El Camino de Santiago – A Love Affair

The Journey begins on El Camino de Santiago
The Journey Begins

What is El Camino de Santiago?

El Camino de Santiago or El Camino for short, is The Way of Saint James.

El Camino is a L-O-N-G walk. Not a hike in the true sense of hiking as most of it is quite flat and non-technical. It is a journey. A journey for your feet, your mind, and your heart. I know that is a bit sappy, but like a lot of sappy things, also true. Your feet and your body will  transform and build new muscle memory as you embark on a new physical regimen. At first you will be aware of your steps, miles/kilometers, blisters, sweat, and weight on your back. After only a short period the muscle memory of the previous days kicks into auto-pilot and you no longer find yourself thinking of those things.

St James statue along El Camino de Santiago
St James

The bulk of my long walk was in my mind. In the beginning I worried about things at home, if this was really going to be the “walk of a lifetime” I had built up in my head, would we find food and shelter when we needed it, etc.

El Camino has a lovely way of encasing you in mindfulness 24/7. For example, at home I have to practice and remember to be mindful during my day. That mindfulness usually lasts for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, and I revert to the daily thoughts about doing my job, grocery lists, chore lists, engagements and obligations that must be met, and so forth. When you are on El Camino, you quickly embrace the fact that you don’t know where you will sleep, you have never been here before and are not familiar with your surroundings, you don’t know who you will meet, we didn’t know how far we would travel or what we would eat…. And the beautiful transformation is that that worry transforms into curiosity and wonder.  At least it did for me.

Free offerings for traveling Pilgrims
Free offerings for traveling Pilgrims

The journey of the heart. For me, this was half on the journey itself and half the memories I carry with me. El Camino will open your heart, if you let it.  You will meet new people that have very different home lives than you, yet here we were together. You will share food, stories, band-aids and cell phones with others. You will experience sunshine, rain, good food, lousy food, nice people, crabby people, shade trees, beautiful panoramas, stray dogs and cats, busy roadsides and serene forests –  and this gave me profound peace and warmth in my heart. Also when I look back at photos or remember an occurrence that took place on El Camino my heart always feels full and content. 

El Camino is not one specific route, but a network of trails all ending up at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. You can choose the route based on timeframe, length, or popularity.

the trail at El Camino de Santiago
The Trail at El Camino

The trail is a pilgrimage, and has been walked since the early ninth century. It continues to be a pilgrimage, but not necessarily with the same sentiment or reason that it had historically. Of course, to some, it does still contain the original definition.

What are Pilgrim Passports/credenciales and Certificates of Completion/Compostelas?

When we started our journey we made sure we had our Pilgrim Passports, called credencial de peregrino. Your pilgrim passport will provide proof that you have walked at least the minimum 62 miles in order to receive your Compostela, which is an official certificate of completion. 

We Made It!

Your Pilgrim Passport is not a government document, but it is the crucial document necessary to prove your pilgrimage and to receive your Compostela or official Certificate of Completion.   Businesses, post offices, and albergues (lodging) can stamp your passport each day. The stamps are unique and so much fun to collect.

Check out these 2 websites for a wealth of information – The Pilgrim’s Reception Office & American Pilgrims on the Camino: Home

What’s the significance of the scalloped shell?

We can’t know for sure exactly how the scalloped shell became so intimately connected to the pilgrimage of El Camino de Santigao as there are many stories and legends. Many say the scallops in the shell represent the many routes one can take to reach the city of Santiago de Compostela. 

Another use of the shell, to be taken with caution, is that the longest line of the shell points towards Santiago. This is not used the same way on all routes, so take the scalloped shell symbols as markers letting you know you are on the right path. The yellow arrow accompanying the shell symbols will point you towards Santiago or Cape Finisterre – The End Of The World, if you are going to continue on after reaching Santiago de Compostela. You will quickly get the hang of it and there are sure to be other prergrinos in case you have any doubts. 

Shell symbols at El Camino de Santiago
more shell symbols at El Camino de Santiago

Another historical use of the shell boils down to practicality and function. On many routes these shells were readily available vessels. The pilgrims of the past could use them to act as a small bowl or drinking glass. Pilgrims of the past also depended on the mercy of the church and of the citizens of Spain to provide their daily rations, and a shell scoopful was the measurement provided. 

