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Top tips to safely enjoy Spain’s Camino de Santiago on foot or by bike

The famous pilgrimage was affected by Covid-19 in recent years but as Spain seemingly begins to move on from the pandemic, many people are keen to make the walk, or cycle. The Local has outlined some tips to get the most from the famous pilgrimage by foot or bike.

tips camino de santiago spain
Hikers walk toward the village of Conques, central southern France. The traditional Camino route starts in neighbouring France. (Photo by JOSE TORRES / AFP)

El Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage that leads to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain, where many believe his remains are buried.

Having been a Christian pilgrimage from as early as the 10th century, it took until the end of the 15th century for Pope Alexander VI to officially declare the Camino de Santiago as one of “three great pilgrimages of Christendom” along with Jerusalem and Rome.

Nowadays many make the pilgrimage as a form of spiritual healing, as well as religious, and it has become very popular with hikers and cyclists and organised tour groups. Many people now create their own routes that end in Santiago de Compostela, but the traditional pilgrimage route runs from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela, is 765km long and takes most people around one month to complete on foot.

After being cooped up in the house for large portions of the last two years, many people are understandably keen to get out in the open air, enjoy some of the rugged Galician landscapes and make the pilgrimage themselves. See The Local’s top tips to make the famous camino below:

Take your time.

765km is a long way. If the COVID-19 lockdown left you a little out of shape, or perhaps you simply don’t have the time to take a month off work, there’s no reason you have to do the whole thing in one trip. Many people even do sections of the walk and then return the following year to continue where they left off, doing it in spans of months or even years.

Pack for changeable weather.

Northern Spain, and in particular Galicia, is infamous for its rainy and unpredictable weather. Although you can’t pack too much with you, remember to have everything you need to be comfortable while walking. Think about suitable footwear too – for both the walk itself and relaxing in the evenings.

camino de santiago length

It’s up to you whether to choose a very long route or a shorter one, but make sure you walk the last 100km. Photo: Andre_Grunden/Pixabay

Get stamped.

At the start of your pilgrimage, you can buy a ‘pilgrim’s passport’ in which you can collect stamps to track where you’ve been. Stamps can be found inside hostels and guesthouses, at local cafes, and inside churches along the route. They enable you to document your journey, and they’re essential to receive your certificate at the end of the route.

Walk the last 100km to get ‘the Compostela.’

The certificate is known as ‘the Compostela’ and you get it when you arrive in the city of Santiago de Compostela. Not many people know this, but you can get your Compostela whether you walk all the way from France, or just the last 100km from the town of Sarria. Don’t forget your stamps – the authorities can be quite strict about handing out compostelas to people!

How to keep the budget low

Firstly think about how many days or stages you want to do, and budget from there. 

Next, transportation – obviously you’ll be doing the camino itself by foot (or bike, see below) but you’ll have to factor in the travel costs of actually getting to the starting point. Most of the starting points for the route are fairly accessible by train from across Spain, but do think about the cost of flights if you’re travelling from further afield. 

Accommodation is the cost that can vary: en-route there’s a whole host of options ranging from hostels starting at €5 a night, to private hostels, hotels, and rented rural houses – it all depends on what you’re willing to pay.

Likewise, you can save on food costs by using the kitchen facilities in your hostel, if they have them. Of course, if you’re really keen to save money you can stay en route for free: bring a tent and enjoy staying in some of northern Spain’s most spectacular landscapes.

camino de santiago tips

Average daily distances on the Camino de Santiago are 20 km to 25 km. Photo: Jorge Luis Ojeda Flota/Unsplash

Don’t forget about blisters

They’re always forgotten about, but on such a long walk they’re the main health issue on the Camino that can affect anybody regardless of age or fitness level. Blisters can ruin any trip, let alone one where you want to walk anything from 10 to 30km a day. Camino veterans recommend woollen socks, and to stop every few hours and change your socks. Wet feet are more likely to get blisters. If you do get some blisters, keep essentials like antibiotic ointment and blister plasters in your first-aid kit and remember, the best way to avoid blisters is to wear your shoes in before starting the route.

The Camino by bike

More and more people are doing the Camino de Santiago by bike these days, so see a few extra bonus tips on doing it on two wheels instead of two feet:

  • Maintenance. Regular cyclists already know the importance of bicycle maintenance. If you’re a newbie, however, and thought cycling sounded easier than walking the route, consider the type of roads you will travel, and the type of tires you’ll need. Most people go for a mountain bike, and you need to know how to fix a flat tire, and some basic knowledge of gears and brakes will help. Note that there are mechanics along the route and in the towns along the way if you really need a hand.
  • Bags. Less is more. Take the absolute essentials (shorts, helmet, shoes, raincoat, water) and forget everything else. You can always buy stuff along the way, but you won’t thank yourself if, after a few hundred kilometres in the Galician rain, you regret bringing all those extras.
  • The route. There are several cycle options for the Camino de Santiago, and you can choose whichever you want depending on how much time you have, where you’re starting off from, and what kind of route you’d like to take. The main ones are below, with suggested stages and destinations: 
  • The ‘French Way’: 765km in 14 stages from Saint Jean Pied de Port. 
  • Camino Primitivo: 330km in 7 stages starting from Oviedo. 
  • Vía de la Plata: 965 km in 16 stages starting from Seville.  
  • Camino del Norte: 820km in 18 stages, starting in Irún.

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HIKING

Eight of the best hikes in Catalonia

Long-term Catalonia resident and hiking enthusiast Esme Fox shares her tips and knowledge of some of the best routes in the northeastern region, with stunning waterfalls, volcanoes and lakes on the itinerary. 

