Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage: A Deep Travel Experience

 

World traveller, Claudia Pino from One Planet Journey, chronicles her month on the 800 km Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. Get practical tips on the physical part of the journey; preparation, accommodation, walking, making friends along the way, and the main sights. Claudia also provides the spiritual tools to to be present in the moment, and make the experience a discovery of personal growth.

 

Claudia, let me tell you a story: one day I met a guy who told me he was walking because he felt lost. Then I said, maybe turn on Google Maps.”

He laughed at his joke and continued.

“You are attached to yourself; you are not something you can lose, you just have to pay attention.”

I met Paolo on my first day in the French Pyrenees. As I recall his words, I cannot help but smile when thinking about how I spent my last month. For some reason, Paolo’s story came to mind while I left my accommodation for the night, the last on the trail. 

As I closed the door, I was greeted by that quietness typical of the moments that precede the dawn. Elisa was a few steps ahead of me, and we were both in our minds – or maybe just enjoying the moment – as we were leaving Lavacolla, a tiny village about 5 km from the city.

We didn’t know each other before, but as it often happens, you start on your own and end up travelling with a bunch of new people who become a sort of family on the road. During the whole trail, I must say I had never been an early riser, but that day I had to make an exception. As the steps increased, the sky became lighter. My eyes kept looking for the stones that hinted I was getting closer. I could hardly contain my excitement, but the plan was to enjoy each metre of every kilometre. 

From unpaved terrain to cobblestone streets, my feet proceeded in a dance, following each other, and as I spotted the first signs of the city, my heart bounced. At that point, I had been walking for about 35 days and that day I was finally reaching my destination: St. James Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

When asked about the reason that brought them to this location, most people said they were either inspired by the famous movie “The Way” or came to know about it through word of mouth.

But if you don’t know what I am talking about, worry not.

Lace-up your boots and follow me because in this article I will tell you about one of the top deep travel experiences of my life, and who knows, maybe of yours too.

Trail marker on a path with a human shadow.
View from the trail in Nàjera

 

WHY WALK ThE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO

 

The Camino de Santiago, known also as St. James Way (or Camino for short), is an ancient pilgrimage that leads to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Spain (or Santiago), where the apostle relics and tombs reside. 

There are different trails that lead to Santiago. The most famous one, however, is the Camino Francès (the French Way), an almost 800 km route starting from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a tiny village on the French Pyrenees. There is not any rule or fixed duration for the Camino. Each route has a generally acknowledged origin, but it is up to each pilgrim to decide where to start, where to end, and when or how to complete it. 

The Camino de Santiago’s rich tapestry of historical and spiritual significance has attracted people of diverse religions and beliefs that, for different reasons, have walked it for centuries.

As far as I recall, my interest in the Camino started a long way back, when I read an article from the local church magazine about the legend surrounding it. According to the story, there was a hermit, Pelagius. One evening, he rested on the highest point of Mount Liberdòn until the moment he saw a shooting star that showed him the location of the apostle’s relics. Following this event, the place became known by the Latin name Campus Stellae (“field of the star”), from which the word Compostela may derive (although some other interpretations trace the origin to Campos Tellum, “burying ground”).

So, after years of dreaming and failed attempts, my journey began on August 21st, 2022, on a train from Bordeaux to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

View of cathedral with two flanking towers.
View of the Cathedral from Plaza del Obradoiro

 

SPIRITUAL AND REFLECTIVE DIMENSIONS OF THE CAMINO

 

The Camino is not only a walk or a hike, it’s an experience. A chance to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of your daily life to discover something new about yourself and the world around you. One thing I noticed among pilgrims is that, like myself, everyone felt a call to reach Santiago. As if a mystical spirit, akin to what moved the first pilgrims over a thousand years ago, keeps inviting people to gather here. 

But one thing is certain: once you plant the seed, no matter how long it takes, people believe you will always find your way to Santiago at some point, if you are willing to answer the call. 

While en route, I quickly realised that the Camino puts everything you are to the test. There are some physical hardships – at the end of the day it’s a hike – but the beauty of the Camino lies in the fact that not only it is an external journey but also one of personal growth. 

Hiking path with open landscape.
View from the Camino in Los Arcos

 

It is common knowledge to think about the Camino as a process in three parts.

