Saturday, July 18, 2015

Taking it Easy -- how I enjoyed the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago is one of the most popular pilgrimages today.  Peregrinos have 
been walking to Santiago de Compostela for over a thousand years.   
The most well travelled route is the Camino Frances --  700 kilometres long. Along with the 
other Northern Routes, it is part of UNESCO's World Heritage List. 
Peregrinos usually walk the Camino Frances at an average of  20 to 25 kilometres a day,  
finishing in about a month's time. 
They normally stay in dormitories in albergues or in pilgrim refugios and walk with everything 
they need stuffed in their backpacks, which weigh from 10 to as much as 20 kg. 
When I made up my mind to do the Camino, I realised early on that "roughing it" like the 
other pilgrims was no longer in my vocabulary.  That plus that three letter word "age" had a lot 
to do with how I planned the Camino for my friends and myself.
And so -- my friends and I walked 134 kilometres in  eleven days.  We stayed in small hotels 
and inns.  Our suitcases were transferred to our accommodations each day. We did not carry 
all our belongings on our backs,  just what we needed for the day's walk. 
Now, if this is the type of Camino you plan to do -- allow me to share with you some tips on 
how to enjoy your Camino.

1. Don't DIY -- choose a good Camino planner.

The Camino had been on my wish list since I read my first book about it, as far back as
2008  (Jack Hitt's excellent travelogue "Off the Road").  I knew I would do it one day so
I kept on researching -- buying memoirs, travel books, guidebooks, maps  -- you name it,
if the book had "Camino" in the title,  I probably had it in my Kindle
But when I started planning the Camino in earnest, I decided it would be a lot easier to hire 
a travel planner to iron out all the details for us -- lodgings and meals, airport and luggage
transfers, etc.
I found  on the internet and after comparing them with two other 
Camino tour planners on details like prices, itineraries, services and customer reviews
I decided that they were the better fit.  
I told Follow the Camino I had just three  requirements : a) I wanted to start in Triacastela 
for a 134 kilometre walk  b) We wanted a "gentle" pace of about 12 kilometres a day and 
c)  All accommodations should come with an en suite bathroom. delivered admirably on all counts and more.  All our arrangements went without a hitch.

2. Choose the right time to walk.

Pilgrims walk the Camino year round  but official statistics state that the most "crowded" 
months are a) July -- because St. James' feast day falls on the 25th and b) August, 
which is when everyone in Europe goes on vacation.  It might be good to avoid these times 
as the pathways, albergues, hotels and even cafes and restaurants will most likely be full.
We walked from June 10 to 20 and the first week of the Camino was comfortably cool with temperatures averaging 15C.

We didn't count on Europe experiencing the beginnings of a heat wave -- temperatures on
our last week on the Camino went up to the 30s.  Definitely not the most ideal conditions
for a long walk.
On hindsight,  if we started our Camino towards mid or end of May, we could have enjoyed
cooler, more pleasant weather all throughout our walk.

3. Walk with good travel companions.

Unless you are planning to do this solo, one essential tip for enjoying the Camino (or any trip 
for that matter) is to choose good travel companions.  I always say that not all good friends 
make good travel companions but that all good travel companions invariably make good friends.
When we were putting the Camino together there were just four of us.   Then friends and relatives were added to the group until we numbered 12.  The final count was 11 -- sadly, one was not able 
to make the trip.  
We called ourselves "Amigos de Santiago" and had a team t-shirt made, which we wore on the 
first and last days of walking.   We even had a motto "Lose weight, gain faith".  
A friend asked me after the Camino "So, were you still speaking to each other after eleven days?"
Yes, definitely.  We ate breakfasts and dinners together, shared stories, jokes, sunscreen, remedies 
for muscle aches, tips for washing laundry in hotel sinks  ...   and we got along very well, without 
a single sour note to mar our Camino.  
Someone in our group aptly summed it up --  "We finished the Camino and we are all still Amigos!"  

