The Camino in Spain vs the Camino in Portugal…

I’ve walked more than 1250km, over the better part of two months now, so I think I’m entitled to an opinion on this. And so far, I enjoyed my time walking the Camino Frances across Spain MUCH better than the Camino Central in Portugal. Now some of that could very well be mental attitude:

After two months of travel, most of it walking, it is entirely possible that I am a little bit tired.

And it’s much more exciting to be walking toward Santiago with hundreds of other pilgrims than to be walking away from Santiago by ourselves.

But there are a lot of external reasons that I prefer the Camino in Spain as well.

There are fewer services oriented toward pilgrims in Portugal: fewer albergues, cafes, pilgrim menus, and shops.

There is much less history and art to experience – few grand cathedrals, museums, and palaces. And the lovely white churches we do walk past are always locked. There ARE quite a few Roman bridges, but they get old.

The language barrier makes things tricky. I had finally learned enough Spanish to make myself understood ordering in a restaurant or an albergue or to ask directions. I even dusted off my high school French a few times. But Portuguese is wacky! In writing, it kind of looks like Spanish spell-checked by a drunk. But when spoken, it sounds like Martian! My entire vocabulary consists of “good morning” (bom dia) and “thank you” (obrigado).

But the biggest downside to walking the Portuguese Camino is that it is almost entirely on roads. Sometimes in the narrow shoulder of very busy roads with trucks zooming by at 60mph. Sometimes on what our guidebook describes as “delightful country lanes” which really just means narrower roads with stone walls on both sides with less frequent trucks zooming by at 60mph. And maybe worse than the traffic is the surface of these roads – small square cobblestones that twist your ankles and make your feet ache after 25-30km under the weight of a backpack.

We came upon a road crew placing the stones on a new stretch of road – fascinating! It’s very labor intensive. The road bed is covered in sand. Strings are put in place to make straight lines to guide the cobblestone placement. Then two men sit in the road with a hammer in one hand and a pile of square rocks nearby and dig a hole, place a stone, and tap it into place. Over and over again. I wish they’d just leave them all as dirt – so much better for walking!

I know, I know… I’m not getting much sympathy from you as I complain about sore feet while spending two months in Europe. And you’re right! It’s time to snap out of it and enjoy the beauty of this small country. On the positive side, people are very friendly and keep warning us that we are walking the wrong way, lol. And there are way more English-speaking pilgrims than we encountered in Spain. So we get the chance to have several two-minute conversations with northbound travelers each day. And coffee and wine are both dirt cheap! There’s no tortilla option in the cafes, but cabbage soup is a pretty reliable gluten free option. And I learned how to say “without bread” in Portuguese (sem paõ). And we’re planning to take a three-night vacation from pilgrim-ing in beautiful Porto, so I think we’ll feel renewed and energized again as we continue south. Wish us luck!

Onward to the End of the Earth!

It’s difficult to describe how it feels to complete a Camino in Santiago. It’s definitely exciting to begin the final day’s walk of “only” 23 km to Santiago, and to catch the first glimpse of the cathedral spires from the top of Monte de Gozo. And after several kilometers of city walking and a few false turns (how is it possible to lose a cathedral?) to finally arrive in the plaza. The atmosphere is celebratory, with a steady stream of pilgrims arriving, snapping photos, and plopping down on the flagstones to enjoy the view and to watch the show.

I even saw a couple of burly guys shed a few tears. But then reality sets in. You still have to find a place to stay, get in line for your Compostela certificate, do laundry, and get food. And then, you’re surrounded by tourists, bars, and souvenir ships selling Camino t-shirts and shot glasses and anything with a shell on it. It feels a bit like finishing a pilgrimage in Times Square – not at all contemplative, and a bit of a letdown. So, after paying our respects to St James and taking a rest day, we decided on an alternative but also traditional end to our Camino.

We laced up our boots and kept walking to the Atlantic ocean, to a rocky coast that the Romans named Finisterre – The End of the Earth. At this point, what’s another 90km, right? As our guidebook puts it, “The act of walking literally until the trail meets the sea can be helpful to shift gears and process the experience.”

Over the course of four days, we walked through farm lands and eucalyptus forests, past stone hórreos, and picturesque bridges. The Galecian municipal albergues are kind of dumps, so we stayed in some pleasant private accommodations. It’s been lovely to see the ocean again after all this time. And think about it – we can now say we’ve walked across an entire country!

Last night we walked the final 3.2 km to the 0.0 km marker at the lighthouse at the tip of the Cape.