Eight of the best hikes in Catalonia

Almost every region in Spain offers a great array of hiking routes, but perhaps some of the best and most diverse can be found in the northeastern region of Catalonia, where you have the Pyrenees in the north, the coast to the east and countless natural parks in the interior. 

Camí de Ronda
The longest and most picturesque of all the routes in Catalonia is the Camí de Ronda or Camino de Ronda. It runs all the way along the coast from the border with France down to the border with the Valencia region. Passing through quaint coastal villages, along clifftops and even through tunnels, the route was originally created by smugglers who used to take their loot from one bay to the next. Later, these routes were joined together to form one long one by the civil guard, in order to control and catch the criminals.

The trail runs for a whopping 583km throughout the whole region, but the most spectacular and well-known sections of the hike lie within the Costa Brava, which starts from Blanes and runs all the way up to Portbou on the French border. This part is around 220km long and can be done in 12 stages, taking a total of 12 days. It’s not necessary to do the whole route, however, you could easily take a single stage and make a day trip out of it. It’s best done in early summer before the crowds arrive or in September when it’s still warm enough to swim along the way, but all the holidaymakers have gone home.  

The Camino de Ronda takes you right along the coast. Photo: Esme Fox
 

Mont-Rebei Gorge
The Congost de Mont-Rebei gorge is one of the most striking in the whole of Catalonia, where incredible aquamarine waters run between dramatic ravines and lofty cliff tops and vultures soar overhead. It’s a popular route and is moderately challenging with several ascents and dips walking along narrow pathways or staircases clinging to the edge of the rock. It’s situated approximately a three-hour drive west of Barcelona on the border with Aragón. You can choose to hike longer or shorter sections of the route, but the main and most popular part is around 12km there and back.

Hike along the sides of a gorge at Mont Rebei. Photo: Ramon Perucho / Pixabay

Ruta dels 7 Gorgs
Near the small village of Campdevánol​​​ in the province of Girona, close to the foothills of the Pyrenees, you’ll find one of the most thrilling hikes on our list – the route of the seven waterfalls. It’s exactly like it sounds, a hiking route between seven different waterfalls. It’s best to go in summer as you can swim in each of the falls, letting the icy water from the Pyrenees cool you down on those hot Spanish days. It’s a circular route of just 10km, with an extra 6km if you’re walking from Campdevánol​​​ train station, but it could end up taking all day if you plan on swimming in each. The route is relatively easy, but there are some tricky steep parts getting down and up again from some of the waterfalls. Because it’s so popular, the number of people allowed in per day is limited and you must pay an eco-tax fee of €5 per person from June to November.

Take a dip in the Campdevánol waterfalls to cool down. Photo: Alberto-g-rovi / WikiCommons
 

Camí del Vi
Catalonia’s wine route lies within the Penedès, an area known for producing excellent wines and cavas and home to some of the best wineries in the region. It starts in the town of Vilafranca del Penedès, the capital of the wine region and runs for 3.5km, taking around three hours to complete in total, there and back. From the tourist office, you’ll walk through the town and then out into the vineyards themselves. Along the way are eight different stations where you will learn about wine production and the life cycle of the vine, as well as the different varieties of grapes that grow in the area. There are plenty of bodegas (wineries) near by where you can stop for a drink too. 

Hike the wine route in Catalonia. Photo: Esme Fox

Ruta de los 7 Lagos del Circ de Colomers
Between the National Park of Aigüestortes and the Vall d’Aran, just went of Andorra in the high Pyrenees lies the route of the seven lakes. It’s a total of 15km, but there are taxis that can take you from the car park to the beginning of the route and back, taking it down to just 7km. One of the most spectacularly beautiful hiking routes, as the name suggests, it passes seven glassy mountain lakes hemmed in by towering peaks and verdant forests. It’s of medium difficulty level, meaning it’s best if you have a bit of experience with hiking in the mountains.  

This hiking route takes you past seven mountain lakes. Photo: rodolfo7 / Pixabay

Ruta por los volcanes de la Garrotxa
Just north of Girona lies La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, which offers one of the best examples of volcanic landscapes on the Iberian Peninsula, featuring 40 ancient volcanic cones and around 20 old lava flows. One of the best ways to explore it is via the various hiking routes throughout the park. The best is the circular hike from La Fageda d’en Jordà to the Santa Margarida volcano and on to El Croscat volcano, which is 12km and takes just over four hours complete.

Hike through the land of ancient volcanoes in La Garrotxa. Photo: Carquinyol / WikiCommons

Subida al Pedraforca
The most challenging hike on our list is the ascent of Mount Pedraforca, located in the high Pyrenees, just below Andorra. It’s one of Catalonia’s most iconic-looking mountains – resembling a pitchfork with a small dip in between two soaring pointed peaks, one measuring 2444m and the other 2506m. The starting points generally begin at the Mirador de Gersolet viewpoint, but there are several routes to reach the top. It takes between five and seven hours to complete, depending on your experience but is best avoided in winter and early spring from December to April when the snow can make it even more difficult.

Challenge yourself with the ascent of Pedraforca. Photo: Josep Monter Martinez / Pixabay

Ruta de Carros de Foc
Another hike within the mighty National Park of Aigüestortes is the grand Carros de Foc or Chariots of Fire. It’s a circular route of 65km and takes between five to seven days to complete between nine different mountain refuges, where you can stay the night. The route is characterised by high mountains and large granite boulders, as well as several sparkling mountain lakes. You’ll need some experience and stamina to complete this one. 

Hike the Ruta de Carros de Foc. Photo: Ferran Ventura / Unsplash
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