Last week, I posted a question on Facebook and Instagram for a new writing project. Outside of these weekly blog posts, I’m outlining a book that attempts to pull off two things: tell the story of my 2017 Camino and directly address the reader as if they are on the verge of their own hike—even if they aren’t. I find that being spoken to like you already fit a particular identity can help break down that initial wall of imposter syndrome.
After writing/outlining/kvetching over a dozen versions of an initial Camino book—including a fully outlined one that I plan to write at some point in my life—this one feels right. The topic is inspired by one of the most common responses I receive when talking or writing about long-distance hikes: “I wish I could do something like that.”
And so, my question was this. “If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of walking the Camino or a similar walk, what is the primary thing holding you back?” All of the responses were helpful and very legitimate—this is not meant to be a “well actually” book telling people that anyone can toss their responsibilities out the window. This is the information that can help you connect “I wish I could do that” and “I’m doing that.”
My biggest realization from the post is that most people, very understandably, do not have basic information about the Camino to fill in the most important questions: how much does it cost? Where do I sleep? Is it safe?
So, book writing aside, I wanted to put an initial post together with some intro information. After having this hike in my life for over 14 years (gah!) I forget that info isn’t just common knowledge.
Okay, But Why?
Why do I care if anyone else walks this thing? The shortest answer is that the Camino (and similar hikes) shatter what we’ve been taught is the norm. The norm of what our bodies can do, how we treat each other, and how we can or should spend our time. The norm of what we are supposed to look like, ownership of what’s mine and what’s yours, and the norm of what makes you successful. However, defining why someone should go isn’t my goal. That is too personal. My goal is to help curious people see that doing something this outside of the ordinary is not as large a leap as you think.
Here we go.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
Oh, this is such a huge question. In a nutshell, it is a 9th-century Catholic pilgrimage that culminates in Santiago de Compostela in Spain where Catholics believe St. James the Greater is buried. The trail is believed to have pre-Christian origins as both a trade and pilgrimage route that possibly ended on the coast at Finisterre–or, the “end of the earth.” Today, hundreds of thousands of people hike it each year for religious, spiritual, personal, or simply athletic reasons.
Quick sub-question here: Do you need to be religious or spiritual to walk it? Absolutely not. Countless people walk it simply because they feel they have to (like me, for example!).
How Much Time Does it Take to Walk the Camino?
If you want to get the certificate that signifies that you walked the Camino, you have to walk at least 100 kilometers leading up to and ending in Santiago de Compostela.
St. Jean Pied du Port is the most traditional starting place of the Camino Frances–just one of the primary Camino routes. People start from much farther away from St. Jean and on many different roads of varying difficulties. In other words, don’t get locked into the 500-mile thing you keep hearing. There are many Caminos, and if someone asks, “Are you walking the whole thing,” then they don’t have all the info.
That being said, here are some numbers:
Walking from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago traditionally takes anywhere from 30 to 40 days. The pilgrim office in St. Jean maps out a route that takes 34 days with no breaks. It’s doable, I’ve done it, but it’s hard. This version involves walking anywhere between 20k and 30k a day (about 12 to 18 miles) depending on the elevation.
Continuing to Finisterre or Muxia (two traditional pre-Christian endpoints on the coast) takes between three and five additional days. Ideally, you have a little flexibility to take rest days or the humility to hop on a bus if you need to catch up.
Don’t have six weeks off of work? Worried about feeling physically or mentally rushed? You don’t have to walk from St. Jean. Ben and I had 10 walking days and started about 150 miles from Santiago. If we had had physical concerns, we could have started closer and used the same amount of time for less walking.
I know many people who have walked the Camino in phases with months or years in between. I also know people who have stopped before Santiago and didn’t care about getting the certificate. The “whole” Camino is one that you feel is complete.
How Much Does the Camino Cost?
Obviously, this number is always changing. But I can give you an estimate as of April 2022.
Hiking day costs
On a typical Camino day, you’ll spend money on three main things: food, a bed, and totally random stuff.
-A bed in an albergue (more on this below) costs between a donation and 15 Euros. Even donation-based albergues recommend leaving between 10 and 15 for a bed, depending on the type of hostel. On average, I spent about 10 to 12 euros for a bed in a privately run albergue. Public ones may be closer to 8. Private rooms cost more than this, typically between 25 and 50 euros a night.
-Pilgrim menus for dinner offer a three-course meal for between 10 and 15 euros. Breakfast and lunch typically cost between 5 and 10 each depending on your choices. You can cut food costs down significantly by purchasing food at a grocery store and cooking for yourself at albergues with kitchens.
-Random stuff: If you’re not in the mood to hand wash your clothing that day, you can use a washer and dryer for between 6 and 8 euros. You may need random medical supplies and will probably want a daily popsicle.
I assume that I will spend between 30 and 40 Euros a day. I CAN spend as little as about 15 Euros a day, and I know people who have done it for even less. You can also spend way more and eat lots of popsicles or stay in hotels.
Assuming an average of 35 Euros a day X 35 walking days: 1,225 Euros or (as of this date) about $1,325.
Airfare and transportation
I assume I will spend about $1,000 between roundtrip airfare (I’ve flown from NYC into Madrid, Bordeaux, and Porto, for example) and the bus or train to reach your starting town.
Pre- and post-hiking day costs
I tend to spend the most when I’m off the trail. Hotel rooms in Spain do seem to cost less than they are in the US, so I assume I will spend about $80 to $120 ($100 on average) a night on a room before I hike and in Santiago. Add food and souvenirs, and let’s call this category $500 for two nights before and two nights at the end plus food.
