The Camino de Santiago, aka the Way of Saint James, is a network of pilgrimage routes that converge at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It has been a popular pilgrimage destination for over a thousand years, with millions of people from all over the world undertaking the journey every year. In this guide, we will be sharing with you what we learned as we prepare for our first camino. We will explore the history of the Camino de Santiago, the reasons why people go on it, and the different routes that can be taken.
According to statistics from the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago de Compostela, over 350,000 people completed the Camino de Santiago in 2019. Of these, approximately 59% were Spaniards, while the remaining 41% came from other countries.
The top ten countries of origin for foreign pilgrims in 2019 were:
|1. Germany||6. United Kingdom|
|2. Italy||7. Korea|
|3. United States||8. Brazil|
|4. Portugal||9. Canada|
|5. France||10. Australia|
Note that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted pilgrimage activity on the Camino de Santiago, with many routes being closed or restricted in 2020 and 2021.
These statistics show the popularity of the Camino de Santiago among people from all over the world. Whether it’s for spiritual reasons, to challenge oneself physically and mentally, or simply to experience the unique culture and landscapes of Spain, the Camino de Santiago offers something for everyone.
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History of the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is a historic pilgrimage route that dates back to the 9th century. Legend has it that after the Apostle James (Santiago in Spanish) was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 AD, his disciples placed his body in a boat which miraculously sailed back to Spain and washed ashore in Galicia. The local bishop found the body and buried it, and a shrine was built on the spot. This shrine became a popular destination for pilgrims and gave rise to a network of pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela.
During the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago became one of the most important Christian pilgrimage routes in Europe, alongside Rome and Jerusalem. Pilgrims would undertake the journey for religious reasons, seeking forgiveness for their sins or hoping to receive blessings and miracles. They would often walk for weeks or even months, sleeping outdoors or in monasteries along the way. The pilgrimage also served as a commercial and cultural exchange, as people from different regions and countries met, traded, and shared their ideas and knowledge. The route played a significant role in the spread of Christianity throughout Europe.
The Camino de Santiago declined in popularity after the Reformation, but it experienced a resurgence in the 20th century. Today, it is not only a religious pilgrimage but also a popular secular journey for people of all faiths and backgrounds. The route has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has inspired countless books, films, and works of art. It continues to attract thousands of walkers, cyclists, and horse riders each year, making it one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the world.
Reasons why people go on the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is a unique experience that offers something for everyone. People undertake the journey for a variety of reasons, including:
Spiritual or religious reasons: Many people still undertake the Camino for religious reasons, seeking spiritual enlightenment or a deeper connection with God. The pilgrimage can be a powerful spiritual experience, with many people reporting a sense of peace, clarity, and renewal after completing it.
Personal growth and self-discovery: Walking the Camino can be a transformative experience that helps people to reflect on their lives, gain perspective, and find clarity. Many people report feeling more confident, resilient, and empowered after completing the pilgrimage.
Physical challenge and adventure: The Camino is a physically demanding journey that requires endurance, strength, and resilience. Walking long distances every day, carrying a backpack, and sleeping in basic accommodations can be a challenge, but it can also be a rewarding adventure that pushes people to their limits.
Cultural immersion: The Camino passes through many small towns and villages, offering travelers a chance to experience the local culture, food, and traditions. Meeting other pilgrims from all over the world can also be a rich cultural experience.
Connection with nature: The Camino passes through some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in Spain, including forests, mountains, beaches, and rolling countryside.
Walking through nature can be a meditative and restorative experience that helps people to reconnect with themselves and the natural world.
Routes of the Camino de Santiago
The Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage routes that converge at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. There are several routes that can be taken, depending on where the journey begins and how long the traveler has. Here are some of the most popular routes:
Camino Frances (the French Way): The most popular route with over 300,000 walkers every year! This route starts in the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just across the border from Spain. At 800 km (500 miles) long, this route takes around 4-6 weeks to complete, passing through charming French and Spanish villages and beautiful countryside. Highlights include the Pyrenees Mountains, the Gothic Cathedral of Burgos, and the rolling hills of Galicia. Best time to go is May to October.
Camino Portugués (the Portuguese Way): Starting in Lisbon or Porto, this route covers 610 km (380 miles) and takes around 2-4 weeks to complete. Walkers will pass through historic towns, fishing villages, and beautiful forests. Highlights include the Roman bridge in Ponte de Lima, the stunning Baroque Sanctuary of Bom Jesus in Braga, and the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela. Best time to go is April to October.
Camino del Norte (the Northern Way): Traditionally, this route starts in Irun, a town on the border of France and Spain and follows the northern coast of Spain. This 825 km (515 miles) route takes around 5-6 weeks to complete. Walkers will pass through picturesque fishing villages, stunning beaches, and lush forests. Highlights include the Gothic town of Santillana del Mar, the beach town of San Sebastian, and the breathtaking Asturian mountains. Best time to go is July to September.
