After walking the Camino de Santiago solo in 2018 and again with my partner in 2019, I spend a lot of time reflecting on my Camino Wanders. The Camino is a part of me. And it’s true what ‘they’ say – the Camino does not end when you reach Santiago de Compostela.
If you give yourself to the Camino, it gives itself to you.
It’s been four years since I returned home from Spain. I probably would have returned to the Camino again had there not been a pandemic between now and then. I love flying, but I’m hesitant to fly internationally because, for me, I would need to wear a mask for over thirty hours!
But next year, I plan to return. It’s an opportunity to replenish my soul. The long distance walk does that for me. It also allows me to step out of reality for a while and think about my life, what I want, things I want to change, etc.
Reflecting on my journey on the Camino, I’m noting what I want to replicate and what I want to avoid on my next adventure.
Things I loved (or was surprised by) about the Camino.
One thing I absolutely treasure about the Camino is the friends you make.
Pilgrims call these connections your Camino Family. To me, they are closer than family. There are friendships like no other. You skip the small talk and dive right into the deep and meaningful conversations. And I love that. I’m that kind of person. I’d rather talk about some event in my life than talk about the weather. And so I will repeat walking the Camino because of those intense conversations.
My Camino family made me laugh every single day. They made the kilometres go by more quickly with the conversations we had. They made me enjoy what I was seeing, what I was hearing, AND what I was smelling. There were even some days, on the days I wanted to give up, my Camino family helped me keep going – even when I wasn’t walking with them. And in real life now, they are my cheerleaders. The ones I know who will be there for me, no matter what. And every conversation we have, whether it was last week or six months ago, is like picking up and continuing where we left off, like no time has occurred in between.
I love how the Camino simplifies life.
Food, shelter, water, sleep.
You do not have to worry about anything else. The Camino simplifies life. It cuts the noise so you can reflect and be in the moment. And isn’t that what every mental health advocate tells us to do?
But I will admit, reentering the real world is a serious shock to the system, especially when you’ve been walking for fifty days. After my first Camino, I hid out in a hotel room in London for four days. The noise, the people – it was all too much. Instead, I found solitude in a seaside cottage for the following week.
I love the scenery along the Camino.
I never really had Spain on my list of places I ever wanted to travel to, other than to walk the Camino. It’s now one of my favourite places in the world, and spring in Spain is magnificent. When I planned my initial Camino wander in 2018, I chose spring because I wanted to enjoy the wildflowers – and they did not disappoint. It was breathtaking every day. I walked again in spring in 2019 and will again in 2024 (that’s the plan anyway). The weather is cool enough to walk in comfortably and, when the weather turns warmer, you just walk earlier in the day. The diversity, the history, the people – it all adds to the scenery too. There’s always something to absorb and savour.
The distance I walked surprised me. But also how far I’d come.
It often surprised me just how far I’d walked in one day, and how much the scenery changed over that time. One piece of advice I got was to turn around and see how far you’d walked regularly, because you don’t realise how far you’ve walked until you do that. (And believe me, twenty kilometres is nothing until you walk it.) I guess that’s an excellent lesson in life, too.
I love how much the Camino affected my life.
It didn’t happen right away. It wasn’t until after the second Camino (the following year) that I finally felt the effects. I knew I needed to change something in my life. That what I was doing wasn’t working. But I was afraid to take another enormous leap in my life. I’d already leapt several times. I had moved overseas (twice), left a corporate job to become a photographer and I had donated all of my worlds possession to travel full time. And I had left my husband to travel on my own at 48…
During our conversation about life plans, my Camino sister asked me if I was happy during my first Camino wander. When we talked about what I wanted to do with my life, I couldn’t answer the question. Not really. But, once home and I found a place to settle, the Camino magic happened. I began to write. And write. And write. And when I had my first novel finished, I knew what I should have been doing along. Finally, I was happy.
4 Things I didn’t like so much about the Camino.
Past Sarria, the vibe changed.
The pilgrim community I had felt prior to Sarria had changed. Instead of smiling and wishing fellow pilgrims a “Buen Camino!”, it was grunts, headphones and bed runs. It wasn’t just on my first Camino either. It saddened me that people seemed to miss the point of the Camino. The Camino had become more of a tourist attraction.
For me, walking the Camino is more than a bucket list item to be checked off, or something to put on the CV. (Yes, people actually include walking the Camino on their resumé.) I know people have time restrictions, or commitments they have to get back to in their ‘real life’. Maybe they’re there to walk a part of the Camino, to see if they like it. All of those are valid reasons, and I’m sure there are a thousand more reasons to walk the last one hundred kilometres.
But if you’re going to experience the Camino, then take the headphones out. Say hello (or wish your fellow pilgrims a ‘Buen Camino!’). Have a conversation with another pilgrim. Book a bed ahead. The point is: be there. Experience it to the full extent. Make the most of the time.
Having to send my pack onwards because of my back injury.
For the first walk, I was determined to carry my pack the entire way. To be a ‘real pilgrim”. But, after throwing my back out in Burgos, I was told by the osteopath that I needed to send my pack on, at least for a week, if I ever wanted to reach Santiago.
By doing that, I lost some flexibility with where to stay, sometimes pushing myself further than what was comfortable.
I also learned I was carrying too much and, by the end, I finally understood what I really needed.
As I plan for the next walk in 2024, I will send my pack on, particularly on the challenging days. I am still a ‘real pilgrim’ by doing so. (What is a ‘real pilgrim’ anyway?!)
After discovering I have cervical spondylosis, I can’t strain my neck too much. Which means walking over mountains with 8kg on my back is not a smart thing to do anymore. And, if people want to judge me, then judge away.