We watched the sun set into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean (with hundreds of our closest pilgrim friends) and reflected on how lucky we’re been to have this adventure.

We made it!

800km… 500 miles … 35 days…1 pair of worn out hiking shoes… 4 Spanish regions…4 major cathedrals… Countless churchs… More slices of tortilla and cups of coffee and glasses of wine than I can track. Many, many trail markers and works of public art and conversations with pilgrims and yellow arrows… Mike and I finally made it to Santiago de Compestella.

I’ll admit I’ve been bad about documenting our journey here in this blog, but it didn’t really fit the pilgrim lifestyle. After walking all day, doing chores such as finding lodging, doing laundry and cooking, there wasn’t much energy left for blogging. Plus when I had energy, it was more valuable to spend it talking to other pilgrims from all over the world, right? And don’t even get me started on the quality (or lack thereof) of WiFi in pilgrim hostels!

However, I did post a few photos every day on social media, with a few impressions of each wonderful stage. If you’d like to catch up with a quick spin through the beautiful Camino Frances, please feel free to follow me on:

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/jennifer.baehre

Instagram:

@jennbsmiles

What to pack for the Camino Frances?

Every time I climb a hill, I think about what I’m carrying in my pack that I don’t need. And there have been a lot of hills over the course of 800km, so I think I’ve got this packing list figured out! Now keep in mind, this list is specific to the Camino Frances where towns and services are close together. If you are planning for a more remote route, you might need to carry more food and water. I hiked in July and August when temperatures ranged from the high 40°s Fahrenheit in the Galician mountains to nearly 110°F across the Meseta. For a winter hike, you’d need warmer clothing. For another route you might actually need camping gear.

Gear

Backpack– You’ll need a comfortable, well-fitting backpack of 30-40 liters. Don’t buy anything larger than 40 liters or I will personally haunt you and give you nightmares every night of your Camino. It will just be heavier, and you’ll fill it with stuff you don’t need. I’ve been very happy with my Gregory Jade 38 pack, although I probably could have even used a size smaller. Gregory Jade 38

Hiking poles (optional)– I’m hooked on hiking poles. They take some stress off your knees going downhill, provide a rhythm going uphill, and keep you from falling when you trip over a cobblestone or your own feet. They are difficult to pack in luggage, so next time I’ll buy an inexpensive pair when I get to Europe.

Hiking Shoes– Choose a pair of running shoes or trail shoes. Fit is more important than type of sole, upper material, or anything else. There’s no need for heavy leather hiking boots on this trail! Remember- a pound on the feet is like five pounds on your back! Brooks Cascadia

Sleeping bag liner- In the summer, there’s no need for an insulated sleeping bag, because albergues provide blankets. But you’ll need a lighter bag or sleeping bag liner, because not all albergues provide sheets. In fact, some of the cheaper albergues use rubber mattress pads to make it easier to keep clean. I prefer a silk liner, over synthetic or cotton, because it’s light and comfortable. Mine is a mummy bag, designed to fit inside a sleeping bag. Next time, I’d buy a rectangular bag to have more comfortable sleeping space. silk sleeping bag liner

Pillow case – Most albergues provide pillows but not pillow cases. I’ve used a t-shirt, but next time, I’ll just bring an old pillow case.

Packing Cubes– or stuff sacks. It’s much easier to keep organized and to pack your bags quickly in the morning with a few lightweight bags. packing cubes

Pee cloth – public toilets (servicios or aseos or WCs) are few and far between. When walking between towns you’ll need to find a bush and go au-natural. But don’t be a jerk and throw TP on the ground! Kula Cloth makes a discrete antimicrobial cloth that hangs conveniently on your pack, where it’s always available to catch the last few drops. Just throw it in the laundry every couple of days.

Water bottle– I brought a camelbak hydration pouch and didn’t use it. Too much trouble getting it in and out of the pack when refilling. It was easier to use a smaller flexible bottle and fill it up at each public fountain – they’re everywhere! I’d bring two 0.5 liter bottles. If you drink a bunch at the fountain there’s rarely a need to carry more than a liter.

