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Walking the Camino: Pilgrimage on My Terms (Part II Only)

By Lu Sobredo

It's not too late to fill your backpack and get ready to go on the Camino de Santiago in Spain this year, 2017. 

I recently wrote a Two-Part Series essay about our family Camino experience in 2010, and the solo Camino my husband took in 2013. Walking the Camino: Pilgrimage on My Terms (Parts 1 & 2).

Part II of the essay is full of practical lessons learned useful for anyone new to the Camino, I decided to repost on its own. I hope that you can benefit from the ups and downs of mostly a meaningful experience of going on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Happy hiking!

As an introduction to Part II of the essay, I included the ending paragraph from Part I:

What did the Camino mean to me? Whether the Camino was a catalyst or affirmation of personal growth, I'm not entirely sure. Important were lessons learned from the journey. Lessons of living in the moment, transcending perceived limitations and fears, trusting in the kindness of others and embracing glimpses of serendipity were all priceless experiences. And all while being one with family in Spain, the land of some of our ancestors.


Lessons from The Camino

When on the Camino one must eat, drink and sleep when you can. You'll need all the energy you can muster. For me, the physical obstacles along the journey sent me to near tearful panic. On the other hand, my husband and our son were totally unfazed. But in the end, I managed to overcome my fears, and walked miles, more than sufficient to earn a “compostela.” The minimum number of miles needed to earn a certificate or compostela was 100 kilometers (km) or about 63 miles. Walking the final stage of the Camino Frances would be more than enough to achieve this. The final stage starts from Sarria and ends in Santiago, and it covers about 113 to 120 km, and ideal for those interested in an abbreviated Camino. 

Whether you walked all 800 km, equivalent to 500 plus miles from the French border to the city of Santiago de Compostela, or the length of the trail as shown in the movie: The Way, which took you all the way to and beyond Finesterre (a rock-bound peninsula on the west coast of Galicia, known in Roman times to be the end of the known world), or only the last 100 plus km from Sarria, is immaterial. The most important is the journey itself. And for most pilgrims like my family and those we’ve met, it is the journey and the friendships made along the way that irrevocably touched our very being. 

Eager to begin your preparation for your own Camino? Here are some of the noteworthy hints from my personal encounters, experiences and lessons on the Camino. I hope they serve as helpful DOs and DON’Ts

A. Choose: a Camino Route, the Month, and whether to Go on a Guided vs. Self-guided Tour

The Route: There are several routes to choose frombut we chose the most popularly traveled trail, “The Camino Frances.” The other option for us would have been the Camino de Santiago del Norte or the The Northern Way, which starts from the Basque country that follows the coast of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. 

How you get to the starting point for the Camino varies. Pilgrims from outside of Europe fly in to one of the major cities in Spain. My family for instance arrived in Madrid and took a bus to reach our starting point. One could start the Camino from the French border at San Pied de Port on the French side or Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. We met others along the Camino  who started mid-way from the city of Burgos or Leon. Many others walked from the town of Sarria if only engaging in the last 100 plus km to Santiago.

The path you choose could depend on the time you have allotted for the Camino. It takes 5-7 weeks to complete the full Camino depending on how briskly you could walk or physically capable you are of putting in 8-15 miles a day. If starting from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side, allot 7-9 hours to climb to the Spanish border at Roncesvalles. 

Remember, for an abbreviated Camino, it might only take 5-10 days to walk the last 100 plus  km, equivalent to 63 miles from Sarria, and still earn a ‘compostela” upon arriving. Be prepared to encounter an influx of pilgrims at Sarria, often known as the final stage of the Camino, and where one could begin the last 100-120 km trek, or up to 74 miles. Others we’ve met who were local pilgrims from within Spain and a few from outside of Spain, would walk one or two stages of the Camino each year with the long term goal of eventually completing it in their lifetime. Others, like ourselves in 2010, walked less than the full Camino but more than 100 km, although we did not do so on continuous days. In the early part of our Camino journey that began in Roncesvalles, we took side trips and mini-vacations along the way by bus, train and taxi. 

When I say, I walked the Camino on my terms, I truly meant it. Feeling totally exhausted as we reached the beautiful town of Portomarin in the province of Lugo, the kind universe presented me with an opportunity to hitch a car ride with a young mother from Valencia (third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona). Why not? I honestly didn't think I could sustain walking without injuring myself. After already walking almost 15 miles, I decided to avoid the additional 15 miles to the next town of Palais del Rei for our overnight. As hubby and son proceeded on foot, I took a car ride, courtesy of a stranger who spoke no English, whose husband and son bicycled the Camino. It was truly a Camino very much on their terms. And with the help of a stranger, I also managed the Camino on my own terms.