Today the scalloped shell is a souvenir and endearing momento of your journey. You will find it on everything from path markers to mugs, T-shirts, and magnets. The T-shirts can be worn and the magnets are light-weight. Seeing those shells will make you smile and feel confident you are “on the right path.”

What Should I Pack for El Camino de Santiago?

There are many sites to provide lists of items to pack, but here is a quick list of items we took with us that proved valuable.

  • Large safety pins / clothes pins – safety pins do poke holes in your clothes, but they provide a more secure grasp. Also, you can trust your socks safety pinned to your backpack but I would not trust clothes pins to hold my most important clothing item securely. Surely you do not want to lose your socks!
  • Clothes line & universal plug
El Camino de Santiago clothesline
  • Sleeping bag, sleeping sheet bag, blow up pillow – before we left I made 3 “sleeping bags” made out of sheets. These came in very handy for the albergues that do not furnish sheets. It also made me feel better about bedbugs, which was never an issue. Thank goodness! The blow up pillow is up to you. Some people just bring a small pillowcase and wad the clothes they are not wearing up in it and use it for a pillow. We did not take sleeping bags and did not regret leaving them at home.
  • Laundry/body soap – We used a Castile soap and used it for everything. 
  • Zip top bags We used these for everything. We made “kits” in different bags. A bag for cords and adaptors, a bag for wet clothes, a bag for toiletries, etc.
  • Toilet paper – I suggest the camping biodegradable type. There are rolls that do not have any center cardboard roll, saving you room and tiny bit of weight.
  • Dried out wet wipes – Didn’t use these as much as I thought, but something to consider
  • Water bottle, thermos, hydration system- get as fancy or as basic as you think you need. I like tea, so I liked having a thermos type, my companions did not drink much in the way of hot beverages and just opted for a good water bottle
  • Hat – Gross, I know, but I was so sweaty that I could not keep sunscreen on my face or neck to save my life. My lightweight baseball style hat helped protect my face most of the time. 
  • Money belts or travel pouches for under your clothes – I chose to keep my money and passport in a travel pouch under my clothes. This made me much less afraid of someone getting into my backpack. It was inconvenient at times, but thoroughly gave me greater peace of mind. PS. I slept with it, which you could not do with your backpack. PPS As a general statement, El Camino de Santiago is very safe.
  • Camera lenses, SD cards, and extra battery. This is a tough one. How much you will use a camera over a cell phone camera probably shows my age, but it was important to me and worthwhile
  • Chargers, adaptors, and cords – charging it always at a premium
  • Camping towel – I recommend a quick drying, low bulk camping towel. The last thing you want is a damp, heavy towel weighing down your pack!
  • Shower friendly shoes – I personally do not care for flip flops, but many people do. Keep in mind, you may not want anything between your toes if you run into blisters
  • Flashlight / headlamp – most people reading this will opt to use the light on your cell phone for flashlight needs. We fully anticipated needing headlamps for early morning starts, but we fell into the “little bit later” crowd. 
  • Socks – well worth investing in wool hiking socks! Wool keeps your feet dry. Do the research, spend the extra money if your budget allows it. I took thick and thins. 
  • Bandanas ** This was my secret weapon. Lightweight, cotton bandanas can be used for many things and dry quickly pulled through a loop on your backpack or on the line in the evening. Bandanas can be used for wiping your face and neck, as a napkin, for first aid purposes, to lay over a questionable pillow, blowing your nose, washing your spork and many other uses. I took 3 and used them every day. 
  • Long sleeved shirt or layering shirt – pick something that wicks and be easily removed.
  • Zip off pants – I personally did not find them all that wonderful. I didn’t like the hassle of reattaching the zipped off lower portion or keeping track of them in my backpack. I personally preferred to be cold for a little while over dealing with the lower leg tubes. I would recommend a good pair of hiking shorts that wick, dry quickly, and are full of pockets. 
  • Rain poncho / construction grade garbage bags – I found the construction grade garbage bags to work the best in protecting us/ our backpacks from rain. The rain ponchos were a fight, didn’t perform as expected, and did not fold up compactly. 
  • First aid and Toiletries – sunscreen, deodorant, band-aids in assorted shapes and sizes. The band-aids that are especially for blisters were fabulous and well worth the extra money. Tweezers, needle, matches, first aid cream, pain reliever, nail clipper, alcohol swabs, mole skin, medical tape, gauze bandages, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, etc
  • Swiss Army Type Knife – We only needed this a few times to cut clothesline and some tough packaging. Remember this will have to be checked – it cannot go in carry on. We ended up donating it to a fellow pilgrim who was doing the trail in a much more primitive fashion than we were and who would be out there for a few months. 
  • Fleece shoulder strap protectors *** secret weapon number 2! I was carrying a backpack substantially heavier than the recommended weight for my stature and my beginner level of hiking so I gave myself a little safeguard. Before we left I sewed 2 sets of fleece rectangles that I used as padding below the strap of the backpack. This provided extra padding on the stress points where the backpack straps met my shoulders and collarbones. I DID almost lose them on several occasions as they would fall to the ground upon removing my backpack and almost went without notice. They were a bit hot and cumbersome, but indispensable to the well being of my body!
  • Walking Stick or Poles – In my opinion, if you are under 40, are in relatively good shape, and do not have knee problems you can leave your walking stick home. It will probably be more hassle than it is worth. Having said that, I was very happy to have my 3 section, screw apart stick with me. We even named her Sticky on El Camino. She almost got left behind a time or two after resting and having lunch, but in the end she made the whole journey. I chose this stick because it came apart into 3 sections that would fully fit in my backpack and it did not have a sharp point. Pointed ones that do not fit well within your backpack can poke holes in your backpack and also be a possibly security issue at the airport. Most of the terrain is also not conducive to pointed sticks. Sticky was a bit heavy, but she made up for it when I was dragging butt. 