Hiking clothes

  • 2 pairs of socks, synthetic or marino wool
  • Gaiters to keep the stones and sand out of your shoes Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • 2 pairs hiking shorts or skirts. I love my hover skirt from Skirt Sports
  • 3 pairs underware
  • 1 sports bra
  • 2 synthetic or marino wool short sleeve T-shirts
  • 1 long sleeve mid layer (I didn’t bring this, and wish I had. It gets chilly at night and I got tired of wearing my rain jacket)
  • Sun hat – I wore this every afternoon for sun protection, and even in light rain showers Chaos Hats
  • Bandana
  • Sun glasses – I dropped mine on the ground several times while juggling poles, map, phone, etc. It’s also easy to leave them behind. Don’t bring your Ray Bans.
  • Rain gear (lightweight rain jacket and pack cover, or Pancho) Mike insists on an umbrella
  • Optional wind layer – I carried a 2 oz nylon wind shirt

Camp clothes

  • Lightweight trousers – something clean to change into after you shower. I never hiked in long pants.
  • T-shirt or tank top, bra, undies
  • Pajamas – optional. You’ll often be sleeping in mixed gender dorm rooms, and you’ll probably have to get up in the middle of the night to pee. I brought a pair of cotton sleep shorts and a tank top
  • Sandals – the albergues ask you to leave your hiking shoes just inside the door to keep things cleaner. You’ll want a pair of keen sandals or flip flops for the rest of the evening and for walking around town when your feet hurt.
  • Town clothes (dress, earrings, lipstick) Totally optional, but I spent a weeks as a tourist before the Camino, and took three rest days. It was good for morale to change out of hiking clothes! I love Skirt sports dresses and the super light-weight travel dresses from Indygena
  • Swimsuit (optional) – I heard rumors of towns and albergues with swimming pools, but I never found one.

Toiletries

Bring a little bit of everything, but not too much. Toiletries get heavy fast. You’ll travel through plenty of towns with opportunities to buy more. Grocery stores are usually cheaper than Farmacies.

  • Shampoo
  • Soap
  • Facial cleanser
  • Q tips
  • Moisturizer
  • Sun block
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Prescription meds – I shopped at a Farmacie in Santiago and bought 100 days of my thyroid meds for €10. Much easier and cheaper than I expected!
  • Makeup, hair products, Deodorant, razor (optional)
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • First aid kit (blisters, colds, Imodium, allergy, antibacterial ointment)
  • Quick dry pack towel

Food

Only bring food from the States if you have special dietary needs. I brought gluten free energy bars for the first few days and nuun electrolyte tablets, but too much gets heavy!

  • Electrolytes
  • Energy bars
  • Hiking snacks (just a day or two at a time- there are lots of towns and grocery stores)
  • Zip locks

Electronics

  • Phone and charger – Spanish Sim card. I went with Orange’s Go Walk pre-paid sim card. €20 for two months of data and local phone calls. Great customer service and coverage.
  • Garmin watch and charger
  • Headphones and charger

Wallet

  • Passport, credit card, debit card, cash, pilgrim credential

Other

  • Clothes pins – optional. Mike lost a bandana from a windy line.
  • 50′ light parachute cord for clothes line – often there’s not room for everybody’s clothes at the albergues.
  • Headlight (preferably one that has a red light option and is rechargable)
  • Guidebook – supplement with a cell phone app, but it’s good to have paper backup.
  • Massage ball – you never know what’s going to hurt when you start hiking 15-25 miles a day while carrying a pack. I’d love to have access to a foam roller, but they’re bulky. A lacrosse ball is smaller, and worth the weight!

How’s much does it cost to walk the Camino de Santiago?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’ve walked toward Santiago over the past month. And I’ve come to the conclusion that you can do it quite comfortably and enjoyably for a budget of €35 per person per day. Maybe with an emergency fund of €100 or so… just in case! It’s really an inexpensive European trip, although once you multiply by 30-40 days to walk the entire 800 km, it does add up!

Lodging: Budget €10 per day

For €10 you’ll get a bed in a shared room with access to a shared bathroom, a hot shower, a place to do laundry, a common area, and probably a kitchen and wifi. Basically, this is everything a pilgrim needs after walking 20-35 km per day.

On a tighter budget?

Whatever your mileage goals for the day, there will always be a municipal (run by the city) or parochial (run by the church) albergue that charges €5 or €6 per night. They’ll provide all the same services, but might be bigger with a younger crowd, and therefore more crowded and maybe less clean. There are also donation-based albergues where you simply pay what you can afford.

Can splurge a bit more?

Sometimes it’s really worth it to splash out for a private room. You’ll have more space, your own bathroom, fewer snoring Croatians, maybe even perks like cotton towels, free breakfast, and a terrace to overlook the city. In our first 28 days on the Camino, we spent 7 days in private rooms, ranging from €35 to €45 per night for the two of us. But that includes our rest days in Burgos and León. Albergues won’t let you stay more than one night unless you’re injured or sick. So taking a rest day really requires private accommodations. Of course, you could also stay in a hotel, Casa Rural, or Bed and Breakfast and could choose to spend much more!

