Camino Frances: Is this Camino de Santiago thru hiking trail right for me?
The Camino can be whatever you want. It can last months or it can last 5 days. It can cost 20 euros or it can cost you your school tuition. You can carry nothing on your back or you can carry your life. It can take you through the rolling mountains of Portugal or the coastal beaches of Spain and everything in-between. It can be a religious journey (such how St James did) or it can be a spiritual one (like mine). It can be done walking, on bicycle or even horseback. The Camino de Santiago can be anything you want.
What is the Camino de Santiago? It translates to "The way of Santiago" but a more accurate translation would be The Way to Santiago. It is a thru-hike that typically ends at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. This hike can be done walking, bicycle, or on horseback, so yes at some point you will share the trail with bicyclists and horses but that should not be a problem. Either way you will get the traditional salute of "Buen Camino!" (aka happy trails or whatever you may say in your country to other hikers).
As there are many trails to the Camino de Santiago let me start by describing the most popular, the one usually done first by the "peregrino" (translation pilgrims, which is what the people on the trail are called), and the one I have the most experience with the "Camino Frances" translated to "French Way" or "French Trail". This trail can be taken all the way from France as far as Paris (and even farther if you want). A common place people start at though is Sarria, Spain (117 km or 73 miles away from Santiago De Compostela) as it meets the minimal requirements to get your certificate (more on that later). Now if you start before Sarria you will see some of the nicest places along this trail such as (in order from farthest from Santiago) the stunning cathedral in Leon as well as the Antoni Gaudi building, the small round houses in O Cebreiro, and the Templar castle in Ponferrada (tours closed on Monday like most tourist attractions in Europe) to name a few. The Camino Frances passes through other places that are a little more foreign to me like the far east part of Spain and France. If you are up to it most people consider the Camino Frances to start at saint Jean Pied de Port in France which is a massive 732 Km or 455 miles.
Why do the Camino? Well the original religious trail was denoted by the church as a form to give penance for your sins. I personally did it for two reasons; one I like hiking so this was a new trail to indulge in and two at the end of the Camino you get a certificate. This certificate certifies that you walked at least 100km, biked 200km or went on horseback 200km. To prove you did this bars, restaurants, churches, and hotels (and the similar such as hostals and albergues) have stamps that you use to stamp your pilgrim passport. Your passport is a pamphlet like paper you buy before starting the trail from a website or from a church in Spain (do your research on this as I bought it at a church). It is required that you get two different stamps a day (with date) and that if you take a break (stopping the trail and resuming it at a later date) it must not exceed a year before you resume the trail again. You follow painted yellow arrows on buildings or stone pillars with a depiction of a scallop shell and the distance to Santiago (final destination for the certificate). The scallop shell is the official symbol of the Camino de Santiago.
The different trails will take you through many places and various terrains. Starting in Sarria the Camino Frances is mostly dirt trails that either run through small villages, fields, or forests. This is unlike other trails such as the Camino Portugues (the Portuguese Camino) that has an abundance of traveling on the road. The Camino Frances trail is not difficult. I only remember one very steep hill that only lasted a few minutes and half way up someone was giving away free bananas. People do the trip with guitars and bag pipes. If you wanted to you could have a car service carry you backpack to the next town you will sleep in, or if you live in Spain you could do the whole trip with a draw string backpack. The trail is filled with super markets, fountains with potable water, hotels, pharmacies, banks and people so you will never be far from something you might need as you will usually pass one of these every couple of hours at most. Emphasis on the people as this is the most common of the trails and is littered with people from all over the world every step of the way. The other hikers are joyful and kind with some playing music as they march along the trail. You are most likely to meet a new friend on this trail and maybe even one or two a day.
How long should I take? I found that about 14 to 30 km a day was the average that people did but if you follow the guide that the Camino website states then 20 to 30 km a day will let you finish the trail in 5 days with a certificate of completion. The trail can be done in any order but to get the certificate you must end at Santiago de Compostela. The easy thing for me to say is "go at a pace that is comfortable for you", but I'm sure your reading this for guidance so I say if you're not in that great of shape aim for 14 to 20km a day. Even 14km a day may be hard for some people so take it slow and take breaks. This is considered a relatively easy thru hiking trail but even for me on the last day I struggled the last two hours to the point where I almost quite.
Some more advice i can give is you should not get to your resting town to late as all the beds may be filled, so get up early if need be. If you go in the summer days can be hot or cold depending on what section of the trail you are on. You will pass through different micro climates. Nights and mornings can be cold and days can be blistering.
Considered one of the most popular trails in the world, if you are looking for a new trail to take on and want to explore another country then try the Camino de Santiago. This trail is much more complex then the summary that I have crafted. The trail is also very inviting with friendly people and all the amenities you will need. This article was meant to just educate you one what the Camino Frances is but I suggest reading more about thru hiking, camino de santiago, and traveling on either becomingintermediate.com or other websites. If you like thru hiking and didnt know much about this trail then I hope this was some help. I will be adding articles on how to do the trail cheap, where to eat and sleep, what to pack depending on how you take the trail, and some more helpful advice that I was able to summarize from my experiences on this trail. Like the Peregrino say Buen Camino!