The Ideal Month: Whatever month or season you choose to begin your walk, remember that you could encounter cold, warm or hot and rainy weather. Even all of the above. Walking the Camino in springtime offers cooler weather and lesser crowds. The late spring or early summer is our preference. 

Don't be surprised if walking the Camino in the spring, you find yourself in snowy conditions at high elevation, such as the trek up the Spanish Pyrenees. During his 2013 Camino, my husband experienced absolute whiteout conditions. Of course, the experienced outdoor adventurer that he is, he had the proper clothing and equipment for protection from extreme cold and icy rain. Other pilgrims touted that they were not bothered by the rainy and cold conditions being from Russia or some other country where cold weather is norm. Those folks apparently did not do so well despite such confident pronouncement of being immune to the freezing temperatures. They eventually had to be rescued. 

My Husband on Whiteout Conditions on the Camino. Photo © James Sobredo

Guided or Self-Guided Tour: There are several guided Camino walks and a number of travel companies specializing in Camino toursFor those interested to walk the Camino by taking advantage of the conveniences offered by a guided tour that can range from 5-10 days, or perhaps longer, with everything arranged for you—hotel, food, luggage transport, etc. All you would need is a daypack while hiking. 

The cost of a 5-7 day Camino package could start from $600 plus dollars per person. The cost of the full Camino package, at a duration of 40 days and 39 nights, could start from $3500 plus per person. Obviously, you have to budget in extra for airfare and side trips. A guided Camino was not our choice but it is an option for those concerned about the uncertainty of the experience, and the physical challenge that additionally comes with hauling a pack of belongings on your back.

Our self-guided Camino enabled our family to control our expenditures. It afforded us the freedom to schedule several side trips unrelated to the Camino. The savings per person could be attained by staying at communal albergues for an average of €7-€15 euros; pilgrim’s menu at €9-€12 euros which often included a beverage, and snacks were often at a low cost of €5 euros or under. (More food choices in Spain can be found in my blog post on: Happy Eating on a Budget in Spain).

The path we chose once we were ready to engage on the Camino: a bus ride from Pamplona to Roncesvalles where we stayed our first night at a 12th century old Augustinian monastery run by  monks known for their hospitality. The old building was converted to accommodate pilgrims for the night. There must have been 200-300 of us pilgrims. There were a couple of other options for accommodation, but we chose the monastery for its historical significance.

The Augustinian monks held an evening mass during which pilgrims like my family, were given a traditional blessing. Blessings were intended to safeguard us from harm and for us to be able to find whatever we might be seeking from the journey. The following morning the monks awakened us with a serene gregorian chant, a prayer for the pilgrims’ journey. In return for their hospitality, the pilgrims could choose to give a donation and pray for the monks upon reaching Santiago. 

Altar at the !2th Century Chapel: Capilla de Sancti Spiritus. © James Sobredo

The evening mass for pilgrims was held in a 12th century chapel with a modern altar called the Capilla de Sancti Spiritus. During mass, my husband and I were overcome with emotions to the point of tears as our hands touched those same pillars where pilgrims from centuries before stood and leaned against. Sensing goosebumps on the face and arms as if embraced by spirits of old, the experience was intensified further when fellow pilgrims, mostly women from Germany, formed a circle while holding hands as they sang a gregorian chant by the altar. Those goosebumps are present now as I write about this blessed memory. As a practicing Roman Catholic, I was absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me then and just now.

B.  Go with a Friend, but be Ready to Go Solo

If you are planning to go with a friend, spouse or significant other and they're looking to challenge their physicality, test their limits and you feel that is not your speed, let them. That’s why I said, be prepared to go solo. Seriously, the Camino was a meditative journey for me, not a race to feed one’s inner desire for competition or fantasy for a long distance hike of a lifetime. Some of my husband’s close friends had done exactly that, opted for the Pacific Crest Trail mostly along the Pacific coastline of the U.S. and hiked 2,600 miles. Others ventured a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at 19,340 feet in elevation. Otherwise, if your companions decide to come along on the Camino, they could do so to support you, and hopefully create a memory of a lifetime with you. And one would hope that they, too, would find the journey meaningful.

