So you have decided to walk the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain, but where should you start? Hundreds of questions will surely pop up, that was exactly what happened to ourselves.
In this FAQ-style guide for walking the Camino de Santiago we answer the most common questions. Let’s dive right in, and ¡Buen Camino!
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Way of St. James – or Camino de Santiago in Spanish – is a pilgrimage that is an important part of Europe’s history. During the 9th century, a series of paths from all corners of Europe were formed when pilgrims walked to Saint James the Great’s tomb in Santiago de Compostela.
Today the Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s most popular hiking trails, with over 300.000 people walking it every year. Here you can read more about the history.
How long is the Camino de Santiago?
Through Northern Spain, there is a number of pilgrimages with different lengths that go to the town of Santiago de Compostela, located in northwestern Galicia.
The most popular are:
- Camino Francés: 769 km.
- Camino del Norte: 824 km.
- Camino Portugués: 620 km.
- Camino Primitivo: 313 km.
- Camino de Finisterre: 90 km (and 25 km more to Muxía).
- Camino Inglés: 119 km.
- Vía de la Plata: 800 km.
Camino de Santiago map
In this Camino de Santiago map, you can see the different routes in Spain that go to Santiago de Compostela. In the paragraph above you can see the length of each Camino.
How many days does it take to walk the Camino de Santiago?
When people think of the Camino de Santiago, they usually mean the French Way, but there are many more Caminos that every year increase in popularity.
To say exactly how many days a certain Camino will take for you is a bit difficult, as people walk at their own pace and might want to take some days off as well. Here is a rough estimation of the most popular routes:
- Camino Francés: takes around 30-35 days to finish.
- Camino del Norte: around 36-40 days.
- Camino Primitivo: around 16 days.
- Camino Portugués: around 30 days from Lisbon. Approx. 14 days from Porto.
- Camino Inglés: should take around 1 week.
- Camino de Finisterre: takes about 4 walking days to Finisterre. 1 more day if you decide to walk to Muxía.
Where does the Camino de Santiago start?
The Camino Francés, which is the most popular route by far, starts in the french village of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, but many choose to start in Roncevalles, on the Spanish side of the border (the next stage).
The Camino Portugués, the second most popular way, officially starts in Lisbon, but many choose to start in Porto or Tui.
The Northern Way, Camino del Norte, starts in the Basque city of Irún, located on the shores of the Bay of Biscay. The Camino Primitivo starts in Oviedo and the Camino Inglés in the port city of Ferrol. The Vía de la Plata starts in Sevilla.
Which Camino is best for you?
This is very individual and depends on several factors. How many days of vacation do you have? Are you an experienced hiker, or is it your first time doing a longer hike like this? Do you want to walk along the Atlantic Ocean? In the mountains or on the Meseta plateau?
As you can see, you’ll have to consider different things before proceeding and exploring which Camino is the best option for you.
For example, Camino Francés is perfect for first-time hikers (almost 60% of all peregrinos chose this route in 2018), while the Northern Way is more physically demanding, but with breathtaking landscapes and beaches.
Camino Primitivo is even more demanding, and more suitable for experienced hikers. Please contact us with your preferences, and we’ll get back to you with a more specific answer.
How long should you walk every day?
This is also highly individual and depends on which route you are walking, on the terrain, your physical shape, and the season. Usually, walking 20 to 28 kilometers per day is appropriate, but listen to your body! Maybe you want to walk more one day or a bit less on another.
Keep in mind that the first days are often more difficult, before getting into the “Camino rhythm”, so maybe you can start with shorter distances and increase as the days go along. Many pilgrims also take rest days in one of the stunning historic cities along the Camino.
How should you train for the Camino de Santiago?
The preparation depends on fitness level, age, and health, and is thus very individual. Some basic tips for a successful pilgrimage in Spain:
- Start exercising well in advance, 4 to 6 months before the start is appropriate.
- Walk daily (or every other day) for 6 to 10 km.
- Add a few 15- to 25 km stretches for a few consecutive days.
- Try walking with your Camino backpack when it is fully packed. Walk in the socks and the shoes you’re bringing for the pilgrimage.
