If you are considering walking the Camino de Santiago, you may not be sure what to expect. We found when walking the Camino that some of our expectations were not quite in line with what we were experiencing.
We wanted to share what we encountered while walking the Camino, including pleasant surprises as well as unexpected problems.
1. It is very easy to get a cab on the Camino.
If you are worried about what to do if you get injured or if you are just too tired to walk at some point, it is very easy to get a cab to your next town. To get a cab, you can ask someone at your albergue or at any local store.
If you find yourself too tired mid-walk, you can stop at any cafe or albergue you spot, and ask for a taxi. Or, you might be able to wave to a cab you spot on the road, and the driver might stop and pick you up.
We know two people who on one occasion mid-walk, were unable to continue, and they easily found a cab at the next albergue they spotted. In another occasion while walking, they saw a cab driving down the road, waved to the driver, and the driver stopped and took them to their next location.
2. It is very easy to have your luggage transported from one town to the next.
Luggage transport companies are available along the entire Camino to pick up your bags and deliver them to your next albergue or hotel. This is especially helpful if you have a longer-than-usual day of walking, or if you have a medical condition which worsens when carrying heavy loads.
You can talk to someone working at your albergue to learn about where to leave your bag and how to pay. The cost for the service can be as low as 3-5 euros, but will depend on the company you end up choosing and how far you intend to transport your bag.
We had our bags delivered on our longest day of walking and it was one of our best decisions while walking the Way!
3. Overall, the food offered at restaurants on the Camino is the same, or similar, everywhere you go (except in bigger towns).
Menus along the Way looked very, very similar. This is fine if you love the food. If you don’t love the food or have dietary restrictions, then eating at restaurants might not be your favorite part of the day. Even if you love the food at first, you might get tired of eating the same thing later on in your pilgrimage.
Note that bigger towns do have a variety of restaurants and food offerings, and even cater to different dietary restrictions (such as vegan or gluten free).
The monotony in restaurant food in the smaller towns is one reason why grocery stores are so amazing (see #4).
4. Grocery stores are available along the Way and offer a variety of food options, especially for those with dietary restrictions.
We loved going to the grocery stores along the Camino. At grocery stores, you can find food that caters to your dietary restrictions and preferences, at affordable prices. You will many times find a greater variety of lunch and dinner options than at restaurants.
In addition, you can find snacks such as granola bars, nuts, and fruits, that you can pack with you and eat as you walk.
Our favorite grocery store purchases were bags of salad, hummus, bread (you can find gluten free bread), peanut butter (yes, you can find peanut butter in most grocery stores), and local dark chocolate.
5. Physical training is very, very helpful before your Camino pilgrimage.
Taking the time to train before your Camino will be incredibly helpful. Your body will be better prepared for the long trek if you begin to hike/walk beforehand.
When training, use the shoes, socks, and gear you plan to bring with you. Even something as small as trying out new kinds of socks while walking the Camino can cause issues. For example, we trained using one type of sock, but when walking the Camino, decided to try out a different kind of sock that many others had recommended. The result was that one of us got a blister. Both of us went back to using the socks we trained with and had no issues after that.
As part of your training, make sure to include some hills. Walking uphill and downhill will pose challenges that walking on straight paths don’t. The Camino has many parts of uphill and downhill walking, and it will only be to your benefit to prepare for them.
Our training did not include hills, and we definitely felt the lack of training when we encountered those parts along the Camino de Santiago.
If you are curious about what other things you can do to prepare physically to walk the Camino, please check out our post detailing everything you would want to know about training beforehand.
6. You will still feel the weight of your backpack, no matter how much you train.
We trained with backpacks that held approximately the same weight we were going to carry on the Camino. Even though we trained, and our backpacks were relatively lightweight, as we walked the Camino it felt as though they kept getting heavier as the day went on.
You will feel this weight in your shoulders, your back, or other parts of your body. Regardless of where you feel it, be prepared to feel the strain and pain of the weight.
7. You need less than you think!
Pack as lightly as you can. It’s been recommended that once you have packed as lightly as you can, you should remove 25% of the weight.
Truly, you will need less than you think you need. We believe so much in packing lightly that we wrote a post including 10 ways to keep your backpack under 10 pounds. In the post, we provide more information on what to pack and what not to pack. Carrying a light backpack is something you will not regret!
8. Microfiber towels do the job, at a fraction of the weight.
Microfiber towels are a great addition to your packing list. The microfiber towel we packed was small, lightweight, and effective. It got the job done, dried quickly, and was not a burden to carry.
