El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimmage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. The original path has pagan roots and existed long before Christianity with legendary Celtic witches residing on the rocky coasts of Galicia. In contemporary history, these routes have been popularized by thousands of pilgrims traveling to venerate the remains of the Apostle James and repent for their sins. Many people still hold this to be a religious or spiritual experience, while others simply see it as a hiking adventure. There are many different paths to take, but all end in Galicia. Last year alone, Santiago received over 200,000 peregrinos.
This past summer, after a wonderful weekend in Asturias visting with classmates, my friend, Jen, and I decided to embark on what if called the camino primitivo, or the “original way”. This camino starts in Oviedo and spans over 300km through Asturias and Galicia. It follows the first pilgrimmage route ever made to Santiago, undertaken by King Alfonso II of Asturias in the 9th century. Many people say it is the most beautiful of all the caminos and the poetic history made it seem irresistable to us. However, this camino also the most difficult with two mountains to cross and an uphill section almost every day.
This route is meant to take about two weeks (or more) to complete, but, being a little cocky, and the colossal goal-setters we are, we decided to try to accomplish this great feat in 8 days. Crazy, I know, but I’ve heard that word so many times in my life, it doesn’t even phase me. At our projected rate, we would need to cover 40+km a day to make it to Santiago in time for our flight home. “We can do that,” we thought.
Little did we know, the camino has other plans for us…plans involving non-pedestrian transportation. We were gravely wrong with our mileage projections and, unfortunately, our overly zealous goals dissolved rapidly. We ended up having to skip a section spanning 100km in order to keep on schedule. Although I still feel a little bit like a cheater, this was still one of the greatest adventures of my year in Spain and I would love the opportunity to do it again. I would even reccomend this excursion to anyone toying with the idea already, but not without a little advice, first.
So, for future peregrinos, especially those attempting the camino primitivo:
- Buy a guidebook. Being very seasoned travellers, we immediately thought this might be a rip off or not useful, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. The pueblos and mileage help you keep track of your progress and offer insights on to the elevation of that day’s etapa. There is also usually a list of phone numbers for albergues, hostels, and hotels, as well as emergency numbers.
- Stick it. We had debated buying walking sticks for a little while before embarking on our journey. To me, they seemed useless — extra weight for minimal support. While I still hold this opinion true for the flatter caminos, for the camino primitivo, these definitely come in handy during the uphill sections. On our first day leaving Oviedo, an old man in one of the first pueblos came out to us and gestured towards some hand whittled walking sticks he had had in his barn. This was just one of many kind encounters on our camino and the perfect way to begin our journey. The sticks actually did come in handy, not only for the walk but to us, they made us look more legitimate in the eyes of our pilgrim peers.
- Absolutely do not rush yourself. Take each etapa as the guidebook suggests and rest as often as you need to. Not only will you end up exhausted and less able to complete the following day’s hike, but, in the words of one of our new friends, Rafael, “you will ruin your camino.”
- Don’t take the hospedal route unless you’re prepared. A group of Italians were at the same albergue as us the night before the path forked and adamantly stressed the importance of the weather. Asturian fog can be blinding some mornings and many people get lost on this route. The path is much more overgrown than previous sections and there is much less signange. Our poor Romanian friend who took this route later told us he had gone 5 hours without water as he had gotten lost looking for the markers.
- Don’t book an albergue just yet. Unless you really think there is a chance you won’t make it in time to get a bed, reservations aren’t necessary. The bigger towns have public albergues (around 5 eur a night) that are first-come-first-serve, but there are also private albergues (around 10+ eur a night) that accept reservations. We didn’t see much of a difference at most of the stops, so I wouldn’t say calling ahead is vital until you get closer to Melide. Here, the camino primitivo joins the camino frances, the route in which over 70% of Santiago pilgrims take.
- Be ready for early mornings. Most albergues, whether public or private, have a mandatory ‘bedtime’ and almost all of your fellow walkers will be up and getting ready around 6am. If this does not suit you, I suggest packing earplugs and a sleep mask.
- Take advantage whenever you can. When there is a fountain, drink some water and refill your bottle. When there is a grocery store, buy some snacks for later. Many times, we would arrive at an albergue and the town would be so small, there were no options to buy your own food and eating out for every meal can get expensive.
- Do not put a time limit on yourself. If you’re local, don’t buy a return ticket ahead of time. If you’re international, plan on an additional 3-4 days after your projected completion. We met a few couples that took a day off after the more difficult etapas, so it would be beneficial to allow yourself that buffer room. Or, if you’re up for the challenge, the camino actually extends past Santiago de Compostela to Cabo Fisterra, or what it called, “The World’s End” and you may want to go further on your journey. For our journey, we learned after the first two 30+km days that our over-achieving attitude could not be supported by mere human bodies. Should this happen to you, too, at some point along the way, there are buses between towns that you can access, but be aware there is no transregional public transport between the borders Asturias and Galicia, only cabs.
If you plan it our properly and do your research, this can be one the most amazing experiences of your life. The physical challenge, the idea of spiritual solitude while walking, and some of the most beautiful countryside vistas in all of Spain are just some of the many reasons this pilgrimmage draws more and more walkers every year.
And finally, another great thing about the camino is the support from your fellow walkers. You will meet people from all over the world who will, at the very least, look at you and cheer you on with a quick “Animo! Animo!” and at the most, share their supplies or walk the whole next day with you sharing stories. In all my years of travel, I have never been to a hostel that was ever as welcoming and friendly as an albergue on the camino. Everyone is friendly and open and understanding. Everyone respects the quiet hours, as well as the non-quiet hours. No one locks up their belongings. In short, there is a communal understanding and camaraderie that you will not find anywhere else. That was what I took away the most — the supportive nature humankind is capable of showing, not only to new friends, but to strangers.
“Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” [Romas 15:2]
If you have any questions planning your trip, feel free to message me!