- Don’t forget to walk up and down. Try to find a hill nearby where you can practice.
Do you have to be religious to walk the Camino de Santiago?
No, this is a common misconception. The Camino de Santiago is a personal journey and everyone has their reasons for doing it. Often, it is about personal development, and walking is one of the best ways to be present in the moment.
During the walk, you begin to appreciate the most basic things and see the beauty in small things. Whatever your motivation is, walking the Camino de Santiago is an unforgettable experience.
Which are the best books about the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago is made up of several different routes from all corners of Europe and Spain, and you’ll have to find a suitable book for your route.
However, we can recommend John Brierley’s series: “A Pilgrim’s Guide to…”. He has, among other things, written books about the Camino Francés, Camino Portugés, Camino Inglés, and Camino de Finisterre. His books are terrific guides for walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.
Which are the symbols of the Camino de Santiago?
The most typical (and official…) symbol is the yellow arrow, which shows you the way to Santiago de Compostela. On April 9th, 2018, the Consejo Jacobeo approved new guidelines for the symbols on the Camino de Santiago.
Download the following PDF at SpainNorth.com, where you can see the symbols of Camino de Santiago and what they mean: Signage For The Camino De Santiago (22 downloads)
Luggage transfer on the Camino
Do you wish to transfer your luggage on the Camino? There is a very simple and great way. At the Spanish postal company Correos, you can order them to pick up your backpack in the morning and deliver it to your next accommodation.
Visit the website of Correos and learn how the luggage transfer works, see prices, and more.
Can you walk the Camino without speaking Spanish?
Yes, of course! People from all over the world are walking the Camino de Santiago. Spaniards are not known for their English skills, but more and more locals are speaking it and there shouldn’t be much problem in communicating.
If you don’t speak Spanish, write down a few simple phrases, bring a small dictionary, use a language app or do as we say here in Spain, “talk with your hands”.
How much does it cost to walk the Camino de Santiago?
The cost of walking the Camino de Santiago depends on how you choose to do it. Do you want to stay in cozy B&Bs or small family-run hotels? Albergues? Will you eat the pilgrim menu for lunch every day?
The biggest costs are the hiking equipment (clothing, backpack, shoes, etc.) and transport to and from Spain. Once on the pilgrim route, as an estimation, you will spend around 30€ per day. This includes accommodation in an Albergue, lunch, dinner, and some extras.
Surely it is possible to make it even cheaper than that.
If you stay in small hotels or B&Bs, an overnight stay usually costs 30 to 60€ per night, so that quickly becomes a more significant cost. But everything is individual, and you make the Camino the way you want it.
A few tips for cutting the biggest expenses:
- Book flights well in advance – and not during the weekend when airlines often raise the prices. Try clearing your cookies before searching and booking. If you’re flexible, use Google Flights to see which days and airlines are the cheapest.
- Buy your hiking equipment on sale, in the second-hand shop or see if you have functional clothing, shoes or other items in your storing space at home. Try equipment in the shop, and use a price comparison site to buy it at the cheapest price online.
The rucksack – how big should it be and what kind?
Many people choose to walk the Camino de Santiago with a backpack that can carry between 30 to 40 liters. Of course, this also depends on the season; what clothes you’re bringing; body type; and more factors. Many pilgrims like using backpacks from Osprey.
The backpack should sit relaxed on the hips, and tight against the body. You should be able to open the bag from the outside so that you don’t have to turn everything upside down every time you want to take something out of it.
Attempt to make the backpack weigh approx. 10% of your body weight.
Don’t forget to test different backpacks in the store, the carrying system and how it sits on you can differ a bit. If you have the opportunity, walk the equivalent of a normal stage on the Camino (20-25 km) with your backpack, so you have time to change/adjust if something feels wrong.
What to pack on the Camino de Santiago
Packing right for your Camino is crucial, as you want to bring the essentials without making the backpack weight too much. Of course, the packing will also depend on the season and the person. Here is a great packing list for women, and men can draw inspiration from this one.
Walk with hiking poles, or without?