Why hike El Camino De Santiago?

For me, it was a long walk. It was a long walk to reflect on my values and think about my life up until that point. It was a little piece of regret proofing my life. It was a bonding experience with my two daughters. It was a time of letting go and filling up.

During our daily lives at home we worry about bills, think about all the work that has to be done, and tend to get very caught up in our day to day tasks. As I reflected, I realized that at home, I didn’t worry about where I was going to sleep that night, how I would feed myself that day, or if I could avoid debilitating blisters on my feet. I worried about “complex” things that usually took me out of the moment. I usually worried about things from the past or future that I could not control. On El Camino de Santiago my concerns generally only stretched out for a few hours or perhaps a little into the next day. El camino was a huge lesson on mindfulness. Many hours of the day you found yourself in awe of your surroundings, in tune with your body, and challenged to be in the present moment with your thoughts and meeting new people. The auto-pilot routines of home were not applicable. On el camino we winged it much more readily and listened to our bodies and intuition.

Before the trip I decided that we would experience the pilgrimage with as much openness and original intention as we could muster. For me, this meant that there would be no maps, no reservations, no apps, no luggage service, and no predetermined stopping places. The original pilgrims or peregrinos/peregrinas had to rely on the mercy of others. We had to have faith that it would all turn out OK and fall into place. That was a huge mind shift and leap of faith for me.

This has been such a long tradition, and now very popular with tourists, there is really not much reason to worry. Each day we started off we didn’t know where we would eat or sleep. We didn’t know how many miles we would walk, and we didn’t know if there would be lodging once we got tired. It was all thrown to the wind.

Life lessons that El Camino teaches you over and over

  • Listen to your body – rest when you are tired, eat when you are hungry, take care of your feet and back.
  • Be kind to others, we are on this path together, but our journeys are our own. Give compassion on this pilgrimage as it has been practiced for so many years and been given so freely to us.
  • We are part of something so much greater than ourselves.
  • Nature’s beauty knows no end. Drink it up. Soak it up.
  • Progress, not perfection is the key. 

Buen Camino! 

The end of the world from the post El Camino de Santiago

Be sure to check out our YouTube video on El Camino! –