I’m just back from cycling a 300km portion of the Camino de Santiago Trail, a bucket list trip I’d been contemplating for over 10 years now. Sure, I may not have walked it like the traditionalists, and I only did over a third of the trail, but I did manage to do it with my family (teenage boys and all) over 9 action packed days. A great experience we’ll never forget! I’m sure I’ll be back again to hike or cycle more of the trail and add to my story collection.
So what is Camino de Santiago?
It’s one of Spain’s most popular ancient pilgrimage routes (the way of St James) marked by yellow arrows and signature blue and yellow scallop shells. It starts at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and goes right across to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 800km in total trekked by over 200,000 pilgrims per year.
The trip is sensational for breaking free of the routine of everyday life, to live simply, immerse yourself in the elements, new landscapes, cultures and meet adventurous new friends from all corners of the globe with fascinating stories to match.
I’ll never forget riding past ancient Spanish castles, over Roman bridges, winding down sweeping mountain passes, cruising over medieval cobble stoned paths, glancing over beautiful vineyards and past breath-taking villas. The history, wild flowers, bubbling brooks, local people, wind in your hair, delicious homemade food, camaraderie of fellow pilgrims sharing moments and stories. The delight of a warm shower and soft bed at the end of a day of adventure. Complete immersion in the experience – feeling, tasting, touching and exploring it all.
Here’s six useful tips if you’re planning to tackle the Camino de Santiago yourself:
1. Make it your own
When you’re in Spain, doing the miles along this ancient trail, you, my friend are a pilgrim. Please don’t get lost in whether you’re a real pilgrim or not because you did (or didn’t) do it the traditional way.
This might mean you spent each night in luxury accommodation instead of hostels, only did the last 100kms, cycled it or took twice a long as everybody else.
It’s the diversity of the pilgrims that make it such a special experience. You’ll find the reasons people do this pilgrimage, varies as much as their journey. Some are overcoming addictions or hardships, others are taking it on behalf of others that couldn’t make it, some physical adventure, some for spiritual enlightenment or even not really sure why.
Honour your choices and be unashamedly you.
2. Embrace the challenges
You know there will be many! It’s guaranteed.
There’s nothing like a challenge to highlight your daily patterns and gain insight about yourself.
Talking of challenges. There was a testing time on our recent Camino journey in searing 30 deg shadeless heat where my youngest son had a flat tyre and a bolt that wouldn’t allow it to be fixed. So here I am left behind with a distressed son, no map, no phone reception, no address of destination, minimal Spanish, roughly 6km to go, lost, one flat tyre and no help in sight. Options were to cry, panic or get resourceful. I chose number 3 after a small window of panic. I’m only human…lol!
With streaming tears from my 14 year old we ventured across fallow corn fields to join our rightful path ever so slowly with the disabled bike. Hours later we finally reached town and stumbled across familiar faces. Crisis resolved. There were big lessons learned right there. Lessons learnt for me – carry your own map, know where you’re going, ask for help sooner rather than later, keep following the yellow arrows always and learn more Spanish…lol!
3. Integrate the lessons
Acknowledge the lessons you learnt from the days before and integrate them as you move forward. Found this out the hard way! Pain and discomfort are great teachers.
4. Honour your own rhythm.
You’ll find your rhythm half way through the first day. Go faster and you’ll burn out quickly. Slower and you’ll get frustrated.
Quiet persistence pays off and beats showy bursts any day. The Camino will show you that.
There’s plenty of trekkers who have charged out of the gates only to break down midway through the journey.
Remember the Camino isn’t a race and you’ll find your fitness improves every day. To my surprise I got better as the days went on. At times five hours into the ride I was at my peak.
Be kind to your body, keep an eye out for signs of exhaustion, and take rests when you need them. Drink lots of water and take a magnesium supplement to help your muscles recover.
5. Do the work
Enthusiasm is great. But, you need to put in the training before you hit the track. Nothing can make up for miles in the legs on the mode of transport you’re taking. I learnt that!
It might not be the case for everyone, but, if you spend the bulk of your time sitting at a desk, easing into the walk is a good option. There’s no shame in breaking up your first few days into “shorter” stints: start with 15 to 20km days, and gradually increase the distance from there.
6. Enjoy the journey
Keep an open-mind, reserve judgement and enjoy the experience as it unfolds, for that’s where you’ll find the magic.
Be exactly where you are and soak it all in. Enjoy the mental space to mill over the meaning of life, review your priorities and burn in lasting memories.
Above all join in the catch cry exchanged amongst fellow pilgrims and local well wishers along the way – Buen Camino!
It literally means good road in Spanish, but it can also mean good path, both physical and spiritual.
Do you have a bucket list trip simmering? Love to hear about it?