Ultimate Camino de Santiago Guide: Planning the 500 Mile Pilgrimage

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Welcome to our Ultimate Camino de Santiago Guide! If you’re here, you’ve likely heard of the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James as it’s called in English. Firstly a medieval pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago is known for being a network of well-connected hiking routes for the modern day pilgrim. But, the Camino is more than a few trails: it’s a true pilgrimage. Walk it, and see what lessons unfold personally, physically, and spiritually.

Are you planning your own Camino? If so, then this guide to the Camino de Santiago is for you. Read on to find out everything you need to know for planning the 500 mile trek — it’s history, routes, where to stay, how much it costs, and much more! We’ll also go over the most frequently asked questions from pilgrims or peregrinos.

What is the Camino de Santiago?​

Camino pilgrim by jorge luis ojeda flota
Walking the pilgrim road to Santiago

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James as it’s called in English, is a collection of ancient pilgrimage trails. These trails all lead to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The end of the pilgrimage, this medium-sized city is located in the lush northwestern province of Galicia. The routes, which range from roughly 75 miles (120 km) to 500 miles (800 km), start in various Spanish cities and/or towns. The minimum time needed to complete a Camino on foot is around five days.

Named a UNESCO world heritage site, the Camino de Santiago is a center of cultural exchange. In fact, over 347,000 pilgrims made the trek in 2019 (according to Pilgrim’s Reception Office statistics). Today, people come from all over the world to walk the journey of a lifetime for spiritual, recreational, physical, or cultural/touristic reasons.

In addition to this guide to the Camino de Santiago, check out this article that explains more about what the Camino is.

A Brief History of the Camino de Santiago

The Camino is originally Catholic in nature.  It is here that the Apostle St. James, also known as Santiago, is believed to be buried. Named after the apostle, Santiago de Compostela means “St. James of the Field of Stars.” St. James was reportedly discovered in Santiago in the 9th century. Thus, King Alfonso II had a small chapel constructed to hold his remains. Since religious centers at the time were competing for the best relics, he later built a large, ornate cathedral to attract pilgrims. The relics of St. James would later transform Santiago de Compostela into one of the world’s foremost pilgrimage destinations. 

For more on this history of the Camino, check out this article.

What are the Camino de Santiago routes?

Although many people think there is just one route (Camino Frances), there are many routes to Santiago.

Camino Frances: The Camino Frances, or the French Way is easily the most popular Camino route. First time pilgrims often take this route for its established infrastructure – meaning you can find plenty of accommodation, food, and other pilgrims. This route takes approximately five weeks to complete if you start the journey in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. However, many pilgrims walk the last 62 mi/100 km (5-6 days) of this route, beginning in Sarria. (474 mi/764 km, 33 stages)

Camino Portugués: If you are looking for an easy (less physically challenging) route, check out the Portuguese Way which has relatively flat inland and coastal routes. Pilgrims often begin in Porto, Portugal (174 mi/252 km, 11 stages) but you can start further away in Lisbon if you desired a longer trail. (385 mi/620 km, 25 stages)

Camino del Norte: The Northern Way begins in the Basque country, just outside of San Sebastián. Although it follows the coast before turning inland towards Santiago, this route is one of the most physically challenging. (512 mi/824 km from Irún, 34 stages)

Camino Primitivo: The Original Way is a challenging yet gorgeous course through the mountains. A favorite of Spaniards, it has been in use since the 9th Century. (313 km from Oviedo, 14 stages)

Via de la Plata: The Via de la Plata (Silver Way) begins in Andalusia in the south of Spain. Less traveled (completed by about 3% of pilgrims) and very hot in the summer, this route is not for the faint of heart. (621 mi/1000 km from Sevilla, 38 stages)

Camino Inglés: This is the shortest route, starting just north of Santiago. The English Way was once the preferred route of pilgrims who arrived via boat from the U.K. and Ireland. (74 mi/119 km from Ferrol, 6 stages)

Le Puy Camino: The Le Puy Camino begins in Le Puy in Vezelay France. There are a collection of of routes beginning throughout France, known at the St. Jacques de Compstelle. Beginning in Le Puy, it is the most popular and meets up with the Camino Frances. (475 mi/765 km, 4-5 weeks to complete)

Camino Finisterre: Some pilgrims continue to “the end of the world” along the Costa da Morte to Finisterre and Muxia. Day trips are also available and are a popular alternative to walking. (74 mi/119 km from Santiago, 6 stages)

Lesser Known Routes:

These routes combined are are walked by less than 1% of pilgrims each year, so you may not find many other pilgrims or frequent accommodation.