My family and I found a happy medium. After an arduous climb, a mostly uphill trek on the Spanish Pyrenees in Roncesvalles to our next destination on that first day, I literally felt my body complaining vehemently. Ravaged with stiffness, pain and thirst that I said: “enough.” I ached in places I didn't think was possible to feel pain. Surely, I must have looked like a train wreck. I was near tears, fearful to sit and rest, knowing once I sat or reclined, there was no getting up. I was literally achingly ready to stop. Not a wise move to stop in the middle of the forest as darkness loomed. So I pushed despite the pain, and completed the first day of our journey. Thankfully, the evening accommodations and the delicious meal made up for what to me was a tortuous hike. Meeting a mother and her 10-year old daughter from England at dinner was a pleasant diversion for me. On this first day of the Camino, hubby and son, either took turns waiting for me to catch up or slowed down their pace to keep an eye on me. 

Our Son Soaking Tired Feet. Photo ©James Sobredo

After their first full day of hiking, they looked almost as refreshed as when we started. Their feet needed some tender loving care, but not much more. Soaking their feet in the refreshingly cold waters of the river Arga in Zubiri under a medieval bridge was perfect remedy for their tired feet. I, on the other hand, only had energy left to hobble from our room to a bathtub at the hotel. My family tried really hard not to make fun of me. They were full of support and encouragement. They agreed to compromise and make the next day’s walk a shorter distance. Unlike the 22 km or about 14 mile hike that took us 8 hours over the Pyrenees, one hour longer than the average hiker would have taken, I settled to walk for 4-5 hours that second day. After all, this was not a race.

Realizing that the path was so well-marked, the other pilgrims were friendly, my grasp of the Spanish language was passable, I began to think about other options. I began to  strategize on how to ease the hassle and burden that plagued the first day of the walk. After a few days of feeling I was holding back my family, one evening, I proposed to wake up one hour earlier than usual to commence the next day’s trek. In other words to begin the hike all on my own. We would meet up at our next stop, at whatever town we agreed to spend the night. That strategy proved to be beneficial on many fronts. It enhanced my personal experience hiking the Camino. Feelings of guilt for holding up hubby and son, melted away. Moreover, my husband took the opportunity to make more stops to photograph the stunning landscapes, to the point where other pilgrims I’d met told me: “We ran into your husband, the photographer, way back there. He seemed to be having fun taking pictures.” Ah yes, the professor became better known on the pilgrim’s trail as the “photographer.” 

Walking with Pilgrim Friends from Quebec, Canada. ©James Sobredo

This arrangement also enabled our son to venture on his own, especially when he wanted to walk ahead of us or take a longer route to see some unusual relic or landmark. Mostly, he and his dad kept pace with each other, while I made new friends going solo. And we ultimately reached our afternoon or early evening destination close to the same time most of the time. Each of us in the family ended up having so much more fun, blessed with a little independence to enjoy the Camino on our own and on our own terms.

C.  Acclimate to the Locale before Starting the Hike

A destination such as the Camino could be as easy as taking a daily walk for some. For others who are not hikers and are not physically prepared, or are afflicted with physical limitations, plan to take a few days to acclimatize yourself in the environment. Some of us might suffer from jet-lag, and this would not be advantageous if you were to be at your optimal when starting the Camino.

Although full of excitement to immerse in everything that is Spain when my family arrived in Madrid, admittedly, I was somewhat apprehensive about our planned pilgrimage. Being an experienced traveler, my husband planned all along not to immediately launch on the Camino, but instead to ease the family into a place that was new to us. We spent three nights in the capital and treated ourselves to Spanish cuisine for lunch and dinner, walks with the locals late at night at Puerta del Sol, and morning breakfast of churros con chocolate. Okay, I felt comfortable and at home in Madrid in no time.

I noticed as we put more miles and hours on the daily trek, we gained speed and improved stamina. Each segment seemed less and less difficult to complete. What also helped was taking side jaunts during the course of our pilgrimage, our way of taking respite from the routine. It was a glorious way of rewarding ourselves for milestones achieved. Doing so, opened enormous possibilities to see, taste and immerse in the culture of Spain.

A Side Trip with Family in Bilbao. ©James Sobredo

Some of our side trips included one night in San Sebastian and three nights in Bilbao in the Basque country. A must-see in Bilbao is the Guggenheim Museum, a modern architectural wonder inside and out that houses contemporary works of art. While inside sitting on a round comfortable tufted bench inviting enough for reclining, my teenage son filled with awe as his gaze spanned from floor to ceiling, blurted: “This is like being inside art!”

