, but instead, they will fall in line for two to three minutes to have a chat before powering ahead. Most people finish their daily walk by one or two in the afternoon which is more than enough time to catch up with friends. If you are in a group, feel empowered to break away and travel at your own speed.
- You can’t learn to use ear plugs on the camino. If you choose to walk the camino in a traditional manner, you will be sleeping in albergues. That means that you will be sharing a room with up to two hundred other people. Those other people may snore, talk, and just in general rustle and make noise while you are trying to sleep. Everything I read told me to bring a pair of ear plugs. I did. My ears will not stand ear plugs. Every time I tried to use them, they feel more and more uncomfortable. Needless to say, they went the trash really quick.Thankfully, I am the type of person that sleeps like the dead after walking for seven hours a day. That being said, many people use earplugs successfully. You either have the gift of earplug wearing or not. If you’ve never been able to wear them, leave them out of your pack.
- People take the bus and that’s okay. Not everyone actually walks the whole thing. Many do, but the bus system in Spain is pretty fantastic and many pilgrims make use of it. Whether it is due to injury or time constraints many people ask at the local cafe or albergue how to catch a bus to the next big town. Not every hamlet has a pharmacy let alone a hospital. Injuries happen. Don’t feel guilty about using this transportation system. Just because Martin Sheen didn’t hop on a bus in The Way, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. While I was on the Camino, a gentleman had suffered from some amazingly enormous (fist-sized) blisters. Instead of walking, he took the bus to the next stopping point so he could enjoy the evenings with his friends. He did this for over a week until he could walk again.
- Your eating habits will change. On the camino, I was almost never hungry. I would have an orange juice an hour into the day and maybe a bite of a bocadillo (sandwich) a little later on, but I never felt like I was starving. Correction, after my fifth day of walking, I was never starving. Up until that point, I ate everything in sight. Many pilgrims get into a routine where you have a small bite of food about an hour or two into the day and then won’t eat again until they have arrived at their destination. A small bite for lunch will be followed by a slightly more substantial dinner around 7 or 8pm. Since bedtime is around 10pm typically (the albergues have lock in times), it all works out. This does mean that you will be at total opposites with typical Spanish food culture. The largest meal for the Spanish is typically around 1-2pm. All the stores and markets will then close for siesta from 2- 6pm. Since pilgrims typically arrive at their destination around 1:30 or so, you might have to race to a local market for groceries or squeak out a lunch right when you get in. Restaurants will reopen for food again at 7:30. When visiting Spain off the Camino, I am a big fan of the siesta system.Siesta really isn’t conducive to the pilgrim’s stomach that starts growling around 3pm after the laundry is done. Due to this, you will find that you eat at restaurants that are geared towards pilgrims or cook your own food. Pilgrim meals are not “normal” local food.
- You don’t need much and you won’t use much. How many articles have you read that have told you not to carry more than 10% of your body weight? What everyone aught to be saying is – “just don’t pack it.” If you question it, leave it out. There will be points where carrying 2 kilograms will seem like too much. Pack just enough to keep you warm and dry. If you are in the summer or even into solid spring – you probably don’t need a sleeping bag. Bring a sleep sheet instead. I carried my camera and I debated that choice for weeks. Unless you are super into it, just use the camera on your phone. When I asked a group of pilgrims on the last day of the camino to name a thing that they brought that they didn’t use, the list included: flashlight, headlamp, sleeping mat, a “nice” outfit, and make up (namely foundation). Check out my packing list here.
Ten things they don’t tell you about the Camino de Santiago (cont.)
- The last 100km are different than the rest. The bare minimum distance to earn a compostela in Santiago is 100km on foot. That means that the last 100km is the most populated section of the entire Camino. This is jarring for longer term walkers that have been used to having the trail to themselves. This is also jarring because the atmosphere changes. The Camino de Santiago becomes more party like the last 100km. A majority of the population influx is from groups both familial and friend based. Either way, there is more of a “vacation” feel to the walkers in place of the more focused approach of the long term walkers. I grant you that this is a stereotype. One of my favorite people I met on the camino was in just for the last 100km, but she wasn’t a part of a group either. How is it more like a party? Well, they tend to come into the albergue late, they drink more, and their antics approach stag or hen party levels. Everyone’s “way” is different.