Camino de Madrid: A lesser travelled Camino, the Camino Madrid is beautiful in the springtime. It meets with the Camino Frances in Sahagún. (186 mi/300 km from Madrid, 13 stages to Sahagún)

Camino de Levante: The Camino de Levante starts in the southeastern corner of Spain, allowing you to cross through many landscapes on your way to meet with the Via de la Plata. (745 mi/1200 km from Valencia, 28 stages to Granja de Moreruela)

Camino Mozarabe: There are several routes included in the Camino Mozarabe, all in the south of Spain. If you start in Almería, you’ll meet up with the Via de la Plata in Granada and walk the longest Camino! (882 mi/1420 km, stages vary)

Camino Catalán: The Catalan Way has multiple variations and eventually meets with the Camnio Frances. A popular starting place is the Montserrat monastery outside of Barcelona. (length and stages vary)

How much does the Camino de Santiago cost?

Be sure to bring a coin purse for your euro coins.

The Camino is an inexpensive trip, save the flight to get there. There is no entrance fee to walk along the Camino, and expenses along the Camino are minimal. Now a popular tourist destination, the government has also subsidized portions of the Camino to make it available for pilgrims from all countries and walks of life! 

You will often hear 30-40€ (euro) per day quoted. This modest budget includes shared accommodation in a private hostel, a full meal, and drinks throughout the day. You may pay less if you stay in the public hostels and cook your own meals. On the other hand, you may pay more for private accommodations.

See details on what it costs to go on the Camino de Santiago.

Typical Expenses along the Camino

Transport: Since you will be walking, transport is the cost of some good trail runners! All kidding aside, you may want to transport you bag for roughly 3-5. Should you choose to take a bus or train along portions of the Camino, prices are minimal. Please note that’s it’s not possible to bus to every stop on the Camino, as many stops are in small villages and hamlets with no bus access. In the case you need a ride, you’ll need to call a taxi – price

Accommodation: You can expect to pay as little as 5 and as much as 15 a bed in a shared room. The cheapest way to travel the Camino is to stay public albergues, which start at 5 per night. There are also some donativos, or “pay what you can” hostels run by various religious and non-religious entities. However, the suggested amount is at least 5 for these. Private double rooms typically range between 25-50€. Read more on accommodation on the Camino.

Shopping: Because you will be carrying your possessions, you will likely not be doing very much shopping. However, there are souvenir shops with reasonable prices. There are also sports stores in the medium and larger cities with some pricier gear. The bulk of your shopping will likely be for groceries, which are inexpensive in Spain. However, the smaller shops are more expensive than the supermarkets in town. You will also likely make trips to the pharmacy, where prices are often comparable to the U.S. or cheaper.

Eating Out: In general, eating out in Spain is very affordable. You can easily stop to enjoy a coffee or juice (or wine!) for 1-1,5€. Add a toast or sandwich, and you’re up to 3-5. For dinner, many albergues serve a pilgrim’s menu, which is typically 8-12. This is a prix fixe meal with three courses.  You may also order off the menu.

Laundry: Hand washing and line drying is free at the albergues. Where washing machines and dryers are available, it can be quite pricey at 3-4 per wash and 2-4 per dryer load.

Backpack Transport: If you are unable to carry your pack, you transport your luggage, there are a number of companies that will pick up and drop off your pack at your preferred albergue. This service costs around 5 per day, decreasing to 3 per day as you get closer to Santiago.

