camino de santiago symbols
Camino de Santiago Basics

Camino de Santiago Symbols & Sayings that Mark the Way

Why do pilgrims wear a shell? This is just one of the frequently asked questions of people who are contemplating walking on the Camino de Santiago. In this article, we’ll explain some of the common Camino de Santiago symbols, sayings, and signs.

Common Camino de Santiago Symbols

When you are out on the Camino pilgrimage trail, you will hear and see many symbols, sayings, and signs. Here are some of the common Camino symbols to watch out for.

Albergue

Signs lead the way to nearby albergues

An albergue is a pilgrim’s hostel. Pilgrims hostels can vary in size and amenities, but they are all specifically maintained to accommodate pilgrims. They usually have one or more rooms filled with bunk beds. Pilgrim’s book one night’s stay in a bunk. They also have varying amenities for pilgrims including a kitchen, laundry, lounge area, bicycle parking, and more.

Bar

Café bar (left); Galician cider (right)

A small café that usually has outdoor seating and a bar or counter (They don’t always have chairs at the bar.). Bars service drinks such as coffee, tea, juice, wine, and beer. They also often serve light fare such as toast, tortilla (Spanish omelet), or pastries. Typically, you order and pay at the bar. The bartender will bring your beverage out to you when ready. In larger cities, it’s common to sit down for table service, but ordering at the bar is fine at most of the pilgrim bars.

¡Buen Camino!

This pilgrim greeting is loosely translated “Good Way!” No matter what language you speak, this is a universal way to say goodbye to other pilgrims. Use it on the trail when you pass other pilgrims or when saying bye after a meal. Locals will shout, “¡Buen Camino!” to you too as you pass! In French, the saying is, “Bon chemin” and in, Portuguese, “Bom caminho.”

Certificate of Distance

A Certificate of Distance can be purchased at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago for 3€ ($3.50). The Certificate of Distance indicated your starting point, route, kilometers completed, and the dates of your pilgrimage. Although many want to get a Compostela, the Certificate of Distance is more meaningful in my opinion as it records the exact details of your pilgrimage.

Credencial

Tristina with her stamped credencial (left); stamps close up (right)

The credencial is your official credential or pilgrim’s passport. At the beginning of the Camino, you can pick up a credencial from an albergue, church, or even many tourist shops. The credential gives you access to pilgrims’ accommodation, as well as other attractions (although it’s pretty obvious you’re a pilgrim, so you might not need to show it!). Each alberge, bar, as well as other tourist attractions, even post offices, have their own stamps that you can collect upon the way. In order to obtain your Compostela and Certificate of distance, you must show your credencial.

Compostela

A Compostela is the official pilgrims document issued by the Pilgrim’s Office. Printed on parchment paper and written in Latin, it states that you have completed the Way of St. James. In order to get the Compostela, you must make the pilgrimage for spiritual or religious reasons, do the last 100 km on foot , and collect stamps on your credencial. In your credencial, you must collect at least two stamps during the last 100 km (100 km foot or horseback; 200 km by bike).

Hospitalero/a

The workers at the albergues are called hospitaleros/as. In the public albergues, they are likely volunteers. At private albergues,  hostels, and hotels, they are the owners or managers. Hospitaleros are there to welcome you after a long day’s walk, register you, stamp your credencial, and show you around. They may also cook communal meals, do loads of laundry, etc. Never be afraid to ask the hospitaleros for advice or help! They are there to serve, and happily so!

Pilgrim

Pilgrim

Anyone who walks the Way of St. James pilgrimage is called a pilgrim or peregrino/a. You’ll see pilgrim statues, symbolism, and souvenirs throughout the Camino. Medieval pilgrims wore simple robes and carried wooden walking sticks, a far departure from the modern pilgrim clothing and gear.

Pilgrim’s Mass

Along the Camino, there are many Catholic churches, chapels, and hermitages indicative of the country’s Christian roots. Although they are not all open, you will find some that hold mass for pilgrims in the evenings. These services are a treat for the religious and non-religious alike as the priests offer blessings over weary pilgrims. There is also a daily pilgrim’s mass held at 12pm in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrim’s Menu

Three course pilgrim’s menu at the Hostal St. James Way in Cacabelos, Spain

Each evening, a three-course pilgrims menu is served at restaurants and albergues along the Camino. The prix-fixe meal typically costs 10-12E€ ($12-14). Consisting of a starter, main, desert, bread, and wine, it’s nice to enjoy a quiet meal after a long walk. Eat alone or with some other pilgrim’s, and fill up. You’ll have a long walk ahead the next day!

Shell

Shells all around

The shell, or viera, is used as a directional symbol along the Camino. It points people towards Santiago along with the yellow arrow. Plus, many pilgrims wear the shell to mark themselves as pilgrims. Others purchase a shell at the termination of their journey. It’s up to you if and when you choose to purchase a shell.

But, why a shell? There are several different stories and legends that try to explain why the shell has become the main symbol of the Camino de Santiago. One such story is that St. James himself was covered in shells when his body was found along the Galician coast.

St. James

The namesake of the Camino is St. James the Apostle, Santiago in Spanish. After his body was reportedly found, the church created a small chapel to house the remains. Later, the great Cathedral was built. For centuries, pilgrims have come to Santiago to pay homage to the Saint. However, today, pilgrims come for many reasons – mental, physical, touristic – aside from religious.

¡Ultreya!

¡Ultreya!” or “¡Ultreia!” is the cry of the pilgrim. Although the full phrase in Latin is “¡Ultreia et suseia!,” you’ll often hear just the first word. Used as an encouragement to other pilgrims, it’s meant to encourage others to go higher or beyond physically, spiritually, and mentally. It’s loosely translated to something akin to “Onwards and upwards!” “You can do this (past your limits)!” or “Let’s go (higher)!” 

Yellow arrow

The main Camino de Santiago symbol marks the way

The yellow arrow marks the way to Santiago. Along with the shell, just follow the yellow arrow. Along the well-known routes like the Camino Frances, you’ll see it everywhere. On sidewalks, rocks, sides of buildings, signs, etc. Legend has it that the parish priest of O Cebreiro began painting the way with leftover yellow paint in the 70’s. In 1987, it became the official Camino de Santiago symbol.

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Buen Camino

There you have it! As you can see, the Camino has many symbols, sayings, and signs recognizable only to the modern pilgrim. Be on the lookout when you start your Camino.

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