Once you have made the decision to walk the Camino de Santiago and have started making travel plans, the next step is to start training to ensure you are prepared for the physical demands.
How should you prepare yourself to walk the Camino? You should develop a walking training schedule which includes walking regularly and for longer periods of time, using the same gear (including shoes and socks) you intend to use, and wearing your backpack, ensuring that the backpack weighs approximately what it will weigh when you travel.
Determine Your Walking Schedule
Physically, all you are doing is walking, which means that the Camino is doable for those of all ages who can walk. This is a good thing - no special training is needed. The challenge is that you will be walking for several hours, or for some, most of the day. So, you need to prepare your body to endure the long, continuous hours of walking. The best way to prepare is simply to walk before you arrive on your Camino. The more you walk, and the longer you walk, the better.
One recommendation is to start small: one possibility would be to start off with walking 30 minutes twice a week, then slowly build up to longer periods of time and more days per week. Ultimately, the frequency and length of time you decide to start with will depend on your current physical abilities and available time. The sooner you start, the better, because this means your body will have more time to prepare.
We suggest figuring out your schedule and sticking with it. We walked 5-7 days each week, for at least one hour. Walking for longer than two hours would have been ideal, but we were unable to do that due to our work schedules. Also, we started doing this regularly about 6-8 weeks before our Camino. Starting earlier would have been nice, but we felt that the 6-8 weeks of preparation ended up working well for us.
When determining your walking route, we suggest the following: (1) Make sure you spend some time walking on pavement. While walking through towns on the Camino, you will spend a lot of time walking on hard, paved roads. This should be easy enough if you live in a city. (2) Make sure you spend some time walking uphill and downhill. This is something we didn’t do, and the uphill climbs were what we felt most unprepared for. (3) Make sure you spend some time walking on non-paved roads. In addition to walking on paved roads, you will also be walking through uneven dirt or stone roads, and having that experience will be useful. If you live in the country, you’ll find plenty of spots to do this; if you live in the city, you can consider going to a park or other recreational area.
Ultimately, though, the important thing is to walk. If you can’t find the different types of roads, don’t worry about it. Walk where you are, but be sure to do it consistently and ideally for at least an hour. We are glad that we walked regularly leading up to our Camino, but we were still a bit surprised at how much effort was needed (and how tired we were) while walking long distances day after day.
Use the Shoes and Socks You Will Be Taking With You
While walking, use the same walking shoes you intend to walk with. Also, use the same type of socks you will be taking with you. Using the same shoes and socks will be beneficial because you will be able to see if they are comfortable enough to walk in for longer periods of time. If you are able to walk on different types of roads, as suggested above, you will be able to determine if the type of shoe is appropriate. For example, some people decide to use hiking boots, but are then uncomfortable with them due to having to frequently walk on pavement, where sneakers would have been more comfortable. For us, we practiced with our sneakers and used the same pair when walking the Camino. They worked out great regardless of the type of road we were in.
In addition to practicing with the shoes you plan to bring, use the same socks you plan to bring. This is something we learned the hard way. We had trained using regular socks, but so many people had recommended a (supposedly) more comfortable pair, that we at the last minute wore the newer socks on the Camino. While the new socks felt comfortable, we ended up getting a blister because the socks’ seam fell on a part of our toes that was different from what our feet were used to. We ended up switching back to our own usual type of sock and had no more problems after that.
Wear Your Backpack
As mentioned above, the challenge with the Camino is not the walking aspect, but the fact that walking happens continuously for so many hours...while carrying a backpack. So while walking is not very demanding, the long hours and the heavy load make it more so. We suggest determining how many pounds (or kilograms) you intend to carry, then filling up your backpack to meet that weight. You don’t necessarily have to pack all your Camino belongings - we just filled our backpack with textbooks until we met the weight we planned to carry. When doing your regular walks, wear your backpack. This will make your training more effective, in addition to letting you know if your backpack will be a comfortable one to carry and if you need to find a way to pack lighter.
Practicing with your backpack beforehand will also put strain on different parts of your body than you are used to from normal walking. You will feel it in your shoulders, neck, feet and legs the most. We found that it is better to build up endurance in these areas before arriving in Europe. We know several people who did not do much training before leaving (because they felt they didn’t need it), who ended up having to alter their plans due to physical problems (one had to stop the Camino altogether due to a leg injury from walking). It’s ok if you don’t have much time to practice before, but we highly recommend taking a test walk at least a couple of times.