9. The Camino path is so well marked, you won’t need a guidebook as you walk.
You will see yellow arrows and waymarkers very frequently, and as long as you are paying attention, you will not get lost. If you do, you can always ask a local and they will point you in the right direction. So, you really don’t need to bring a guidebook with you.
Of course, some people might like guidebooks for the additional benefits they provide. For example, some guidebooks provide historical information about each town, or provide Spanish words and phrases. But, this is information you would also be able to find online. There are also some Camino apps that do the same thing.
Sometimes, there are forks in the road, where you have the option of continuing the Camino by going one way or by going another way. Whichever way you choose, there will be yellow arrows and waymarkers to guide you, and eventually, both paths merge to form one path again.
To lighten our load, we did not bring a guidebook with us. Instead, we took pictures of some maps and kept them in our phone, just in case. We found that following the signs on the road was sufficient to get us to where we needed to be.
10. If you are traveling with someone else (or a group), you might not be socializing with others as much as you think.
Although we met fellow pilgrims along the Way, we did not spend much time socializing with them. Part of the reason might be that we had our own group. This means we were less likely to approach others outside our party, and less likely to be approached by others as well. We found other families who traveled together had similar experiences.
The experience of a solo pilgrim might be different. In fact, we know of a solo pilgrim who did meet and interact with others along the Way, and still maintains those relationships after the Camino.
You get to decide how social you want your Camino to be. If you are walking as part of a group, keep in mind that others might find it a bit intimidating to approach your group, and that you might have to be the one to extend an invitation for others to join your group.
Many pilgrims have mentioned that the relationships they made along the Camino were one of the highlights of their pilgrimage, so it might be worth the effort to approach others and initiate these relationships.
11. You might save money at municipal albergues, but private albergues save you time and are less stressful.
Municipal albergues are very, very affordable, at around 4 euros per night, or any other donation (donativo). But, depending on what time you get into town, there might not be any beds available. In addition, because they are usually pretty crowded, that means fighting for or waiting for receptacles to use (to charge your electronics).
You may also have to wait to use bathrooms, and laundry facilities.
Private albergues allow you to make a reservation ahead of time, and you can conveniently do it through Booking.com. By reserving ahead of time, you are guaranteed a bed, and don’t have to worry about rushing to the next town or participating in the “bed race”. A bed at a private albergue might cost 8-12 euros per night.
We made reservations for all our accommodations, and it was great to be able to take our time walking, if we so desired. We had a guaranteed bed, and the eliminated stress made our walk much more enjoyable.
While we made our reservations ahead of time (by carefully planning how much we would walk each day), you can choose to be more spontaneous by reserving your bed(s) a day or two before arriving to your next town (again by using booking.com).
12. Private rooms are amazing and, if you split the cost with someone, quite affordable.
There are many benefits to sleeping in a private room, as opposed to the bunk bed, dorm-style accommodations. First, you are not affected by the noise caused by others, such as snoring, others getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, rustling through their backpack, or getting up early in the morning.
Second, you will have a private bathroom and shower and don’t have to worry about taking turns. Third, you will have your own receptacles to charge your electronics, and won’t have to worry about not being able to charge them.
Sometimes private rooms and apartments seem very expensive. The cost of private rooms and apartments were between 25-50 euros per night. A bed at a private albergue costs between 8-12 euros per night. Depending on how many people are sharing a private room, the cost of the room per person ends up being about the same as if you had each paid for a bed, AND you get all the added benefits of a private room, such as privacy, quiet, and your own bathroom/shower.
If you stay at an apartment, you’ll be able to fit more people, thus bringing down the cost even more, and at an apartment, you’ll have the added benefit of having a kitchen and living room area as well.
13. Starting from Sarria, there are times when there are a lot of people on the road.
There were times along the Camino where it was very crowded. There would be pilgrims on their own as well as groups walking together.
If you are interested in meeting people or socializing as part of your pilgrimage, these times are great opportunities to go approach fellow pilgrims.
If you are looking for a more solitary pilgrimage, there will be plenty of time to be alone (see #14), you just have to get through the crowds. Also, once you identify what times of the day are more crowded, you can schedule your day to avoid those times.
One of the nice things about the more crowded times of the day are the multiple “Buen Camino!” that you hear from others. Sharing this message with other pilgrims was something we really enjoyed.
14. But, there are also times when it’s just you on the road.
If you want to enjoy quiet time while walking, you will definitely have the opportunity. Sometimes, it seemed that we were in the middle of a large crowd of pilgrims one minute, and completely alone the next minute.
