Hiking the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain was an eye-opening, life-changing experience I’ll never forget.
If you’re considering embarking on a journey of your own, here’s how to best prepare and what you can expect along the way.
For those of you who are just learning about the Camino de Santiago for the first time, I wanted to provide some background and historical context.
Known in English as “The Way of St. James,” the Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimages leading to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. This is where the remains of St. James were discovered in the ninth century.
People from all over the world take this journey either by hiking or cycling. As it’s historically a religious pilgrimage, many embark on it for spiritual purposes.
Others journey to connect with nature or to get in better physical shape. Oftentimes people will return to the Camino at different points throughout their lives and for various purposes.
This journey is a highly individualized one and I truly believe no two trips are the same.
Regardless of when you go and which route you take, you’re bound to have an eye-opening experience and learn quite a bit about yourself along the way.
I took this journey through Petrabax with my blogger friend Taylor of Brown Eyed Flower Child. We completed what’s considered the final leg of the Camino Francés, the most popular Camino route. (I’ll get into more detail about the individual routes a bit later.)
Over the course of six days, we walked 68 miles throughout Northern Spain. We stayed in the picturesque towns of Sarria, Portomarín, Palais del Rei, Melide, Arzúa, A Rua and finally Santiago de Compostela.
There are a number of physical, mental, and spiritual benefits to the Camino walk. Although it can be strenuous at times, this hike will challenge you in the best way possible.
Here are the biggest benefits you can stand to gain from this journey:
- You’ll learn the meaning of perseverance and experience a true sense of accomplishment. Personally, I was surprised by my own strength as I worked through physical challenges and perceived limitations. By the time I reached Santiago de Compostela, I cried tears of joy and pride. You are so much more capable than you think you are!
- You’ll connect with an incredible “Camino community.” Friendly people will shout: “Buen Camino!” as they pass, which is considered a warm greeting and a wish for a happy journey. I met some truly wonderful souls during this trip. In addition to connecting with the amazing Taylor of @brown.eyed.flower.child, there was always someone willing to offer advice, share supplies, and lend a helping hand.
- You’ll gain clarity. For me, this was one of the best aspects of the Camino walk. As you hike past some of the most striking landscapes Spain has to offer, any problems will seem insignificant and you’ll discover what’s most important to you.
- You’ll learn to appreciate the journey. By the end of this trip, I learned that life isn’t about rushing to a destination. It’s about what you make of the journey to get there. Once you realize this, you’ll be open to receiving the abundant gifts of this hike.
- You’ll be in great shape! After this 68-mile journey, I can say without any reservation that I was in the best physical shape of my life. Not to mention, my metabolism was at an all-time high (and I had plenty of gelato to celebrate)!
There are nine established routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela and each is different.
These routes are: Camino Frances (the French Way), Camino Portugués (the Portuguese Way), Camino Portugués Coastal, Camino del Norte (the Northern Way), Camino Primitivo (the Original Way), Via de la Plata (the Silver Way), Camino Inglés (the English Way), Le Puy Camino, and Camino Finisterre-Muxía.
Before this journey, I recommend checking out each of the different routes and selecting one based on your individual interests and fitness level.
Regardless of which route you select, the better shape you’re in, the easier and more enjoyable this experience will be.
To be perfectly frank, outside of doing one ten-mile day hike prior to this journey to get a feel for a typical day, I didn’t properly “train.” My fitness level was technically not where it should’ve been before I began, so it took a day or so for me to get up to speed.
That said, your body will for the most part acclimate to new demands.
My best advice in terms of physically preparing for this journey is to practice hiking before this trip. Find yourself a pair of well-fitting hiking shoes and break them in in advance.
If you have time prior to the trip, I recommend starting out small and building up your stamina each day. Start by walking one to two miles a day and then working up from there.
While on the journey, be sure to stretch before you begin each day and after each hike to prevent muscle fatigue!
What you bring along can truly make or break your experience hiking the Camino de Santiago. On one hand, you don’t want to overpack. However, you definitely want to have what you need for the more strenuous days.
Fortunately, if you forget something essential, chances are you can pick it up along the way. You’ll hit a number of villages throughout your journey. The larger ones will tend to have what you’ll need.
Here’s my suggested packing list for the Camino:
- Proper hiking shoes – This is one of the key components of a successful Camino experience. This is not the trip for flip-flops (and certainly not for heels). While I did see some people wearing hiking sandals along the journey, most wore hiking boots or sneakers. I recommend getting your hiking shoes at least a few weeks in advance and breaking them in before the journey to avoid as many blisters as possible.
- Comfortable activewear – Comfort is key, so wear whatever you’re comfortable walking (and sweating) in. I highly suggest looking for moisture-wicking material.
- Extra socks – If you’re not going to be washing your clothes on this journey, it can be helpful to have some extra socks with you. Trust me, you’ll feel better.
- Sunglasses – With plenty of sunny days ahead, you’re going to want to protect your eyes. Make the journey more comfortable by taking along your favorite shades.
- Hat – As a hat collector, this one was a no-brainer for me. Even if you’re not typically a hat person, I do suggest getting one for this trip. You’d be surprised what a difference having a protective brim can make when the sun is beating down on you!
- Raincoat – In case of inclement weather, you’ll want to have a raincoat or poncho on you. This will make the walk much more enjoyable since you’ll often be directly exposed to the elements.
- Comfortable backpack – You’re going to want a comfortable, quality backpack to carry the aforementioned items. Ideally, look for something supportive with wide straps.
- First aid kit – It’s always a good idea to have this on you in case of emergency. Make sure to stock your kit with plenty of band-aids (including the blister-specific variety), an anti-inflammatory, an antihistamine, tweezers, disinfecting wipes, sting relief wipes, and anything else you think you may need.
