Sunrise arrow, Camino Portuguese

Why I’m Walking the Camino de Santiago Across Northern Spain

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I turn 40 next month.

Forty years on this big ball of rock. It’s been a hell of a ride so far.

In my early twenties, I thought I knew exactly what life had in store for me. Of course, I didn’t have a clue back then, and I still don’t. Approaching my fifth decade, I have little more certainty about anything than I did in my second. Some people would struggle with that, but oddly, I find it comforting. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and I don’t want to.

My current ideas for next April, for instance, see me simultaneously in New Zealand, Guatemala and Portugal. 2016 could see me settling in Spain, or wandering from beach to beach around Central America, or something else entirely.

Hell, just today Lauren and I talked about visiting the Maldives, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, or Myanmar later this year, and as usual, ended up making no decision at all.

Right now, there’s really only one thing I know for sure.

A little under a month from now, early in the morning, my alarm is going to go off in a little French town at the base of the Pyrenees. I’ll get dressed in a hurry, throw my backpack over my shoulders, and quietly let myself out the door.

Looking up at the mountains, I’ll pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and slowly start walking down the road to Spain.

I won’t stop until October.

What Is the Camino, Anyway?

Empty trail on the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago is a term used to describe a web of Catholic pilgrimage routes that finish at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest of Spain. Medieval walkers started from their homes throughout Europe, meeting up with others along the way in what became pilgrim routes.

These days, people walk these routes for all kinds of reasons — even those apathetic towards organised religion, like me, are welcomed on The Way just like anybody else.

When people talk about “The Camino,” though, they’re usually referring to the Frances route that starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French border, and runs 800+ km across Spain. That’s the route I’ll start and finish on… but whether I stay on it the whole way is anyone’s guess.

In recent years, due to books, media coverage and movies like “The Way“, the Camino Frances has become very popular. In peak times, apparently, it can be hard to find a bed in the dorm-style albergue and refugio pilgrim accommodation that lines the route, and there’ll be other people in eyeshot much of the time.

I’m not looking for days of solitude on this walk, but a bed and a bit of alone time wouldn’t go amiss. Starting at the end of August, I’ll be avoiding the worst of both heat and crowds, but not by much. As a result, I’m leaving my options open.

A little under three weeks into the journey, the path passes through León. There, I can either continue on the Frances, or take a detour up to the town of Oviedo, and continue on the Camino Primitivo for the last couple of weeks instead. That route is apparently a little tougher, a lot prettier, and at least somewhat less popular. We’ll see what happens.

So why do I want to walk close to a thousand kilometres through sun and rain, over mountains and along highways, likely enduring the worst blisters of my life? Why I am volunteering to sleep in hostels full of snorers and farters, wash my clothes in the sink for a month, and carry everything I need on my back?

Related: My Camino de Santiago Packing List

Why will I be celebrating my 40th birthday with strangers somewhere in northern Spain, instead of having a huge party with friends and loved ones back home?

All kinds of reasons, really. Some of them fall into the “why the hell are you doing this?” category, the others “why the hell are you doing it now?”. They’re both good questions.

Why the Hell am I Doing This?

Foggy arrow, Camino Portuguese

I’ve always liked to walk. Even back when I was a fat bastard who rarely exercised and wouldn’t run to leave a burning building, I still enjoyed a hike. Not, say, one for several hundred miles, but maybe for a night or two.

Ever since I first heard about the Camino a few years ago, the idea of a multi-week hike in Spain has wormed its way into my brain. Slowly, quietly, irresistibly, it went from a crazy idea, to a challenge I could possibly consider one day, to something I was just going to do.

I spent a week with a couple of friends on a different Camino route back in March, and that sealed the deal. It was hard, my feet were killing me continually, and I wanted to catch a bus home from about the second day. And yet, as I limped into Cordoba to finish that journey, I’d already decided to walk a longer route in September.

