What Should I Know About Hiking Spain’s El Camino de Santiago?
A religious pilgrimage and epic thru-hike
The commonly agreed-upon route for El Camino de Santiago (a.k.a. the Way of St. James) begins at Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and travels 500 miles through four of Spain’s 15 regions, ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The journey takes hikers over the Pyrenees Mountains, past vineyards, and through lush eucalyptus forests. UNESCO declared the trail a World Heritage Site; the European Union named the Camino its first European Cultural Route in 1987.
The Camino is named for Santo Iago (Saint James), an apostle and rumored brother of Jesus said to be buried under what is today the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Beginning in the ninth century, religious pilgrims would begin at their doorsteps and trek to the apostle’s resting place, seeking forgiveness for their sins.
Officially, the route begins wherever the pilgrim does, but the circuit most people follow has often been referred to as Camino Frances. The Camino now beckons all types—from those looking for a 500-mile hike to those seeking spiritual discovery or release. The trail has such transformative appeal that director-producer Lydia B. Smith, who completed it in 2008, documented a half-dozen travelers’ experiences in Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago.
Both Smith and her coproducer, Annie O’Neil, a fellow pilgrim whose journey is also documented in the film, advocate training to keep the experience more of an epiphany than an ordeal. “The more you can walk with a weighted pack, the better. I hiked in Griffith Park in Los Angeles with a backpack of canned goods as my training,” says O’Neil. “In a way, it’s not so much your fitness level but your willingness to let the Camino affect you. When you let go of your daily routines, your everyday comforts, and your ‘business as usual,’ you are bound to learn a lot about who you are, and to be greatly influenced by the people and places you find.”
Though some pilgrims complete the trail in as few as 20 days, most walk it in four to six weeks. And though it covers a great distance, its route is hardly remote, passing by budget-friendly accommodations nearly every five miles. These albergues (pilgrim hostels), which provide basic lodging, including access to showers, are run by hospitaleros (the volunteers who care for the pilgrims). To stay at them, you need a pilgrim passport, available through American Pilgrims on the Camino. The path also passes near restaurants—so it isn’t necessary to carry food or a great deal of water (take advantage of this opportunity to keep your pack light). Such amenities do come at a cost, though: much of the route is on or near paved, noisy roadways, making for walking that’s tough on the joints and not always serene.
Walking the Camino, now in select U.S. theaters, will be available on DVD this fall (you can order it on the website). “My intention in making the film is not to get everybody to do the Camino, but to do whatever their Camino is—to be more in alignment with themselves or their purpose for being here,” Smith says.
O’Neil assures Camino first-timers that she continues to “learn and reap the gifts of the Camino almost five years after walking it the first time. And, yes,” she adds, “I’ve been back.”