The Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old pilgrimage that begins in the French Pyrenees and meanders west along the northern coast of Spain until reaching the historic town of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are laid to rest. Pilgrims have made the journey to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela to pray at the tomb of Saint James, believing that all of their sins and transgressions will be forgiven. The way of Saint James, also known as the Camino Frances, is the most popular route that leads to Santiago, as millions of pilgrims have traveled this one thousand-year-old route.
Closest Major City: Biarritz, Bilbao, Bordeaux, Toulouse
Start: Saint Jean Pied de Port
Costs: Depends on length, budget $75 / day
Length: 770 km to Santiago, 865 km to Finisterre
When to Go: May-June, September – October
One of the hardest parts of this trek may just be getting to it. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a small town, and getting here can require trains and buses in some cases. In general, find a way to get to Bayonne (near Biarritz in France) and from there you will take a bus.
Your journey begins on the French side of Pyrenees in the small town of St. Jean. On the first day of the Camino you will hike a 15.5-mile section of the Pyrenees mountain range that tops out at over 11,000 feet. Early or late in the season this route can be blocked by snow. The initial two-mile ascent is the most strenuous part of the day. After the first few miles, the gradient begins to lessen and you can look around and enjoy the majestic mountain range and rolling hills sprouting every lively shade of green.
In July, Pamplona hosts the San Fermin festival, which includes the world-famous running of the bulls. The San Fermin festival is the highlight of the trip for many pilgrims. It is often the first opportunity for a pilgrim to take a break from the trail and spend a leisurely day drinking sangria in the street with locals. A few days after Pamplona you hike through a half-mile stretch where you will see sunflower fields that stretch until the yellow touches the blue sky in the distance.
On your 12th day, you will hike into Burgos, which is the first major city you come across. Make sure to bring a lot of water for the hike, because the five miles leading into the city is nothing but unforgiving blacktop. This is a common place for pilgrims to experience heat stroke, so stay hydrated! The city is home to the Burgos Cathedral, which is the largest cathedral along the Camino.
After Burgos is a grueling 200 mile stretch of desert where you won’t see more than one tree for shade each day. My advice is to get up early and hike as far as you possibly can before the sun comes up. The stretch is scheduled to take 8 days, but it can be cut to 6 days without too much effort. The desert will lead into Leon, which will be visible the entire day hiking into the city. Leon is the last stop in a major city before heading into the last stage of the pilgrimage. Use this as an opportunity to take a rest day and repair any equipment that has become worn along the way.
When it is time to leave Leon, you will feel excited to leave the busy city and get back on a path with your fellow pilgrims. In four days walk, you will find yourself at Foncebadon, where a giant cross stands on top of a massive mound of stones. Pilgrims bring a small stone from their hometown to carry along the Camino and leave at this cross (the highest point on the Camino) to signify the weight we carry in our own lives, and the relief we feel when we release this weight.
The last few days hiking, you should reflect on the journey you’ve made, and how you can translate the lessons you’ve learned to your life back home. Many pilgrims stay at Monte Gozo just a few miles outside of Santiago, so they can spend one last night with friends and have a leisurely walk into Santiago in the morning.
For many pilgrims the journey becomes more than just seeing the remains of Saint James, it becomes about the bond that forms when two people from opposite ends of the world come together and support one another on a journey to better their life. For the pilgrims apt to continue the adventure, you can hike three more days to Finisterre, where you finally encounter the Atlantic Ocean. As waves crash hard on the rocks in the distance, pilgrims build bonfires to burn their clothes to signify a new beginning.
When your journey is over you can purchase a bus ticket to Santiago, where there is an international airport for you to return home.
Along the way, you’ll share many nights with your fellow pilgrims in albergues, which are hostels that provide respite to pilgrims on their journey. Most albergues cost less than 10 euros a night, and some even provide a hot meal for weary travelers. Nearly all towns along the way have restaurants that offer a 10 euro pilgrims menu that includes a four-course meal and a delicious bottle of red wine. The one drawback to albergues is that they have a curfew and an early check out time. If you need a night on the town, or a morning to sleep in, you can rent a hotel in a few of the large cities. If you are feeling rugged you can sneak off the trail and pitch a tent. Be aware that you are not allowed to camp at most places along the way, so do not plan to camp the entire journey.
The beauty of the Compostella is you can alter the distance most days to suit how far you want to walk.
- Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles – 25.1 km
- Roncesvalles to Larrasoana – 27.4 km
- Larrasoana to Pamplona – 15.8 km
- Pamplona to Puente La Reina – 24 km
- Puente La Reina to Estella – 21.9 km
- Estella to Los Arcos – 21.1 km
- Los Arcos to Logrono – 28.6 km
- Logrono to Najera – 30.1 km
- Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada – 21 km
- Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado – 22.9 km
- Belorado to San Juan de Ortega – 24.3 km
- San Juan de Ortega to Burgos – 25.6 km
- Burgos to Hornillos del Camino – 21 km
- Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeriz – 20.2 km
- Castrojeriz to Fromista – 25.2 km
- Fromista to Carrion de los Condes – 20.5 km
- Carrión de los Condes to Terradillos de los Templarios – 26.8 km
- Terradillos de los Templarios to Hermanillos de la Calzada – 26.9 km
- Hermanillos de la Calzada to Mansilla de las Mulas – 24.5 km
- Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon – 18.6 km
- Leon to Villar de Mazarife – 22.2 km
- Villar de Mazarife to Astorga – 31.2 km
- Astorga to Rabanal Del Camino – 21.4 km
- Rabanal Del Camino to Molinaseca – 26.5 km
- Molinaseca to Villafranca Del Bierzo – 30.9 km
- Villafranca Del Bierzo to O’Cebreiro – 30.1 km
- O’Cebreiro to Triacastela – 21.3 km
- Triacastela to Sarria – 18.7 km
- Sarria to Portomarin – 22.4 km
- Portomarin to Palas de Rei – 24.8 km
- Palas de Rei to Arzua – 25.8 km
- Arzua to O Pedrouzo – 22.1 km
- O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela – 20.1 km
- Santiago de Compostela to Negreira – 22.4 km
- Negreira to Olveiroa – 33.1 km
- Olveiroa to Finisterre – 31.2 km