Pilgrims following the scallop shell and yellow arrow

What attracts an individual to walk 500 miles? More specifically, what drives an individual to walk the Camino de Santiago? Is it the religious, historical, or cultural fixtures? Is it the camaraderie that comes with hiking an established route? Or is it just the desire to take a really good, long walk? Maybe it’s a mixture of it all. Let’s dip our toes into the  informational pool that is the Camino de Santiago!

So, Why Does the Camino de Santiago Exist?

According to Christian theology, when Jesus divided the known world into Missionary Zones, James was assigned to the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal). James spent a few years preaching in Spain before returning to Jerusalem, where he was beheaded in 44 AD. It is believed that his followers carried his body back to Spain. Years later his remains were discovered in Santiago de Compostela. St. James was and still is universally discerned as the patron of pilgrims and once his remains were discovered, many people flocked to the location of his remains. The King of Spain thus declared James to be the patron saint of Santiago and Spain as a whole.

A Brief History:

St. Jean Pied de Port bridge crossing

The Camino de Santiago was one of three pilgrimages that could result in a plenary indulgence during the Medieval Period. Essentially, if you wanted to relinquish yourself of sin, you either walked to Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago. If you stepped foot with the intent of walking towards Santiago, you were a pilgrim, or peregrino. Pilgrims would utilize the Codex Calixtinus, a collection of books from the 1140s, to guide them to Santiago de Compostela. The Codex Calixtinus was the first of it’s kind and is widely accepted as the world’s first travel guide. Seems like a Dan Brown movie in the making. Anyway, attendance during the Middle Ages peaked and eventually tapered off.

Throughout history, the route to Santiago shaped infrastructure from hospices to bridges and travel ways for pilgrims to reach the cities. The trail brought all types of people together. Cultures mixed, languages merged, and history was influenced. Since the 70s, there has been a proliferation of pilgrims from all over the world that have come together to hike into Santiago.

Why are There So Many Routes?

Camino Bridge Crossing

People have walked to Santiago from all over Europe, creating paths that eventually funneled into the defined routes we have today. Back then, once you took on a pilgrimage, you started your hike from your front door step. And you can still do that today; ocean in your path? I hope you like to swim!

Currently, there are 12 established Camino routes that start in either Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, or Switzerland. The most popular route and most congested is the Way of St. James, the French Route. Picking the right route depends on a variety of factors. Time of year, popularity, terrain, physical ability, and how much time you can dedicate to a hike are all factors. You can start midway on one of the 12 Camino routes, or start in Amsterdam or Moscow. With limitless options, you can definitely tailor a route that works best for you.

Which Route Should You Take?

Greg Scheaffer looking out at the Camino

The Camino is most popular during the spring and summer, but it can really be hiked during any season. Plan accordingly though for weather and hostel closures during the cold months. The following routes are going to be displayed in kilometers.

1- Camino Frances, the French Way, is 800km long / 65.6% of pilgrims walk 

The most popular route with an abundance of accommodations, good signage, and many towns along the way. Some sections offer easier, alternative routes.

2- Camino Portugues, the Portuguese Way, is 620 km long /16.4% of pilgrims walk

More rural experience, a lot of walking parallel to roads, but alternative routes are in the works. Many hostels are available and trail is well marked.

3- Camino del Norte , the Northern Way, is 825 km long / 6.1% of pilgrims walk 

Follows the Northern Coast, more demanding than the Frances, cool weather from ocean. Hostels are not as frequent as on the Frances and are a bit pricey.

4- Camino Primitivo, the Original Way, is 342 km long / 4.4% pilgrims walk   

Relatively hard route, a lot of climbing and descending, a fair amount of road walking. More secluded, not as much infrastructure. Heavy rain and cold weather common even during summer.

5- Camino Ingles, the English Way, is 118 km long / 3.5% of pilgrims walk 

Traditionally taken by English and Irish pilgrims that arrived by boat. Relatively easy hike through green countryside.

6- Via de la Plata, Silver Way, is 1000 km long / 3.5% of pilgrims walk 

The longest Camino de Santiago route spanning the length of Spain. For adventurers, the road less travelled. Difficult hike during spring and summer due to sun exposure, best to hike during autumn.

-Other routes to consider:

Camino de Finisterre & Muxia, Camino Aragones,  Le Puy Route, Cami de Sant Jaume, Camino de Madrid, Tunnel Route, Camino del Salvador

What is a Holy Year?    

A Holy Year is any year when St. James Day (July 25th) falls on a Sunday. Try to avoid a holy year as the trails will be heavily congested, unless you’re travelling for religious reasons. The next Holy Years will fall on 2021, 2027, and 2032.

What is a Pilgrim Passport?

Stamps in a Pilgrim Passport    

A Pilgrim Passport is a document that identifies a pilgrim as a pilgrim. Pilgrims obtain stamps, or sellos, every day from hostels, restaurants, cafes, bars, etc. to verify the distance walked. It’s necessary to have the passport to be able to sleep in most hostels, or alburgues, and it also makes low-cost pilgrim menus accessible at restaurants and cafes. There are a plethora of stamps that exist on the Camino and it’s fun to see what stamps you and your Camino buddies have acquired.

If you are walking the Way of St. James, you can pick up your Pilgrim Passport at the Pilgrim’s Office in St. Jean Pied du Port or you can order one from your local chapter. Something to keep in mind, though: prior to April 1, 2016 there were 25 different credentials circulating on the Camino. These credentials were issued from different entities and cost anywhere from €2 - €20. In an attempt to keep the price of credentials down and to ensure validity, there is now only one official passport that will be accepted. This new passport costs only €2.

It’s also important to note that the last 100 km walked or 200 km cycled must show at least 2 sellos per day to verify you walked/cycled into Santiago. Completing a pilgrimage is a huge accomplishment and the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago will check those last stamps to ensure you fulfilled the requirement for receiving a certificate.

Do You Need to Know Spanish?   

Many pilgrims do not know Spanish. You will hear languages from all over the world, like German, Japanese, Polish, French, Korean, and many others. While it may not be absolutely imperative to know Spanish, the locals will appreciate if you know some key phrases. It’s also good etiquette to greet people; so a little Good morning. How are you? (“Buenos días ¿Cómo está?) will go a long way.  

Your guidebook will have key phrases that will be essential to everyday life in Spain, such as inquiring where the bathroom is, if the hostel has any beds left, or dietary concerns. So having even a little Spanish under your belt will only benefit you. Oh, and you better get used to hearing and saying “Buen Camino” every day. The phrase literally means “good trail”, but more so it’s a cheer of encouragement to keep walking!

What's Up with the Scallop Shell?

Camino Scallop Shell

The scallop shell stands as the emblem of St. James. There are many theories behind the physical symbolism and the origin. For some, the lines of the shell symbolize different routes in which to reach Santiago. Even though everyone is walking towards the same destination and experience the same external landscape, their means of getting there are different; inside each person is an internal religious, spiritual, or humanist landscape in which they have to simultaneously navigate. It is believed that the rigidity of the shell encompasses that concept.

As far as origin goes, stories range from the fact that James, himself, was a fisherman to his body getting lost at sea and washing upon the shore undamaged and covered in scallop shells. In the past, though, it has been documented that once a pilgrim reached Santiago, they kept walking to Finisterre (“the end of the world”) and they would retrieve a scallop shell as a souvenir of their pilgrimage.

At the end of the day though, the scallop serves as a tangible reminder. That no matter where you start, you’re working your way to the center and with every day you are one step closer to accomplishing your goal: Santiago.