Camino de Santiago Accommodation

Facade of Albergue El Paso, Vega de Valcarce, León, Spain

There are multiple types of accommodation along the Camino to suit a variety of preferences. Walkers typically stay in pilgrims accommodations, or albergues. Albergues are mixed-gender hostels with a variety of amenities for pilgrims.

Public albergues are first come, first serve. For all other accommodation, you can book ahead by using a platform like Booking.com or reserving via phone.

Typical Accommodation

  • public/municipal/parochial albergues – shared dorms run by various pilgrim associations and municipalities
  • private albergues – hostels with slightly more amenities and less beds per room than public albergues
  • hotels – not available in the hamlets, but readily available in many towns and cities
  • casas rurales – these rural guest houses are rooms in private homes along the Way

Typical Albergue Amenities

Check your guidebook or APP when deciding where to stay so you can decide what amenities you might need that evening. For example, you may desire to wash your clothes in a washing machine after getting muddy.

Typical amenities to look for:

  • communal kitchen
  • restaurants, bars, café
  • laundry facilities (sinks, laundry lines, washer, drier)
  • bike parking
  • air conditioning/heating

Food on the Camino de Santiago

Enjoying Food on the Camino in a cafe
The pilgrim’s menu comes with an appetizer, main, desert, bread, and wine.

The mealtime culture of Spain is quite different than in much of the world, with late lunches and even later dinners. Opening hours vary as well. For example, almost everything is closed on Sundays and kitchen don’t open for dinner until around 8 pm. However, the Camino is set up around the pilgrim’s day, so you should be able to find meals at the meal times you are used to. 

Here’s what you can expect for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks along the Camino:

Breakfast: 

Breakfast along the Camino consists of coffee, orange juice, and a toast (with olive oil, jam, or ham) or a pastry at a bar. You may even stop for first and second breakfast, desayuno and almuerzo, respectively.

Lunch: 

Some bars offer ham sandwiches or Spanish tortilla (egg and potato omelets). Depending on the town, you may be able to find a more substantial meal for lunch, but lunch is typically the hardest meal to find. Once you arrive in early afternoon, you’re busy showering and washing clothes. By the time you’re ready for lunch, the grocery stores in smaller towns may be closed for the siesta (2-4 pm) and bars may be done serving lunch. Often, it’s close enough to dinner to wait. If you’re in a larger town, enjoy a late lunch at 2 pm at an open air restaurant.

Dinner: 

Pilgrims usually eat out at pilgrim restaurants (which are usually connected to the one or more of the albergues in town). A pilgrim’s dinner or menu del peregrino consists of three courses – an appetizer (soup, salad), a main (pork chop, chicken cutlet), and a dessert. You’ll be served a bottle of wine to share (or devour yourself, solo pilgrims) and bread as well. You may also order off the menu. In the larger cities, you can go out for tapas (shareable plates). Depending on the region, the specialties and price vary. In Basque country, for example, you can purchase a small bite or pintxo for 1,5-2E. In other regions, expect to share a small plate with a few new friends for 4-8 Euro.

If your albergue has a kitchen, you may opt to cook and eat in. Many pilgrims like to do this to save money, eat something home cooked, and share meals with other pilgrims.

Snacks & Drinks: 

It’s a good idea to purchase and carry nuts, fruit, yogurt, or other snacks with you to fuel yourself throughout the day. Bread is served with just about every meal. In larger towns, you may receive a free tapa when you purchase a drink – think chips, olives, or other small bites. Wine is plentiful, delicious, and inexpensive (1,5 euro/glass).

If you are vegan or vegetarian, you may need to cook your own meals quite often That being said, there are a number or vegan or vegetarian restaurants in the larger towns. Even if you aren’t vegetarian, you’ll likely be craving some vegetables. A great way to get your veggies in is to eat the communal meals at albergues. Keep an eye out for those that boast a vegetarian dinner. Large grocery chains also sell pre-packaged salads and hard boiled eggs.

Food to Try on the Camino

The food in Spain is surprisingly simple for how delicious it is! Moreover, many regions have their own specialties, meaning you’ll find something tasty as you walk through several region to get to Santiago!