Dinner: Budget €10 per day

Either your albergue or one of the many nearby bars will offer a pilgrims’ menu – three course meal with bread and wine – for somewhere between €8 and €12. The pilgrims’menu has three things going for it:

  1. It’s filling. Focusing more on quantity than quality, a cheap pilgrims’meal will probably include french fries, pork, eggs… or all three!
  2. It’s served at a reasonable time. Since Spaniards eat dinner at 9:00 or later, the 7:00 pilgrims meal is a lifesaver for someone who’s walked 20 miles today, and who’s going to wake up before sunrise tomorrow to do it all over again!
  3. It includes wine. They don’t call it the vino Camino for nothing. Plus… it helps you sleep.😉

(So the photo below is a regular people’s weekend menu, not a pilgrim menu, so it’s more expensive, but you can see how it works- and how difficult it can be to decide what to order if you don’t speak Spanish!)

On a tighter budget?

Instead of a three course meal, you could order a plato completo, which is basically your whole meal on one plate. You can find the usual eggs or pork and fries and salad for around €5.

Or, better yet, shop at the grocery store and cook for yourself. Most albergues have kitchens, and a hearty pasta meal hits the spot after a long walk. One night, we bought groceries in the tiniest shop in the tiniest town and the entire thing, including gluten free pasta, sauce, veggies, olives, a bottle of wine, and yogurt, eggs, and coffee for the next morning cost us €16.

Can you splurge a bit more?

The the food in Spain is really amazing! If your budget allows, you can always go out for a real dinner instead of the pilgrims’ menu and enjoy octopus, iberico ham, paella, roasted lamb, and much more. A restaurant meal would increase your dinner cost from €10pp to €30pp or more – PLUS wine. León has a fabulous tapas culture, so it’s fun to explore and hit the bars. You could treat yourself to a cocktail instead of the ubiquitous wine – that would raise the cost of your end of the day celebration from €1.50 per drink to around €6. You could certainly eat all three meals in bars, rather than carrying hiking snacks. The cost of food is entirely in your control!

Other expenses: Budget €15 per day

If you’ve budgeted €10 for lodging and €10 for dinner, that leaves €15 per day for everything else: breakfast, hiking snacks, coffee, wine, museum entry, donations at churches, refilling your soap and toothpaste. Plenty! Skip the overpriced albergue breakfast and get espresso and tortilla at a bar for €3. All the tourist sites offer discounted rates for pilgrims. There are plenty of supermercados and tiendas selling nuts and fruit and ham and cheese. And a cup of espresso or a glass of house wine costs between €1 and €1.50. that €15 will go far!

Optional expenses

Of course, you can always spend more money if you’ve got it.

Laundry

Some albergues have a washing machine and charge between €2 and €4 per load. Every three or four nights, it’s nice to wash all your hiking clothes with soap in a real machine. And if you combine with someone else, you’ll have a full load. 😁

Luggage transfer

There are a number of competing companies that will carry your pack from town to town for about €5 per day. You don’t even have to plan ahead or commit to the whole trip. If you’re having a rough day, or you’ve got bad blisters, or the next day’s route is particularly hilly, your albergue can arrange for luggage transfer tomorrow. Pilgrim Hack! If you’re traveling with a partner, combine your heavy great into one bag for transfer and carry the rest and you’ll only spend €5 for the two of you! (No, Mike and I haven’t tried this yet. Did I mention we do things the hard way?)

Use a travel agent

This is a very American way to do the Camino. You can go through an adventure outfitter and have them plan and schedule your trip, book your accommodations, arrange your meals, reserve your luggage transfer. And … add a big premium to the cost for this service! But as I’ve described, it’s not very difficult to arrange lodging, luggage transfer, and meals for yourself. Plus, if you are pre-booked into a tour, you don’t have the flexibility to stop early if you’re hurting or the weather’s bad (or there’s a fiesta!) Or to walk longer some days if you’re feeling good or you’ve just heard about an albergue that’s “the best on the Camino.”

Bottom line?

It’s not as expensive as you think to walk the Camino Frances! Between different types of accommodations, discount meals and entry costs for pilgrims, and honestly the small amount of “things” you actually need, you can make this a very affordable trip. But keep in mind that doing the whole trip from St Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago will take 30-35 days. On the plus side, you’re not putting gas in the car at home, your water and electric bills will be lower back there, and you’re not going out to movies or concerts or shows. You may find it’s cheaper to do a pilgrimage across Spain than to stay home! And of course, the beautiful views, scenic visas, and ancient churches are the same no matter how much you pay for your trip!