My husband planned it that way so we could experience in increments the excitement, moments of meditation and challenges in the Camino. Yes, I wanted to walk the path trekked by pilgrims of centuries before, welcomed the uncertainties seemingly inherent in the journey, but I realized, I didn't necessarily want the full scope of suffering, difficulties and physical challenges. So treat yourself to a few days in Madrid or near the starting point before walking the Camino.

D.  Take Along a Phone to Stay Connected

Even though we each had our own personal cellular phone, and the men with me each had a laptop, we could not risk being dependent on wifi accessibility especially in remote locations. We equipped ourselves with a locally purchased cell phones which we used when the spirit moved us, to connect and update our friends in Madrid. Our son who was young and agile, who on occasion ventured on his own benefited from having a phone. He texted only to tell us where he was. 

A Simple Local Red Phone for Texting. ©Lu Sobredo

One time, we found him waiting for a couple of hours in front of a local college in Trinidad de Arre, reading a book he brought along that summer. He told us, he already had lunch at a local cafe. Although timid at speaking the language, nonetheless years of Spanish language in school came in handy. Most days, he chose to pretty much stay on pace with his dad, while I walked my leisurely pace. So leisurely in fact, that one of those long stretches during my early morning trek ahead of the pack, hardly anyone yet was on the trail, I sang the entire soundtrack of the Sound of Music under a canopy of tall trees. I skipped and danced while doing my best imitation of Julie Andrews when I felt like it. How fun was that? Hilariously fun!

E.  Get Somewhat Physically Fit and Carry Two Walking Sticks

A successful walk of the Camino does not require you to be a highly conditioned marathon runner or a competitive sprinter. I was far from being physically fit or athletic. But if I hadn’t done any physical preparation and training, I would have been worst off. A year before the Camino, I walked around my neighborhood once a week, at times twice. At first I walked a mile and later increased the distance to 3 miles at a time. If I had to do it over, I would have pushed my training to 5 or so miles for distance and increased stamina. I also wished I anticipated the rough terrains, uneven cobblestones, and uphill treks when on high elevation. To get through rough and especially downhill trails, I borrowed my husband’s walking stick. Walking downhill with two sticks made all the difference. Just remember, the conditioning is more for building strength and  distance, not speed. 

Hiking Best with Two Sticks. © James Sobredo

We met women pilgrims on the Camino who were experienced runners and joggers. We met at least a couple of long time joggers who “conked out,” overwrought with fatigue sooner than they had ever experienced on their daily run while training. They looked athletic and super conditioned. There were experienced runners who ended up injuring themselves with strained knees, sprained ankles, and who fizzled out along the way. Some had to quit the pilgrimage unexpectedly. Their tough training didn't necessarily immune them from discomfort or injury. So my leisurely trekking pace worked out better for me.

My husband predicted that walking the Camino would be the most physically taxing experience ever in my life. “More than giving birth?” I laughed. But he was totally right on. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted to travel to Spain. I was eager to experience the different mountain passes, and panoramic views. And I was not in the least bit disappointed.

F.  Stay Hydrated and Eat Local Specialties

Keeping the body hydrated is crucial to physical comfort during the Camino. Survivability in any adventure, including the Camino involves having access to water, food and shelter. 

I could not overstate how critical it is when walking the Camino to have access to drinking water. Each one of my family’s backpack was equipped with a water bladder. It was hooked up in our backpacks in such a way so the mouthpiece is accessible while walking. We each carried an extra liter of drinking water on the side pocket of our packs especially for those rare times when we might run out before reaching the next water source. We happily found out that the tap water in Galicia was not only refreshingly tasty but clean.

Avoid at all cost getting dehydrated and don't ignore excessive sweating. A long hike and excessive sun exposure could lead to more sweating than usual. Electrolyte minerals lost when sweating must be replaced in the body. My family carried in our backpacks, hydration powder that saved me from extreme fatigue and potential dehydration during out trek up the Spanish Pyrenees.

Restaurants and small cafes could be found along the Camino, and we indulged in espresso, freshly squeezed orange juice, wine, beer, bottled water and local cakes for refreshments. Be careful with beer or alcoholic intake. Although I did not encounter visibly inebriated pilgrims, surely there were some. But I do not recommend being one.