Here are some tasty things to try:

  • In the morning, start off with some toast, coffee, and orange juice. Even though pan con tomate (toasted bread with tomato, garlic, and olive oil) is from the Catalonian region, you’ll find plenty of it along the Camino. Yum!
  • The usual fare – pastries and tortilla (Spanish omelet) are available in many bars for a mid-morning snack.
  • In Galicia, pulpo a la gallega (octopus), caldo gallego (Galician bean, meat, and big leaf stew), and cheese with quince paste are favorites.
  • Don’t miss the tarta de santiago – gluten free almond cake.

Camino Dictionary: Sayings & Symbols

Camino guide arrows
Yellow arrows and shells guide the way to Santiago.

You will quickly learn that the Camino has a language all of its own. Check below, and read the full post on common Camino symbols and sayings for a complete description.

Albergue – This is a pilgrim’s hostel, where you will sleep in the same room with a number of other pilgrims. Here at the albergue, you will share a number of facitilities (shower, laundry) and common areas (kitchen, lounge, garden).

Bar – A café with drinks such as coffee, tea, juice, wine, and beer as well as light fare (although there is not always food). 

¡Buen Camino! – The greeting of the pilgrim, translated loosely to “Good Way!” 

Credencial – The credential or pilgrim’s passport allows you to stay in pilgrims accomodations and receive pilgrim’s discounts.

Compostela – a certificate issued in Santiago that certfies that you have walked “the Way.”

Hospitalero/a – The workers at the albergue, typically volunteers in the public albergues, and likely the owner or manager at private

Pilgrim – Someone who walks the Camino de Santiago.

Shell –  The symbol of the Camino,. In some accounts, St. James’ body was said to be found washed ashore, covered in shells.

What is the best time of year to do the Camino?​

Beautiful day on the Camino Frances
Beautiful day on the Camino Frances in Urtega, Naverre, Spain

Each time of year on the Camino has its pros and cons. July and August are typically the busiest months of year as people are able to get away from work and school during the summer months. It can be uncomfortably hot and sunny. Take note of days that lack shade as noted in your guidebook and all albergues without A/C. However, walking in summer can also be quite enjoyable: you can carry less in your pack and can easily air dry your clothing and body.

Spring and fall are wonderful times to walk the route in terms of crowds and weather. Albergues begin to re-open in April. Late April, May, and early June are great times to walk for spring flowers, yet there are also spring rain showers. September and the first half of October are also a popular time to walk. Pilgrims like to take advantage of this time in between the scorching summer and coming winter. If you walk during these shoulder seasons, you must also carry more gear to accommodate the changing seasons.

As for the off-season, many albergues close for the winter months. If you’d like to walk December-February, the French Way is a good option as it has the most pilgrim infrastructure. However, you’ll need to be prepared that you may have to walk longer to find accommodation. Some of the mountainous passes may be closed due to the snow as well. You will find it cold and quiet. Also, note that not all albergues have the heat on overnight.

Read this article to help you decide when to go on the Camino de Santiago.

Is it safe to do the Camino de Santiago alone?

Tristina-on-her-solo-Camino-de-Santiago
Tristina on her 2019 solo Camino in O Outerio. Spain.

Spain and the Camino is relatively safe for travelers. Many pilgrims (including many women) choose to walk the journey alone. It is said that you “never walk alone.” There are always other pilgrims on the main trails, especially in the high season. Because the local economy relies on the support of the pilgrims, locals and business owners watch out for pilgrims. I’ve heard many stories of locals going out of their way to help pilgrims, as they want them to have a safe and enjoyable Way. The Spanish Police (Guardia Civil) also patrol parts of the Camino.

Violent crime rates are low along the Camino (and in Spain). The largest threat is petty theft. Petty theft includes the pickpocketing of a wallet, iPhone, or other valuable such as $200 trekking poles! While other pilgrims are not likely to steal from you, thieves sometimes pose as pilgrims. These “pilgrims” register at the front desk and let their friends in to steal valuables.

