The Camino de Santiago is one of the most important Christian pilgrimages of medieval times. Legend has it that the bones of St. James, Jesus’s first disciple, are buried at the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.
Today, pilgrims of all faiths come from around the world to walk The Way for religious, spiritual, health, or personal reasons.
If you’re contemplating taking on this challenging pilgrimage here are a few things to keep in mind before you go.
1. Earning a compostela
Every pilgrim will carry a passport, or credencial—a document that identifies them as a pilgrim. If you plan to start your walk in the popular launching-off city of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port you will be given a passport when you register as a pilgrim at the pilgrim’s office. Otherwise, you can obtain a passport at almost any church or albergue (pilgrim’s hostel) in Spain.
Each night when you are done walking you will be required to have your passport stamped at the hotel or albergue where you sleep. When you reach Santiago you’ll show your passport and receive your compostela (certificate of completion).
To earn a compostela a pilgrim must walk the last 100 kilometres (62 miles) of the Camino de Santiago. You will prove this accomplishment by producing your stamped pilgrim’s passport. When the walk is over the compostela and the passport are yours to keep—they make wonderful souvenirs.
2. Daily walking distance and sleeping in albergues
If you’re worried that you won’t be able to walk long distances each day, don’t fret. While many pilgrims walk 24 to 32 kilometres (15 to 20 miles) per day, others choose to walk much shorter distances. The reality is, because of the frequency of albergues along the route, you can walk as long or short a distance as you choose.
Most albergues are mixed-sex, dorm-style rooms filled with bunk beds and are priced between 5 to 12 euros per bed. Albergues are located every 4 to 6 kilometres (3 to 4 miles) along the route. The exception to this is one or two sections of the walk where albergues are separated by up to 12 miles. Although sleeping in an albergue can prove to be frustrating (lots of snoring and farting by strangers), it is also an essential part of the pilgrim experience.
3. Access to water and money
Don’t buy bottled water as you walk! Tap water is drinkable in Spain so you can easily fill your reusable water bottle in any albergue or restaurant sink. There are also a number of potable water fountains (marked as potable) along the route. Because of the frequency of water sources you should not have to carry more than a litre or two of water at any given time.
Likewise, ATMs are widely available on the route. Most financial transactions are done in cash but don’t worry about carrying a large sum of money with you. You’ll find ATMs or banks in nearly every village you pass through.
4. In the event of injury
If you happen to get injured and cannot walk there are buses and taxis that will pick you up and take you to the next town or nearest hospital. Minor injuries like blisters or tendonitis are common on the Camino de Santiago but there are many pharmacies and shops along the route that sell the items necessary to treat these ailments.
In the event of a rolled ankle or strained back, there are services along the route that will ship your backpack to the albergue you plan to sleep in for the night. This takes a bit of coordination, as you’ll have to decide where to stop and sleep before you begin your walk for the day, but for the pilgrim with a nagging injury this service can be a lifesaver.
Though planning an epic pilgrimage like the Camino de Santiago may feel daunting, remember that tens of thousands complete the walk to Santiago each year. Enjoy your walk through the beauty of northern Spain and have a Buen Camino.