How to prepare for a pilgrimage like no other
Have you decided to walk the Camino (or Way of St. James) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, perhaps this fall or next summer? This is a pilgrimage like none other, so before you go, there are a few things you should know.
If you set off from Sarria, it’s 120 kilometers (75 miles) to Santiago. The Camino passes through the region of Galicia (northwestern Spain) and is well marked; in fact, it’s almost impossible to get lost. This is the path best suited to less experienced walkers.
1) Stages along the way
It’s important to divide up the walk well. Usually, the stages are: Sarria-Portomarín; Portomarín-Palas de Rei; Palas de Rei-Arzua; Arzua-Amenal, Amenal-Santiago. But you can also do it in six stages, dividing the longest one and shortening the final one so that you have more time to spend in Santiago.
2) Arriving on Friday
If you want to be sure to see the Botafumeiro (“smoke expeller”) — the famous thurible located in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral — you will need to attend Vespers (Evening Prayer) at 7:30 pm on Friday. The censer, which weighs 80 kilos (176 lbs), measures 1.6 meters in height, and is generally moved by eight men, can also be activated at other times, but one needs to hope that a group of pilgrims will be on hand to share the cost to see it swing (around 250 euros).
3) The pilgrim credential
While on their journey along the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims carry a credential (credencial), a document with which the pilgrim authenticates his or her progress by obtaining sellos (stamps) along the way. Sellos can be obtained at most hotels and inns, restaurants, bars, churches, museums, city halls, police stations and at all albergues.
When registering at an albergue, pilgrims will be asked to present their credential to verify that they are walking or cycling the Camino. In addition, upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, at the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos (Pilgrims’ Welcome Office, Rúa Carretas, 33), pilgrims can present the stamped credential to confirm that they have walked at least the last 100 kilometers or cycled at least the last 200 kilometers, whereupon they are able to receive a Compostela, a document that certifies their pilgrimage.
4) The pilgrim crucifix
At Furelos, shortly before Melide, in the Church of St. John you will find the Crucified Christ of the Pilgrim, with his right hand detached from the Cross, reaching out to one who walks for him. Pilgrims usually stop and pray before this Crucifix before continuing on to Compostela.
5) Where to sleep?
There are many albergues (hostels) in the Galician region, but they are literally besieged especially during the summer months. Many pilgrims set out at the first light of dawn, and sometimes when it’s still dark, to assure they find a place to sleep in the hostels. There are two types of hostels:
A) “public” hostels welcome pilgrims. Some are free of charge; others accept free-will offerings, while most charge somewhere around 4 to 10 euros per night
B) “private” hostels are often family-run and charge 7 to 12 euros. They also have single and double rooms available and have food service.
For more information, English-speaking pilgrims can consult this site.
6) What to bring with you
It’s generally agreed that one should definitely bring a backpack and no luggage to facilitate walking. Depending on the day and route you take, each day you may be walking up to 20-25 kilometers (12-15 miles). Therefore try to make sure to limit your backpack to 8 pounds.
Here are the essentials: two pairs of walking shoes and a pair of sandals or slippers for after the walk or in your room. Also take a pair of outdoor trousers and a few T-shirts for walking (quick drying ones are best). Take at least two parts of underwear and three to four pairs of outdoor walking socks. Also take a rain jack or poncho (for bad weather), sunglasses and a bandanna (in case of strong heat, since you’re always travelling with the sun on your back). Finally, take along a first-aid kit.
If you want to take extra luggage, you’ll have to have it transported, stage by stage, with a special taxi service operated by several local companies.
Even though long stretches of the Camino are through the woods, the sun beats down in summer in Spain. And a good climb on a dusty path with the blazing sun at 90 degrees isn’t always fun. So drink lots of water. By taking advantage of the many dining options, you can avoid carrying convoys of water behind you.
Be sure to take a good sunscreen, especially if your skin is fair or sensitive. And remember: you are heading West, so the sun will be beating down on your back. Leave the beautiful red and purple hues for the sunsets rather than your neck, shoulders, and other exposed areas.
9) Wi-fi and cell phones
It isn’t too difficult to find wi-fi spots, especially in the major centers, public places and in almost all tourist facilities. Take a charger and a USB, but be careful to take the right plug, as outlets in Spain have all only two holes.
Best to train before you go. Practice walking fairly long distances with a backpack similar in weight to the one you’ll be taking. Running a 5-K isn’t the same as walking 25 km with your 8-pound backpack!