Another note worth mentioning about injuries sustained during walking the Camino. Before we walked the Camino, we were worried about what to do in case of an injury. What if one of us gets injured and can’t keep walking the Camino? What if we get injured in the middle of the day? We were pleasantly surprised when we walked our Camino to see taxi services in every town we visited. This was a great relief, knowing that if something happened, we could call a taxi, or have someone else go up to the next town and call a taxi. We knew several people who made use of the taxi service due to exhaustion from walking, and it was very easy to coordinate.
Try Out the Clothes You Plan to Wear
On several of your walks, try using the shorts, jeans, pants, or whatever you intend to wear on the Camino. That way, you will be able to determine if it is comfortable to walk in, and comfortable while wearing a backpack.
While our main tips of this post revolved around practicing walking beforehand with your gear, an additional suggestion to prepare for your Camino is to ensure that you are eating a healthy diet that will provide you with the nutrients you need to meet the physical demands of the pilgrimage. Also, the Camino is a spiritual as well as a physical journey, so taking some time to journal and reflect on what you hope to learn and accomplish on your journey will be helpful. Take a moment to write down how you are feeling before taking your trip, and what you hope your journey will hold in store for you. Finally, one last thing we would suggest is if you are unsure of your physical health and/or have not been exercising regularly, you might want to see a doctor (schedule a routine checkup) to make sure your body can handle it.
We hope these preparation tips are useful to you as you plan your Camino. A little preparation will go a long way, and it will give you peace of mind knowing your body can handle the demands of walking the way to St. James.
As we prepared for our Camino last year, we wanted to know what food we could expect while walking. Now that we have experienced the Camino de Santiago first hand, we realized there are other first-time pilgrims who are probably wondering the same thing.
What food do you eat on the Camino de Santiago? Common dishes you will encounter on the Camino include tortilla espanola and other egg dishes, bread, salads, meat or fish dishes, and fries or potatoes. For dessert, you can expect Torta de Santiago. But, ultimately, the variety of meals you find will depend on how big of a town you are in at the moment. Bigger towns offer a variety of restaurants, and also have grocery stores, but smaller towns generally do not.
Breakfast on the Camino
Our favorite breakfasts were pan con tomate and churros con chocolate. Pan con tomate is a slice of toasted bread with a tomato spread of crushed, seasoned tomatoes. Churros con chocolate are a fried dough which you dip into hot chocolate. These breakfast options were more likely found in the bigger towns. In smaller towns, albergues that offered breakfast might offer tortilla espanola (made with potatoes and eggs), an assortment of cereals, coffee/tea, and they also usually sold packaged granola bars.
While we went for the pan con tomate or churros con chocolate whenever it was available, most of the time, we prepared our own breakfast. We bought a bag of quick-cooking oats from the grocery store, and would make oatmeal most mornings by pouring hot water over the oats. We found that the albergue employees were always happy to provide us with boiling water in a cup. We ate our oatmeal with some peanut butter and a banana - we made sure to buy a jar of peanut butter anytime we saw some at the grocery stores. We found oatmeal to be an easy-to-prepare, versatile meal, because we could put different fruits, nuts and honey in it depending on what was available at the grocery store.
A breakfast of pan con tomate or churros con chocolate cost us 2-5 euros per serving, while our oatmeal, peanut butter, and banana cost us <1 euro per serving.
Snacks on the Camino
After several hours of walking, your feet will need a little break. At this time, we usually stopped somewhere on the way for a mid-morning snack. A mid-morning snack of tortilla espanola and coffee would cost 4-6 euros. Often, our mid-morning snacks were ones we prepared or already had with us, such as nuts, fruit, granola bars, or if we happened to have bread with us, a peanut butter sandwich.
Snack offerings for afternoon snacks included ice cream (in most places, we saw packaged ice cream being sold), or Torta de Santiago, in addition to those described above. Torta de Santiago is an almond-based sweet treat, with a consistency similar to a cake. Most restaurants would serve the same pre-packaged version that you find in the grocery store. The best Torta de Santiago that we ate along the way were the recipes made fresh at the restaurant.
Lunches and Dinners on the Camino
You may have already heard of pilgrim meals, offered at most restaurants where food is served. These consist of a two- or three-course meal for about 8 -14 euros. But, you’re not restricted to pilgrim meals, since you can order any of the dishes a la carte. Common dishes that we encountered were salads, tortilla espanola (available pretty much anywhere you go) and other egg dishes, a meat or fish dish, fries (available pretty much anywhere you go), and sometimes soups, such as lentil soup. If you are vegan or vegetarian: pay attention to the listed salad ingredients and/or check with the servers, because a salad description might refer to it as “vegetarian”, but it sometimes would come with tuna. Also, vegans and vegetarians, don’t be afraid to just mix and match from the list of side dishes. One of our favorite meals at a small-town albergue included bread, salad, and sauteed mushrooms.
