Written and traveled by Regan O'Donnell
This past year I took a gap year between high school and college. As a passionate traveler, my goal of the year was to go to as many places as possible and experience the world on my own. I went to eight new countries, met some amazing people, and had life changing moments. I just returned home from one of the most challenging, yet rewarding adventures of my life: walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
The Camino is a pilgrimage across Spain that concludes in Santiago de Compostela. There are several routes you can walk, the most common being the Camino Frances which begins in St. Jean Pied de Port just over the Spanish border in France. End to end the journey is just over 800k and can be done by foot or by bike. It is a catholic pilgrimage, but modern day pilgrims come for many reasons.
I set off Mid April with a small backpack and a very informal plan to reach the end. I went in with no expectations, and opened my mind to whatever I could discover along the way. Because of the rising popularity on the trail, many hostels and restaurants are open to accommodate the pilgrims, making it easier and more accessible than the Appalachian trail or Pacific Crest trail.
I spent the first few days figuring out my rhythm and meeting new people. Quickly I found a great group of people from all over the world and they were my “camino family” as we said. We walked between 15-20 miles per day, and spent our nights journaling, playing cards, and drinking sangria. For one month I lived a in a simple routine, but everyday provided something new and amazing. Some days were full of sunshine, incredible hikes with amazing views, and good company. Other days there was freezing sideways rain and I would feel lonely and so far away from anything reminding me of home. Had it not been for the challenges, I would not have gotten as much out of it. One of my favorites quotes is, “Change doesn’t come without challenge,” and it is completely true! Doing this has taught me how to be confident alone, to be open minded to all people, to have faith in God and in humanity, and to realize that I am more physically capable than I thought.
The journey ends in front of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral which is nearly 1000 years old. When I “crossed the finish line” and stood in front of the amazing church, I had never felt a greater sense of accomplishment and emotion. Being in the same routine everyday, I did not realize how much the experience had changed me, but when I knew it was all over, the change hit me all at once.
Having this kind of travel experience has transformed how I want to travel in the future. I loved having a purpose everyday, and a goal of where I wanted to walk to. I got to stay in small villages and interact with locals so I got to see remote parts of the country. I was there for an extended period of time which allowed me to absorb so much of the Spanish culture. My sense of adventure only continues to grow and I hope that life will allow me to see and experience more of the world!
Are you interested in doing the Camino? Here are some key pointers to know before hand:
How to get there
This all depends on your starting point. If you want to achieve the entire Camino Frances, you must start in St. Jean Pied de Port, and the easiest way to get there is to fly into Paris and take a train through Bayonne. Starting from anywhere else along the trail makes it pretty easy to get to. Europe's public transportation system is very good making all cities and towns accessible by train or bus. The Camino ends in Santiago de Compostela which has a small airport. I took a connecting flight home and it was super easy!
What to Bring
As little as possible! This is a backpacking trip, so I only brought the bare essentials. There is the option to forward your bag to your next lodging spot everyday through a bag shipping service if you do not want to carry your pack, but still pack light! I brought two hiking outfits and one night outfit, rain gear, a fleece, a very lightweight sleeping bag, mini toiletries, mini med kit (with LOTS of bandaids), hiking shoes and tevas, and a journal.
Where to Stay
The camino is filled with quaint, small towns that have restaurants, hostels and hotels. Along the camino the hostels are called albergues. They range in luxury, but most are dorm style with simple amenities. There are many hotels along the way too and it is possible to only stay in them if that is more your style. If you are going in the off season, there should be no problems if you do not plan ahead on any of your accommodations. If you are ever worried about not having a bed, you can call the albergues directly to reserve or go on www.onlypilgrims.com to reserve a bed.
When to go
Peak season on the camino is June-August. However, the crowds are large and the weather is scorching hot. The winter is very cold with lots of snow, not many other pilgrims, and many of the facilities are closed. The best time to go is Spring and Fall when the weather is mild, and the crowds are manageable!
Who can do it
Everybody. While many of you may be reading this thinking it seems cool, but I could never do it because ____. While I was out there I saw people between 8 years old and 80 years old. 100 pounds to 400 pounds. Strong and healthy to weak and dying. If you don't think you have the time, that is no excuse either! Some people complete the camino in parts over many years. Some do only 5 days and that satisfies their calling. The point is: If you want to do it, you can.