Camino de Santiago travel guide

2 minute summary

The Camino is a vast network of tributary roads and paths along which pilgrims flow from across Europe, before being channelled across northern Spain to the ancient city of Santiago de Compostela and the shrine of Saint James, Spain’s patron saint. The pilgrimage began in the 9th century, but it has not always been popular; in 1976, just seven pilgrims were awarded the Compostela certificate of completion. Now, over 200,000 pilgrims make the journey on foot, bicycle or horseback each year – and there are as many reasons for completing the route as there are pilgrims.

Trekking for a week or longer is a kind of meditation for many; a chance to escape the distractions of the modern world, to be immersed in the beautiful landscapes of Galicia and Castilla y León. The scallop shell, with its grooves all leading to a single point, lines the route – guiding modern pilgrims to their final destination. ¡Buen camino!

Read on in our Camino de Santiago travel guide.
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Camino de Santiago FAQs

What does this trip entail?

Is there a set route?

Many routes have been established over the centuries, and the most popular is the Camino Francés – the French Way. It has various starting points in France, but most walkers pick up the route in northern Spain – anywhere between Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees, and Sarria in Galicia – and continue along the route to Santiago de Compostela. As this is the most popular trail, there is plenty of lodging along the way and you’ll be walking alongside many other pilgrims, which is all part of the Camino experience. Other routes include the Portuguese Way, beginning in Lisbon or Porto, and the Northern Way – a challenging route along Spain’s wild north coast.

How far do I have to walk?

While some routes cover hundreds of kilometres, the minimum distance you need to walk to say you have “officially” completed the Camino is 100km. You can do this by starting in the town of Sarria, Galicia. If you have the stamps in your Pilgrim’s Passport to show you have walked at least 100km, you can receive a ‘Compostela’ certificate, issued by the church. This religious document, issued in Latin, was once a way for pilgrims to prove they had paid their penance; for some it was seen as a guarantee to enter Heaven. Today, non religious pilgrims will receive a simpler certificate in Spanish.

Can I choose which sections I walk?

Tailor made Camino de Santiago holidays allow you to skip sections of the trail if you choose – such as industrial areas on city outskirts and along major roads. It is also possible to do centre based holidays where you walk a different section of the Camino de Santiago each day, but return to the same village at night – this gives you a taste of the route, and may help you decide whether or not to take on a longer Camino holiday at a later date.

Do I have to stay in hostels?

No. Plenty of municipal hostels with shared dorms – known as albergues – line the popular Camino Francés. Traditionally, pilgrims seek out a dorm bed at night with nothing booked in advance, but this is getting trickier during peak walking months as the Camino becomes more popular. However, there are many private hotels and guesthouses which offer a welcome level of extra comfort after a long day walking, and these will be booked in advance by your holiday company. Another advantage of staying in a hotel is that you won’t need to carry a sleeping bag or towel with you – both are often necessary in the hostels.

What is the Pilgrim's Passport?

This “passport” is available from tour operators and from many of the towns and villages along the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims need to obtain a minimum of one or two stamps in it per day to prove they have completed the route – stamps can be obtained in hostels, bars and cafes all the way to Santiago. For many walkers, the passport is essential to prove they are genuine pilgrims; without the stamps they are ineligible to stay in the municipal or parish-run albergues each night, although privately owned accommodations do not usually require proof of your route. You will need the passport stamps to obtain your Compostela certificate in Santiago to show you have walked a minimum of 100km, however; and for most walkers the passport is a prized souvenir of their trip, a testament to their achievement on what is an increasingly popular but still very challenging journey.

How far will I be walking each day?

Most organised Camino holidays will plan stretches of around 14-27km each day, which allows you to enjoy the scenery, explore towns and villages along the way and not have to push yourself too hard on steeper or more challenging sections of the route. The first day is often a little gentler to allow you to warm up for the long walk ahead.

Why book an organised trip?

People have been walking along the various Camino de Santiago routes for over 1,000 years – but there are many reasons why modern pilgrims may opt for an organised tour. The first is ease: everything is planned out for you, accommodation is booked, you can arrange transfers at the beginning and end of your holiday and you’ll have the peace of mind of 24/7 support throughout your trip, should you require it. It also gives you more flexibility with accommodation, as you can stay in hotels or guesthouses outside the main towns – with transfers included. Crucially, your luggage can be transferred for you each day, leaving you to carry your daypack. On small group holidays this is included as standard; on a tailor made tour you can usually opt for this at extra cost. Tailor made tours let you choose your own route, duration and accommodation – skipping sections if preferred.

Best time to walk the Camino de Santiago

Temperature & rainfall

July-Aug are the most popular months, though they can be unpleasantly hot, with scorched vegetation. May-June and Sep are the best time to walk the Camino de Santiago, as the weather is lovely, downpours less likely, and you’ll have plenty of company along the way – but it won’t be quite as crowded. Easter can be a busy time, too. Group tours tend to run April-Oct, but you can trek at any time if you’re feeling brave; autumn can be very wet and chilly in the mountains, with snow and ice in winter. Numbers soar during “holy years”, when 25th July – St James’ Day – falls on a Sunday, the next holy year is in 2021.
Photo credits: [Topbox: Oula Lehtinen] [Helpdesk: aherrero] [How far do I have to walk?: Fresco Tours] [Staying in hostels: Fresco Tours] [How far will I be walking each day?: Vicky petereit] [Temp chart: Fresco Tours]
Written by Vicki Brown
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