Camino de Santiago: 6 & 3 – Six cool (and three not so cool) things about the Way of St. James
Walking the Camino de Santiago had been on my bucket list for years. In April of 2017, I finished my first camino and already I have plans to return. Leading up to the camino, I tried to read as much as I could to prep for the experience. I wanted to know what was cool about the camino and what wasn’t so cool about the camino. I wanted to be ready for whatever the Way of St. James was going to throw at me.
So what is cool about the Camino de Santiago? Quite a bit actually. There are many reasons why people are drawn to it. I have never done anything else remotely like it. People from all over the world come to the camino with high expectations for a life changing event. Some people forget though, that a life changing event isn’t always born out of rainbows and unicorns. You’ve got to expect some grit, the “not so cool” stuff about the camino, too. Those that knew and expected to hit a rough patch or two fared the experience with higher morale. Those pilgrims that weren’t expecting the grit sometimes took it on the chin.
In an effort to help you prepare for your walk. Here is my narrowed list of what’s cool and what’s not cool about the camino. It doesn’t cover it all, but I do think that these points are representative of the camino.
Six cool things about the Camino de Santiago – Camino Frances
- Time to think – When is the last time to you had hours to just think? When did you last have hours of uninterrupted time all to yourself? The Camino de Santiago in many ways clears you of all your normal day to day worries. You are left with the sole responsibility of putting one foot in front of the other in an effort to get closer to Santiago. This is quite freeing, but it also means that you spend a lot of time in your head. I learned quite a bit during my walk. I worked though some old recurring conversations with myself and finally put them to rest. I listened to over 70 hours of e-books, and had marvelous conversations, real conversations, with practical strangers that made the time fly. An Englishman taught me about the Spanish civil war, an Italian lady made me laugh until I cried, and an Irish lady and I merged into conversation like we’d known each other for decades. Time truly is precious and it is a gift on the camino.
- Beautiful landscape – Watching the landscape change day to day on the camino will impress even the most devout city dweller. Each week a different color dominated the landscape. The Way goes through four different provinces and each will surprise you with its unique terrain. Navarra boasts the ever impressive Pyrenees mountains. Rioja’s vineyards blanket the landscape. Castilla y Leon provides a never ending parade of wheat fields. Finally, Galicia’s verdant green landscape gives you a sneak peak into the local farmers’ lives. The changing flora and fauna made each day new and exciting. While I must admit a preference for the first and last province, each is grand in its own way.
- The people – Can you remember the last time you were surrounded by people with similar goals or the last time people didn’t judge your outfit, appearance, or language ability? The beauty of the camino is that people from all over the world get together to do the same thing. Their motivations for showing up might be different but the pilgrims all support one a another consistently. There is something special about sitting down to dinner and hearing Spanish, English, Italian, Hungarian, Korean, and German spoken at the same table. Every day you meet someone new. Every day your world wide network grows.
- The health factor – I’m not the most healthy human being. I am developing better habits though, and trying to reverse the consequences of stationary jobs for the past ten years. Walking the camino for 6-8 hours a day gave me back the muscle tone that I’ve lost over the past few years. I dropped some weight, but more importantly I toned my body. My thirties have been a lesson in body maintenance. The lesson being that you actually have to perform some maintenance in order to keep your body the way you want it. Well, the camino jump started my metabolism. Many folks walk the camino purely for health reasons. Whether that is your primary motivation or not, it is definitely a great side benefit. No pun intended.
- Confidence – When you navigate across a country whose native language is not your own and reach your goal, you feel like you can conquer the world. Self sufficiency, independence, skill development, knowledge growth are qualities that the Camino de Santiago dishes out like a never ending buffet. It is one thing to say that you could do X or Y. It is another to actually do it. It can be strange navigating a world solo or to take up decision making power in areas that you would normally take a submissive role in. Strange or not, it is empowering to take on a challenge that you’d avoided in the past. A big hurtle for me to overcome was using the bathroom outside. My apologies if that sounds strange or gross. But, I was always a little hesitant about traveling anywhere where running water or bathroom facilities weren’t easily at hand. In fact, I remember not going on hiking trips because they would be out “in nature” for more than 24 hours. So not only did the camino provide me with a stronger confidence in self, it has opened up doors to other fantastic events in the future. Who knew that being comfortable using the loo outside was a valuable life skill?
