Since summiting Mt Kilimanjaro back in 2010, I have been looking for inspiration for my next big trek.
Everest? It’s on the list – though everyone’s doing Everest these days. The Kokoda Trail? This trek won’t be for a while until we return to Australia. The Inca Trail perhaps? We experienced a heavy downpour of rain while in Peru so opted out and jumped on a train instead.
But then someone mentioned the Camino De Santiago. And I thought now that’s an inspiring trek! That someone was Megan Tasker from MeganTasker.com.
What inspired you to hike the Camino De Santiago?
A friend had told me about the Camino de Santiago seven years ago after I finished my Masters and I thought it sounded like the strangest thing. People walking 800 km across Spain, why? How? Did they stop? I just didn’t understand.
But a seed was planted, I learned more about it, met a couple people who walked it, and being wealthy in time since quitting my job and becoming a travelling yogi – it was the perfect opportunity!
How did you prepare for the journey? Did you train?
Short answer, no. Longer answer, I really truly had the best intentions to train. I was teaching yoga in Bergen, Norway before the camino and had access to beautiful nature trails and mountains, but with Bergen being one of the rainiest cities in Europe it was hard to motivate myself to trek for four hours in the rain, so alas, yoga and NetFlix won most of the time.
Training obviously helps incredibly! But it is difficult to train yourself to walk over a half marathon everyday for a month or so. The more walking you can do before, the better it’ll serve you. But with the camino you sort of come as you are, so you either have youth and fitness on your side or you’ve got time.
What did you expect from the journey before you began?
I intentionally went with no expectations. From years of travel I’ve learned that expectations can be the demise of even the best laid plans.
I did however expect it to be challenging, and for it to rain. A lot of people think that Spain is always sunny and warm, but Northern Spain is known for being quite rainy and windy, it also has some altitude to it, so anytime between November to April you can expect snow.
But aside from the weather I went in with an open heart – truly the best way to approach the camino.
Were your expectations met? Was it completely different than you had imagined?
My expectations of the walk being challenging and wet were definitely met! For the first half there were pretty much threats of rain everyday, and over the course of the journey I walked through snow, rain, hail, scorching sun, and unrelenting wind. B
ut the experience was far superior to any expectations I could have even imagined. The camino truly is a gift.
I’ve read the majority of the path is paved road and car traffic is within earshot. Were you expecting this? Did it ruin some of the experience?
I had done quite a bit of reading online about the camino and was aware that there would be some unsightly walks, that there was often paved road and traffic near by or within earshot. To be honest it didn’t bother me.
If you’re looking for a technical walk, the camino might not be the right fit. But if you’re looking for a journey that goes beyond the landscape that provides opportunities to be introspective, to make genuine connections with others and to be outdoors, then you won’t be disappointed.
A lot of people claim the journey is life changing and empowering. Do you agree?
My personal belief is that anything can be life changing and empowering if you’re open to it, and the camino is no different.
The camino offers an opportunity for reflection (which is rare these days as we are all so connected online or to external sources).
My experience walking the camino provided me the opportunity to get some much needed clarity, as it did for many other pilgrims that I met on the camino. I find most walk the camino are looking for some answers, while with others the camino finds them.
Either way, you can’t avoid yourself while walking 6 – 8 hours a day over the course of a month. It is sort of like having a personal intervention with yourself. But the more open you are to it, the more you can take from the experience, and the more you can learn about why you chose to take this journey.
Tell us about your experience on the trail.
Goodness, it is difficult to put in to words my experience. There were days where I would literally scream out loud and say ‘Megan, what on earth made you think that this would be fun!? Are you crazy?’, and then the next day I would jump out of bed just excited to get moving.
But the overwhelming feeling for me, and it seemed like for others, was that there was something so simple and so special about moving toward a common goal.
Everyone is on their own personal journey, but all of us are aching and plodding on together. The camino came to be a metaphor for life. There will always be ebbs and flows, but with each step you’re moving toward something that is greater than you.
How long did it take you to complete the whole thing?
I walked from the ‘unofficial’ start of the Camino Frances in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France (there really is no official start, the truly official start is from your front door – but many consider Saint Jean Pied de Port to be the start of Camino Frances).
This makes the walk a whopping 796 km, I averaged about 28 km walking per day, walking as little as 20 km, and as long as 38 km, taking 28 days to get to Santiago.
I then chose to walk an extra 3 days – 90 km – to Finisterre, what pilgrims thousands of years ago considered to be the end of the world, where they would bath in the water, burn their clothes and be ‘reborn’.
The trail is largely a religious pilgrimage. Are you religious/would you recommend the journey for people who are not?