A Coffee Stop on the Camino While Going Solo. Photo © Lu Sobredo

Most stops along the Camino trail offered pilgrims “menu del dia," a two or three course menu of the day. I was introduced to broiled “pulpo” or octopus for the very first time in the small town of Melide, and I have been hooked ever since. It was love at first bite. The pilgrims were told that it is one of Galicia region’s specialties. My family became intimately familiar with the surprising taste of pulpo. Although some pilgrims indulged on hamburger or sandwiches and French fries, I suggest trying the local dishes. You won’t regret it. Find out more about food in Spain in an essay I posted: Happy Eating on a Budget in Spain.

G.  Treat Your Feet Royally and Carry a First Aid Kit

Regardless of your reason for going on the Camino, you are definitely going to rely a great deal on how far your feet would take you. We invested on an expensive, sturdy, yet comfortable pair of hiking boots for me from REI in California. Hubby even purchased my footwear at least one year before so I could break them in. We took our regular walks once a week or more for almost a year prior. We did that so I could become accustomed to wearing hiking boots. We also hoped that the training would help with improved endurance. Equipped with foot liners and wool socks, I never gave my footwear a second thought. They became my second and third skin, so to speak. That is, not until the second segment of our Camino and after exposure to long days of hot sun and intermittent rain, my left boot fell apart first. 

For those who are prone to blisters, buy Compeed—blister cushions. They are easily found at any drugstore in Spain. Luckily, my son and I were not badly affected, but my dear husband had his share of the painfully annoying and potentially debilitating foot blisters. Foot blisters happen when friction, heat, dirt and moisture collide repeatedly. Some pilgrims chose open sandals to air the feet while walking. It worked well when one alternated wearing boots one day and sandals the next, weather permitting. My husband brought both: a pair of boots and Teva sandals sturdy enough to walk rocky trails. Those Teva sandals came in handy for my use when my own boots totally fell apart. When that happened, I ended up taking a local bus, while hubby and son walked, from Trinidad de Arre back to Pamplona. It was in Pamplona where I bought new pair of Spanish made boots. 

As I wrote earlier in the first of this two-part essay, the pair of boots in disrepair received a MacGyver-like fix from my husband and a temporary solution from kind strangers. I managed, but eventually had to purchase a new pair in Pamplona. Pamplona for me is now known not just for the running of the bulls in the Fiesta of San Fermin made famous by the American writer, Earnest Hemingway, but for a good pair of hiking boots.

Although a common practice, it bears repeating here. Remember to clean the feet often with warm water and soap, and fully dry them to help minimize the discomfort and occurrence of blisters. For us, disinfecting as needed avoided infection. Covering the affected area with Compeed or equivalent, and resting the feet to allow the blisters to heal, avoided the need to abort our hike. Having a first aid kit, absolutely useful. Ours included a nail clipper and a Swiss knife. Suffice it to say, my adventurer husband equipped each of us with a first aid kit. 

H.  Arrive at Destination in Daylight to find Accommodation

One of my initial fears was not finding accommodation for the night, especially affordable ones. Those fears after a while, dissipated. Fears and phobias in general were calmed.  As long as you arrive after 1 p.m. or at least while there’s still daylight, there were enough options for the weary pilgrim. Walking the Camino while there’s still light was important for my peace of mind. Arriving at our overnight stop in daylight each time gave us more latitude for finding accommodation we preferred.

When I started walking on my own, I would usually arrive at our overnight stop ahead of family.  Once I made the adjustment of leaving one hour earlier than my family so I could walk by myself, finding our overnight accommodations turned into my personal game. What could I find that’s comfortable and affordable? I reveled in the newness of my surroundings, searched for food markets or eating places after securing our shelter for the night. If I didn’t want to deal with other people snoring and other night sounds, I opted for a private hotel room or pensiones at a cost that ranged from €40-€100 euros per night. Usually overnight accommodation was €8-€15 per person if staying in a community albergue. I found a private room for three in Palais de Rei for €20 a night for all three of us. We stayed for two nights to re-energize, recuperate and take care of nagging blisters.

The municipal albergue or hostel tended to fill up first. The private albergues and pensiones were popular as it sometimes offered private rooms and some with ensuite bathroom. 

Looking for a Night's Accommodation. ©James Sobredo

One of my biggest fears was not about safety, although, we took precaution like any traveler. My fear was about not finding a bed for the night. That fear was obviously averted. For concerns about safety and to ease our minds about potential theft, each of us in the family carried a day bag that contained essential documents, passport, wallet, cash, keys, etc. that we kept by our side always when at the albergue or when going out to dinner, the market or sightseeing.