I love setting myself challenges. Not things that are completely impossible, but those that take a lot of effort and come with a chance of failure. Walking many hours a day for five weeks or more falls into that category, I think. The physical challenge is one thing: will my body, especially my feet, be up to the job?

The mental challenge is something else. It’s a long time inside my own head, away from anyone I’ve known for more than a few days at best. Friends come and go on the Camino, as differing plans and walking speeds rip new acquaintances away from you just as you start to get to know them. I hate saying goodbye at the best of times.

Disconnecting from ‘the real world’ is very appealing. I spend much of my life in front of a laptop, dealing with the dozens of different things required to make a living online. Hell, I run a travel technology website. Being offline just isn’t something that happens very often.

Focusing on a few simple tasks every day seems amazing. Get up. Walk. Wash. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. No laptop. No camera. No tablet. No blogging. I’ll have a phone for photos, maps, and emergencies, but it’ll be in flight mode whenever I’m walking.

Any writing I do will be in a journal, with a pen. Of all the things I’m looking forward to about the Camino, this is the part that excites me the most.

And Why the Hell am I Doing This Now?

Follow the arrows

Obviously the main reason I’m doing this now is because I’m turning 40. It’s an important birthday, and I figure it needs a milestone to go with it. Getting drunk with a bunch of friends is not much of an achievement. Walking across the top of Spain is.

I’d like to improve my Spanish, too, and using it every day will help. I’ve spent several months in Mexico and Spain, yet my language level sucks. I know maybe a hundred words, just enough to understand a menu, ask basic questions and occasionally understand the answers.

While there’s apparently a reasonable amount of English spoken on the Camino Frances, I don’t want to rely on it. If I branch off on other routes, I’ll definitely need it. Either way, if I end up in Central America or Spain next year, knowing more Spanish can only be a good thing.

My fitness level has plummeted since I’ve been travelling, and I’ve complained bitterly about it in the past without much change. I’ve finally been able to take up running again recently, which has helped, but walking 800km or more seems a better workout to me. If my shorts aren’t falling off me by the time I get to Santiago, I’ll be a little disappointed. Blame the jamon.

And finally, I’m doing it now because it’s the right time. I’m living in Madrid for a few weeks, so getting to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port only needs a couple of bus rides. September may not be the perfect time to walk this route, but it’s far from the worst, and I can switch things around if I need to.

I live a life that, with a bit of preparation, lets me take several weeks ‘out of the office’. I don’t need to quit my job, or beg a boss for time off. I just postpone whatever I can, get a month ahead of my deadlines, and walk out the door. So that’s what I’m going to do.

28 days from now, all going well, I’ll be atop the Pyrenees, gazing west towards Santiago like hundreds of thousands before me.

Wish me luck.

Spoiler alert: I made it! 537 miles later, I wrote up a few thoughts about my experience of walking the Camino Frances.

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  1. Best of luck to you on your journey! I was so moved by the movie ‘The Way’ (a copy was given to me by a friend who made the pilgrimage) and I’ve read a few books about the Camino. I don’t know that I’ll ever make the trek myself, but I’m greatly inspired by the stories of those have. Thus, I’d very much like to read your prep report and any posts you make regarding your time along The Way. If you can post a pic now and then as you go, I’d really appreciate it 😉 Bo Camiño!

    1. I’ll try to write up the prep post before I go! Hopefully I’ll get a chance to put photos up along the way — it’s quickest and easiest for me to upload them to my Facebook page, so that’s where they’ll be if they’re anywhere!

  2. How exciting! This is definitely something I hope to do someday, so it will be a pleasure to learn from your experiences! : ) Happy Hiking!

  3. Best of luck Dave, what a truly awesome adventure you are about to start soon. Got to say I am slightly jealous, what an achievement to be able to say you have completed.
    Also welcome to your 40’s, like you said we thought we knew it all when we were younger but to be honest I don’t ever think we will ever truly know it all and will end our time on earth still learning up to the last minute.
    I wish you all the very best, a big happy birthday and hope you enjoy and savour every minute.