Although rarely, mugging, exhibitionism, car accidents, dog bites, scammers, and even rape have been reported. These are the exception to the rule, but we are including them here so that you are aware.

Top Safety Tips for the Camino

  • Keep your valuables on you at all times. Dedicate a fanny pack or other small bag to carry with you wherever you go (even in the shower!).
  • Bring a whistle (many hiking packs have a built in whistle on the strap). Pepper spray is illegal in Spain.
  • Walk with other pilgrims if setting out before dawn.
  • Download the AlertCops APP. Register before your trip so that you can alert the Spanish police (Guardia Civil) quickly if needed.
  • Choose a more established route with better infrastructure.
  • Trust your gut.
  • For more tips and info, see our article on safety on the Camino.

Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance with World Nomads prior to your trip in case of an emergency or injury. Check out the many benefits of travel insurance on our dedicated page or by filling out the form below.

Quick Info on Spain

For country-specific information on Spain, check out our unrivaled guide to Spain.

Opening Hours: Most shops are open in the morning and evening with a lunch break from 2-4 (we’ve also seen open again as late as 5 or 6). Stores are closed on Sundays, so plan shopping trips accordingly.

Wifi: Most albergues and restautants provide free wifi. However, it may be slow.

Phone: Cell phone service was readily available along the Camino Frances. T-Mobile includes international data and free calls via Wifi. If you do not have international data, we recommend visiting Vodafone, Orange, or Yoigo to purchase an international SIM card. Having cell phone data allows you the peace of mind in case of emergency as well as the ability to book accommodation from your phone.

Water: Tap Water is safe to drink in Spain, and water fountains are widely available. If not safe to drink, they will be clearly marked. Bartenders will also fill up your water bottle if needed, and bottled water is available to buy cheaply.

Currency: Spain uses euros which can be withdrawn from any ATM.

Electricity: Spain uses a type C plug. Bring an adaptor with multiple inputs to share at the albergues. (Note, there are always plugs, but they are not always available.).

Bathrooms: There are plenty of bathrooms along the way as you pass through villages. As long as you can walk a few hours, you will not have to use the restroom “in the wild.” Stop at any bar, and make a small purchase to use the restroom. It’s usually time for a break anyway. If you don’t want to take a break, you can buy a bottled drink or snack, or simply leave a donation.

Transportation: Although Spain has an extensive train and bus system, there are not always busses between the stages (sometimes “stops” are hamlets of a few families). If you are ever in need of a ride, any local can direct you to a taxi service to pick you up.

Camino Packing List & Gear

The best way to travel along the Camino is to pack light. A general guide is to carry no more than 10% of your body weight. This means a 180 lb female should carry around 18 lbs, including water. 

You will typically carry your bag and do laundry each night. Check out my packing list for the Camino

Gear to splurge on:

Guidebooks, Tools, & Apps

Check out our recommended Camino de Santiago guidebooksbooks, apps to take with you on the route. Plus, here are some of the best language learning tools to help you learn about the Spanish language and culture.

Best Booking Tools for the Camino

Check out our recommended booking tools for doing the Camino on your own. Feel free to bookmark this page so that you can refer back to it when you’re ready to book your trip.

Flights:

  • Google Flights – To get an idea of flight prices and routes, browse Google Flights by using the exploration map.
  • Skyscanner
  • Momondo – Best search engine (powered by booking.com)

Accommodations:

  • Booking.com – Access a clear, easy hotel booking process and ability to see itinerary on the APP.
  • Hostelworld – the leading provider of online hostel reservations to budget, independent, and youth travelers
  • Airbnb – Rent an entire apartment during a rest day in one of the larger cities

Transportation:

  • Begin planning your in-country travel with Rome 2 Rio, a website offering multiple routes including air, train, bus, or car.
  • For train and bus travel, consult Rail Europe and Trainline (our preference). You can also purchase Spanish train tickets directly from Renfe and bus tickets from ALSA or Flixbus.
  • Bla Bla Car – Ridesharing APP

Travel Insurance:

  • World Nomads – Unfortunately, injuries & mishaps happen! Don’t forget to protect yourself and your trip by purchasing travel insurance (under 70). Learn more.
  • InsureMyTrip – If you’re over 70, check here for the best plans.

