An involuntary sigh of relief escaped my cracked, chapped lips as I slid my feet into a plastic tub filled with hot, salty water. After spending six days crammed into hiking shoes, my toes finally got the opportunity to spread out and wiggle around. We had ambitiously taken on about ninety-miles of walking in just six days, and now we were paying the price. I came in knowing the answer to the question, “How long is the Camino de Santiago?” and decided to push forward regardless.
Approaching the trek, we had anticipated achy backs, tense shoulders, and sore muscles – but for some unknown reason, none of us gave much of a thought to our feet.
Preparing For El Camino de Santiago: Walking Along The Coastal Route
On November 13, 2016, I strapped on my purple North Face Terra 40 oz backpack and took my first steps toward Santiago, Spain.
I had first heard of El Camino de Santiago (which translates in English to “The Way of St. James”) from a friend of mine back in the United States. It had been on her bucket list for several years. As we mapped out our European backpacking trip, El Camino made its way to the top of our bucket lists.
The first question I asked her was “how long is the Camino de Santiago?” The Camino has many routes. The most famous is called the Camino Frances, which starts in France, as its name suggests. It’s approximately 500 miles long and passes over the Pyrenees and down to Pamplona, across the plains and then up into the hills of northwest Spain.
There are many other routes, including the one we ended up taking, called The Camino Portugues.
We started our route in Porto. Many locals recommend taking a train out of the city and starting the route in Tui.
The majority of the Portuguese route follows the coastline, taking you through small towns, over hills, along vineyards, and through stunning plains.
Historic towns, cities, bridges, and churches line the route to Santiago. We crossed Portugal from the south to the north and took in all the natural beauty of Portugal and Galicia.
The Way of St James in Portugal is quieter than the Camino Frances, though it is the second most popular Camino route.
The History of El Camino
The Camino consists of several ancient pilgrimage routes that come together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, which is in northwest Spain.
Here’s what you need to know about the history of El Camino:
Santiago was one of the three holy cities of Christianity, along with Rome and Jerusalem. If you couldn’t make it to those latter cities, you could go to Santiago and receive absolution.
What started as a pilgrimage of faith and absolution has since become a journey people take on for many different reasons. While many people do still walk the route for religious reasons, it doesn’t necessarily define the majority.
Some people choose to embark on The Camino as a personal endeavor of athletic ability. Others are looking for solitude. For me, it was a desire to stray from the beaten path and explore a less-traveled European landscape.
Painted along the route are blue and yellow scallop shell symbols letting trekkers know they are going in the right direction.
One of the biggest advantages of the Portuguese Way is the impeccable waymarking along the entire route.
This is a result of joined efforts of the Galician and Portuguese “Friends of The Camino” associations.
As we walked along cracked cobblestones and forested hills, we anxiously looked for confirmation that we were indeed still on the right path. Walking through small towns and villages, families would wave and send prayers blessing our journey and sending us safely on our way. This welcoming reception by locals all along El Camino is both a perk and a feature of the journey.
How Long Is The Camino de Santiago’s Path of Completion?
One of the most common questions I get from people regarding this trip is, “How long is the Camino de Santiago?”. The answer: depending on your route — the time of completion can vary.
Most trekkers (like us) want to know how long is the Camino de Santiago. It’s common to walk small portions at a time (rather than doing the entire trek), picking back up at a later date to complete other paths and routes. Depending on your timeline, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to complete El Camino.
If you plan to walk the entire traditional route (St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain), it takes about 30-40 days. In order to make this time work, you need to walk between 14-16 miles a day. You do not need to take on the entire route to receive your official document stating that you’ve completed the trek.
Speaking of which, when you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, show your passport to officials. If you’ve walked or cycled at least 62 miles; you’ll receive a document stating that you completed the trek. The stamps in your passport will verify the distance you’ve walked.
Accommodations Along El Camino de Santiago
Another attractive quality of The Camino is how affordable of a vacation it turns out to be.
Prior to starting, you will get a pilgrim’s passport from the church. Most of the churches along the path will have them.
Your pilgrimage passport is your ticket to staying in certain hostels and accommodations for almost nothing. This walker’s passport allows you to collect special stamps along the way from hostels, churches, grocery stores, and town halls.
Each small town we stopped in we would open up our passports and give us stamps to commemorate our journey. Sometimes our stamps came from the church or where we slept that night. Other times, as we passed through smaller towns and would stop in for water and snacks, these outlets would stamp our passports.
Many families or churches will accommodate trekkers for less than $10 a night. Sometimes, this price will also include a meal with your stay. Since we were walking in the off-season, a lot of the special hostels (called albergues) were closed. That said, we were still able to find special rates from hostels for pilgrims.
The Aches, Pains, and Unanticipated Obstacles of El Camino de Santiago
A bit overconfident in our “athletic” abilities, we decided to double down on our goal and took on about 18-23 miles a day.
However, by day four, with around 15Ibs on our backs in the middle of nowhere, we’ve never tried to focus on something else so hard — as our feet mindlessly kept moving along the cracked cobblestone. I could feel the blisters throbbing to the rhythm of my music.
Keeping my head up and my mind focused on the stream of music penetrating my eardrums, I took deep breaths and reminded myself to take a step back (figuratively speaking of course). A few little blisters weren’t going to stop me from finding solitude in the enormity of my biggest physical challenge yet.
Unfortunately, they weren’t just a few little blisters, and two of this girl’s toes were infected. Knowing how long El Camino de Santiago was and how much more we still had left to do, we craved comfort and warmth and enlisted the comforts of an Airbnb.
Nine miles later, we found ourselves on a mountainside in the home of our savior – Jesus (ironic, no?). This mountain climbing, home building, blister popping, family man, welcomed us into his home and gave us more than we could have ever asked for.
Over the next four days, we spoke Spanish, ate traditional home-cooked meals, made new friends, and learned all about the ambitious adventures of our host. From climbing Mount Everest with no oxygen, to guiding month long treks through the Andes, Jesus had an impressive rap sheet.
Planning to stay just one night, we found ourselves lacing up for the rest of our adventure four days later than expected.
Finding Your Own Path & Meaning In The Camino
Many take on the pilgrimage for different reasons. As with any journey, if you do it right, you never walk away with what you expected to find.
Sometimes, misfortunes transform themselves into once-in-a-lifetime experiences, while sometimes they remain unfortunate. Luckily, in our case, we encountered a hidden haven, atop a mountain in Galicia, Spain.
All four of us took on this walk for different reasons, but we all found a one-of-a-kind experience, which will forever bind us together.
Final Thoughts: How Long is the Camino de Santiago? A Traveler’s Tale
If you’re not deterred by the answer to the question, “How long is the Camino de Santiago”, then I’ve got even more to share with you. Check out my article about The Choquequirao Trek in Peru!
Have you walked El Camino de Santiago? We’d love to hear about your experience, tips, and insights in the comments!
All Images Photo Credit: Joanna Rose Flug
A writer, traveler, and outdoor enthusiast looking to inspire travel for all those who love to explore the world. Joanna Flug-entin is a blogger at Off The Beaten Path Travels (OTBP Travels), a place for travelers to come together and share stories, experiences, and secrets from around the world.