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Finding magic under the stars of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

Saturday, October 31, 2015

How Long Does it Take to Walk the Camino Frances

Many people ask me, "How long does it take to walk the Camino?"

My answer is always,"Well, that depends..."

It depends on many things.  First, I'll give you some information, then some questions to ask yourself.

The Camino de Santiago is approximately 800 kilometers long. 
That's close to 500 miles.  
It has been broken down into walkable stages (called etapas) 
by various guidebook companies.  
The general agreement is there are 31 stages.  
The stages vary between 20 and 31 kilometers (12 and 19 miles).
Some are flat. 
Some are rolling hills. 
A few can be daunting.

So, 31 stages would mean 31 days of walking. 
But that's if you just rush through, walking, walking, 
and not stopping to see the sites!
There are so many things to see, and if you're in Spain, 
why not see them while you're there?

Those 31 stages aren't set in stone! 
Along each stage are many options for stopping and sleeping. 
Personally, I like stopping "between the stages" t
o get out of the big wave of pilgrims who are sticking to the guidebooks!

You can break the Camino up into however many stages you are comfortable walking!

So ask yourself these questions when doing your planning:

How Many Kilometers/Miles Can You Comfortably Walk?
Me, on my first  Camino. Sometimes you just have to stop and rest, no matter where you are!
I say "comfortably" because a lot of people push their bodies WAY beyond what is comfortable and end up with injuries like blisters or shin splints that stop their trek in its tracks. Most people have wonderful intentions about training for the Camino, but life gets in the way, and they find themselves starting out with little, if any, training under their belt. They end up training ON the Camino. And that's ok!  Really!  You can do it this way - you just need to give yourself a few extra days.

Do this: put about 10% of your body weight into a backpack and go take a hike. How far can you walk without being exhausted? This is the mileage I'd stick to for the first few days on the Camino, slowly increasing my distance each day.

If you are beginning in St. Jean Pied de Port  (SJPP) I strongly suggest you take the first etapa from SJPP to Roncesvalles in TWO days. That walk from SJPP to Orisson is only 8 kilometers. But they don't call it "Hell Day" for nothing!  It is extremely steep!  If you are used to hiking and carrying a heavy pack and you're in excellent condition, you'll have no problem making it to Roncesvalles. But if you're in the shape most of us are in, stop at Orisson the first day.  

It's possible to get reservations there for the night, but beds are limited. If you cannot get a bed there, simply walk or taxi back to SJPP for a 2nd night, then taxi back up to Orisson in the morning to continue over the mountain.

The second day into Roncesvalles (13k) is a STEEP downhill walk. If it's been raining or snowing, it can be treacherously slippery. The beech leaves make it like an ice rink!  If you have attempted to walk the entire stage, and are already exhausted, you're in for trouble.

The third day, most people walk all the way to Zubiri (22.2k). Again, the descent into Zubiri is steep and slippery. There are several options along the route for shorter distance. Viskarrett (also called Biskaretta and Gerendiain) is one at about 12k.  

From there, the 4th day, you could continue on to Zubiri.

The next day, head to Trinidad de Arre or Pamplona.

If you are beginning in another city,
do the same thing.
Plan to walk half-stages for the first few days,
slowly increasing your distance,
until you are walking as far as you'd like each day.

This is a good way to work up to walking full stages.
You have not injured yourself.
You've figured out how much of your heavy pack you can discard.
And you know the ropes.

From this point, if you are booking lodging, you can plan your trip based on 20-30k days.
If you are staying in albergues, you can just walk until you're tired, and stop.

* * *

I once passed a woman on the Camino, 
who was morbidly obese.
I asked her, "How you doing?"
She replied, "I'm ok.
I asked, "How far you going?"
She told me she would walk as far as she could,
then stop. That she realized she was handicapped by her weight
and didn't want to have a heart attack,
but she WAS going to walk the Camino!
She began just walking 5-7 kilometers per day,
and slowly increased her distance.
I ran into her in Santiago a couple of months later.
She had made it all the way,
walking full stages after a few weeks.
And she had lost an incredible amount of weight.
She looked and felt great!
* * *

There is no rule about where you should begin your Camino. The only rule on the Camino Frances is if you want to collect the Compostela, you must walk from Sarria to Santiago. So you have a lot of great choices. Here are some of my favorites:

St. Jean Pied de Port - A lot of people like to begin here. Many people believe this is the 'traditional' starting place, but it is not. The traditional starting place is your front door!  However, that said, SJPP is a lovely village and a fun place to start. What it means, though, is you will have to walk over a big steep hill in the Pyrenees and take a chance of being injured. If the weather is clear, it will be one of the most spectacular days of your life. If it's foggy, it can be one of the worst. Getting there is easy during the season from May to end of September. You can catch a bus directly from the Madrid airport to SJPP. Or you can catch a bus directly from Madrid airport to Pamplona, rest a day or two, then bus or taxi to SJPP. Or you can fly into Paris and take a train. I've done all three and I prefer going from Madrid to Pamplona to SJPP.

Roncesvalles - This is a more traditional starting place and you avoid the big mountain crossing. It's a wonderful place to begin your Camino. You can take a bus from the Madrid airport to Pamplona, then a bus from Pamplona to Roncesvalles.

Sarria - If you only have a couple of weeks, you can walk from Sarria and get the Compostela. Only 5 stages, give yourself a day or two at each end for a more relaxed Camino. To do this, I would fly into Santiago, then take a bus (or taxi) to Sarria to begin. It's only 70 miles and a 1.5 hour bus ride.

Madrid - Fly into Madrid and just start walking!  The Madrid route is easy to follow, and is more like what the Camino was 10 years ago before it got so busy. Be prepared for culture shock, however, once you reach Sahagun, where the Madrid route joins up to the Camino Frances and you are suddenly in a herd of pilgrims!

Other places to begin include any of the larger cities where you can fly or bus in; Burgos, Logrono, Leon.

What Would You Like to See?

There are so many wonderful sites to see along the Camino!  

Every day you will pass villages and churches, including some very tiny ones. Stop and peek in. I have seen art in some of those tiny churches that is just as spectacular as anything I've seen in the Louvre or British Museum.  Places I would suggest stopping for an extra day are:

I like to fly into Madrid, then take a bus directly from the airport to Pamplona. I am flying from the west coast of the USA, so the time change is hard on me. I give myself two full days in Pamplona to adjust to the time change and to see the Old Town. Then, when I'm walking the Camino and the herd is stopping in Pamplona, I can just walk on through.

There is a LOT to see in Pamplona; the cool drawbridge you walk into the city on, the city walls, the parks, the Cathedrals and many other beautiful churches, and the Museu Navarra. I would say if you only have time for one, to be sure to visit the Museu Navarra. It is a small museum, but a lovely one, and if you show your Credential, you'll get a nice discount. I believe the museum is free on Sundays. You can check their website to be sure.

If you are lucky, you may pass a festival and see the fantastic GIGANTES!

Also, there are many wonderful places for tapas in Pamplona. 
You can pick up last minute items you need at the China shop (like a dollar store) 
or at the pilgrim shop Caminoteca.

And remember, all tourist attractions are CLOSED on Mondays in Spain. 
That will be the rule all along the Camino, so plan accordingly.
* * *


In Burgos there are two main attractions. First is the Burgos Cathedral. It is magnificent! And even if you aren't Catholic, you should take time to see it. The art is unbelievable! I once spent 8 hours inside. Tip: there are no toilets inside, but if you really have to go, ask the people at reception. They will usually let you out to find a bar, then let you back in.

The second attraction in Burgos is the Museum of Human Evolution. This is a world class museum. And if you arrive early enough in the morning you can catch a ride out to the dig site at Atapuerca for a small fee. 
* * *


I love spending a day in Leon. The Cathedral and Cathedral Museum there are worth visiting. The architecture, the stained glass, the treaures, all are really something to see! And if you enjoy churches, the Basilica of San Isidoro is another favorite. There, you can usually attend a 7:00 pm Pilgrim Mass on most nights. Check the door for current times.  Leon is a hub of activity. Find a seat outside, have a drink, and watch the pilgrims go by. Order some churros and chocolate. Explore the back streets of the old part of the city - find a local restaurant (not a tourist one) and have a wonderful meal!  You can find an inexpensive private room in Leon on
* * *


I always stop in Astorga on our group trips so people have the opportunity to see the Episcopal Palace designed by Gaudi. I can't begin to tell you how beautiful it is inside. It remind me of a castle in a fairy tale. Definitely worth a visit. Also in Astorga is the funny little Museum of Chocolate. Tiny, and almost silly, but with a very cool vintage film that shows how chocolate is made. For the 2 euro entrance fee, you can't go wrong. For lodging in Astorga, if I'm walking without a group, I stay at the municipal albergue, which I've always found to be clean and affordable. 