This is very individual, but we believe that hiking poles (or just one hiking pole) can make the walk a lot easier for many pilgrims. With poles, you get great help uphill as well as support and stability when going downhill. If it has been raining and it is muddy and slippery, hiking poles can also be very helpful.
Make sure the poles are set at the correct height and hold/tighten them accurately. If you use them correctly, you will also train the upper body!
Check-in your telescopic hiking poles at the airport – you probably won’t be able to bring them on board as hand luggage. You can also buy wooden poles along the Camino de Santiago, they cost approx. 5 €.
How hard is walking the Camino de Santiago?
There are many ways to do the Camino de Santiago; walking; on bicycle; electric bike; with horse… The hiking days can be shortened and adjusted for each person’s fitness level.
The difficulty will also depend on the route/distance you choose, for example, Camino del Norte or Camino Primitivo are much more demanding than Camino Francés. You can contact us and tell us about your fitness level, and we will get back to you with a more specific answer.
Is it possible to cycle the Camino de Santiago?
Yes! Sometimes you can cycle directly on the Camino trail, sometimes on alternate roads that go near the original trail.
For example, in difficult climbs, terrain or steep downhill, you will be referred to other roads (often paved country roads or dirt paths). On the Camino Francés, there is a specially marked bike path that you can follow.
It is also possible to rent a bike along the Camino, so if you get any problems with your feet, or just want to combine cycling and hiking, it is possible. Do a Google search and you’ll quickly find companies that can help you do the Camino de Santiago on a bike.
What is the Botafumeiro?
Botafumeiro is a metal thurible with incense. This fascinating tradition has been used since the Middle Ages to purify the air in the cathedral during the fairs, where many pilgrims participated after their long walk.
With the help of a rope, the “smoke expeller” is swung to the ceiling at 70 km/h while the smoke goes out into the cathedral. Note: In 2019, this tradition is not performed, as the cathedral is undergoing an interior renovation.
What is the pilgrim passport?
La Credencial – the pilgrim passport – is a small book that pilgrims bring with them and stamp in during the way. Many places like Albergues, restaurants, bars, historical sights, etc. often have their own sellos and are happy to stamp in your passport.
It’s amazing to see how you get more stamps in your little book, the closer you are to Santiago de Compostela. Take the book home with you as a beautiful memory from your time on the Camino.
What is La Compostela?
Once in Santiago de Compostela, you can request a diploma/certificate – La Compostela – in the Pilgrim’s Office by showing the pilgrim passport with all its stamps.
The requirements are that the pilgrimage has been at least 100 km and completed in Santiago, for example, you can hike from Sarria to Santiago to formally being able to receive La Compostela.
If you are cycling the Camino de Santiago the distance has to be at least 200 km. Keep in mind that if you only walk 100 km or cycle 200 km, you need to collect TWO stamps per day to be able to receive this diploma. For longer distances, one stamp per day is enough.
Since 2019 there is a new system in place for receiving La Compostela. You now have to ask for a number at the Pilgrim’s Office, and through a website, you can see when it is your turn. This system will shorten the waiting times and the long queues outside the office.
If you are leaving Santiago de Compostela the day after, go to the Pilgrim’s Office early, preferably shortly after you have arrived, take your number and hopefully, you will receive La Compostela the same day.
What time is the Pilgrims Mass held in Santiago de Compostela?
The Pilgrim Mass in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is held twice a day, at 12.00 pm and 7.30 pm. As a special welcoming at the beginning, the name, starting point, and nationality of the pilgrims who have arrived and received their Compostela for the last 24 hours are read out loud.
How long can you use the pilgrim passport?
The pilgrim passport can be used until its pages are filled with stamps. In other words, you can use the passport for several Caminos and on different pilgrimage routes. However, many pilgrims prefer to get a new pilgrim passport when they are starting a new pilgrimage.
Accommodation on the Camino – how to find and book it
Accommodation on the Camino de Santiago will depend a lot on what you are looking for. For example, if you want to stay at Albergues, you can use an app or ask for a list of the shelters at the pilgrimage office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. Many guidebooks, such as John Brierly’s books, also have lists of shelters and contact information.