If you are at a somewhat bigger town, you will find that the local restaurants and cafes cater to a variety of tastes. Some of these might offer meals similar to those offered in albergues, with the addition of multiple flavors of paella, a rice dish we found very frequently. If you are vegan or vegetarian: many places offered a vegetarian paella, which is a good option. Other restaurants and cafes would have a seafood, Italian (pasta), pizza, gluten-free, or vegan/vegetarian focus. One of our favorite meals was a pilgrims’ meal that consisted of a salad, a veggie burger, and hummus.
Food at Grocery Stores on the Camino
Another valuable resource is the local grocery stores. Many grocery stores have a “hot meal” section, with options similar to those described above, but you can also find salads, hummus, peanut butter, bread, meats, fish, vegetables, fruit that is in season (such as some really amazing cherries), or microwave meals/skillet meals (assuming you have access to a microwave or stove where you are staying). We found that half of the time we would choose to eat food we bought from grocery stores, while the other half we would eat food at restaurants (typically the restaurant of the albergue we were staying in that night). Our favorite grocery store meal was a tub of hummus, salad, and bread, which we got for around 8 euros (served 2 people).
Several things to keep in mind with grocery stores. While it is a great way to save money on food during your walk, you will be devoting a significant amount of time during your day towards your food. Between walking to the grocery store, selecting your food, checking out (sometimes there were lines in big towns), preparing your food, cooking your food (for hot meals) and serving your food, you will want to budget time in your day for these activities. We found that a good way to decrease time spent on food prep would be to prepare simple sandwiches or other easy-to-store food that you could eat for a lunch or dinner.
One last thought about grocery stores on the Camino. If you plan to rely heavily on grocery stores for the cost-saving benefits (and sometimes you find better quality food there), make sure to plan ahead. You will want to refer to your Camino guide book to make sure there is a grocery store on your walk that day. There may not be one in the town you are staying in that evening, so you will want to buy the groceries on the way (this happened to us a couple of times). If you plan on cooking food, you will want to make sure your albergue has a kitchen that you can use.
Variety of Food at Restaurants
One thing that we were concerned about before we walked the Camino was a (lack of) variety of food found in restaurants. We read blog posts from experienced pilgrims who said that the menu rarely changed for them during their walk. We found this not to be true for us. While it is true that most menus in rural towns will be identical, the larger towns offered more variety than we expected. We were pleasantly surprised to find many specialty restaurants along the Camino, including Italian, French, Seafood, Vegan, and even Chinese (in large cities like Santiago de Compostela). We were also happy to find several local markets serving fresh vegetables, meats, cheeses and fruits.
Overall, we enjoyed the food while walking the Camino. We were happy with the variety of food we found along the way, in restaurants and in grocery stores. We hope that your culinary adventure along the road to St. James is delicious one.
For the first-time pilgrim, the idea of walking the Camino may spark certain expectations. You expect to be walking most of the time, disconnecting from life as you know it and enjoying Spanish scenery, culture, and food. You expect the walking to be challenging, physically, emotionally and spiritually. For some, you expect to have the opportunity to strike up conversations with strangers and make new friends from different parts of the world. For others, you expect time to reflect and journal.
What you expect might happen, but there will also be pleasant unexpected surprises. We thought about our Camino and wanted to share experiences that jumped out as things we would not have expected prior to embarking on our pilgrimage. Some of these welcome surprises were small in scope while others were large.
Unexpected reasons why walking the Camino is awesome.
You’ll get some insights about how to continue living your life. You’ll keep using the things you learn, the Camino becomes part of you.
As we walked the Camino, we would have realizations about the Camino itself, such as insights that encouraged us to keep walking. But anytime that happened, we would realize that this insight was not just applicable to our walk that one day, but applicable to our entire lives. Those seemingly little lessons in walking the path became lessons in living our lives, and they continue to be meaningful lessons.
You get to interact with locals who live simply and are happy about it.
Walking the Camino means seeing how the locals live as you walk through their towns and villages, and interacting with them when staying in albergues and eating out. We encountered so many locals who, though working long hours and not making large salaries, were obviously very happy and content with their lives. It was such a contrast from what we were used to seeing: people earning significant salaries, but stressed-out with over-complicated lives. It was such a breath of fresh air to see others with the joy that comes from simplicity.