The Camino de Santiago has had a long history, and was walked by pagans before it became a religious pilgrimage. Over the years it was forgotten and then refound.
In its hay day it was a religious pilgrimage, although many pilgrims are still practicing Catholics, and this particular pilgrimage has been considered to be the third most important Catholic pilgrimage, it has become a largely secular.
I am not religious, and without a doubt would recommend this pilgrimage to anyone. In the monastery in Roncesvalles there is a poem that says: The door is open to all, to sick and healthy, not only to Catholics but also to pagans, Jews, heretics and vagabonds’, I think this aptly describes who walks the camino… anybody who wishes too.
The pilgrimage is extremely social. What kind of people did you meet along the way?
The pilgrimage is social in particular during the peak seasons, but there are lots of opportunities during the shoulder seasons for solitude mixed in with a more social experience. It is as social (or unsocial) as you would like it to be, but solitude will be difficult during the high season.
The one thing that made the camino to me were the people that I met. More than any other travel experience, the people I met along the camino were some of the most genuine and beautiful souls I’ve ever met.
I was constantly humbled by the generosity and kindness of others along the way.
Doesn’t the scenery get monotonous?
I didn’t think so. I suppose there are people with different opinions. Many actually bus between Burgos and Leon because there’s a rumour that this strip is the most boring due to it’s flatness, but two of my visually favourite days were in between Burgos and Leon.
I really felt like on a whole everyday offered something different. There definitely were not so attractive, industrial areas, but then the next day you’d be enjoying a misty morning walking through vineyards, followed by mountain vistas the next.
For me, the scenery was constantly changing, and more times than not I was pretty blown away by the scenery.
Did you learn Spanish before you left? Did you need it along the way?
No, sadly I didn’t. In fact, you can get by with limited Spanish – I know about 40 words (including counting 1 – 10) and I could get by just fine even with people who spoke no English.
But if you do know Spanish it makes asking for help, ordering food (i.e. a lot of restaurants you can ask for things that aren’t on the menu – but you need to know how to ask for it), etc so much easier.
Though the times I really wish I knew Spanish was when I would meet a Spanish pilgrim (which make up about 50% of the pilgrim population). It would have been nice to have been able to have conversations with them that didn’t look like we were playing charades.
You definitely don’t need to know Spanish, but you get a lot more from the experience if you do. If you don’t know it, you can always do what I did and find a walking buddy along the way that does (it was when this happened that I learned a lot more about how to get what you want in Spain).
Do you need a map or navigation skills to complete the trail?
No. You don’t even really need a guidebook. All you need is the ability to follow a yellow arrow.
I did however, have an essential travel app on my smart phone called Maps With Me that works offline via GPS, and it saved me from getting lost in the bigger cities (where sometimes the arrows aren’t as well marked), and also let me know how much mileage I had left to walk whenever I was curious (this could be good or bad).
Tut the other great thing is the app actually has the Pilgrim Albergues marked, so I literally never got lost (which after walking 35 km, the last thing you want is to walk 100 m out of your way).
What are key considerations people should think about before attempting this pilgrimage?
The thing that I found the most important and that allowed for some to get the most out of the experience was having a clear intention (different than expectations).
If the intention is to challenge yourself physically, then when your calves are burning, your hip is clicking, or the blisters are just unbearable you’ll manage, because you set on this journey knowing it would be tough.
If your intention is that it’s a holiday, that’s ok too, but that means that it might be a bit different, you might take the bus during stretches, take days off to tour around the cities.
Furthermore, the next biggest consideration is whether you begin the walk alone or with a friend. If you choose to be with a friend, it is imperative that your intentions match, if one of you wants a holiday and the other wants to push themselves physically, well it’ll be difficult to meet both of your needs together, so it would be important to discuss if you’ll walk everyday together, if one person gets injured and needs a day or two off, does the other person push on or stay back? Etc.
What kind of shoes did you wear? Were the blisters?
I was a bit unorthodox in this department. I wore running shoes (Nike Free’s in fact).
There were a couple reasons for this: (1) they are the only shoe that I’ve ever had that don’t give me blisters, (2) I figured I would be walking a half marathon or more a day, and I would never walk or run a half marathon in hiking boots, so why would I here, and (3) It’s not a technical trail, so there was no need for the additional support (at least on the Camino Frances, if you attempt the Camino Norte you would most likely be best suited with hiking boots).
But in addition to this, because I knew that I would be walking in the early spring when it’s especially rainy (read: muddy) and with the possibility of snow, I also brought a $10 pair of rain boots which ultimately, if I ever got tired of carrying, I wouldn’t feel bad leaving them behind or just throwing them out.