At various online forums, some lists are constantly updated, and you can ask and get personal first-hand tips on accommodation. To be able to stay in communal Albergues you’ll need a pilgrim passport, and it is not possible to book in advance.
Another option is to use websites like Hotels.com or Booking to find small cozy hotels or other accommodation along the Camino.
One tip is to book a few nights from home, and then just start hiking and take the day as it comes. Along the Camino, there are many types of accommodation – hostels, small hotels, guesthouses – and these places are usually not fully booked (only sometimes in the summer).
After this first couple of nights, you can just keep going and every day find accommodation for that night. This is the very essence of El Camino: to let go of planning and control.
But, what exactly is an “Albergue”?
By now, you probably have seen that we mentioned Albergues a few times. An Albergue is a kind of hostel for pilgrims that is located along the Camino and where you can stay overnight for a symbolic sum.
There are both communal and private Albergues, in private ones you have to pay, and the dormitories can have anywhere from 4 to 40 beds. Have in mind that only the private Albergues can be booked in advance, in the communal Albergues it is first-come, first to get a bed.
Have in mind that only the private Albergues can be booked in advance, in the communal Albergues it is first-come, first to get a bed.
To be able to stay overnight in a communal Albergue, you need to have a pilgrim passport. Usually, in the evenings there is a wonderful atmosphere in the Albergues with pilgrims socializing, playing cards and cooking together.
Do you have to sleep at Albergues?
Camino de Santiago is a personal journey where everyone makes their own Camino. Some choose to stay at Albergues, others prefer to book hotels, hostels or guesthouses along the trail.
It is also possible to buy tours through travel agencies specialized in the Camino de Santiago, these trips often include flights, transfers to the starting point, accommodation, guidebook, the pilgrim passport, etc.
What is “Refuge Orisson”?
Refuge Orisson is a French Albergue on Camino Francés, located about 7 kilometers from the starting point of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, after the heaviest climb on the entire French Way. Quite a few choose to stay here instead of walking the whole stage to Roncesvalles.
In addition to the breathtaking landscape of the Pyrenees, the atmosphere that the pilgrims create at Refuge Orisson tends to be amazing after the first day on the Camino.
This cozy shelter has only approx. 30 beds, so book several months in advance if you are thinking of staying here. Booking can only be done by e-mail, and sometimes they are slow to respond, so be patient. If you do not get an answer in a couple of weeks, try emailing them again.
Maybe you don’t want to (or can’t) do the first tough climb? Take a taxi in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port and ask to be dropped off at Refuge Orisson, from here you can start your pilgrimage. Remember, everyone makes their own Camino.
What is “La Meseta”?
La Meseta is a plateau with an average altitude of 700 meters above sea level, which starts after the city of Burgos on Camino Francés (French Way).
This plateau is the very foundation of the Castile & León region and you leave it just before Galicia. Here, the agricultural landscapes are seemingly endless, however, you’ll walk through several medieval villages and a couple of historic cities.
On the Meseta, there is an inland climate where the temperatures can get really high during the summer. During the summer months, we recommend leaving early in the morning, wearing a hat/cap, and sunscreen. Remember to take plenty of water with you.
Where is the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela?
The Pilgrim Office of Santiago de Compostela is located at Rúa Carretas, 33. Here you can get your last stamp and request La Compostela (read more above). You can call them at (+34) 981 568 846, email firstname.lastname@example.org or read more on their website.
What time of the day should you start walking?
In the summer it is important to start walking early, because it often gets very hot in the middle of the day, and because it can be fully booked at the day’s final destination.
We like getting up at around 05:30 pm and start walking after breakfast. Bring a flashlight so you can see the path if it’s still dark outside. Seeing the sunrise on the Camino is wonderful!
Seeing the sunrise on the Camino is wonderful!
When should you walk the Camino de Santiago?
We recommend to go in the spring (April, May, or early June) or in the autumn (September, October, or early November). Mainly because it can be quite busy on the trail (Camino Francés) during the summer and the weather can be very hot.
If you walk the Camino in winter the weather varies a lot more, with heavy snowfall sometimes, and many of the Albergues can be closed. Think and plan accordingly depending on the season.
Which Camino is best if you only have a short holiday?