I.  Only Must-haves in Your Backpack

Critical to a good Camino experience is a backpack you can comfortably carry and one that has a rain cover when needed. Furthermore, what you put in your backpack matters a lot. The weight of the items and their usefulness are a top consideration when packing your on-the-go  belongings. My family chose hiking backpacks by Deuter for me and hubby and a very nice Traverse REI brand for our son. But so many other brands or similar products are just fine as long as the weight of the pack can rest on the hips and not pull at your back or shoulders. A manageable weight ranged from 15 to 25 pounds. This should not come a surprise: we discarded unessential items causing excess weight along the way.

His and Hers Backpack with Camino Shells. Photo ©James Sobredo

And don't forget to purchase at first opportunity, a scallop shell (ours has a red cross painted on) that we tied on the outside of our backpacks. They are available at gift shops, churches or overnight stops. The scallop shell is the iconic and prolific symbol that distinguishes you as someone walking the Camino—a pilgrim on a journey.

The scallop shell symbol corresponds with those on bollards (stone posts) that mark the path that lead to Santiago de Compostela. There are a couple of myths associated with the scallop shell as a symbol of the Camino. The version I like is the one that tells of a ship carrying the body of St. James which encountered a bad storm. The body was allegedly lost at sea only to be found washed ashore unharmed. And you guessed it. The body was covered in shells. There was also something practical about carrying the shell. Pilgrims found it useful for scooping food or water. 

I realized early on that I brought too much “stuff.” So, I left behind some clothing items at first opportunity before the first leg of the hike. The fabric too heavy, something that would not dry easily after washing, was a favorite turquoise blouse. It had to remain in Roncenvalles, in a 12th century monastery converted to an albergue, where we spent our first overnight stop. I ceremoniously folded the blouse in a cubby hole before we commenced our trek the following morning. Other pilgrims before us had done the same, and the clothes became offerings for other pilgrims to take. By the time my family reached a few more overnight stops, somewhere in a town that had a Post Office, we filled up a box with unessential and unused items. We mailed the box for safekeeping to our friends in Madrid. Most pilgrims, won’t have this option.

Thus, my growing determination to warn other interested Camino hikers to only pack what you must. This list below contains items I ultimately kept in my backpack. Not included on the list are those that you are already wearing, such as a pair of walking athletic shoes or hiking boots. The best advice I personally put to good use is to pack different items in separate and large resealable bags. This affords you convenience, saves you time when getting started in the morning, and lessens the likelihood of disturbing other pilgrims while you wrestle through your backpack. This is especially critical if you are staying in a municipal albergue where some pilgrims could choose to sleep in until absolutely necessary to leave. Each establishment has its own policy. Usually pilgrims are asked to vacate the premises no later than 8:00 a.m. 

The list below, in no particular order of importance, should serve as a good starting point when selecting items to take in your backpack. The list is based on my experience, so make adjustments for your gender or other needs:
  • PANTS—Two pairs of lightweight/synthetic pair of pants.
      1. At least one that converts to a pair of shorts or pedal pushers. (I chose to also take a lightweight knee-length black skirt.)
      2. At least one must be in black or other dark colors that could pass for semi-formal if going into a somewhat high-end restaurant, museum or other places. I got mine at Costco and REI in the U.S. Otherwise, Spain has their version of a recreational equipment store.
  • SHIRTS—Two long-sleeved shirt or top that are lightweight cotton/synthetic blend or fully synthetic.
      1. Choose something that works well when layering. 
      2. Take one short-sleeved top that works well as undershirt that could be worn as an outer shirt. I chose black that pairs nicely with my black pants or black skirt.
  • OUTERWEAR—coverage for rain, wind and cold.
      1. One lightweight rain gear/jacket; could double as windbreaker if needed.
      2. One polartec jacket or vest, perfect for colder weather or air-conditioned places.
      3. One lightweight (black) cardigan sweater for additional layering and option for a dressy evening.
  • SOCKS—Two pairs lightweight wool socks and liners.
  • SANDALS—One pair of sandals or Tevas that can also serve as footwear for shower stalls, and for a change of pace when letting your feet breathe while hiking.
  • UNDERWEAR—A set of 5 lightweight synthetic underwear which can dry easily when washed. The number you bring could be more or less. I played it safe in case I could not do the wash every night. Most albergues have washing machines or wash tubs when hand washing.
  • TOWEL AND ACCESSORIES—some for practical use.
      1. One sun hat and another another head cover for warmth, such as a beanie.
      2. One lightweight scarf for additional warmth and to dress up an outfit
      3. One lightweight synthetic travel towel that dries easily. They come in various sizes at REI.
  • SUNDRIES—small travel size containers are perfect for liquid soap, body lotion, toothpaste, sunblock cream, lip balm, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and shampoo (which also works well as laundry soap).
  • WIPES—hand wipes, baby wipes, sanitary napkins, toilet paper and ziploc bags could be useful on the trail. It is best to be prepared. Even though there were sufficient stops for food and bathroom breaks on the trail, few pilgrims had disgusting habits of leaving all sorts of wastes near walking trails. It doesn’t hurt to watch where you're stepping. 
  • MEDICATIONS—Sufficient supply of essential first aid items including hydro-cortisone, vitamins and prescription medications. 
J.  Learn A Few Phrases Spanish