You’ll get to see the botafumeiro (you’ll be amazed at what a meaningful experience it is at the moment).
You’ve likely seen images of the botafumeiro, the large censer (for incense) used at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, which requires several men to operate. We were certainly excited to see it, and made sure we attended one of the masses where they would be using it. But that moment when you do see it, you realize, you’re here and you just walked the Camino, it is incredibly meaningful. It was a moment of reverence and humility, as we realized we were part of something bigger than ourselves. It was also a moment of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to start and finish the journey. The road to St. James can be a difficult one, and seeing the botafumeiro makes you realize it was worth it.
Life will be “before the Camino” and “after the Camino”.
While walking the Camino is an unforgettable adventure in itself, the transformation will be most felt when you return home. Before we left on our Camino, we had lunch with a friend who had walked it previously, to which she told us something that we didn’t understand at the time, but now can relate to. She said that “there is your life before the Camino, and then there is your life after the Camino.” What she experienced (as we did also) is that the pilgrimage becomes an inflection point in your life. You leave for your journey as one person, but return changed in some way. For each person, this transformation takes a unique form, and many times it is hard to put into words. It may be as big as deciding to change jobs or as small as deciding to take small breaks throughout your day. When we returned we experienced more peace, felt less distracted, more focused, and able to slow down to enjoy the things that matter to us. We believe this transformation is one of the best reasons to decide to walk the Camino. Your true pilgrimage begins where this one ends.
It’s the only place in the world that you get to say and hear “Buen Camino!” every day, from people you know as well as strangers.
This is something that we knew to expect from reading the forums and blogs beforehand (and Kyle even practiced saying “Buen Camino” before leaving), but we did not realize that this would be such a meaningful part of our pilgrimage.
What does Buen Camino mean? The most direct translation from Spanish to English would be something along the lines of “well wishes on your walk”. Other similar translations would be “good way” or “good walk”. You will hear the words “buen Camino” from almost everyone that you meet. When leaving your hostel in the morning, the owner will wish you buen Camino. As you pass local farmers, they will wish you a buen Camino. And as you say goodbye to your newest lifelong friend from halfway across the world, from now until you see them again, buen Camino.
There is something profoundly uplifting about being told “good journey” everyday. This is something we missed a lot when we returned from walking the Camino. To us, it almost seemed like a blessing that we wish to one another, so as you think about walking, or are preparing to walk the road to St. James, we want to be the first to wish you a Buen Camino.
Realizing that you, your backpack, and the people around you are all you need is an extremely liberating experience.
According to the Becoming Minimalist blog, there are over 300,000 items in the average American household. While this may be good news for those who make these products, it does not always correlate directly to a person’s overall happiness.
We like things, but we have also felt the freedom of letting go of those things while walking our Camino. We have spoken about how our thoughts became crystal clear, and letting go of things helped.
You may be in the process of planning the gear that you will bring on your pilgrimage. Between researching the weights of backpacks, determining how many ounces you can carry every day, and deciding whether or not to bring your favorite book, take time to consider what new experiences you are opening yourself up to by traveling light. By carrying less stuff around, you will have more energy during the day, and may open yourself up to experiences you might not have tried otherwise. You will have less worries about theft if you don’t have much to steal. For us the biggest realization came when we returned and looked at all of the stuff in our house that we did not use for our entire journey. We felt motivated to do a post Camino “spring cleaning”.
You will get bored (this is a good thing).
Walking the Camino means you have the opportunity to disconnect from your normal routines. Most of the day will be spent walking or resting, and many people are drawn to the Camino for just this reason, to disconnect. The reality is that while we walked the Camino, we noticed many people using their cell phones often. It was surprising to us at first, considering what lengths people go through to take such a pilgrimage, that they would choose to distract themselves with their phones during their walk, but when we stopped to think about it, it made perfect sense. In a modern culture where so many become addicted to checking their phones, the peaceful stillness of the Camino can at first be disconcerting. When faced with this discomfort (what appears to be boredom at first) many will choose to distract themselves. This can be difficult to break, but the Camino affords you an opportunity to be with your thoughts. We recommend putting the phone away for several days as you begin, so that you can be present in the moment. To combat the initial discomfort, try replacing the phone distraction with something else more meaningful. When you feel tempted to check your phone, take a quick break, pull out a notebook and write down how you are feeling or experiencing the Camino at that moment. If you don’t have time to stop, another idea would be to think of someone you care about and send a prayer or good thoughts their way. We enjoyed praying rosaries as well as taking time to stop and enjoy the natural beauty of the road to St. James.