Camino Primitivo (the Original Way): This route starts begins in the city of Oviedo, in the region of Asturias, Spain. This 320 km (200 miles) route is considered the oldest and most challenging Camino. It takes around 2 weeks to complete, with steep climbs and rugged terrain. Walkers will pass through medieval villages, forests, and stunning mountain ranges. Highlights include the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Oviedo, the Romanesque church of San Salvador de Valdediós, and the charming town of Lugo. Best time to go is May to October.
Via de la Plata (the Silver Way): This route starts in the city of Seville in southern Spain, which is located in the region of Andalusia. From Seville, the route heads north through the regions of Extremadura and Castile and Leon before reaching its endpoint in the city of Astorga, where it joins with the Camino Frances. It follows an ancient Roman trade route, this 1000 km (620 miles) route takes around 5-6 weeks to complete. Walkers will pass through historic cities, ancient Roman ruins, and stunning landscapes. Highlights include the Roman Theater in Mérida, the stunning city of Salamanca, and the beautiful countryside of Extremadura. Best time to go is April to June and September to November.
Camino Inglés (the English Way): This 120 km (75 miles) route starts in the historic port city of Ferrol and takes around 1 week to complete. Walkers will pass through charming fishing villages and beautiful landscapes. Highlights include the stunning beaches of the Rias Altas, the medieval city of Betanzos, and the breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. Best time to go is May to October.
Camino Finisterre-Muxía: This 90 km (56 miles) route starts in Santiago de Compostela and takes around 3-4 days to complete. Walkers will pass through beautiful beaches, rugged cliffs, and charming fishing villages. Highlights include the stunning Cape Finisterre, the picturesque town of Muxía, and the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean. Best time to go is May to October.
The Southeast Way (Camino del Sureste): This route starts in Alicante, in the southeast of Spain, and runs for about 1,100 km (680 miles) through Valencia, Albacete, Toledo, and Ávila, before joining the Via de la Plata in Zamora. This route takes about 40 days to walk, and is known for its varied landscapes, from coastal areas to mountains and plains. Highlights include the historic cities of Valencia, Toledo, and Ávila, as well as numerous smaller towns and villages along the way. The best time to walk this route is from April to June, and from September to November.
The Via Francigena (Via Romea): This route starts in Canterbury, England, and runs for about 1,700 km (1,050 miles) through France, Switzerland, and Italy, before reaching Rome. This route takes about 2-3 months to walk, and is known for its stunning landscapes, picturesque villages, and rich cultural heritage. Highlights include the vineyards of the Champagne region, the Swiss Alps, the Tuscan countryside, and the historic cities of Florence, Siena, and Rome. The best time to walk this route is from April to June, and from September to November.
More information from the official Camino de Santiago website.
Weather by season
The weather along the Camino de Santiago can vary widely depending on the time of year and the route taken. Generally, the best time to walk the Camino is from May to October, when the weather is mild and the days are long. Here is a breakdown of the weather by season:
Spring (March to May): Spring can be a beautiful time to walk the Camino, with wildflowers and greenery in bloom. However, the weather can be unpredictable, with some days being warm and sunny while others are cold and rainy. Temperatures can range from 5°C (41°F) to 20°C (68°F), with the possibility of occasional snow in the mountains.
Summer (June to August): Summer can be a popular time for pilgrims to walk the Camino and it can also be one of the hottest and busiest times of the year. In some regions, temperatures can soar into the high 80s or 90s Fahrenheit (30-35 Celsius), making it challenging for walkers to trek long distances during the day. Pilgrims should be sure to bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat, and take frequent breaks in the shade to avoid heat exhaustion.
In addition to the heat, summer can also bring occasional thunderstorms, especially in the afternoons and evenings. Pilgrims should be prepared with rain gear, such as a poncho or waterproof jacket, and be cautious of slippery or muddy terrain.
Despite these challenges, summer can also be a beautiful time to walk the Camino, as fields and hills are often lush and green, and there are many opportunities to enjoy local festivals and celebrations.
Fall (September to November): Fall can be a beautiful time to walk the Camino, with cooler temperatures and fewer crowds. The weather can be mild and sunny, with occasional rain and wind. Temperatures can range from 5°C (41°F) to 20°C (68°F), with some regions being more prone to fog and mist.
Winter (December to February): Winter is the quietest time of year on the Camino, with few walkers and chilly weather. Some routes may be closed or impassable due to snow or ice, so it’s important to check ahead before starting the journey. Temperatures can range from 0°C (32°F) to 10°C (50°F), with some regions being more prone to rain and wind.
Why people go on it
People go on the Camino de Santiago for a variety of reasons. For some, it is a religious pilgrimage, a way to connect with their faith and spirituality. For others, it is a physical and mental challenge, a way to test themselves and push their limits. Many people go on the Camino to meet new people, experience different cultures, and explore the beautiful landscapes of Spain and Portugal.
Some people also go on the Camino as a form of therapy or personal growth. Walking for hours each day, often in solitude, can provide a space for reflection and introspection. It can also be a way to heal from trauma, grief, or other challenges in life.
Regardless of the reason, the Camino de Santiago is an unforgettable experience that can change a person’s life in profound ways.