If you are interested in a solitary pilgrimage, these will be your favorite times of the day. If you are interested in a more social pilgrimage, you can approach other pilgrims at the start of the day, and ask if you can walk with them for the rest of the day.
Ultimately, as pilgrims we have to accept what we encounter on the road, and whether it is crowded or solitary, there will be things to enjoy either way!
15. You can prevent bed bugs.
Using a permethrin product to spray (or dip) your pajamas and sleeping bag will reduce the risk of bed bug bites at night. Always follow the instructions when applying.
Another way to prevent bed bug bites is to stay in a private room. This way you can easily check your bed before sleeping to see if there are any signs of bed bug activity (it is a lot easier to check 1 or 2 beds in a room rather than checking 30 bunk beds!). We stayed in private rooms and apartments for our pilgrimage and never had any issues with bed bugs.
16. You will be surprised at how meaningful seemingly small things can be.
Your shell (if you choose to get one) will become something very meaningful (even if you are not typically a nostalgic person). It becomes the symbol of your pilgrimage, the token that indicates your status as a pilgrim. This small item is suddenly filled with meaning, and reminds you not only of your status as a pilgrim on the Camino, but as a pilgrim in life. Our post about the shell provides more information about the shell, where to get one, and why it is used as a symbol for the Way of St. James.
Your credencial (pilgrim passport), though just a piece of paper with stamps, becomes meaningful because it is a record of the places you have been, and proof of your journey. Your Compostela, though just a certificate, is proof that you made it to your destination. These two documents will become meaningful and something you will treasure after your journey.
Our post on the credencial will provide information on where to get one and how much it costs, as well as where to get yours stamped. Our post on the Compostela will provide you with information on where to get one, how much it costs, and what requirements you need to fulfill to get one.
The botafumeiro and pilgrim Masses also become very meaningful. The botafumeiro, similar to the Compostela, will provide a sense of completion, since the botafumeiro is associated with arriving at the Cathedral of St. James. The pilgrim Masses are just like regular daily Masses, but pilgrims receive a special blessing. These Masses and the blessings add meaning to your pilgrimage on a day-to-day basis. For more information about pilgrim Masses, check out our post.
17. You will find bathrooms along the Way, but make sure you are prepared.
You will find many bathrooms in cafes as you walk. However, you will either have to pay to use the facilities (about a euro), or be a paying customer for the cafe, meaning you bought some of their food or beverages.
We usually scheduled cafe breaks along our walks, and it was helpful to combine our snack and bathroom use in one break. That way, we were a paying customer at the cafe because we bought our snacks there, and were able to use the bathroom as a result.
18. Have soap and toilet paper handy - not all bathrooms will have some!
While you will find bathrooms along the Way, there were some that did not have toilet paper or soap. Having a little bit of toilet paper and soap tucked away in your pocket or an easy-to-access spot in your backpack will save you a lot of trouble.
19. Bring a few extra Ziplock bags.
Ziplock bags are really useful. You can use them to store your valuables and your documents (such as your passport), so that they are protected from rain or other circumstances. You can use one to store your extra toilet paper (see #18), and you can use one to store any wet clothes, if necessary.
Having a couple of extra Ziplock bags will not add much weight or take up much space, but will prove to be useful.
20. Even on the Camino, it is very hard to get rid of distractions.
We had been thinking of the Camino as an opportunity to get away from the distractions of our day-to-day lives. Yet, all around us we saw pilgrims engrossed in their phones, computers or headphones.
While it is possible to remove the distractions, it might not be as easy as you were expecting, not only because these have turned into habits, but also because those around you will be engaged in their own distractions as well.
21. Spiritual preparation is very, very helpful.
The Camino is both a physical and a spiritual journey. Preparing physically is extremely important (see #5), but preparing spiritually is also important.
Whatever your faith tradition, spend some extra time beforehand in prayer, meditation or attending religious services.
It helps to take the time to think about the purpose of your pilgrimage and what you hope to learn or accomplish. In addition, you will be spending a lot of time alone with your thoughts. Due to our day-to-day distractions, this is something many of us are not used to.
Just like preparing physically trains your body to walk for long hours, preparing spiritually will prepare you to think, meditate, and pray for longer periods of time.
While we were prepared for some of the items on this list, several others were a surprise. As you prepare for your Camino, read as many other pilgrims’ experiences as possible (and watch Camino videos) to get a feel for what to expect. Each pilgrim will have different experiences that you can learn from and will help you best plan your Camino.
No matter what you think the Camino is or isn’t, you won’t know until you walk it.