I didn't need to speak Spanish to go on the Camino. Our family spent our first night of the Camino at the 12th century monastery at Roscesvalles. It was our first introduction to albergue living. It was where we picked up our pilgrim passport; while other pilgrims got theirs stamped since they started from the French side of the border. The rules, pilgrims must observe while at the monastery, were written in several languages. Much to my delight, included were English and surprisingly, Tagalog translations. The rules I paid attention to most: lights off and into bed by 10:00 p.m. as the doors were locked and no one was admitted after that; and pilgrims must leave and vacate the premises by 7:00 in the morning.

Curious as to how my limited grasp of the Spanish language would hold up or if high school French would help if any, I happily conversed with locals and other pilgrims. Locals in rural areas tended not to speak English, so a few words in Spanish helped in transacting for accommodations or ordering a meal without the need to point at pictures on menus. But mostly, English was spoken in many of the establishments, particularly among younger people. 

A few phrases in Spanish from an English speaker to show respect often went a long way, such as a greeting, plus phrases to show politeness. “Hola” for hello, “gracias” for thank you, and “Por favor” for please. The locals then try even harder to speak with you with their limited English or friendly hand gestures. My husband had sufficient knowledge of the language; he did not hesitate speaking in Spanish. Our son could read Spanish well, although was reticent in speaking the language. A small Spanish-English dictionary we carried in our backpack came in handy. Of course there are language translator apps now available on smartphones for convenience.

“Buen Camino,” was a greeting heard often while walking the Camino de Santiago. It was reassurance that we were on the right track, the right path. I didn't just imagine how often I heard the phrase. Everyone was most generous with this greeting. Hearing the words and saying the words to other pilgrims brought on smiles and engendered a burst of energy in both the giver and the receiver. I found myself moving a little faster and feeling a little lighter on my feet. This boost of adrenaline came in handy when trekking inclines or rough trails after  eight or so miles. There were times when each step felt like one dragging a ball and chain or a wheel borrow on a hard pavement, especially when walking apart from my family. Or if rainy, the path was sticky of mud, and I doubted if I’d ever make that day’s destination so I could meet up with family and socialize with a growing number of pilgrim friends. 


It is true, there is no perfect preparation for walking the Camino nor is there a perfect Camino. The journey is what you make it. 

Little did I know that the last stage of the Camino would serve as an ideal place to dance, skip, and sing under a canopy of trees. I did all that when I found myself alone for a time between the town of Arzua and our destination—the Santiago de Compostela! 

Under a Canopy of Trees. ©James Sobredo

Some folks who blogged about the Camino described the experience as a metaphor for life’s journey. It was indeed a metaphor for life’s journey with all the ups and downs of physically demanding trails; the highs and lows of emotions felt; the many moments of kindness when connecting with other pilgrims and town’s people; the resilience which grew out of transcending challenges along the way; and although rare, the cold stare from a stranger who wished to walk alone and not interact with anyone. It was easy enough to respect their wish to be left alone. Oh, yes, there were pilgrims who came with a pessimistic, gloomy and blatantly obnoxious attitude. It was easy to keep my distance from them as they were not the norm on the trail. I suspect they remained sullen throughout. One could only hope that they found some meaning later on from their experience.

To walk the Camino one doesn’t have to be: religious, a trained athlete, or searching for a spiritual awakening. Looking back at my experience, there is no way I would trade the moments I stood inside and outside the ancient Cathedrals with their spires outstretched to the heavens; or when time stood still in an unbelievably moving pilgrims’ mass once we arrived at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela; or at first taste of the delectable and mouth-watering dishes from the pilgrim’s menu del dia alongside fellow pilgrims. Heartwarming for me that some of these friendly pilgrims were with me during long stretches of the journey. 

