Note: today’s post is a bit different. It’s about travel, rather than language learning. For me, travel and language learning are intertwined. While each is enriching on its own, they’re exponentially richer and deeper when combined.
The Camino de Santiago – a network of walking trails snaking through Spain and the rest of Europe, all of them ending in Santiago de Compostela – will always hold a special place in my heart.
The Camino is what launched my passion for language learning in the first place – something that has enriched my life enormously.
It was also a truly unparalleled travel experience. I traveled with my Dad – the first time that we had ever undertaken such a long journey with just the two of us. We traveled slowly, by foot, walking nearly 800 kilometres from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Most night we stayed in albergues, simple and inexpensive accommodations with bunk beds reserved for peregrinos (pilgrims, or people walking the Camino).
The Camino is growing ever more popular with travellers interested in a unique cultural experience. If you’re considering this adventure – and I highly recommend that you do – I’d like to share a few tips for a successful Camino de Santiago.
1. Learn some Spanish before you go.
Obviously I’m a bit biased here. After all, I’m a language blogger. Of course I’m going to suggest that you learn the language before you go.
But speaking some Spanish opens so many doors! Many of the albergue hospitaleros and cafe owners that I met spoke no English. Being able to speak Spanish meant that I could ask for help, share stories, and connect more deeply with the people that I met. Even the simplest greetings – thank you, you’re welcome, please, hello – can help you connect with locals.
Mi Vida Loca and Coffee Break Spanish are two engaging (and free!) introductory courses that can help you learn some of the standard tourist phrases. If you want to dive in a bit deeper and really learn Spanish, you can check out my Spanish from Scratch post for suggestions on how to get started.
2. Pack light.
There’s really no need for a massive 60 litre bag, especially if you’re walking the highly developed Camino Frances. There are towns and villages every 5 km, so it’s relatively easy to get what you need along the way.
I recommend a 30-40 litre bag with just the bare minimum: a change of clothes, shoes for the shower, a sleeping bag or light blanket, a simple first aid kid, rain gear. My bag – an ultralight 32 litre backpack – weighed about 7 kg fully loaded with snacks and water for the day. Your feet, back and legs will thank you for limiting the weight!
There are many water fountains along the way. We found that two 500 ml bottles each were plenty. We’d drink our fill in the morning at the albergue, fill up our bottles before leaving, and then fill up again any time we found a source of drinking water.
An extra advantage to packing light is that it’s easy to find what you’re looking for in your bag, and packing up in the morning goes much more quickly.
3. Take care of your feet. (And your knees. And your back.)
Even if you’re fit and strong, you can expect some aches and pains along the way. I’d say that 90% of the people I talked to struggled with minor physical problems at some point during the walk – even my Dad, and he’s annoyingly robust. There are four questions that you’ll hear over and over again on the camino:
Where are you from? Where did you start? Where are you heading today? How are your feet?
Make sure that you leave with well broken-in boots. Don’t buy new shoes for the camino!
Take care of blisters before they start. There are various approaches to blister care, but here’s what worked for me: a generous layer of vaseline in the morning, double socks (a thin coolmax liner and a merino wool hiking sock), stopping to air out my feet and change my liners two or three times per day, and slapping on a piece of compeed as soon as I felt even the hint of a hot spot.
While my feet didn’t cause me any problems, my knees did. I hurt my knees on a steep downhill on day one, and they ached badly for over a week. A few times I considered taking a bus and resting for a few days, but in the end I managed to walk through it. I bought a pair of knee braces on day three and a pair of hiking poles on day five. What a difference they made! If I could start over, I would have had the poles with me from day one.
Packing light is really important for your knees, feet and back. While a bag might seem light when you’re just walking around the neighbourhood, it will take its toll if you carry it for 20+ km day after day for weeks.
4. Develop a zen attitude towards communal living.
People will snore. They will also rustle bags at 5 in the morning, flash light in your eyes in the middle of the night, toss and turn in the bunk above you, and cut their toenails at the table. Let it go. Bring a good pair of earplugs (even better, bring a dozen – there will be people who’ll need them!), be conscious of the impact of your actions on others, and try to be zen about communal living.