You never know someone else’s story unless you ask.
The tightly bounded Camino families.
By two-thirds along the Camino, people already had their Camino families sorted, and in 2018, mine had moved on because of my slow pace. I felt like an outsider later on because groups had already formed, and didn’t want to include anyone else in their Camino Families. But, given some injuries and health issues I experienced, I pushed my way in when I needed to; I have to admit, but there were days when I walked alone when I would have given anything for some conversation.
On my second wander in 2019, walking with my husband, I found it strange that people weren’t open to walking with us. Someone told us they didn’t want to intrude. I laugh with my response: Please, intrude away! We love walking with others.
I think my attitude and saying that resulted from my first Camino experience – if someone was walking alone, I would ask if they wanted to walk with us. Some did. Some said they were enjoying the alone time. And I do respect that. I had a few of those days myself. But I didn’t want people walking on their own if they didn’t want to be.
Sometimes, you don’t know when you need conversation to keep you going. Sometimes the conversation is exactly what you need.
Lack of variety with Pilgrim meals.
Pork or Chicken. It’s like sitting in the back of the plane and finding out what you really want is no longer available. Not being able to eat a lot of pork, I often looked for other options. Cities were great for experiencing regional foods, like pintxo or pulpo, for example. But you have limited options in between. By opting for the vegetarian option, you get to enjoy a broader selection of dishes like salads, grilled vegetables, and pasta instead of just dry pork.
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4 Things I Learned About Myself after two Camino wanders.
My middle name is Perseverance.
In 2018, while I was walking the Camino, a friend from work messaged me and said that if perseverance was in the dictionary, my name would be beside it. I loved that. It kept me going on some of the harder days!
When there is a goal to be accomplished, I kick ass. Slow and Steady wins every time. No matter the obstacles, I keep the goals small and manageable so I can reach the end goal. I mean, shit – I walked over eight hundred kilometres across Spain – twice in two years! Boom!
Laughter is the key to life.
It’s the key to making the time go faster and to enjoy the journey. Even with bad Dad Jokes. Two of my Camino Angels, Jerry and Sharon, told me their goal each day was to make each other laugh. I love that.
I discovered that I am interesting and funny.
When I relax and open up, the one liners flow. Not everyone may appreciate my sense of humour, but that’s not important. I appreciate my sense of humour and the joy it brings to my life.
I need private time, and I need downtime, which are two very different things.
Both are essential to my well being, and both are necessary to accomplish what I need to do in life. Someone asked me on my initial Camino if I was an introvert because my need to replenish my energy seemed to come from that private downtime. It was shocking to me, knowing I may be. I always thought myself fairly outgoing. Sociable. But the more I thought of it, the more I realised I am only that way in small bursts. Afterwards, I want to curl up and read or write, reaping the rewards of solitude.
For the Camino, I could not have finished the entire journey if I stayed solely in dorm rooms. By staying in private rooms every three or four days, I could rest and sleep. On those days I slept in the dorm rooms, I found I needed time to journal and reflect. Otherwise, the Camino became a blur, and then it truly is just one long walk.
What I will do differently next time
As I plan for my 2024 wander, I am looking back at what I learned logistically as well.
Send my pack forward.
I already know I will send my pack forward. It’s a given for the first two days, from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. It’s hard enough adjusting to the wander physically that having a day pack helps ease you into walking. But there are other sections as well – walking up to O’Cebreiro, walking up to Cruz de Ferro.
Stay in private rooms every three days.
As I plan out my itinerary, since I’ll be walking with friends this time, I know I need to give myself the opportunity to rest properly, to sleep deeply and to reflect.
Plan out my days. Stay in places I still remember fondly.
I plan on staying in the places that stood out in my mind from both wanders.
-Borda rather than Orisson. Smaller, newer, albergue, with the same setup for the pilgrim dinner (my favourite part!).
-Santo Domingo de la Calzada – stay in a parador.
-Trabadelo – Casa Susi’s. It’s a must stay. Susi has already suggested I have a rest day there. Book me in!
-OCoto – Casa de Los Somoza. It’s a nice hotel to regroup once you start the Sarria to Santiago section.
-Burgos – rest day for 2-3 days. Also, visit Sarah at Ultreia Osteopath for a massage. The woman is the definition of Camino Angel.
-Pamplona for the tapas and the town square experience! A rest day here is a must.
-Zabaldika – Ring the bell. Hear the blessing in your heart.
-Larrasoana. Stay ‘off stage’. This was a lovely spot to do that.
-Roncesvalles – stay in the Monastery. Eat in the hotel, rather than the restaurants the monastery assigns you to. Oh, and if you don’t like fish staring at you before you cut into it, don’t order the fish.
-Samos – it’s worth the detour.
You wash your clothes every day. I’m planning on 7kg with water for the next wander.
Walk slower. Take shorter days.
On the first wander, it took 45 days. The second was 54. I plan on taking longer than that for the third, because both times before I never walked the Meseta. This time I will.
Get a data plan for the entire journey.
Walk the entire Meseta.
I walked only halfway, stopping at Fromista both times. Next time, I plan on walking the entire Camino, the Meseta included, with a few exceptions. I will skip ahead in a few places as I’m allergic to lavender, and I know now where the wild lavender grows.
I know enough Spanish to get by for the Camino, but I’d like to know more than what I already know.
Order vegetarian meals more often as Pilgrim meals.
See above for why
Find hydro opportunities.
After reading Pilgrim by Carolyn Gillespie, I realised that hydro to heal the muscles makes total sense! I use hydrotherapy in my real life, and now I know the same options exist on the Camino. I will plan these into my itinerary.
Post written: September 2023