Here I go...

Finding magic under the stars of the Camino Santiago de Compostela

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Camino Terrain - What is it like?

This will be a very long, photo heavy post.
Most of the photos are of the track you'll be walking on,
and not much else.

People often get the idea that the Camino is a mountain climbing trip with really rough trail. That couldn't be further from the truth. While there are a few steep and/or rocky places, most of the track is flat to rolling hills and in very good condition.  

Let me show you some photos of what you might be up against.  

Realize, of course, that there are ALWAYS going to be exceptions 
- storms, super crazy rainy stretches, 
places where bicycles tear up the trail - 
here is what you can expect. 

SJPP to Orisson 
For MOST of this stretch from SJPP to Orisson,
 you will be walking on paved road.
It is a very steep 8 kilometers.
In that 8 kilometers,
the elevation gain is over 3,100 feet.

There is one short section that goes off the road,
up and over a hill that can be very muddy.
If it is raining and muddy, just stick to the road.
It is an easier and drier way to go
 - you'll stay on paved road -
the views are just as fantastic.
Here are a few photos of this first stretch.
As you can see, it is all on paved road,
and though steep, it is very doable:


The problem most people have on this first day
is trying to go too far (to Roncesvalles),
pushing themselves too hard,
and carrying too much weight.

If you aren't quite sure what too much weight is,
think about carrying two 5 pound bags of potatoes
up an 8 kilometer (5 mile) flight of stairs!
That's 10 pounds.
The weight most experienced pilgrims suggest
is 10% of your body weight.
I weigh about 160 this year.
I won't let my pack get over 15 pounds,
water included.
That is THREE 5 pound bags of potatoes!!!

Soon you are Orisson and can rest.
Grab a beer or a coffee and pat yourself on the back.
Sit and watch the weary pilgrims coming in to Orisson.
Some look half dead and others look sooooo happy!  

I love this photo of Patty Moak "coming in!"
Patty is in her 70's - she did great!

Here is a photo of the muddy section from SJPP to Orisson
which is no more than 1 kilometer in length:


If it is foggy, you might hear the cowbells
before you see the cows!
Don't worry, they won't hurt you,
they're used to pilgrims.
Just don't walk up behind them or try to touch them,
or you could get kicked!

Here is a photo of the side road
(if you choose to stay on the road and not take the muddy path).
The road goes around the "other side" of the hill.
This way is no longer than the other one,
and hooks up with the regular road.
You can see it on Brierley's map between Hunto and Orisson.
This is the path I prefer and the one I always take.
The views, as you can see, are gorgeous!

Please don't get the idea that you can easily do
St. Jean to Roncesvalles in one day.
The 8 kilometer walk up to Orisson
is something that most people are never prepared for.
It is VERY steep,
and unless you are in exceptional shape,
I highly suggest you take this stage from SJPP to Roncesvalles

Orisson to Roncesvalles:
Here are some photos going up to the summit and over.
You often get up above the clouds,
so even if it's foggy down below you end up with sunny skies.

Near the summit you will go off onto a well-maintained dirt trail:

Then gravel

And finally into the Beech forest.
This is the tricky part.
If it is dry, no problem.
If it has been raining, the wet rotting leaves on the large rocks
can be slick as snot!

The issue isn't so much that it is steep going down,
although there are a few steep sections,
but that it is VERY slippery when wet.
You need to go slow, use your walking sticks, and watch your step.
This is where some pilgrims are injured.
Don't rush. There are plenty of beds.
Take it slow and easy.

If you have Brierley's maps,
you can see this section is from Col de Lepoeder
down down down in to the Valley of the Thorns (Roncesvalles)
and is not a very long section - just a few kilometers.

Soon you will see Roncesvalles!  HOORAY!

Roncesvalles to Zubiri
Next day is Day 2 of the roughest days on the Camino, in my book.
The walk begins on flat track through a few villages
with forested or park-like terrain in between.
Be VERY careful when you leave the village of Burguete (Auritz).
You are not yet used to watching for the yellow flechas (arrows),
and right after the village,
the arrows are on the PAVEMENT
and lead off to the right,
off the main highway and onto dirt track.
Many pilgrims miss this turn,
and end up walking the busy highway,
adding kilometers to their total for the day.
The highway will eventually hook up to the Camino
in Espinal, if you do miss the turn.