I cannot stress enough how much you can borrow from friends when you post online for old hiking stuff. But if you’re buying from scratch, your biggest purchases are your pack (probably about $150) and hiking boots (around $100). The rest is up to you. You don’t need a tent or any fancy hiking stuff. Honestly, the less you bring the MUCH better. I’m gonna say this column is $500.
As I’ll mention below, travel insurance is key for the Camino. My plans tend to cost around $100.
Total cost: About $3,425 for six weeks.
Note for freelancers/people quitting their jobs: This does not include money lost by not working. If you have a full-time job, are taking the time off, are retired, or don’t teach in the summer, you can ignore this.
Where do I Sleep?
Each Camino route cuts through hundreds of villages along the way. Some days you’ll pass through 2, other days you’ll pass through 10. You will likely choose your stopping point each day (either the morning of or weeks beforehand, depending on the type of planner you are).
Most villages have a selection of albergues–the pilgrim version of hostels. You can only stay in these albergues if you carry a “credential” AKA a “pilgrim passport.” Each night, you will receive a stamp to prove you passed through on foot, bike, or horse. In other words, albergues typically only host pilgrims.
You will sleep on a bunk or single bed with anywhere from four to 200 other people in the room. You can also book private or semi-private rooms in most albergues for a little more money. And sometimes, you find unique albergues with “pods” like the one pictured above.
In nearly all cases, albergues are fully functional buildings with running water, electricity, heat, and sometimes a shared kitchen. You won’t likely find AC, but that seems to be more a Spain thing, not an albergue thing.
Showers and bathrooms are a bit like college with stalls and changing areas. When you find an albergue with great water pressure and a private bathroom, word will spread like wildfire.
Learning to sleep in a room with so many people can be as challenging as the walk itself, but there is a massive payoff. You quickly learn to love the people walking by your side, and I mean the word love very seriously. Moving in this daily rhythm together is like developing a new family. And if that new family snores, well, you just make fun of them in the morning.
Am I Physically Capable of Walking the Camino?
I’m not going to pretend that the walk is not hard or that I do not have long-term injuries from my trips. But this question always comes down to knowing the difference between difficult and dangerous. Only you can determine where this line is for you.
On the Bright Side
Let’s start with the hopeful news. This is not the PCT or the AT. You do not need any climbing gear or camping knowledge. Also, the Civil Guard patrols many areas of the Camino, especially on days with difficult weather. The only time I fully lost cell service was walking over the Pyrenees. While you will have long stretches between some towns (up to around 16k), signs advertising taxis and emergency services are common. When you do come to a village, people are very caring and can help you locate a cab or medical services if you need.
You also do not need to hike with a pack if you are not able to carry too much weight. In most areas, backpack shuttling services will drive your pack ahead to a booked albergue so it’s waiting for you. And as I said before, if you feel most comfortable walking just a few miles every day, there are many stretches of the Camino where this is possible, particularly at the end.
And for all those reading this that are saying “I’m too old,” the average age of Camino walkers tends to skew much older than you think. I’ve walked with far more people in their 60s and 70s than in their 20s and 30s.
On the Other Hand
Walking this far is hard on the body and brain and more serious things do happen. It’s important to take things like heat and snow very seriously and to listen to local advice about skipping a part of the trail if necessary. If you have a medical condition, I cannot tell you if going is the right choice. Even without a major physical obstacle, I always purchase travel insurance that includes the medical evacuation option.
All this being said, you can also join a guided group that will keep a closer eye on you as you walk. There are even organizations that will push you in a wheelchair or guide you if you are blind.
And most importantly, it’s important to trust your body. You can heavily prepare and feel as fit as a fiddle, but if you are walking and your body or your brain screams, “Stop!” you stop.
If you’d like to hear more about I train for the Camino, feel free to reach out.
Is the Camino Safe?
I’m going to refer you to the Spanish Correos website to answer the first part of this one. As it notes, “Spain is among the 25 safest countries in the world and is the ninth with the lowest homicide rate. The Camino de Santiago is a priority for the Spanish Government itself, which intensifies security measures on the different routes during the busiest times of the year, such as the summer months or Easter.”
If you google “safety on the Camino,” you are bound to come across some very tragic stories that I do not want to downplay. That being said, they are not the norm. Outside Magazine has a great article about hiking as a woman, particularly around the disconnect between statistics and the fears ingrained in our minds since we are young women.
From my own experience, I have spent 91 cumulative days on the Camino. I can remember three brief moments in those 91 days that I felt genuinely unsafe, and one of those times was because of an angry dog. Both uneasy times with humans were very brief and only from a bad gut feeling–which I listened to–and immediately walked to the next person on the trail to ensure I wasn’t alone.
Honestly, I have felt far more unsafe in my daily life in NYC than I ever have on the Camino. But this doesn’t mean I wandered out the albergue door at 2am or that I didn’t tell anyone that I was leaving for Spain in the first place. There are small things you can do to feel safer in any situation, and the same goes for hiking. Also, I like the carry a whistle in case a farmer on a tractor doesn’t see me bumbling through their field.
Ask Me Things!
This “quick post” turned into something much longer, as it often does. And I still feel like I only scratched the surface.
So if this was helpful, feel free to leave questions or send me a message and I’ll write a follow-up! As always, thank you for reading. More on me and Ben’s Camino later this week.