  4. Hey Dave, what a way to celebrate your 40th.i hope you find out more about yourself and really enjoy your time. Pack a spare set of socks.

  5. Hi Dave!

    Four days ago I just finished the camino from Amsterdam to Santiago by bike and I would totally recommend it! You’ll meet lots of people along the way with different, interesting stories. I wouldn’t worry too much about accommodation. I cycled in peak season and there are plenty auberges with a sufficient amount of beds. All the best.

    1. Thanks Niek! Good to know about the albergues — I guess it’s slightly easier on a bike, in that you can get to the next town faster if there’s not space in the one you’re aiming for, but either way I’m happy to hear it!

  6. That’s a great idea! I’m also looking for a special way to celebrate my 30th birthday this month (i.e., not just the usual drinks with friends – my friends are pretty impossible to gather in one place anyway!). I won’t steal your idea, but it’s definitely inspired me to think of a similar physical challenge!

    1. Hah, you’re welcome to steal my idea — I’m sure there’ll be plenty of other birthday boys and girls along the Camino as well. 🙂

  7. Hike and travel as much as you can while you still can. When you are tired and think you can’t do anymore then you roar, it will give you more strength to go further! Try it, it works for me:) Best of luck, it sounds like a great adventure and a wonderful idea to me!

    1. Sounds like a few people would like to see the logistical stuff, so I’ll do my best to get something written up before departure day!

  8. The perfect way to celebrate a milestone birthday. I daydream about walking the Camino someday and look forward to reading about your experience which is sure to be filled with challenges and reflections. Happy travels and take care of your feet!

    1. Thanks! I will definitely be taking better care of my feet than on the walk I did in March — having blisters from day one was no fun at all!

  9. Hi Dave ive managed to walk to Leon so far done it in to sections, its amazing, hardwork, tiring and the snoring never gets better, luckly for me the farters my me chuckle, in Ictober i start my journey across South East Asia, good luck on The Way, buen Camino Peregrino


  10. A quick message to anyone thinking of doing the Camino, pack light no more than 8 kilos, trust me on this one and just turn up, no need to read up for hours and paniking about stuff, as soon as you arrive your know what to do, ow yea when you hit the Messeta keep your feet dry and cool, good luck

  11. I’ve been wanting to do this for a number of years now but it never seems to be the right time. Best of luck with the journey!

  12. You’re going to love it! Just be aware that if you want to lose weight you might have to avoid bocadillos, or at least not have too many. I usually lose weight on the Camino but on the last one I actually gained a kilo or two, and I blame the bocadillos.

    Have you listened to our Camino Primitivo podcast? (A bit of shameless self-promotion there…)

    1. I have! I enjoyed it — and even heard the quick mention you gave me!

      Not sure if I can give up the bocadillos though… walking 800km, sure, but avoiding bocadillos is probably just too much to ask. 😉

  13. Good luck Dave! I’m looking forward to reading and hearing about it all leading up to it and after! Make sure to stretch the hammies 🙂

    1. That’s definitely good advice — it’s something I forgot to do on the walk I did back in March, and my hamstrings were DYING most mornings. Of course, the pain from my blisters was worse, so I barely noticed. That’s a good thing, right? 😉

  14. This is exciting. Every now and then I have the idea that I might want to walk the Camino some day, so I would love to follow your journey and read a logistics post. Good luck and happy birthday. I look forward to reading about your experience!

  15. Happy 40th Dave! Walking the Camino sounds like a great way to spend your birthday. I turned 40 this past December and I thought I was prepared – “it’s a mindset, it’s only a number” – that BS. A few weeks before my 40th, my Dad chuckled and said 40 was a tough age for most men. I’m beginning to understand what he meant. Your philosophy at the beginning of the post is very helpful; too bad you didn’t write it a few months ago – Lol. Anyway, My lovely travel companion & I are busy planning a trip to Europe in a few weeks. That’ll help my mindset. Cheers!