I can't recall if this is before or after Zubiri
The last stretch of this day is, again,
on large flat rocks that can be covered with rotting leaves
and it can be VERY slippery if wet.
So once again, go slow on those stretches.

The steepest section begins after you pass this intersection
of highway at the summit of Alto de Erro.
There is usually a little trailer here where you can buy snacks.

If you look at Brierley's map of Stage 2,
the only really steep sections are from Alto de Mezuiriz
down the side of that little hill you see on the map
and from Alto de Erro down to the Puente de la Rabia of Zubiri.
So it's not like the entire stage is steep and rocky.
Only two places of maybe 2 kilometers each.
So just take it easy on those two stages, walk slow,
watch your feet, not the scenery,
use your sticks, and you will be fine.
If it's dry, no problem. 

This is the roughest of the track on Day 2

Zubiri to Pamplona 

Easy peasy.
Good track.
And the type of track you see on this stage is what you can expect
on MOST of the Camino.
I'm not talking about elevation
or hills here,
I'm talking about the track itself.
There will be hills,
but no tough mountains.

Flat and sandy

Flat and dirt
Some walking beside the road

A few stairs

When you approach Pamplona,
there is a tunnel you walk through
that takes you across a very busy highway.
Please do not attempt to cross the highway itself.
Spanish drivers will NOT stop for you.
Pilgrims get hit by cars every year.
Use the tunnel!

Pamplona to Puente la Reina

This is the last "mountain" you're going to climb for a while.
You will go up only 790 meters,
a gentle climb up very good trail,
to the top of Alto del Perdon.
Listen to the "whoosh" as you walk under the giant windmills.
It's pretty much flat up until the foot of the hill itself.
And soon you face the one REALLY rocky place
that everyone worries about.

It's funny to me how one person can yell "Fire!"
and everybody gets scared.
To me, this is not a difficult descent,
just one where you can't shuffle down,
but need to watch your step.

Coming down from Alto del Perdon into Uterga,
the track is covered with loose rocks,
and you really do have to pay attention.
Watch your FEET, not the scenery and you will be fine.
It's a VERY short distance,
I'd say less than 1 kilometer of rocky trail,
and not so much steep - just loose rocks.
You can easily find terra firma if you watch your step.
 Once you are down the hill,
it's flat walking on good track and road.

Leaving Pamplona you will meander through city and neighborhoods

Nice track through a park
A very small hill up ahead - see it? Alto del Perdon - not so scary
It is a gentle climb
Almost at the top - take your time - no hurry
At the top - the obligatory photo
Once you reach the top, take photos and rest.
There are often snack trucks and taxis here.
The downhill part into Uterga freaks everyone out.
They've heard it is really difficult.
But it is not.
I'm 64 years old, chunky, and if I can do it, anyone can do it.

The rocky descent is maybe 1 kilometer long and is not that steep.
The locals have put loose rocks here because the rain washed out the trail.
Yes, you COULD turn an ankle if you weren't careful.
But 2 or 3, or even 15 kilometers of rough trail
out of a 790 kilometer walk just doesn't warrant boots,
for me personally.

Just be careful on these few sections,
and trail runners might be something you want to consider
instead of heavy hiking boots!

This is what everyone is afraid of.
If you aren't too tired, 
take the cut-off to Eunate.
It's definitely worth a visit,
and an easy return to the Camino.
In Spring/Summer, you will walk through fields of sunflowers!

Flat from Eunate to Puente la Reina

Following are some photos of the track typical
to that you'll see all the way to Stage 8, Logroño.
These are not necessarily in order.

Paved track

There is at least one stretch of Roman Road in here:

From here until you reach Astorga,
you'll see a variety of track
that looks like these photos.

Except for one hill, Alto Mostelares,
which is only 900 meters tall,
the track is pretty much flat.

A few bumpy places, but not very many.

Flat and sandy - small pebbles but you can avoid them

It was so hot this day, I had to lay down and rest right where I was!
Be sure and take rests when you need them.
Take your shoes and socks off,
air out your feet,
close your eyes for a few minutes.
A short rest will go far in helping you complete the stages.

