What the Camino is (not)

I am alluding to this elsewhere on the site, but I figured I’d collect it all here. There are massive misunderstandings on what the Camino is, how “dangerous” it is, how “easy” it is, and how much preparation and caution one needs to embark on it.

Who I am (in this context)

I started my first Camino with a bit of trepidation. Back then, the pilgrim community was tighter and those companies selling “Camino Services” did not really exist or had discovered the magic of search engine optimization. In other words, all I knew of the Camino was that it existed, was in Spain, and that (looking at maps) it seemed to stretch between cities I’d heard of before.

While on the Camino, I realized that little to nothing I’d thought about it was true, but that the advice of many of the community I’d talked to before embarking, had been right, and the Camino was much less of a physical and comfort challenge and much more of a mental nature.

Since then, the physical Way, the path between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Santiago de Compostela, has changed even more. The mental part remains.

The Camino Frances, an Overview and Users’ Manual

Spain is the second largest country in the European Union and the largest country in Southern Europe. It is a highly developed country with a secular parliamentary democracy with high incomes and personal wealth per capita. Spain has one of the longest life expectancies in the world at 83.5 years in 2019. It’s healthcare system is one of the best in the world, with more physicians and nurses per patient than any other country out there.

Its cell phone network is one of the best developed, its water supply quality is on par with the leaders in this field (Japan, Germany, and France), and its food safety standards are the strictest in the world.

The Camino Frances leads you from the calming rolling hills of Navarre, through the wine and food paradise of La Rijoa, the metropoles of Burgos and Leon, the country’s bread basket of the Meseta, and finally the hills of Galicia with its beautiful forests.

In its core, you’ll be walking suburbian Spain. At no point along your journey will you be further than a 15€ taxi ride from a hotel, hostel, supermarket, shopping mall, hospital, or at least somewhat larger village or smaller city. While there are some spots, such as the descent from the Cruz de Ferro, where hailing a cab would mean a ten minute walk from the trail to the road, the physical Way is part of a concerted tourism effort by the autonomous provices of Spain, which means you’re meant to never be “in the wilderness.”

Services

At 300’000+ estimated expected pilgrims as the shadow of SARS-CoV-2 slowly lifts from the world, you won’t be surprised to hear, that a country hosting those guests will optimize itself towards reducing their impact on the country and environment while increasing their contribution to the economy.

The Way leads through many villages and towns and a dozen or so cities, from smaller ones to the metropoles of Pamplona, Burgos, or Leon. Enough places for every one of those 300’000 to spend money on food, drink, hospitality, and other goods. In some parts like La Rijoa, for example, the tourism board even changed the route from Don Elias’ original markings to include two additional towns in the day’s walk.

Fountains

Water quality in Spain is excellent, and this includes the many fountains along the Way. In essence, they’re little else but household taps, providing the same water that is used in Spain’s Michelin starred kitchens. In fact, Spanish tap water exceeds the safety and quality requirements of expensive US bottled waters.

Healthcare

Pharmacies are abundant along the Way. Every pharmacist is a trained (six year University degree with a Masters or PhD in pharmacology) professional, many speak fluent English, and all are permitted to prescribe medication without a physician’s note. Unlike your home CVS (in the US), however, these people take their job seriously and won’t just hand out medication like candy.

Even the smallest towns have access to a physician. If you are from the US, then your healthcare in Spain will be leagues better than you know from home. If you’re from Germany, you won’t notice much of a difference. In short, your health is well cared for.

Ambulances are fast, hospitals never far away.

Whatever your body throws at you, Spain can help. Probably much better than most countries in the world.

Infrastructure

Roughly 90% of the Camino Frances happens on developed, well maintained, fortfied, roads. The odd diversion around or through something is never an extensive journey into the wilderness.

Along them are the usual necessities and conveniences of suburbia: bars, restaurants, clubs, supermarkets, and albergues. Along the Way, you’ll find, that those are optimized and geared towards tourism and pilgrims. Meaning, it is rare to find no English menus or speakers (not to mention, English is spoken widely in the country), and even rarer to find someone who did not develop a system to make it as easy as possible to funnel pilgrims.

Shelter

From SJPdP to Santiago there’s scarcely a part of the Camino without an albergue within a one hour walk. Moreover, most towns, villages, and cities, usually have more beds than pilgrims. In 2017 I once had to sleep in a municipal gym, because everything was full, and three times slept outside or in a farmer’s haystack by choice. In 2018 this didn’t happen, the amount of albergues almost doubled between those two years.

Food

Food is a bit of a different thing. “Vegetarian” is not very common in rural Spain (sure in the bigger towns and cities) and tends to mean “no beef or pork,” rather than ovo-lacto-nothing-else. Vegan is possible but hard to pull off, since few places will make space and time for the odd vegan passing through. Luckily there is always a sumpermarket nearby.