3. Good shoes (and double socks) are your feet's best friend...
that and a miracle product called Hike Goo.

When I was reading about the Camino, the constant topic was the problem of 
blisters.  There were all sorts of tips on how to choose the best shoe for the walk, the
merits of leather shoes versus synthetic, ankle length or low rise, etc etc.
I saw different types of shoes on the Camino -- some even walked in just sandals or in slippers.  
My advice is that you should wear the shoe that you are most comfortable in.
No need to spring for that expensive leather hiking boot that will probably be too heavy and too
hot to walk in.
I bought lightweight hiking shoes by Columbia,  with a breathable textile upper and soles
with good traction for all kinds of trails.
The soles are important because ordinary rubber shoes do not have the kind of grip needed
for rocky and gravelly surfaces specially on uphill and downhill trails.
My shoes were also wide enough to keep my feet from feeling hot and cramped.  

I recommend that you use double socks -- a lot of the guidebooks suggest this.
Buy thin sock liners and wear thicker hiking socks over them.  This way,  no friction is created between your bare foot and the sock, which is how blisters normally start.
I also discovered this extraordinary product on the internet called Hike Goo which was
guaranteed to totally prevent blisters.  Every morning, I slathered it thickly all over my feet
and I did not have a single blister all throughout the Camino.  Amazing!

I also brought along sandals which I changed to after the walk. I had Teva hiking sandals -- 
these are a good option if you ever feel your feet getting uncomfortably hot during the walk.  
One of our Amigas  switched to her sandals during the Camino and she felt more comfortable
walking after she did. 

4. Travel light and carry two walking sticks.

Because I was not carrying all my possessions on my back (thank you, luggage transporters) 
I was able to "travel light".   So keep your daypack small -- a good size is 30 to 35 litres  and 
just bring the basics you need to get you through the day's walk  (small towel, sunscreen, 
wallet and passport etc.)  There are vending machines and small cafes along the way so there 
is no danger of starving. 

When I started to buy my Camino gear,  I wasn't sure if I needed walking sticks, and if I did, 
did I need one or two?  The guidebooks had quite a debate on this but in the end, I decided 
to get a pair.
I was in Kyoto earlier in the year and bought a pair of anti-shock, cam-lock trekking poles 
from the Japanese mountaineering store,  Montbell.  
These poles come in both men's and women's variants. There are two locks to adjust the height 
of the pole so it's more safe and secure. 
I was so glad that I bought the trekking poles -- I couldn't have tackled the uphill and the 
downhill slopes without them.  They also helped reduce the impact on my knees, legs 
and feet, helping me avoid injuries.
There are walking sticks made of bamboo or wood that are for sale along the Camino but 
they cannot be adjusted for height.  


 5. Walk at your own pace.

Know thyself!  Early on, I knew that I was not a fast walker.  I had done a few long hikes before
and I knew that speed was not my strong suit.
So on the Camino, I was always at the back of the pack.  I arrived at the destination much later
than everyone else.  But that was all right -- I knew that I was walking at a pace that put no added stress on my body,  I was walking at my own natural rhythm.  

6. And finally, stop and smell the roses.

The Camino is not a race, no one gets points for getting to the next destination ahead of 
everyone else.  Take your time along the way. 
Stop every now and then.  Relax your feet, loosen the hiking shoes.  Try the local specialties.  
The Amigos frequently stopped at albergues and cafes and we savoured torta Santiago, empanada, pulpobocadillos, chorizos...
And have a drink or two -- no one ever said you can't drink and walk.  
I enjoyed many a tall glass of reviving cold draught beer.  Or try the light local vino -- the Ribeiro, refreshing whether blanco or tinto. 
The Camino is not the Amazing Race and it is not a competition.  
It's a long, lovely walk that invites you to relax, reflect and be 110% in the moment.  
Stop and smell the roses -- they were particularly gorgeous this time of the year.
It's the best way to appreciate and yes, benefit from your time spent on the way.
Buen Camino!


  1. Thanks for this last minute reminders. I like the smelling of the roses part.
    Our group of 9 (5 Filipinos and 4 Indonesians are doing the Camino from Sept 16-23. Above all we assure ourselves that He will be with us every stone of the way.