I think it was during the 3rd or 4th day walking the Camino de Santiago that I swore to myself I would never do this again. What a stupid idea. I was sitting under a shady tree in the dirt, blistered feet stretched out in front of me, eating a delicious lunch of canned tuna fish and a protein bar. It was one of the longest days of the Camino: 10 miles down, 10 more to go. My shoulders ached from the weight of my backpack and my feet were speckled with huge, puffy blisters. I scraped the last bits of tuna from the can with a make-shift fork and broke down. The tears came hot and heavy, like I couldn’t get them out fast enough. “I can’t do it, anymore,” I choked out. “I really can’t.” Victor was understanding but firm: “We’re halfway there, you can’t give up now.” I dried my tears and wallowed in the last moments of self-pity. “Besides,” he said, “there’s no other choice–look around.” Farmland and dirt roads as far as the eye could see. A few deep breaths and a big hug from Victor helped me re-center and focus. Backpack up, shoes on–onwards and upwards.
It turns out this was only one of several emotional breakdowns I had along the way. Apparently, walking 15-20 miles a day for 12 days is not only physically draining, but also a tremendous mental feat. Go figure. But this is not supposed to be a whiny post about how hard walking the Camino was. I want to tell you that besides the pain and the discomfort, it’s worth doing. If you walk the Camino, you will come out the other side a better person with wonderful memories and great new friends. This is why you should walk the Camino de Santiago:
1. The sense of accomplishment you feel upon finishing is incredible.
Maybe I’m just really out of shape, or not used to persevering when things get uncomfortable, but walking this much with a backpack was HARD. I mean, really. One day is difficult, but doable. But try walking all day, cooking your own dinner, sleeping on a bunkbed with 20 other people snoring around you, waking up at the butt-crack of dawn, and doing it all over again. IMAGINE DOING THAT 11 MORE TIMES! It is exhausting. I wanted to give up so many times–but something like the Camino is really about perseverance. It’s an exercise in mind over matter, and when you finally finish…wow, what a feeling! After this experience, I know that I tend to give up too easily, and can usually push myself much further than I first think. “This too shall pass” was my mantra through the entire trip. The pain is temporary. Just keep breathing, just keep walking…
2. It’s a great way to explore Spain.
Trains, planes, and buses all have their advantages while traveling, sure. But nothing beats the experience of walking. On a bus you are limited to paved roads, which generally don’t follow the most picturesque routes through a country. But when you walk, you can meander through vineyards, hop over streams, and cross swinging rope bridges. When you slow down enough to see things up close and watch the scenery change gradually, you really get a feel for your surroundings.
And walking isn’t just a better way to explore the countryside of Spain, but it also gives you a chance to think. Maybe too much time to think. After you plan every morsel of food you will eat as soon as you get to the albergue and tell every single joke you’ve ever heard and relay every piece of advice you read about walking the Camino, there’s still a lot of time to ponder the meaning of life. Victor and I had some amazing discussions and conversations while walking. And a lot of deliriously hilarious moments as well. Have I convinced you of the benefits of walking? Good! Because if you walk the Camino, you will literally be walking all day long.
Sometimes while you are walking, you start to focus on the finish line. A rough countdown begins in your head: Just 15 more miles. Just 10 more miles. Just 1 more mile. But at the very end when you arrive to Santiago and you are completely and utterly underwhelmed. Where’s the confetti?? Where’s my welcome parade?? You realize that this whole Camino thing wasn’t even about getting to Santiago. Like everything else in life, it was about the journey.
“But the beauty is in the walking–we are betrayed by destinations.” –Gwyn Thomas
3. You meet incredible people along the way.
Since Victor and I decided to walk the Camino portugués, which is a lot less crowded than the more popular Camino francés, we didn’t really run into many people. Lucky for us, we still managed to meet some hilarious and crazy pilgrims. The third or fourth day we met some great people and walked with them for the rest of the way. The suffering and joy you share with your fellow pilgrims bonds you together, and we quickly formed a mini family of five with our three new buddies. We walked together, cooked together, got drunk together, and took coffee breaks along the way together. We walked into Santiago together and felt the strange disappointment of arriving. The remarkable part of meeting people along the Camino is that you don’t ever have to say goodbye–just see ya later. These weirdos probably love traveling as much as you do–so you’re bound to see them in another corner of the world one day. In fact, just a few weeks later we visited two of our new friends in Ireland and have plans to see them again in Europe this summer.
4. It’s an affordable way to travel.
This shouldn’t be your main reason–but it’s nice to know that walking the Camino will not break the bank or get you in debt. Depending on where you want to stay/eat and if you like to drink at night, you can get away with about 15-20 euros a person. Albergues are sometime based on donation, but usually will range between 5-10 euros per person. Food can be as cheap as you want it. You can eat a huge meal for 10 euros or just stop by small stores along the way and buy some bread and meat for sandwiches. It’s really up to you.
5. You will get in shape!
When you burn so many calories, you can eat anything you want. Anything. Even after eating pasta pretty much every night and all the cookies I wanted, I still lost some weight and felt much lighter and in better shape. There are a lot of uphill and rocky areas so you are sure to work those gluteals.
I hope that you will take everything I say with a grain of salt. Every experience is different on the Camino; every journey slightly unique. The Camino de Santiago is what you make it. Have you walked the Camino de Santiago? If not, what are you waiting for? Go buy your ticket, pack LIGHT, and get ready to count more blisters than you ever thought possible to acquire and open your heart to the most beautiful people you will ever meet.