El Camino is an incredible adventure. Originally, it started as a Christian pilgrimage leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the shrine of the apostle Saint James. This was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages in the Middle Ages along with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Nowadays, the reasons for embarking on this adventure are as varied as the people who walk it. Upon arrival to the Santiago’s Pilgrim Office where you receive an official document stating you have completed the pilgrimage, you are asked for the reasons of your walk: religious, spiritual or tourism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the split was fairly even!
I had the idea of doing the Camino walk for quite a while but it was never quite the right time. Until finally one summer in between jobs I found myself with 2 months off and a burning desire to push myself and be on my own, to work through some tough times I was going through.
So, in August 2012 I packed my backpack and I took my first step in a life-changing journey of nearly 900kms over 5 weeks on my own. It was a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual journey for me, overcoming challenges every day and each kilometre leaving a bit of my old self behind. I realised I am much stronger than I thought, in every sense.
What I found most inspiring were the people I met along the way, the connections are so strong when everyone walking is stripped down to basics, there is no small talk or appearances to hide behind; it’s raw and real and vulnerable, and that’s incredibly inspiring.
Treasured Moments from Three Camino Walks
I’ve done three Camino’s now and all three have been different and special in their own way. The first one was five weeks along the French Way, the second was two-and-a-half weeks along the Primitivo Way in the mountains of Asturias, and the third one was two weeks along the Portuguese Way.
We started in Porto and walked along the beautiful Portuguese coastal route to the border with Spain where we changed to the central route by means of renting a canoe with 2 other pilgrims and rowing to the Spanish city of Tui, where the central route is.
That day “cruising” along the river was one of the most fun of the whole trip! The cities of Porto, Tui and Pontevedra were my favourites, apart from all the cute little villages along the way.
From all three Camino walks it would be hard to choose a single favourite moment but arriving at the Santiago Cathedral for the first time, after walking over 800kms to meet her, was an incredibly emotional moment. I cried for nearly an hour! Most pilgrims did to be fair.
I had set off that day very early in the morning, on my own, walking at dawn to reach the cathedral before most. I wanted a moment for just the two of us and I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach when I think of it.
When I laid eyes on that magnificent piece of architecture, beautiful in its own right but also so meaningful in other ways, all of the pain and sacrifices and adventures of the Camino came flooding out of my eyeballs.
I called my dad in a sobbing blabbering mess to tell him I had made it. The next day, instead of going home, I kept walking to Finisterra and three days later I finally put my sore feet in the ocean I had been chasing for nearly 2 months. That was also another very special moment.
Connecting with People and Places Along the Way
As I’m originally from South America, I find the culture in Spain and Portugal very similar. I love how friendly and open people are. When walking through towns or cities, total strangers wishing us ‘Buen Camino’ (good journey, the motto of the pilgrimage) was always warming.
It’s also lovely to meet other travellers on the Camino trail. The first time I walked on my own for 5 weeks and made some really great friends. One close friendship was with an Italian girl, Ilaria, who was also walking on her own. We shared so many experiences together and opened up about so much that to this day we’re in touch and I’ve been to Italy to see her.
She’s a tattoo artist and after I finished my second Camino I wanted to commemorate the journey by getting a tattoo. So I asked her to draw a Camino tattoo and email it to me. It’s a little shell and arrow, both symbols of the Camino, and I had it done in Santiago. It’s very special to me on so many levels and my only tattoo.
Aside from the people you I met along the way, some of my fondest memories are of the places I stayed. From old monasteries and convents, to beautiful rural communal houses in the middle of the forest, to pilgrim hostels with sea view. All special in their own way.
But I also stayed in cramped rooms with 100 people and got devoured by bedbugs, or had to sleep outdoors because of lack of beds, so there’s a bit of everything!
What you Need to Know Before you Walk El Camino
Speaking of challenges, my biggest challenge, after having done 2 other routes, was to let go of expectations. “I’ve done this before, I know how it works”, I don’t. Each Camino is different and challenging in its own way, and it surprises you when you think you’ve got it figured out. And that’s part of its beauty.
What I would say is that everyone should try and go at their own pace on El Camino. Whether you’re on your own or not, the Camino is your own journey and you need to go at your own pace. Also: Vaseline on your feet will prevent blisters! And pack light. When you think you’ve packed light, go back and take more things out of your backpack.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy El Camino as much as I did!