The climb over Mt. Mostelares ( a hill really) is flat and sandy and brown in AUTUMN

Soft dirt

Rolling hills, nice track - sticky when wet though

Flat and sandy

Road walking
Occasional forested track

Some red clay- sticky when wet

Here are some photos of the same stages in the Spring weather:

The climb up Mostelares in the Spring - early summer - still green!

Road walking - these are the ruins of San Anton - a great place to stay!

Leaving Logroño heading to Navarette

Flat and gorgeous!

Road Walking
Once you're in Astorga, you begin to climb
up and over the highest point of the Camino.
There is a gentle climb to Rabanal
where you walk on flat track beside the road.

The next day, Stage 24, you go up and over the pass of Irago. Much of the walking is on a very good dirt track. There is some road walking. The worst part of this stage is the descent into Acebo and Molinaseca down a short but very steep hill. Again, if it is wet or windy, take special care to go slow.
It is no more than 1/4 kilometer, but can be difficult if you're out of shape.
However, MOST pilgrims, by now, are in great shape.
So just watch your step.

The next stages are a lot of road walking,
gentle hills on dirt track.

When you reach Valcarce,
you begin to climb again, up and over O'Cebreiro.
This is a long, hard climb, 
but again, just take it slow.
I suggest sleeping in La Faba or Laguna de Castillo.
That way you take the worst part of the hill the next morning
when you're fresh,
and you can go OVER the hill and stay  on the other side.
Stop in O'Cebreiro to be a tourist, for sure!
See the beautiful little church, 
and the tiny museum.
Have breakfast, 
then continue on.

The track up to O'Cebreiro is mostly good track and road.
There are a few sections that are rough and rocky, 
but they are short. 
These photos are from 2009.
When I last walked it, in 2013,
it was much smoother.
There is an option to rent horses to take you up and over,
if that interests you.

The roughest section had washed out in a storm.
I did not see much of this in 2013.
However, there is a bit of rough trail here.

Most of the walk up to O Cebreiro was track like this or road.
See the angle my body is at in the photo above?
This is similar to what you'll face walking up to Orisson,
a steep, steady climb.

Now you're in Galicia!

From O Cebreiro, you will drop down into Triacastela
and from this point on, the track is sweet.
Once you are in Sarria, 
it is the last 100 kilometers,
 it is VERY well kept up.

From Tricastela,
I personally prefer to walk through Samos,
and then walk to Sarria from there.
To me, it is a much prettier walk, 
and I just love it.
But the regular Camino trail is also beautiful.

Here are some photos of the last sections, 
in no particular order,
just so you can see the type of track you will be 
walking on:

A beautiful, but rocky section - not too long. Maybe 20 minutes walking?
Woodland walking

Nice walking next to ancient walls.
Some road side, river side walking

A bit of dirt track
Village walking
Eucalyptus forest walking
Gravel road walking
Add caption

That's pretty much it, all the way to Santiago. 
As you near Santiago, the walking is rolling hills on firm gravel track.

I hope this has given you a better idea of what you're facing.
As you can see, MOST of the track is good, well-maintained, and fairly flat.

The Camino is not a mountain climbing expedition.
It is a long, slow trek.

Yes, there are a few rough places,
but to me, not enough of those to warrant hiking boots, 
unless, of course, you have weak ankles,
or unless you're one of those folks who grew up in hiking boots.

Hiking boots will protect your ankles and perhaps the soles of your feet,
but they will cause their own set of problems.
The soles are not as flexible,
they can be HOT in the summer
and they can be COLD in the winter, 
or when your feet get wet and you have to put on
wet, cold boots next morning.

Trail runners will dry overnight, even if they're soaked.
If you can stuff them with newspaper,
they'll dry even faster.

Spend the money for a good pair of shoes, 
whether you decide on boots or trail runners.
It is your FEET that will carry you to Santiago,
so don't skimp.
I spend around $150 each year for my shoes.
I have no regrets -
I LOVE my New Balance trail runners!

Take care of those tootsies!
And don't forget to give them a good soak at night.
Cold water with a handful of salt
will go a long way to toughen them up.
This is something you can start BEFORE your Camino,
toughening up your feet.

Buen Camino!

Soaking our feet in Estella

Soaking my feet in Ligonde

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