Walking the Pilgrim's Path of El Camino de Santiago

By: Valerie Stimac  | 

pilgrim on el camino de santiago
A pilgrim stops on the barren and impressive Meseta in Spain while walking el Camino de Santiago. José Antonio Gil Martínez/CC BY 2.0

Spend long enough dreaming up ideas for your travel bucket list, and you'll likely hear of el Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). This unique travel experience doesn't cost a fortune or require an enthusiasm for adrenaline; it instead pits travelers against their own physical and mental limitations, by asking them to tread the steps of a religious pilgrimage route that makes its way across hundreds of miles of Europe.

Walking "el Camino" or "the Camino," as it is affectionately known, is both an outward and inward journey that calls to some travelers for religious and contemplative reasons. If your curiosity is piqued about this travel experience, it helps to know its history and what the journey is like.

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History of El Camino de Santiago

El Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage that dates back to the medieval era in Europe. It takes its name from its destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, though the Camino comprises a network of routes that stretch across the European continent as far away as Germany, Slovakia, and even England and Ireland.

The origins of the Camino date back to St. James (Santiago) himself. Christian legend says that James, one of Jesus' original 12 apostles, was tasked with converting the Iberian Peninsula to Christianity. He spent a number of years there before returning to Jerusalem in the mid-first century. James was the first apostle to be martyred for the Christian religion, and his body was returned to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where it lies in the cathedral all travelers make their way to as the terminus of all Camino routes.

el camino de santiago map
Map showing the varying routes of el Camino de Santiago in western Europe.
Manfred Zentgraf/CC BY-SA 3.0

Most travelers start with one of the more popular routes, like el Camino Frances, the French Way, which begins in St. Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France (near Spain) and crosses some 497 miles (800 kilometers) of northern Spain. Another common route is el Camino Portugués, the Portuguese Way, which begins in Lisbon and traverses 385 miles (almost 620 kilometers) north across Portugal to northwest Spain.

Some people choose to walk the Camino just for a week, while others might walk for months, or in short stages over years. However, you do have to walk the last 62 miles (100 kilometers) or bike the last 124 miles (200 kilometers) into Santiago de Compostela to get your Compostela pilgrim certificate. This signifies completion of the pilgrimage. You should collect stamps in your "pilgrim's passport" along the way to show you did walk the journey. On the trip, people often stay in albergues (cheap hostels specifically for pilgrims) or camp out, but guesthouses and hotels are also available. Because most of the walking is done near towns, finding food to eat is easy. Many restaurants even offer a set multiple-course "pilgrim's menu."

pilgrim's passport
Brazilian pilgrim Victor Bezerra, 25, shows a document known as the "pilgrim's passport," which gives access to accommodation and is stamped at each town along the route. You can also download it as an app.
Siegfried Modola/Getty Images

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Why the Scallop Markers?

As you research the Camino de Santiago, you'll quickly discover that the image of a scallop is common throughout the materials promoting any of the routes; there are actually scallop markers and signs along all of the routes themselves, so you can be sure you're on the correct path.

So what is behind this sign? While some believe that the scallop shell marker symbolizes the many routes of el Camino de Santiago all ending in Galicia, a more probable reason is that those who completed the Camino in medieval times were likely presented with a scallop shell as proof of their accomplishment. Eventually the symbol became so well-known that communities along the various Camino de Santiago routes began marking their towns with the scallop.

In addition to the ubiquitous scallop shell, some portions of the journey may be marked with a yellow arrow or a red Cross of St. James. Some travelers put on this cross on a pin on their clothes.

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Why People Walk el Camino de Santiago

In 2019, nearly 350,000 people traversed at least a portion of el Camino de Santiago, according to the official register of visitors in Santiago de Compostela, and nearly 94 percent of those people walked (the next most common form of transit was cycling, which accounted for 5 percent). Eighty-two people traveled by wheelchair, an impressive feat that proves that anyone is capable of making the pilgrimage if they choose to.

"It can be done, even if you have physical or mental disabilities," says Roxi J. Elliot, who walked 100 kilometers of el Camino Frances from Sarria to Santiago. "There are ways to modify the Camino [for] you, whether that is carrying less and sending your bags ahead or using walking aids."

Fifty-one percent of people who walk el Camino de Santiago in 2019 were women, and it's a popular solo travel experience. "The Camino is a perfect solo travel experience, particularly for women. So often, we are discouraged from traveling alone," says Carol Guttery, a travel writer who has trekked parts of the Camino in both 2014 and 2019. "You can always find company if you want it and also have solitude when you need it, [and] the kindness of strangers is alive and well on the Camino. Perfect strangers will help you in moments of need."

claudio modola horse
Claudio Modola, father of the photographer, rode his horse, Cortez, for 44 days and more than 800 kilometers on el Camino de Santiago. Just 406 out of 350,000 pilgrims did the route on horseback in 2019.
Siegfried Modola/Getty Images

Initially, el Camino de Santiago was a religious pilgrimage inspired by the journey of St. James (Santiago) for whom the routes and final destination are named. With so many people making their way hundreds of miles across Europe today, it's no surprise that the reasons have become more varied.

"I decided to walk the Camino because it came highly recommended by my family and because I have fibromyalgia and scoliosis and wanted to prove to myself that I could do it," says Elliot.

"I had quit my 9-5 job and was pondering my next move," says Guttery. "I felt that a good long walk would help clear my head. And it did. The delicious Spanish cheeses and red wine also helped." That serves as a reminder that, like all journeys, there's plenty to discover and enjoy along the way to the destination – both inside yourself and from the hospitality of others.

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