DO NOT stay at San Javier!!!  It has been a haven for bedbugs for many years and the management apparently does not care. Until they get new owners, I would avoid it at all cost.
 * * *


Santiago deserves a 2 or 3 day stay, in my opinion.  There is a lot to see and do there. The Cathedral, of course, is important. And if you're lucky, you will see the Botafumiero swing! There is a fantastic cultural (folklorico) museum there, open market, great food and shopping, and many other things to see. Wander out of old town into the newer city if you're looking for good deals on clothing and shoes - get away from the tourist trap. 
* * *

Finisterra and Muxia

By now you will have made many friends on the Camino, and my best advice for seeing Finisterra and Muxia if you are not walking there is to share a taxi. The taxi stand is right next to the San Martin Pinario building (across from the Cathedral). There, you can negotiate a taxi to pick you up early in the morning, drive you to Finisterra and wait while you poke around, drive you to Muxia and wait while you have lunch, then drive you back to Santiago. If 4 people go, it's often less than you will pay for a bus ticket to/from Finisterra alone, and you'll be going on your own schedule.

Ok... so those are the sites you might enjoy seeing, and places you might take rest days.
So, add those days into your walking schedule.

Must You Walk Every Step?

Some people believe you must walk every step of the way from SJPP to Santiago. 
This is not true. 
There are no rules like that.
 The only "rule" is if you want to collect the Catholic Compostela, you must walk every step for the last 100 kilometers, which is from Sarria to Santiago on the Camino Frances.

There are many opportunities to bus or taxi between villages, and it's fine to do so if that's what fits your schedule. Of course, it's easier to catch a bus in a larger city. But many of the smaller villages have bus service as well. Almost always, the people at the albergue will know the bus schedule if there is one.  In my experience, bus is simpler and more available than train along the Camino. And you can buy your ticket directly from the bus driver in the smaller villages. Don't bother buying tickets before you leave home - just get them in Spain. 

If you DO plan any train travel, and you are over 60, you can get a Tarjeta Dorada (Gold Card) which will give you some fantastic discounts up to 50% off. I use this when I travel BACK to Madrid from Santiago. That trip is important to book ahead - I would book it the first chance I got when I arrived in Spain, either in Madrid or Pamplona or somewhere at the beginning of the trip. If you wait until you arrive in Santiago, you may find the train full. Cost in the past has been around 50-60 euros.

Anyway, if you only have 3 or 4 weeks, skip some sections!  Skip the Meseta. I have a love/hate relationship with that section of the Camino. It is long, flat, and boring. There is (literally) nothing to see. Not a tree. Not a building between villages. On the other had, it's a great place for reflection and prayer. But if you must skip something, skip the Meseta is my advice.

How Much Do You Have to Spend?
What is your budget?

How long you walk will depend on how much money you have to spend. 

The Camino is not expensive at all, in my opinion.  Once I am there, I get by very comfortably on 20 euros per day if I am staying in albergues. That includes my one nice meal a day plus coffee and drinks along the route.

If I am booking private lodging of course, it is more.  Private lodging can run anywhere from 20 to 60 euros per night for two people. It just depends on where you are along the route. If you do plan on booking private lodging, I'd budget an extra 40 euros per night to be safe. 

It is possible, if you know your walking schedule, to book your lodging ahead of time and know your budget. That takes some research and time, however, and most people don't bother.

* * *

So there you have it
These are the first questions you should ask yourself when you're planning your trip.
Once you've answered, you should have a better idea of how long you can afford to walk.

There are many good websites that will help you plan.
Here are a couple of my favorites:

And remember, if you don't want to mess with all this, you can let ME do the planning!
Consider walking with one of our small groups of 6-8 pilgrims and having your double private lodging booked for you each night.  This year we have a 21 day trek from SJPP to Santiago planned and we still have some spots open.  Prices have never been lower at $1495!

We operate out of Portland, Oregon, in the United States, and we have lots of experience on the Camino.

Come walk with us!
And have a Buen Camino!

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