Check out our resources page for more booking tools we use to plan our trips!

What else do I need to know?

Check below for some of the most frequently asked questions from first time pilgrims.

Where do you stay on the Camino de Santiago?​

Along the entirety of the Camino, there are albergues for pilgrims to sleep in. These are hostels that cater to pilgrims, and there are all different types of set ups ranging from 30 beds per room to private hotel rooms. We review them in our guide to albergues here! No matter where you choose to stay, however, rest assured there will be a place for you to rest your head (and your tired feet!)!

What is there to eat along the Camino?

There are plenty of restaurants, cafes, and bars along the Camino trail that cater to pilgrims, so if you prefer to eat out every meal, you can! You may also book albergues with communal kitchens where you can cook your own food.

Do I have to walk the whole Camino?​

In short, no. You do not have to walk the whole thing. This is your Camino. While the goal of most pilgrims is to walk, you may choose otherwise should you prefer to skip a part to make up time, for instance. You may also walk as quickly or as slowly as you’d like. You can followed the prescribed stages, or you can walk at whatever is a comfortable pace for you. However, if you would like to receive a pilgrim’s certificate or Compostela in Santiago, you must complete at least the last 100 km by foot (or 200 km by bike).

How do I get a pilgrim’s passport?​

Unlike some other popular trails (for example, the Inca Trail), you do not need to register or sign up for the Camino in advance. However, you do need to get a pilgrims’ passport or credencial the first day of your Camino in order to stay in pilgrim accommodation, receive discounts, and receive a compostela.

Do I need to speak Spanish?​

Traveling is always made more pleasant by speaking a bit of the local language, in our opinion. However, you do not necessarily need to know Spanish to communicate. Some staff and albergue owners speak English, and others are used to working with people from all over the world. A combination of words, gestures, and a smile will do! Additionally, you’ll often hear English spoken between pilgrims since they come from all over the world. I have also been in communal dinners where the hosts established that English is the official language for the evening.

If you’d like to brush up on your Spanish before leaving, check out The Intrepid guide’s month-long Spanish for travel course.

How hard is the Camino?

Anyone can walk the Camino de Santiago, regardless of fitness level. The routes vary in terms of how challenging they are, with some flatter routes and some more mountainous. The Camino Norte is one of the more challenging routes, and the Camino Portugues is easier. We highly recommend that you train ahead of time to reduce the risk of injury.

Can I bike the Camino?

Yes, you can bike the Camino! Although, your route will differ slightly since you will often bike on the road. You can get a guide for biking the Camino.

Do I need a guide for the Camino?​

The Camino is easy to plan, and the main routes are very easy to follow. There are no special permits or entry fees, and a guide is not required. In fact, you can book accommodation yourself either online, on the phone, or by simply showing up day of! However, if you prefer, you may go with a tour company. Tour companies will arrange your accommodations, meals, and can provide transportation should you need it. Tour companies are good for travelers who prefer private accommodation and do not want to have to plan anything.

What is the best month to walk the Camino de Santiago?

Spring and fall are typically considered the best season to walk the Camino to avoid crowds and extreme temps. Specifically, May/June and September are the best months to walk the Camino de Santiago.

What is the best Camino de santiago guidebook?

We prefer the Village to Village guides, but the Brierly guide is well-respected. Learn more in our full review on Camino de Santiago guidebooks.

Do I have to carry my backpack?

No, if you’re physically unable to carry your pack, need a rest from carrying it, or simply don’t want to, there are multiple backpack transport companies operating along the Camino. These companies will pick your backpack up at your albergue and drop it off at the next. Don’t risk injury — or risk injuring your pride — by feeling like you have to carry your pack.

Tours in Santiago de Compostela

If you don’t have to rush back to work, spend a few days in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate with other pilgrims and enjoy beautiful Galicia. A bus trip to Finisterre is highly recommended after the long walk! Find out about the bus tour in our post, Top 5 Day Trips from Santiago de Compostela.

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