The first part puts your body to the testYou have to get used to the roads, the weight of the backpack, and the length of the walks. I never did anything similar before in my life and it was surprising to notice how my body adapted and pushed through. 

The second part challenges the mindOnce you get accustomed to walking, your mind makes space for reflection. While on the Camino, there is nothing else to do but walk, look at the landscapes, and maybe talk to fellow pilgrims. 

The last part is spiritual: Once you reach Galicia (the region where Santiago de Compostela is located), everything you endured until that moment gains more meaning. You start having faith in your ability and in your journey. 

Although you don’t have to be religious to walk the Camino, it definitely is a spiritual experience.

 

SYMBOLS, RITUALS, AND CUSTOMS ON THE CAMINO

 

While walking, you’ll find the famous yellow arrows literally everywhere: on the ground, on rocks, on trees, buildings, and so on. As if their main purpose is to reassure pilgrims they are on the right track and that it’s not possible for them to get lost.

Trail marker reading Santiago next to a yellow arrow
View from the Camino trail in Triacastela

 

The other well-known symbol that pilgrims often carry with them is the scallop shell (la concha)often attached to their backpack. It is a metaphor for the different ways to reach Santiago, all pointing to a single point: the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.

Ancient churches, historical sites, symbols, and legends dot the way to Santiago, offering moments of reflection for people of all faiths and beliefs. 

 

Alto del Perdon

Right after ascending to the town of Zariquiegui in the region of Navarra, you find the Alto del Perdòn (roughly translated as Hill of Forgiveness) greeting you with its sculptures dedicated to pilgrims on the Camino. The view from the top with its turbines is astonishing, however, the importance of this landmark is deeper. People say that when you carry a stone from the Hill all the way to the Iron Cross, it symbolises saying goodbye to the “burden” of your old self, the version of you that you need to let go. 

 

Fountain of Health 

Right after leaving Estella, halfway between Pamplona and Logroño, you will meet this special fountain, courtesy of the Bodegas Irache, a local winery. As the sign says:

Si quieres llegar a Santiago con fuerza y vitalidad de este gran vino echa un trago y brinda por la Felicidad” [If you want to reach Santiago with strength and vitality, from this great wine have a sip and toast to happiness].

The fountain has two faucets, one of which delivers wine while the other water. In moderation, it will be possible to enjoy a refreshing break with some wine before proceeding with your journey. 

 

The Cruz de Hierro 

Pilgrims regard the Cruz de Hierro as the second most important landmark on the Camino, after the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The ascent begins in the quiet light of the morning from Foncèbadon, located in the region of Léon. 

Once you’re close, you immediately see the pile of stones, right at the foot of the huge Iron Cross which gives the name to the spot (Cruz de Hierro). 

A pillar with a cross on top situated on a raised platform of rocks.
Cruz de Hierro

 

It’s a moment for self-reflection, to meditate about the road you walked and how far you’ve come. 

By tradition, here you can leave the stone or any other significant item you have been carrying with you. It is custom to treat the place with reverence and silence, to give each pilgrim the space they need.

 

Pilgrim’s Mass and Botafumiero

One of the most common traditions on the Camino is to attend the Pilgrim’s Mass in Santiago de Compostela as a coronation of the journey or to simply pay respect to the apostle relics in the Cathedral. Once inside, if you are lucky, you’ll be able to witness the thrilling Botafumiero ceremony in action, welcoming pilgrims who arrived in Santiago through the Camino. This mysterious object is a large censer hanging at the centre of the Cathedral at a height of about 20 m, moved side-to-side thanks to the help of eight men known as “tiraboleiros”. 

 

Other Important Traditions on the Camino

Collecting stamps on the pilgrim’s passport, referred to as the Credencial del Peregrino, is also one of the main traditions of the Camino. The document acts not only as proof the pilgrim has walked at least 100 km on the trail but also as a means to be acknowledged while passing by accommodations or towns, where pilgrims ask for a stamp to certify their passage. You can obtain the credential either at the start of the Camino (for example, in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port) at the dedicated offices or by requesting it via mail to the Confraternities of St. James. 

At the end of Camino, by presenting your credentials to the Pilgrims’ office in Santiago, granted you walked at least 100 km, you will receive the Compostela Certificate (or Compostela). Written in Latin, it used to serve as proof that the pilgrim had completed the Camino as penance and had returned home free from their sins. 