    1. Yeah, I’ll be interested to see whether my views on turning 40 remain the same in the weeks and months after it’s actually happened! I’m hopeful that as long as I keep doing more of the things that make me happy, age will be just a number… but who knows? Like everything else in life, I’ve got no idea! 🙂

  16. This is so cool, Dave! And kudos to you for taking some time (making the time?) to do something that’s just for you. I’ve read a few blogger accounts of walking the Camino that piqued my interest, and then I watched The Way and that pretty much sealed the deal in terms of it becoming something I’d like to do one day. It’s kind of a strange goal to set for myself because I generally don’t enjoy hiking, but when we were in Nepal, we did tackle the Annapurna Circuit despite that and I came to find there was something really wonderful about getting up every morning and having nothing to accomplish that day except to walk. Also, the Camino has fewer steep hills, so that’s a definite bonus! 😉 Buen viaje!

  17. Hi Dave, the Camino ia amazing. I did it 7 years ago and loved it. Best advise I could give would be to take your time. I saw many people who set themselves punishing itineraries only to have to finish injured after 3 or 4 days. It is a long way to walk. Anyway good luck and enjoy being a Peligrino de Santiago. Buen camino!

    1. Thanks John, that sounds like good advice. I’ve got a little over five weeks to walk whichever route I decide on, so hopefully there won’t be too much time pressure. I don’t plan to rush!

  18. Might see you along the way Dave, I will start walking around the 24th of August. I will be walking slowly so you might catch me 🙂 I also have no plans and are walking to get away from it all and have me time.
    Buen Camino.

    1. Heh, I won’t be trying to set any speed records either — and definitely not for the first week or two while my feet get used to the idea! Still, might catch you up somewhere — see you on the road! 🙂

  19. Make a booking at Beilari in Saint Jean Pied Port and start walking just to meet with yourself and enjoy every km. I am 75 years “young” and can’t stop loving every day On the way

    1. Hi Julia: Another Senior! I will be 70 on Dec 31st and have wondered all year on how to mark this benchmark year. Now I know! Any tips you can give me to prepare would be most appreciated.

  20. All I can say is I’m Jealous. I’m 70, did my first Camino at age 68, second 69, planning the Via De La Plata next April – “just keep walking” Love Spain and Love the Camino the new friends that you make are so wonderful. I’m getting the goosbumps of love just writing a post. Enjoy enjoy enjoy. Buen Camino

    1. Hi Susan: I’m so happy to meet another senior on this site. I am turning 70 on Dec. 31st and for the past year I have been wondering what I could do to mark this benchmark year. Now I know! I

      Unfortunately I fell in early May and broke all 3 bones in my ankle so I am now in the recovery stage. I was starting to go into a slump because it seems to be taking forever and I even went through a stage where I thought I would have a limp for the rest of my life. I can see improvements however, and your doing this trip at 69 yrs young has given me added incentive to press on. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.Did you do a blog about your trip? I would love to hear more.

  21. Hi Dave,
    I think it’s amazing you are doing this walk for your 40th… I will be doing it myself next October (2016) with my partner and Dad. Any tips/suggestions/notes I would like to hear how your trip goes…. I am assuming there is no internet along the way, or phones? Not so much for me but for my poor mother that will worry sick about us!

    Thanks for the great article,

    1. From what I gather, several of the cafes and bars along the way have Wi-fi, and some of the albergues as well. Not sure about pay phones, but if you’ve got an unlocked phone, you can buy a local SIM card — I wrote a piece about the one I bought here. If you don’t, you can buy a cheap prepaid phone once you arrive in Spain.

  22. You must be getting real close to leaving on your trek, or maybe you already have. Best of luck – this is very exciting. Your experience will be with you for the rest of your life – I’m sure it will be a great one!

  23. Just stumbled upon this now – Buen Camino wherever you are!! I walked mine last year and it’s best thing I’ve done in my entire life, hands down.