The Camino de Santiago was the cornerstone of The Big Trip. I knew that if I did nothing else I wanted to do this. When I tell people I did the Camino their faces light up in knowing excitement, they’re vaguely familiar with the concept, or they have no idea what it is and ask me to explain. Two years ago I was in the latter group. Here’s how I found the Camino, or how the Camino found me.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago in the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The journey is done on foot, bicycle, horseback, or wheelchair.
The bulk of the journey traverses Spain, but there are many routes and they often start in other countries.
When you arrive in Santiago you receive a certificate of completion called a Compostela. In order to receive a Compostela you must walk at least 100 kilometers (about 62 miles). The minimum distance is different if you go by bike. The distance is confirmed by collecting stamps along the way in your Camino passport, or credencial.
A person who does the Camino is known as a pilgrim, or peregrino/peregrina.
Why Do It?
The answer to this question is going to be different for everyone you ask.
Historically, the Camino started as a pilgrimage for Christians to visit the remains of Saint James in the Cathedral of Santiago. (Camino de Santiago is translated to the Way of Saint James in English, although most people just refer to it in Spanish.)
People would walk out of their doors wherever they lived and start walking to Santiago. This is why there are so many routes and no official starting point.
Today people still do the Camino for religious reasons, and I’d say a large number of people who fall into this category are Catholic.
But there are also many, many people who don’t do it for religious reasons at all. Some people do it as a physical challenge. Some just like hiking. Some have experienced a major loss or life change and this is seen as a watershed moment.
Some people have been waiting years, even decades to do it, and others decided to do it on a whim two weeks prior. Some people do it with friends, family, or church groups; and others walk it solo.
My Camino Discovery
While living in Charlotte I was pretty involved with the international community. I met a woman who serves as an honorary consul for Spain, and we grabbed lunch one day. We were talking about Spain and my desire to visit, and she brought up the Camino de Santiago. She told me about her experience and why it was so meaningful for her to do it and to walk it by herself.
Something in what she was explaining really connected with me. I was intrigued and wondered if this was something I might do do myself.
That weekend I went to REI to look for a backpack for a separate reason. I went to the bathroom and on the community bulletin board near the door was a poster for the Charlotte Camino Pilgrims, a group for people in the area who have done or are planning on walking the Camino. It was quite a sign, literally and figuratively.
I decided to go to their next meeting, which was at St. Anne’s Catholic Church. I felt like a bit of a fraud because I’m not Catholic, and I wasn’t looking to do this for religious reasons. Was that even allowed? I decided to check it out anyway.
When I went to the meeting my concerns were alleviated, as I learned that many people there weren’t Catholic. In fact, one woman who’s done the Camino more than once was Jewish.
I was really inspired and encouraged by everyone there and felt that whenever I do actually decide to do a big trip for myself it would include the Camino.
But I still wasn’t certain that would happen. I still hadn’t actually gotten up the nerve to take a career break and pursue this.
I would go to the meetings and hear other people say exactly when they were going to walk the Camino. My response was always that I’d like to do it “one day”.
When I finally made the decision to go through with it everyone at the meeting was so happy for me. They knew it had been a process for me to get to that point, and it was nice to have their support.
I decided to do the Camino at the beginning of May. It seemed like it was a time when it wouldn’t be too cold, and I wouldn’t be doing it in the heat of summer.
That would also put me ahead of peak season starting in June, so there wouldn’t be too many crowds. I was also excited to learn of an unexpected bonus when one of the Charlotte pilgrims told me that the wildflowers would be in bloom at that point in spring.
The route I decided to do was the Camino Frances. I initially thought I would do the Camino Primitivo, which is known as the original route. I thought if I’m going to do it I wanted to have an “authentic” experience. I learned that there’s no “real” way to do the Camino and no route is more authentic than another.
The Camino Frances is the most popular and populated route. Since I decided to do the Camino on my own I wanted to go where I knew I would see people all along the way. The Frances is known for having more of a social element, and that’s what I wanted.
The “traditional” starting point on the Camino Frances is St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France. It’s about 791 km from Santiago, and people generally estimate it at about 4-5 weeks of walking time.
I wanted to do the Camino, but I didn’t think I’d actually want to spend an entire month walking. I thought two weeks would be a good amount of time for me, so I decided to start in León, Spain, about 322 km from Santiago.
Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to do the Camino, and you can start wherever you want. If you want to get a Compostela you have to walk a minimum of 100 km. On the Camino Frances that 100 km starting point is in Sarria, Spain.
Why I Did the Camino
This is a question I’m still unable to answer. Although I am Christian I didn’t feel a religious draw to this. I did, however, feel very spiritually moved along the way. I enjoy hiking, but I could find a trail much closer to home if that was the only motivation. I didn’t have a goal or mission before I set out. It was really just a feeling I had, and sometimes that’s enough.