If you’re Catholic, you will see how vibrant and alive the Church is.
We had heard from others that most people that walk the Camino do not do it for religious reasons, so that is what we were expecting. It did seem to us to be that way and we encourage those of any faith background to take this journey. However, the Camino continues to be a religious pilgrimage, and we saw plenty of evidence of this. We encountered priests, monks, and church groups walking the way. We encountered families (one walking with a toddler!), who made it to daily mass at the different towns. It was a beautiful experience to be participating in the same liturgy with people from all over the world, and though we had different backgrounds and spoke different languages, we were united in the universality of the Mass. When masses were not offered in a particular location, a peregrino priest would offer mass and invite other peregrinos. Once, when we had just returned from a pilgrim mass and were having dinner, we saw a group of monks and young adults set up a table and chairs in an empty lot across the street, and start celebrating mass. Witnessing their lively singing and guitar playing, in combination with the reverence of the mass, made us think: the Church is still alive. It may be undergoing a period of darkness, but God’s Church is alive. While we experienced the Camino in our own faith tradition, we believe that all that walk the road to Santiago de Compostela will find a deepening of their own faith journey.
You will never regret it.
We have made our fair share of mistakes in life, but we can say without a shadow of a doubt that deciding to and actually walking the Camino de Santiago was NOT one of them. While we walked the road together, we each experienced different internal journeys, and despite these differences, we both feel the pilgrimage was one of the best decisions we have made.
Our driving conviction that you will not regret this decision in your life is that we believe every person who takes this journey undergoes a transformation of some kind during the process, as we mentioned earlier. While the external circumstances of your life before and after the Camino are about the same, your internal changes will be evident and unexpected. We anticipated and believed some change would occur while on pilgrimage, but we could not have predicted exactly how these changes would manifest themselves in our lives.
For those of you who have not yet decided to walk the Camino, take some time to think about what you want your life to be like in the future. We are not psychologists, but stick with us here. In particular, picture yourself 10 or 20 years from now looking back at your Camino decision today. Will you look back wishing you had taken action today? Or is there another adventure that you are pining for? For us, the idea of growing older and not having walked the Camino was not an option and was one of the driving reasons that we decided to pull the trigger and purchase our airplane tickets to Spain. If we had waited for the “right time” to take this pilgrimage, we may never have taken the first step.
We hope you enjoyed this blog post. After you walk your Camino, you may find some of your expectations were confirmed, while others were different than how you envisioned it. When preparing to walk your pilgrimage, you can count on one thing, expect the unexpected.
While walking and experiencing once-in-a-lifetime moments fills up most of your typical day as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago, what other things should you do regularly while on pilgrimage?
Here are 14 things you can do every day while on Pilgrimage so you won't be distracted by your cell phone (except maybe to take a picture).
1. Start your day with a breakfast of churros con chocolate (if your albergue sells it…), or pan con tomate.
2. Take a mid-morning break to enjoy some tortilla espanola and coffee (and chat with the locals/fellow pilgrims/alburgue owners).
3. Stop to admire the beautiful views. While this one may seem obvious, remember that your camino is not a race, and the time spent admiring your surroundings will be worth it.
4. Take a picture, you don’t need to go overboard with this (who wants to look through 5,000 pictures from your recent trip?), but if you see something you want to remember, document it.
5. Pray a rosary as you walk. You can consider offering the rosary or other prayer for someone you love.
8. Take a mid-afternoon break for a smoothie or other cold beverage, and treat, such as a homemade Torta de Santiago.
9. Have your pilgrim’s passport stamped - it’s a good idea to do so anytime you stop for a snack.
10. Take a trip to the local grocery store. We were surprised at the variety of food that we found at the little stores, including our favorite local chocolates priced under 1 euro.
11. Once you are showered, settled in, and partially rested, explore the town that you are staying in. This is more difficult as you will have been walking all day, and the idea of taking another step may be daunting. But you might take in something that you may not have otherwise experienced, and discover some unique cafes.
12. Reflect on how this journey mirrors the journey to Heaven (or for those of other faiths, how this journey mirrors your own spiritual journey).
13. Attend a pilgrims’ Mass and get a pilgrims’ blessing. Many of the towns offer daily Masses and these include a blessing to all peregrinos - in various languages!
14. Take time to journal at the end of a day’s walk. You will have time to reflect on how far you have come physically, emotionally and spiritually by the end of the day. And it will help you if you decide to write a Camino blog someday :)