In October 2017 I walked the final 111km of el Camino de Santiago de Compostela (AKA the way of St James). I had heard a lot of things about this ancient pilgrimage: the life-changing revelations, the making of life-long friendships, the scenery, and of course, the blisters.
Some of what people described, I also encountered but a lot of my experiences I had not been warned about or prepared for at all.
You think ‘ancient pilgrimage’, you think ‘life-changing results’, it’s easy to embark on the Camino with slightly misguided, idealistic excitement. Allow me to set the record straight on the vast chasm between expectation and reality before you take on this brilliant, exhausting and, yes, sometimes enlightening experience…
I will be able to carry my backpack the entire way, like the people in the travel books and pamphlets do.
Reality: I carried my bag on the first day, and the pain was so bad that I had to cover my shoulders in layers of padding for the rest of the week to protect the massive welts that had formed as a result of that fateful first day. Most people get their bags transported from hostel to hostel, carrying just a light day bag. You may scoff but getting that bag transported was the best decision I made along that walk.
I can’t wait to make all these new friends who are my own age and have a similar love of travel and adventure!
Reality: The majority of people who I befriended were middle-aged and older. Maybe it’s because I went off-season (October). Regardless, I had great chats and laughs with my older mates, and appreciated how some of the women went out of their way to include me at lunch and see that I had found accomodation alright each night.
Hostels (‘albergues’ in Spanish) are fun and will be a great way to make friends!
Reality: Do not stay in the albergues if you are a light sleeper. You need your energy for all the walking, and sleep is very necessary in that regard. I should have considered this when I booked myself to stay in a NINTY BED DORM on my first night. Big mistake.
I am ready to face whatever blisters which may come my feet’s way, this is all part-and-parcel of the camino experience and I am just going to accept it.
Reality: Having carried out extensive research on how not to get a blister, I was successful in not developing a single one! My secret? Doubling-up on sock layers, plus opting for good quality runners as opposed to heavy hiking boots.
I will probably have some sort of revelation/ epiphany as I walk this thing, everyone else seems to…
Reality: While no distinct revelations came my way, I did listen to a lot of episodes of the Super Soul Conversations podcast by Oprah Winfrey, and she refers to “aha-moments” so many times that I basically felt like I experienced one myself.
The scenery will be beautiful.
Reality: The scenery was more beautiful than I ever could have expected. Think of the rolling mountains from The Sound of Music, and multiply those scenes by at least four on the beauty scale.
I am going to get so fit and healthy on this trip. I am going to have the complexion of a sun-kissed yogi who’s just carried out a week-long juice cleanse.
Reality: Walking between 20-30km per day meant that upping my general fitness levels was pretty much a given. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean I came back oozing health, as I had envisaged. The amount of wine that I consumed along the Camino still makes me chuckle… nervously. Albarino is the local speciality of northern Spain, and people were having it at breakfast lunch and dinner, no exaggeration. “When in Rome”, as they say…
I’m not religious, I hope this doesn’t mean that I’ll be an outcast amongst all the hardcore pilgrims…
Reality: Sure, you’ll pass churches and religious services along the way, but I found the religious aspect of this experience to be quite low-key. The amount of people who were doing the Camino for reasons aside from religion, was also surprising. Some were grieving the death of a loved one, others were at a crossroads in their life and hoped the time away would give them answers, while a few saw this great walk as a personal challenge and an interesting way to experience northern Spain. Don’t let a lack of faith stop you from going on this great adventure.
Irish company Follow the Camino offers customised Camino holidays including hand-picked half-board accommodation in hotels and guesthouses, luggage transfer, walking maps and notes, and 24/7 emergency customer care. Contact one of our expert Camino planners for a tailor-made itinerary at followthecamino.com