These came in so valuable with the deep snow over the pyrenees, the muddy trails and the days of rain (which was about a third of my walk) that they were worth their weight in gold.
But I know I was alone in carrying them, I had many locals point and laugh (some of them giving me the thumbs up), and a couple Albergue volunteers say that in all their time they have never seen anyone walk in rain boots. But on those really bad rainy days, I was laughing!
What gear proved essential along the way?
Essential gear will depend more on what time you go. Because I went in the spring, all of my rain gear was essential (rain jacket, rucksack cover, disposable poncho, and rain boots), but I also wouldn’t have survived without my water bladder, ear plugs, sunblock, or sleeping sheet (sleeping bag in my case – the Albergues were quite cool in March and early April).
But the most essential thing you can do is to pack as light as possible.
Did you have to carry food/water with you along the way?
This is where the guidebook comes in handy. A good guidebook will let you know how often there are water sources, restaurants/cafes, and albergues, so you can properly plan your day.
There are some stretches where for 17 – 20 km there is absolutely nothing, so you need to make sure that you carry snacks and water with you. But for the most part, if you’re not fussy about the food you eat, and it’s not mid-summer, you can get by with carrying less than 1L of water and a couple snacks along the way.
Of course the more food you buy from the supermarket and prepare yourself the cheaper the journey will be (but also note, not all Albergue’s have a kitchen).
Should people take anything special with them?
A stone from home. There is a spot along the way called the Cruz de Ferro, where you have an opportunity to leave a stone which represents a burden that you are leaving behind.
Although, some grab a stone from where they start, apparently the stone is suppose to be from home.
Which resources were the most helpful in making the journey happen?
There are so many online pilgrim forums and personal blogs that are a wealth of information, but I have to admit my most helpful source was a friend who walked it – she was the one that recommended the guidebook I bought, that answered all my silly questions, but also the big question of: am I capable of this huge walk.
Because people of all physical abilities do the walk, many do them in sections, or just the last 100 km, it is nice to talk to someone who is aware of your physical capabilities and can reassure any doubts or misgivings.
Before heading out it’ll seem like a really daunting journey. But once you reach the end, you’ll look back thinking it was the most simple and beautiful experience.
How much did the experience cost you?
The entire journey (not including transportation) from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostella cost me about € 650.00, approximately € 22.00 / day.
Which route do you recommend people take?
I’ve only walked the Camino Frances, so I’m not really in the position to recommend a route. It also depends what you want from the experience.
If you want to walk the most well trodden path where things are well set up (and set up for the majority of the year), the camino Frances is the most accessible. But if you want more solitude (especially if you plan to go during peak periods), the Camino Norte might give you more of what you want.
Just remember that all the non-Camino Frances routes are much less busier, but this means during the winter you will find them a lot more challenging (due to Albergues not being open, or for towns being very far apart).
When is the best time of year to go?
This is also about personal preference. I think the best time is early Spring (April) or late fall (November). You’ll still get friendly pilgrims, but you will have that opportunity for solitude as well.
Plus, although the weather may be a little less predictable, when I had some hot, hot days (sunny and 23 C – not even that hot), all I and my fellow pilgrims could say was “I could never do this in the summer”.
The shoulder seasons also mean that you don’t run the risk of not finding a bed in an Albergue.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
The biggest thing I regret not having, doing, etc. was not packing a baseball cap (or wide brimmed hat), for both the sun and rain!
Why should people hike the Camino de Santiago?
I met so many incredible people along the way that chose this journey for various reasons.
I met a Danish man who’s doctor had actually prescribed the camino after a series of anxiety attacks, a woman who had a brain stroke and wanted to feel like she could move mountains, I met a man who was retired and felt wealthy in time, but after a couple weeks realized that he was actually unhappy at home.
The camino is no easy feat, and can hardly be considered a ‘holiday’, whether you find the camino or the camino finds you, you will choose to walk it because something draws you there.
Maybe it’s the physical challenge, maybe it’s a loss, maybe it’s spiritual, or maybe you just want to lose a couple of pounds (which always seems to be a topic of conversation), whatever the reason it doesn’t matter.
If you somehow make you’re way there, there is a purpose to your journey, and that’s reason enough.
Megan has recently released a planning guide to the Camino de Santiago. This is an essential guide for anyone prepping for the walk; a must-have comprehensive planning guide to help you take your first couple of steps toward Santiago de Compostela along the Camino Frances.
The book covers what you need to know about packing, equipment, budget, where to stay, planning stages, and how to just get there, plus much more! This guide will help you plan your journey along the most popular of route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela (and beyond to Finisterre) along the Camino Frances. This guide solely focusses on planning your journey, and does not replace a walking guide.