- Adventure – Boldly go where thousands have gone before! Sure the guide book tells you what’s at the next town, but it is different when you see it for yourself. When you first step into a new town, you have a surreal experience like you are in a new and exciting place. What’s around the next corner? What do the people do here? Each town has its own character and charm. For a person that suffers from wanderlust, I got a little jolt of adrenaline very time I went into a new town. I think you can argue that the Way of St. James is completed through a combination of sheer will power, curiosity, and adrenaline.
Three not so cool things about the Camino de Santiago
- The blisters – You learn to pop them, cover them, treat them, and coddle them. You “ohhh “and “awww” over the blisters of others and dispense and receive advice on how to prevent them from happening again. Truly, it is amazing at how much energy and thought can go into foot care. You end up figuring out like I did, that your footwear is very important and variety is necessary. One of the most common ways blisters occurred were with folks that didn’t test out their hiking boots before the camino. I highly suggest that you buy your footwear in advance and take a 12 mile hike minimum in them that goes across hilly terrain. Only then can it be determined if the shoes are too small, if you need an arch support, or another such example. Also, make sure that your “afternoon shoes” are comfortable and durable. Afternoon shoes are typically a pair of sandals that you switch into after each days walk. I ended up hiking for three days in my sandals to allow my blisters to heal. For more about what to pack. Read this.
- The bug bites – Mosquitos, bed bugs, spiders. When you are outside for 7 hours a day walking through every sort of environment possible, bugs happen. I was comparing bites with a fellow pilgrim during check in at an Albergue, and was told by the hospitelero that I had been bitten by bed bugs. I held myself together until after I high heat dried all of my clothing (twice) and laid out my plastics and bag in the hot sun before I lost it. No one, just trust me, no one likes to hear that they have been invested by bugs. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most awesome night on the camino. The next day, I went to the pharmacy to have them check my bites and the pharmacist told me that I just had a reaction to the local spider. A somewhat common response for foreigners apparently. Either way, I never received another bite and they faded quickly so the problem was solved. I got through my two hour meltdown. Okay fine, three hour meltdown. I had to remember that bugs happen and that there were worse things in life than dealing with a bug bite. Ten more things that I didn’t know about the camino are covered here.
- The bicyclists – Technically, there are three ways that you can complete the camino: on foot, by horse, or on a bike. 99% of the time, the bikes keep to themselves – on the road. During the other 1% of the time, on foot pilgrims run a risk of being buzzed by a bike. Bikes, by nature, go faster than bipeds. My issue comes in when the bikes don’t yell out or better still ding a bell when they are approaching a pilgrim. A bell. Is it too much to ask? I found myself throwing my body off the side of the road to avoid collision while risking a twisted ankle or aggravating a blistered foot with a quick misstep. If I am in the middle of a deep conversation with myself it isn’t easy to snap out of my inner dialogue to constantly look over my shoulder for bikes. Before the biker community responds by saying that bipeds don’t walk in straight lines or that the road needs to be shared equally, hear me out. On foot pilgrims are not perfect. They do weird things like spread out across the entire road. Please just remember that they don’t have the ability to knock you down by sheer kinetic force.
The coolness factor for the Camino de Santiago
Do the “not so cool” triple Bs weigh heavy enough to unbalance the scales away from the camino’s favor? No, definitely not. I am smarter now about foot care and blister prevention. I know what to expect in terms of bugs and can bring a spray if I want. The bikes, well, you can say “buen camino” with a different feeling behind it that makes it sound like a few other choice words. In the end, I was glad to experience the grit and the grandeur of the camino.
To put it simply, I am happy I read everything I could about the camino before walking it, but it didn’t prepare me. I don’t think anything truly does. You just need to show up and work it out. That is a true adventure, and one that I will do again. The Camino de Santiago is cool. Grit and all.
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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 to pack for the camino. No, I don’t tell you how to roll your socks!
- Ten things they don’t tell you about the Camino. I was shocked!
- How much to budget for the camino – There is a little something for everyone.
- 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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