Finally, while on the Way, don’t forget to greet your fellow pilgrims with the famous “Buen Camino”, a wish to have a pleasant journey. 

Paper with stamps.
Credencial del Peregrino and Stamps

 

HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE CAMINO

 

Before setting out, you may be worried about what to pack or where to stay once on the trail. But worry not, I’ve got you covered! 

My first advice would be to pack light, but smart. Your backpack should ideally not weigh more than 10% of your body weight. The essentials include shoes appropriate for long walks, a reusable water bottle, basic first-aid kits (including blisters bandages), sunscreen and a hat to cover from the sun. As per the clothes, plan for comfortable, quick-drying items. Additionally, don’t forget to take a journal with you to write down your thoughts and memories.

There are several types of accommodations on the trail: on a donation base (donativos), affiliated (reserved to pilgrims) and standard accommodation you reserve through the most used travel apps. I wouldn’t advise to plan all the stays ahead (although it is doable) since on the Camino, plans always change. 

 

LIVING YOUR CAMINO TO THE FULLEST

 

The Camino can be an opportunity to question beliefs, values, and goals in life. By abandoning routine and distractions, we pave the way to the possibility of knowing ourselves at a deeper and more authentic level. But you may wonder, how do you get the most advantage out of it? 

 

Connect with Nature

The Camino evolves across a variety of natural landscapes. Quite often, we are too busy with our minds and technology to look around and be amazed by nature. Either on your own or with someone else, the Camino is a moment of contemplation and gratitude for the beauty of the world. So, take time to immerse yourself, silently contemplating the magnificence of the landscapes.

 

Connect with Others

I’m not going to deny it. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Camino is the community that you’ll build with other pilgrims. Thus, don’t hesitate to embrace this opportunity to make connections, offer support to fellow travellers, or even show your true self. People are truly some of the most important elements of the Camino: you can inspire others and vice versa on each other’s personal quests.

 

Connect with the present

The Camino de Santiago is an experience like no other. It provides a unique opportunity to build a strong connection to the present, practice mindfulness, and meditate along the way. Step after step, while walking in nature by yourself, you will gain a greater awareness of your thoughts and feelings. The Camino then turns into a splendid chance to calm the mind and learn to be in the moment, strengthening the connection to the outside world as well. 

 

Connect with Yourself

As you walk, it is easy to notice how, in our hyper-connected and busy lives, we have the tendency to bury everything behind the noise: dreams, desires, purpose. They all tend to disappear. Therefore, an experience like this helps us disconnect from the distractions of our life and reconnect with ourselves while fostering a space for healing, forgiving, and growing. 

While walking, the solitude and simplicity of the path will make it possible for you to listen to your inner voice, understand your emotions, and possibly discover your life’s direction. 

Open landscape view with a trail in the middle
View from the trail in Hornillos del Camino

 

PERSONAL REFLECTION AND CONCLUSION on the camino

 

As an old medieval greeting of the Camino goes “Ultreia et Suseia”: our intent should always be to go “onwards and beyond” not only en route but also in life. On the Camino, you learn to think about going from point A to B, without getting distracted by your mind or any other issue. It teaches you how to be with simplicity, authentically, and without wearing masks. 

Whatever the reasons that push the pilgrim to venture on the road, the Camino de Santiago is a unique spiritual experience that goes beyond religious beliefs and offers an opportunity for personal growth and transformation. For me, the Camino has been one of the most wonderful experiences I have lived (in fact, I am already thinking about my next one). Connecting with nature, the environment, and with other pilgrims offered a space for metamorphosis. 

When I arrived in Santiago de Compostela, oddly enough, I never felt as if I was done or that my journey had reached its conclusion. On the contrary, this experience made me realise even more how life is a process where we are always growing and that every step becomes an opportunity to go, indeed, onwards and beyond

So, to conclude, if you enjoyed this journey with me, already laced up your boots, and packed your backpack, all that’s left is for me to wish you a Buen Camino!

 

Have you completed the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage? How did you experience it? Let us know in the comment section! Subscribe to our newsletter and benefit from travel guides, sustainable tourism and luxury travel tips, insightful interviews, and inspirational places to visit. One Planet Journey – The World’s First Deep Travel Magazine.

 

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