Most of us don’t have enough holidays for a +34 day pilgrimage adventure in Spain, or maybe you just want to try walking the Camino de Santiago for a week. Here are some tips on routes you can do on a shorter holiday:
- St-Pied-de-Port: Start the French Way from the beginning! And walk as far as you can with the time you have. The nature of the Pyrenees is breathtaking. You can always come back at a later stage of your life and continue your Camino where you left off.
- Sarria to Santiago de Compostela: Walk the approx. 120 km from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela on the Camino Francés, then you can also receive La Compostela (read more above).
- Tui to Santiago de Compostela: From the city of Tui on the Spanish-Portuguese border in southern Galicia, it is about 100 km to Santiago de Compostela. Discover the Portuguese Way (Camino Portugés), a very beautiful Camino!
- Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela: you can start in the port city of Ferrol and walk on the Camino Inglés south to Santiago de Compostela. Enjoy 115 kilometers of hiking through the fertile Galician hinterlands.
- Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre: Travel to Santiago, enjoy the atmosphere and the sights, and then hike west on Camino de Finisterre to the “End of the World”. Spend a couple of days in the village of Finisterre and go to the beautiful beaches along the Costa da Morte, or continue walking one day to Muxía. Then you can take the bus back to Santiago.
- Camino Lebaniego in Cantabria: Camino Lebaniego is a shorter and “unknown” pilgrimage (3 hiking days), which goes through stunning nature from San Vicente de la Barquera to the Picos de Europa National Park. Combine the pilgrimage on Camino Lebaniego with a few days of beach life and delicious tapas in Santander.
What is a Holy Year (Año Santo Jacobeo)?
When Saint. Jacob’s Day (July 25) occurs on a Sunday, it will be a Holy Year. This happens with a regular pattern of six, five, six and eleven years. When it is a Holy Year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world walk to Santiago de Compostela to, according to the tradition, be forgiven for their sins.
When will the next Holy Year happen?
The next Holy Year will occur in 2021 and during the week leading up to the 25th of July, there will be a lot of events, parties, fairs, concerts and much more. The last Holy Year happened in 2010.
Keep in mind that the Camino is a lot busier during a Holy Year: the shelters and other accommodation can be fully booked, especially during the summer months.
Can you walk the Camino de Santiago alone?
Yes without any problems, many choose to do the pilgrimage on their own. Already on the first day you often meet pilgrims with whom you become friends and walk the coming stages (your very own pilgrim family). You are never alone on the pilgrim route, even if you started the Camino by yourself.
On El Camino, strong friendships are formed that will last a lifetime. If you want to walk by yourself you can, of course, do it. Everyone makes their own Camino!
You are never alone on the pilgrim route, even if you started the Camino by yourself.
But, is Camino de Santiago safe to walk alone?
Yes, the Camino de Santiago is safe to walk alone. Although serious individual incidents have happened, it is extremely rare. For example, if you walk the Camino Francés during the summer you’ll meet a lot of pilgrims during your journey and you’ll never really be alone on the path.
There is a good app that the Spanish Ministry has developed, AlertCops, with, among other things, geopositioning, where you can contact the police directly if anything would happen.
We would say that the biggest dangers of the Camino de Santiago are car traffic, dehydration, solar burns and damage if you, for example, fall and hit yourself.
Films about the Camino de Santiago
The Way from 2010 is a great film about the Camino de Santiago starring Martin Sheen. It beautifully portrays the nature, the friendship between pilgrims and the unique atmosphere on Camino Francés (the French Way). “Life is too big to walk it alone!”
We can also recommend the BBC series The Road to Santiago. In 3 episodes you get to follow how a group of people from all corners of society come together during their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
You get a great insight into what it is like to walk the Camino de Santiago, and for those who have already walked the Camino, the series brings wonderful memories back. Most importantly, first-time hikers can also learn a lot.
You’re interested in doing the Camino – how do you take your first step?
We think it is great that you are interested in walking the Camino de Santiago! If you didn’t receive an answer to your question above, you can always call, write us, or comment.
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Have you walked the Camino de Santiago? How was it? Are we missing some important questions? Please leave a comment.