El Camino de Santiago, was one of the most difficult yet satisfying experiences in my life. Imagine waking up everyday around 6:00 or 7:00am, putting on your clothes, packing your sac, and trusting in your swollen and blistered feet to make it to the next town sometimes 30km (18mi) away. El Camino is one of the most popular pilgrimages in Europe as it leads to one of Jesus’ apostle’s, St. James, burial site. Legend has it that shortly after St. James was beheaded in Jerusalem in year 42 AD, his remains were brought to Galicia by his seven disciples on boat for burial. It wasn’t until centuries later that his body would be found again. In 813, the light of a bright star guided a shepherd who was watching his flock at night to the burial site in Santiago de Compostela. This is where the name Compostela comes from Campo de Estrellas or Field of Stars. King Alfonso II was immediately notified and in honor of St. James, he ordered a cathedral be built on the spot where his remains were said to have been found. The discovery of his tomb in the 9th century compelled many Christians from all over Europe to pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to worship his relics. Every year, more than 300,000 pilgrims earn a Compostela (your certificate of completion) coming from over 100 countries. The volume of pilgrims is simply astounding.
There are 12 different Caminos, or routes; you can take to make it to Santiago. The French Way or Camino Frances is one of the most popular routes, which starts in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France but you can begin your Camino wherever you want. I started my Camino in Burgos, Spain arriving in train from Barcelona. Situated in Castilla-Leon, Burgos holds a medieval and familial enchantment. The Cathedral of Burgos is where I received my first stamp in my credencial. The credencial is basically your pilgrim passport, which you can buy for 1 euro in any main albergue along the way. In it, you record the places where you have passed by collecting stamps at the albergues you sleep in. There are many places along the way that are not accessible by car, so this is done to ensure that you are actually walking The Way and not cheating and going by car.
The Cathedral of Burgos, declared a World Heritage, is an impressive masterpiece of Spanish Gothic architecture that began to be constructed in 1221. I was amazed at the intricate designs in the ceiling and the beautiful detail in every room. After exploring the city I headed to where I would sleep for my first night before beginning my long journey to Santiago.
That first day of my pilgrimage was one of the hardest days of my life. I had over packed my backpack, I was walking through the meseta, Spain’s desert, known to be one of the hardest, hottest, and most desolate parts of the Camino, and instead of taking it easy on my first I decided to keep walking all the way to Hontanas 28km (17 miles) away. If you know me well, you know how stubborn I am.
I did train a bit along the greenbelt in Austin, TX before my walk, but nothing can ever really prepare you until you throw yourself out there. That day, I stopped numerous times along the way thinking I was going to pass out or die of heat exhaustion. I laugh now as I think back on those novice moments. Although I was alone, I was never really alone. I knew God was with me and I knew he had a plan for me.
Thankfully, before I parted from Burgos I met the nicest man from Scotland who had walked the Camino twice before so he headed out with me and gave me some tips. Along the way through the treacherous meseta, when I felt like the next town was never going to appear, I also met another man from Alicante, Samuel, who gave me some company for a little while before they both whizzed away.
When I finally made it to Hontanas, I couldn’t have been happier to run into my Scottish friend again and enjoy a cold beer with him.
The next morning I woke up with one big swollen leg and massive pain every time I put my foot down to walk. Because I was supposed to meet my mom on day 7 of my pilgrimage and I had orientation at the beginning of September in Angers, France I had to keep going. No time to stop and rest that big swollen leg of mine.
If you’re reading this because you think you might want to do this pilgrimage one day. Take my advice and only bring the bare minimum. You don’t need half of what you think you’ll need.
As I mentioned earlier, God did have a plan for me. He sent me a guardian angel, Olivier Bermond from Provence, France who happens to look like Jesus Christ himself! He came right up to me “Hola como estas?” Although I wasn’t so much in the mood to chit-chat, after I learned he was from France, I was thrilled to practice my non-existent French at the time. For those who may not know, I moved to France to finish my masters in Environmental Management and Sustainability at St. Edward's University in Austin, TX and L'Université Catholique de l'Ouest in Angers France. I had never taken a French course in my life so I jumped at the opportunity to learn the basics. Olivier didn’t know very much Spanish or English so our conversations were quite interesting to say the least. Olivier stayed with me all the way until I made it to see my mother. Although I kept telling him to go on and leave my slow poke behind he never once thought twice about it.
Although I had read many online forums saying how busy August was with many pilgrims along the way, assuring me I would feel safe as a woman walking alone, I would have to disagree. Maybe in past years it was different but when I walked through that meseta with nothing but fields of sunflowers and wheat, there was not a soul to be seen in front or behind of Olivier and I. I was glad to have a buddy walking along with me and keeping me company.
7 days and 180km later I finally reached mami in León! With my leg looking and feeling worse, we decided to stay in León for 2 days so I could resta little. We were also able to enjoy some of this beautiful metropolitan city. We attended the pilgrim’s mass at the Gothic Cathedral, visited Gaduí’s Casa de los Botines, and we tasted some delicious gambones a la plancha (grilled king prawns).
On Mami’s first day we walked for hours with nothing in sight but more fields of corn and sunflowers. That day we walked 20 km (12mi), I was proud of her for her first day on the Camino. The last few kilometers are always the hardest especially with the heat. When we finally arrived to Villar de Mazarife we enjoyed a large paella that the Spanish family was cooking for everyone in our hostel!