The positives – shared meals, stories and laughter – will far outweigh the negatives!
5. Walk your own walk.
There’s no “right way” to walk the Camino. Start where you want and follow the route you want. Be kind to yourself and take a day off if you need one. If you don’t want to stay in the albergues – then don’t. There’s nothing wrong with staying in a private room if it fits your budget. If you’re struggling or injured, then don’t fret about taking a bus or sending your pack ahead if you need to.
Walk your own walk.
And let others walk theirs.
6. Get fit before you go.
If I could change one thing about my camino, I would start a bit lighter. I worked very hard to get my pack under 7 kg – but it would have been even better to lose 7 kg of body weight.
You will get fit while walking, and the Camino Frances is certainly not reserved for elite athletes, but I think that some people exaggerate how easy it is. I personally found it challenging, and I’m a relatively fit person who walks regularly. To start again, I would definitely have done more long hikes at home before heading to Spain.
7. Don’t rush.
Stop and sit by the water. Take your shoes off. Have a cafe con leche. Talk to the people sharing your road. Share a snack with another pilgrim. Stop in bars and shops along the way. Make new friends.
I’ve heard about the dreaded “bed race” in the summer, where pilgrims start walking while it’s still dark because they’re afraid that they won’t get a bed in an albergue. We avoided this altogether by walking in March and April. We often left at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, and only arrived at our destination at 5:00 in the evening, because we stopped so often along the way.
They say that the camino provides. Trust in your camino – and give yourself time to actually experience it.
8. Plan a bit…
We carried an excellent lightweight map book by Brierley. We also carried a detailed printout that we received at the Pilgrims’ Office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and another one that we received from the albergue in Estella. The printouts had an up-to-date list of private and public albergues, as well as services available in each town (pharmacies, bank machines, grocery stores and bars/cafes/restaurants).
It’s important to know if you need to buy food before leaving the following day. It’s also important to know how long you’ll have to go in between bank machines and pharmacies, since you don’t want to run out of money or basic supplies.
We learned this the hard way when we ran out of food one evening and had to walk until lunch the next day on an empty stomach. We’re breakfast people, and the route was all uphill – it was a tough morning!
We liked to plan our route a few days in advance, walking with a general idea of which towns we wanted to stop in.
9. …but try not to plan too much.
The unexpected can and will happen.
A few times, we stopped after only a few kilometres due to discomfort or general tiredness. One of those days, we stopped in a really cool albergue – right next door to a bar with the best bocadillos (sandwiches) and drinks in 800 km! We felt like family, laughing and talking with the owners for the better part of the evening. It was one of our best memories from the entire Camino – and if we’d “stuck to the plan” and powered through the discomfort, we would have missed out.
Another day, we planned on walking only 20 km, but we felt good and pushed on to 28. We ended up in Grañon, one of the world’s truly special places. We slept on mats on the floor in the loft of an old church, shared a simple meal of salad and lentils with a dozen strangers-turned-friends, sat by the wood stove to sing along with a guitar, and exchanged stories and experiences in a half dozen languages.
It’s nice to have an idea of where you want to be and when you want to get there. But stay open to the unexpected. There’s magic where you least expect it.
10. Talk to strangers.
Be open to experiences, and be open to people. The best part of the Camino for me was the definitely the people that I met along the way. After several weeks of communal living, we didn’t hesitate to invite anyone to sit with us for a drink or a meal. Some people, especially the ones who’d just started their camino and were feeling tired and a bit bewildered, were a bit shy, but no one ever refused us – and we always parted as friends.
Call out “hola!” when walking into any store, restaurant, or business establishment. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, a “hola” and a genuine smile will show that you respect the people who are making your trip possible.
Silence can be a beautiful thing. I spent hours walking in silence, with only the sounds of my footsteps, the wind and the birds as a soundtrack. But the silence and the talk were two sides of the same experience. Each was more beautiful because of the other. So talk to farmers, shopkeepers, other walkers, road workers, policemen, the sky, birds, donkeys.