- It’s hard when you are done. After weeks of focusing solely on one goal — to get to Santiago, you are left a little empty when you finish the walk. Frankly, I was surprised by this. I really thought that I was going to walk into Santiago, be overjoyed that I made it, and bask in that feeling for months on end. While the first two points are absolutely true, the next day I pretty much walked around Santiago like a zombie. The routine was suddenly different and the goal was completed. I think that if I didn’t already have another goal preset in my head, I could have wallowed in that feeling for days. My advice: know what you are looking forward to after the Camino.
- You won’t think about the stuff you think you are going to think about. Will the wonders of the mind never cease? A fellow pilgrim mentioned that she was thinking about all the wrong things while walking. What made it wrong? They were things not on her list. It made me think about my own expectations. She was right. I didn’t focus on the things I had prepared. My “inner journey” went on a SOS trip (shiny object syndrome) just like normal. A seasoned Camino walker gave me some sage advice on the topic, “Don’t try to mange the walk. The walk will manage you just fine.” His advice was dead on. Despite not getting through “my list,” I still finished rejuvenated in mind. Perhaps, the easiest way to sum it up is that “my list” was wrong. The camino new what I needed and it delivered it.
- It’s more expensive than you would think. Walking the camino can be very expensive. If you are a great budgeter with a constitution of steel you might be able to stick to staying in the cheap municipal albergues every night. My fortitude just isn’t at that level. I found that I needed to splash out every 6 days or so and get my own room. Sure, the private room was in an albergue, but it was 100% mine. I would claim that room like a dog marking its own territory and spread my stuff out over every flat surface available to me. Why? Because those spaces were mine for the next ten hours, and damn it all if I didn’t want some personal space. If this sounds strange, it won’t after sharing both sleeping and bathing space with dozens of other people. Food is another cost that can vary person to person. If you choose not to cook, you are also running on a higher budget than necessary. The average “pilgrim meal” runs about 10-14 Euro, but trust me, you will get tired of pilgrim meals very quickly. For more on budgeting for the camino – read this.
- How do you get your compostela and see the swinging incense thingy at church? It wasn’t until the night before arriving in Santiago that I learned I wouldn’t be seeing the incense perform its dramatic swing at the pilgrim mass like the movie, The Way promised. Devastated!!! What do you mean they don’t do it at every mass? Turns out, that they don’t. Just on Fridays. I arrived on a Tuesday. Still it was a cool experience, even for a non-Catholic. When you arrive in Santiago, the logistics for your last day might look a little like this. Get into the Santiago (the church square) by 11am. Photo session / celebration. Stash your backpack at either the Pilgrim Office or (more conveniently) at the storage place right next to the church. Backpacks aren’t allowed inside the church, so you will need to do something with it. Attend the noon mass. Run to the Pilgrim office and wait in line to get your compostela. (Seriously, book it to the office unless you want to queue with about 300 other pilgrims.) The compostela is free. If you want a certificate of distance as well, it is 3 Euro. I suggest also purchasing the mailing tube to hold your documents for an additional 2.50 Euro to protect them from the hazards of the celebratory night to come. Retrieve your backpack. Realize you are starving and make your way to a celebratory feast! YOU MADE IT!
The Camino de Santiago was an epic experience. Sure it was filled with the doldrums of monotonous walking, but that is also what made it a great experience. That monotony pushes you to engage in inner dialogue that most folks don’t typically have the time for on a daily basis. I didn’t know about any of the above points going into the Camino, but one of my lessons on the Camino was to push off my expectations and let the days unfold as they would. Roll with the punches. For a look at my my thoughts on what’s cool and not so cool about the camino, read about it in my 6 & 3 post on the Camino .
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- If you are interested in walking the Camino de Santiago, I suggest that you start off with some reading. Here’s what is cool about the camino.
- What to pack for the camino – and no, I don’t tell you how to roll your socks.
- How much money should you budget for the camino – There is a budget for every style.
- Best small cities along the Camino – get your camera ready.
- Best big cities along the Camino – Perhaps you should stay another day in these spots.
- Best places for Pintxos in Pamplona
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