Continuing on our way the next big city was Astorga where we saw el Palacio de Gaudí, which is today a museum full of religious relics. Later we arrived to Cruz del Ferro, a gigantic cross along the way that was built in the medieval period representing the meeting point of many different routes along the way. Pilgrims would stop here to talk about their routes and share stories. When you arrive you’re supposed to leave a rock, which represents something important to you and your Camino offering it up to God.
The next little village mami and I loved was called Molinaseca. Before arriving there we found a tiny village called Manjarín where we stopped to rest and met some crazy people, one man who told us he was a real Templario or Templar. The Templars were the order that protected the pilgrims in the medieval days. He showed us his small home made into the rock which was used in these days to invite pilgrims out of the cold, rain, snow, heat, or danger along their route. When we finally arrived in Molinaseca we stayed in a Casa Rural, which are people’s homes turned into hotels. As we were leaving our room to explore the tiny town, we heard a call from up above us on a balcony.
“Hola, como estan? Suben! Vengan, sin pena!”
“Hi, how are you guys? Come up, come on don’t be shy!”
This crazy old lady wanted mami and I to come up to her home, sit down for some wine and apertivos, to chat about life. Maria Antonia told us about growing up in Molinaseca during the days when her sisters and her would race on horses to the next town over, Villafranca del Bierzo. Her entire home was the Casa Rural we we staying at. It was as beautiful as a museum, full of paintings on the walls, antique furniture, and wide-open windows and doors to let the breeze naturally cool the home. Maria Antonia insisted mami take her Nivea cream to calm her swollen and burnt legs. We thanked her for the beautiful experience together and we went on our way.
Next stop was Villafranca. We started the day late, which is really dangerous because you can easily get heat exhaustion if you’re walking anytime after 2:00pm. When we made it to Ponferrada, we wanted to take some time to see the Castillo de los Templarios where many wars were fought with the Templar Order against the Moors. Once we left the castle, being the stubborn person that I am, I insisted that I was going to keep walking regardless of the hour. Mami did not want to risk it so we parted ways and I walked alone about 22km (13mi) under the blazing afternoon sun. Once I arrived to Villafrance it was about 7:00pm and I felt like I was about to faint. I had arrived with a high fever and heat exhaustion.
The irony of this stop was that Villafranca is where you can find la puerta del perdón or the door of forgiveness. This is where pilgrims would stop back in the day if they were injured or fell sick and could not continue their walk. They would leave their credencial under the door and the priests would give them their compostella. It was as if God was testing me and telling me “Be careful or you’re not going to finish your walk.” Our hotelkeeper was so worried about me that he went to go buy me medicine and a new credencial with his very own tip money that mami had given him at dinner. This is the type of people you find along the Way to Santiago, people full of love, compassion, and selflessness in their hearts.
Because we were behind along our way, we had to skip the O’Cebreiro etapa, which is supposedly one of the most beautiful parts along the Camino. They say you walk through forests that look like my very own Costa Rica! Unfortunately we were short with time needing to get to Angers for my orientation so we took a cab 60km (37mi) to Sarria, which is the last 100km (62mi) to Santiago. Sarria is in the provence of Lugo and the community of Galicia where everything is green, lush, and rainy. Here you meet people singing and joyful because they are on their last stretch to Santiago. We met a beautiful family from Malaga, Spain walking together and Alberto from Alicante, Spain who loves food and his beautiful country.
Once we arrived to Portomarín we enjoyed some delicious pulpo a la gallega (Octopus Galician style), which cured any exhaustion, hunger, or ailment we were feeling. The next day we were greeted with our first day of A LOT of rain. We stopped in a tiny bar called Las Hormigas to wait out the rain where we enjoyed some wine with some lovely Italian women and Alberto and his friends again.
Our next stop wasn’t exactly on the French way. During your last few days on the Camino you have to reserve your stay in each town you plan on stopping in because during the high season the hostels book up quickly. Mami had accidently reserved our next stay on the Camino Primitivo, which is a different more primitive route. So, that next day we made our way through green primitive valleys only surrounded by windmills and cows. We stopped in a little village for mass and kept walking through farmlands and forests. Our next days we walked through beautiful forests of eucalyptus trees, we stopped at a rest stop where everyone enjoys the local La Peregrina beer. Here we met a huge group of Italian men that didn’t know each other when they started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the beginning but had met along the way and became close friends over the month.
We continued on our way until we finally arrived to Santiago de Compostela. Mami and I and were overwhelmed with happiness but also sad that our journey was coming to an end. 17 days and 420km (260mi) later it didn’t feel real that it was over. When you finally arrive the city is filled with Celtic music, bagpipes, people dancing, and celebrating the end of their pilgrimage. We made our way to the Office of Turismo to get our Compostela and then we visited the Cathedral of Santiago to attend mass and see St. James tomb. We prayed, reflected, and thanked the Lord for our safe arrival to Santiago. Sacrifices for the Lord will only help you grow, change, and become all God is inviting you to be. Consider asking yourself “how can I serve?” El Camino de Santiago was a journey for me to help my conversion from selfishness to love and love involves self-sacrifice as Christ himself has shown. What are you willing to sacrifice in order to walk with God?
For more visuals watch my two videos I made. If you're interested in planning your own pilgrimage to Santiago and need help, contact Dream Your Jouney for more details.