- Camera/cell phone – There are so many beautiful sights along the Camino and you’re definitely going to want to capture them. Be sure to take along your favorite camera and/or a cell phone for snapping pictures.
- Batteries/chargers – Depending on what electronics you’re taking along, you’ll want to make sure you can charge them as needed.
- Euros – While some food establishments will accept credit cards, not all do. Make sure to have euros with you so that you can always purchase whatever you need on the go.
- Pilgrimage Passport – Similar in size to a regular passport, you’ll receive your Pilgrimage Passport at the beginning of your journey. In order to fully “complete” the Camino, you’ll need to have this stamped twice a day at any participating places along your hike. Most rest stops, restaurants, and hotels, etc. will have a stamp that you can use.
- Hiking poles – While Taylor and I didn’t bring these along, at certain points I wish I had. You’ll see a large majority of hikers using these, which can really come in handy on the steeper trails. There are a number of little shops along the way where you can purchase hiking poles. If you do decide to purchase them, I recommend getting the retractable/fold-up variety as they’re easier to travel with.
- Water bottle – Although there are a number of places to purchase water along the way, I personally preferred having my own bottle.
- Snacks – Bringing along snacks can provide a great pick-me-up. That said, don’t stress if you forget them; there are plenty of villages you’ll hit along the way that sell food.
I highly recommend finding at least one hiking buddy to experience this journey with. That person will be your biggest cheerleader on the tougher days and will be there to celebrate all the wins along the way!
I’d also suggest making sure that whoever you go with is at or around your fitness level. It will make the journey more enjoyable if you’re walking at roughly the same pace as your companion rather than lagging behind (or getting too far ahead). This was another reason I was happy to journey with Taylor!
The best decision I made in regards to this trip was experiencing it through Petrabax. This full service travel organization specializes in planning trips throughout the Iberian Peninsula. From group coach tours, to independent travel services, to local tours and excursions, they’re the go-to company for travel throughout Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.
When you first arrive at the airport, Petrabax will arrange a transfer from there to your first hotel.
Personally, I landed in A Coruña and Petrabax arranged a private car service for me to Sarria (about one hour away) where I started the journey. They also arranged a return transfer for me at the end of the trip.
With long travel days, airport transfers are a perk that will help eliminate hassle.
Throughout the journey, I came across several people who were trying to find accommodations on the spot for that night. One man seemed a bit stressed that the hotel he was hoping for was fully booked. After an already long day, he had to walk a few more miles to reach the next hotel.
By booking a tour through Petrabax, you can avoid this issue, as they’ll organize all accommodations ahead of time. You’ll simply follow the itinerary they provide which will lead you to your designated hotel each night.
I should also mention that the hotels and paradores provided are comfortable, attractive, and in good locations. There’s nothing I loved more after a long day than checking into a comfortable hotel where I found my luggage waiting for me. Not to mention a big bathtub to soak my tired feet in!
While many who hike the Camino are backpackers, I’m definitely not one of them. While I don’t mind getting down and dirty in nature, I’m not down for hiking with a lot of weight on my back.
If you’re like me and not about the backpacking life, you’ll love booking through Petrabax. They handle luggage transfers between hotels for you.
When you arrive at your first hotel, a luggage tag will be provided for you. Simply attach your tag to your suitcase and place it in the designated luggage area at the start of each day. If you’re unsure where this is, you can always ask a friendly hotel staff member.
Your luggage will be picked up and conveniently transferred to your next hotel as you hike, saving you time and stress. When you arrive at your next hotel, it will either be waiting for you in the lobby or in your room.
Just ensure that your luggage is a maximum of 44 pounds, as that’s the weight limit.
Then, simply pack a small, comfy backpack or bag with any personal items for the day ahead. Petrabax will handle the rest.
Depending on the tour you book, Petrabax can also include breakfast and dinner each day. If so, you’ll enjoy breakfast at your hotel each morning. Most breakfasts are served at 7:30, but you can confirm this with a staff member when you arrive.
Dinners are either provided by the hotels themselves or in the local area. If the dinner is outside of the hotel, you’ll be provided with a dinner voucher.
In regards to lunch, you’ll find this independently throughout the day (depending on when/where you wish to stop). You can choose from any of the rest stops along your hike.
Even with the best preparation and intentions, sometimes things don’t always go according to plan.
If you’re unable to continue one of your daily routes for any reason, not to worry. Petrabax offers a 24-hour hotline that you can contact in case of an emergency or any questions/concerns. If needed, they’ll provide a car to pick you up and transfer you to your next hotel.
When you book with Petrabax, they’ll provide you with a daily itinerary. This will outline the points you’ll stop at each day, the number of miles you’ll hike, and the varying terrains.
Something I didn’t put too much thought into ahead of time was the terrain, but it surprisingly makes a huge difference when you’re hiking.
Some terrain will be paved, sometimes it will be forest floor, sometimes it will include larger (but sturdy) rocks, and sometimes it will be loose gravel.
I personally found pavement and flat forest floor to be the easiest terrain to walk on. Loose gravel was the most challenging for me, as it shifts under your feet. This can sometimes be bothersome, particularly if you have blisters.
The thing I loved most was that every day was different. Some days we’d see tons of cute animals and farmland, other days we’d walk through enchanted forests, the next we’d be falling in love with picturesque villages, and then we’d be gazing at spectacular mountains.
This journey will humble and inspire you. No matter how the challenge of the day may test you, you’ll find it inside to keep going. You’ll see that a reward always waits for you on the other end, whether it be a view, a new milestone, or a confirmation that you’re strong and able. You’ll learn about yourself, what you’re really made of, and what you hold the most dear.
In short, you can expect an enlightening trip you won’t soon forget.