Destination: Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. ©James Sobredo

And I definitely would not trade the family’s spontaneous decision to spend an additional night and a day at a hotel just to soak in the uniqueness of the municipality of Palais De Rei while giving our feet time to heal before resuming our trek. I wouldn’t dream of missing out on speaking in my limited Spanish which improved overtime, or my limited French that translated Spanish menus to help out pilgrims from France who spoke neither Spanish nor English, even though they were the stereotypical French folks with a-stiff-upper-lip. A few of the pilgrims were Americans, but we did luck out when we met some who were school teachers, one principal of college prep school, some university professors, and  college students from all around the U.S. I connected the easiest with friendly and engaging folks from various regions of Spain (with some exception): U.S., Canada, Germany, Argentina,  Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom. Most of the traditional Camino hikers were not fond of day hikers who are bused in to join the Camino armed with only light packs.

Walking the Camino was an achievement of a lifetime. Knowing full well that I would not likely ever repeat the experience, the significance of walking even only the abbreviated pilgrimage has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. The diagnosis of my chronic illness in 2013 was life-changing, and I am  reminded daily by incessant pain. The pain has gradually become manageable and I am more functional compared to the days when I was confined to a wheelchair while at the height of the illness in 2014 and most of 2015. Thanks to medical treatment that’s working for now, I am functional and I managed to return to Spain with family for vacation in 2016. Although there is no known cure, there are available treatments to help reduce debilitating symptoms. But the reduced symptoms are not reduced enough for another Camino. How I traveled with a disability is described in a previous blog post:  Travel Abroad with My Son and a Disability.

Unknowingly, I hiked while at the earliest stages of what was diagnosed three years later as severe Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).  By the time the diagnosis was confirmed in late 2013, my RA specialist said that based on test results, it would appear that I have had the disease for as long as five years before. RA is a long term autoimmune disorder wherein one’s own immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and body tissues resulting in inflammation, pain, stiffness, low stamina, and in my case, near immobility. Sadly, the treatment for diminishing symptoms suppresses my immune system. Thus, the extreme caution I now take when around crowds and when traveling. 

Hector on the Camino With a Homemade Cart. ©James Sobredo

The kindness of strangers and their stories as to why they launched on the Camino are engraved in my mind’s eye and heart. One friendly, middle-aged and slightly rotund gentleman who had knee and back issues hiked in pain and sweated profusely while hauling a cart of his belongings. He hiked the Camino as a promise and tribute to his wife who died of cancer months before.

Father and Son Bonding on Spanish Beer and Apple Juice. ©James Sobredo

Acts of loving kindness and mindfulness by my husband and our son were awe-inspiring. Both took steps to ensure I was safe, fed, happy and comfortable. The experience might be flawed in parts, yet beautifully memorable. To this day, I treasure all that I encountered. 

Taking a Rest on the Camino. ©James Sobredo

The Camino experience deepened my love for life, life with my family and friends being at the center of it all. Consequently, it has become my personal mission to encourage those who are curious, mildly interested as well as those ready and raring to go on the Camino, and remind all to please do it before life events become an obstacle of no return. Go on and take off on your journey. Remember, most important about the Camino is the journey and the friendships you make along the way. Buen Camino!


Camino de Santiago (The French Way), Macs Adventure, 2017. Web 15 December 2016.

Camino de Santiago: The Pilgrimage Routes to Santiago de Compostela,, 2017. Web 11 March 2017.

Genova, Zoe, Why do People Walk the Camino with a Scallop ShellDuperier’s Authentic Journeys, Duperier’s Camino de Santiago Blog, February 7, 2014. Web 19 March 2017.

Green, Steward, Kilimanjaro: Highest Mountain in AfricaClimbing Expert.About Sports, 2016A. Web 19 January 2017.

MacManus, Melanie Raczicki, A Guide to Hiking the Pacific Crest, Adventure Trail Guides, June 2012. Web 19 January 2017.

Mullen, Robert, Walk this Way: The Camino de SantiagoThe Guardian, April 2, 2011. Web 19 March 2017.

©Lu Sobredo, All rights reserved. 


Guest Co-Editor: Adrian Sobredo.
Thanks to son Adrian for helping proofread and edit this essay in between his university work. 

Featured Photographer: Dr. James Sobredo. 
Thanks to my husband James for the poignant photos,  and his adventurous spirit that made possible our family Camino and many other travels; and helping me set up this blog site.

Family, friends and New Readers.
Thanks to all who are reading this essay, spreading the word by sharing this post, and giving feedback and comments.


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