I’ve been talking to several people lately who are going to embark on their first Camino sometime later this year. I love hearing their enthusiasm, their questions, their worries, and it makes me remember those months before my own pilgrimage. There was so much I didn’t know, so much research I tried to do, so much I learned in such a short amount of time.
But I couldn’t learn it all, and there was so much I needed to figure out along the way. And so because I’m in a very nostalgic mood, I thought I would put together a list of tips that I gathered as I walked the Camino Frances. This is not a very informative or even necessarily helpful sort of post, so if you’re in serious preparation mode right now, then you might find more help elsewhere. But it was stuff like this that I remember reading before my first Camino, the kinds of words and images that made me think- “Am I actually about to be doing all of these things? Am I going to be having these experiences?” And I could feel the little ball of excitement in my chest expand.
So here they are, 24 little nuggets of wisdom for walking the Camino de Santiago:
Begin with a single step.
Your walking stick might just become your new best friend.
Hang out with people in a different age bracket than you.
Fill up/top off your water bottle every time you pass a fountain. There should be plenty of fountains along the way, but this ensures that you always have more than you need.
Bring an empty container along with you on the day that you pass by the wine fountain. (I’m not necessarily saying that you should fill it up and drink it during the day’s walk, but rather that it will be convenient to have a vessel for sampling the wine. Or, you could be like me, and just stick your face under the wine stream and hope that you don’t make a mess. There’s a picture of me doing this, but it will never, ever see the light of day).
Whenever possible, stop for second breakfast. I didn’t even realize this was a thing until I walked the Camino, and once I did, it quickly became my favorite thing.
Soak your bare feet in every cool stream that you pass.
Sleep in the bunk by the window: you might be able to watch the moon and the stars, plus you might be able to have some control over whether the window is opened or closed (hint: crowded albergues on hot nights = open windows. But not all pilgrims may agree…)
In larger towns/cities, look for the menu del dia. Similar to the pilgrim menu, it tends to offer higher quality, regional food at a fabulous deal.
If you come across an albergue offering a communal meal, stop here and dine with your fellow pilgrims, and always offer to help prep and clean up.
Don’t be tempted to think that a donativo albergue means a free albergue. Pay what you think the service and accommodations are worth; some of my best experiences were in donativo albergues, with kind hospitaleros, communal dinners, coffee and toast in the morning, a generous spirit and a sense of community and care. You can certainly choose to drop only a few coins into the can, but I’d encourage everyone to take a moment and think about what the experience was worth to you. Without ample donations, these albergues will struggle to remain operational.
Even if you’re not typically an early riser, do it anyway, and walk at sunrise. The sun will be at your back, so don’t forget to turn around and take in the splendor.
You’ll get a deeper tan on the left side of your body than on your right. I have no tips for this. And unless you wear sandals, you’ll get an intense sock tan. Even in the depths of winter, I can still see my Camino sock tan.
Take the detour.
Eunate is closed on Mondays. Go there anyway.
Magnum White ice cream bars are the best thing you’ll ever taste on a summer day on the Meseta.
Don’t dread the Meseta. The path through this stretch of land known as the breadbasket of Spain may be long and straight and monotonous, but there is great opportunity for insight here. Use the time to walk alone, walk in step with the rising sun, and consider the world around you. Consider the world inside yourself, too.
Visit the chickens in the church in Santo Domingo, and consider the miracles in your own life.
Whenever you stop for a break, take off your shoes and socks and let your feet air out. This can help prevent blisters! Plus, it just feels really good to feel fresh air between your toes. (Also, consider coating your feet with a thin layer of Vaseline before putting your socks back on. I’m convinced it helped me avoid (most) blisters).
Push your limits. This could mean a lot of things: a 40km day, making a friend who doesn’t speak your language, trusting that you’ll find a place to sleep even if all the albergues are full, accepting help from a stranger.
Try the pulpo.
Consider yourself lucky if you happen upon a festival in a small village while walking to Santiago. And always stop for awhile and join in the festivities.
Embrace the rain (I’m still working on this one).
Always, always, walk your own Camino. This is the most important one, which means that you can feel free to ignore all of the tips above. Everyone will have opinions, and everyone will have the things that work for them (boots vs sneakers, sock liners, bed bug prevention, how many km per day to walk, how fast/slow you should go, carrying your pack/shipping it ahead, etc). One of the most beautiful things about the Camino is that you can do this pilgrimage any way you want, any way you need. No one walks your Camino, but you.
If you’ve already walked the Camino, what are some of your favorite little nuggets of wisdom?