You Know You’ve Walked the Camino When…

A lot of people don’t understand the Camino.

When you tell them you’re voluntarily walking four hundred kilometres through Spain with all your possessions on your back, they don’t believe you at first.

Once you’ve convinced them that, yes, you’re serious – just like many thousands of other people from all over the world, who do the same thing each year – they look at you strangely.

“But… why?!”

A graffitied Camino walking sign

To most, walking the Camino makes no sense. But thankfully a huge number of people do get it.

They understand why you want to wake up at 6am in a top bunk surrounded by other snoring figures; to don hiking boots and a backpack every day for a month; to face the prospect of aches, pains and blisters in every body part, all for the sake of walking.

To walk the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route through Spain which people have been following since the 6th century, is to enter a world unlike any other I’ve encountered on my travels; a world filled with camaraderie, freedom, endless coffees and entirely too much bread.

I have way too much to say about the Camino, but these are some of the first things I think of now I’m no longer in that environment. A word of warning, though: if you’re a fellow pilgrim, you might want to ready yourself for a flood of familiarity.

You know you’ve walked the Camino when…

A Camino stone marker in Spain

Stone markers, shells, yellow arrows and piles of stones are all significant.

I didn’t carry a map or a compass with me on the Camino. Part of the beauty of this walk is Spain’s commitment to showing us ‘The Way’ through every method possible – and it’s safe to say that the vast majority of pilgrims are only able to stay on the right track because of it.

There are stone markers nestled in the undergrowth every kilometre, which denote the remaining distance left to reach Santiago; yellow arrows painted on walls, doors, and fences, pointing the right direction; shell designs in the metal railings and pavements underfoot, just to ensure us that we’re in the right place.

A stone arrow leads the way

My favourite element of these markers, however, was realising that many of them had been created by other pilgrims. Presumably when they hadn’t been entirely sure of the correct route, either – but had wanted to make sure the people behind them were given more direction on their way.

Hiking boots and a Camino shell

Your feet are the most important part of your body.

Whether you’re massaging them as soon as you wake up, bathing them in rivers, taking your boots and socks off at every opportunity, or even stopping in the middle of forests to meticulously re-apply your plasters and Vaseline, there’s no doubt that the upkeep of your feet is a constant focus in your Camino life.

Bare feet on the Camino

Conversations at each rest stop, meal time and hostel will usually also involve a heated discussion about foot care – and might involve some annoying British woman crowing about the fact that she still doesn’t have a single blister.

Apologies for that. But I still don’t understand how that’s possible…

Feet exercises on the Camino

Any surface is preferable to asphalt when you’re walking all day.

Prior to the Camino, I naively assumed I’d be happy to walk on roads for hours at a time. It’s flatter, right? Easier than scrambling through stones or uneven ground?

Wrong.

Keen shoes on a Spanish road

My feet quickly developed a sixth sense for pre-empting what a walking surface would feel like, and the unforgiving, unyielding asphalt of Spanish highways sat smugly at the bottom of the preferred list. I began to notice the well-worn paths in every strip of grassy earth beside the roads, as countless pilgrims before me had tried to avoid the asphalt.

The other issue was these roads usually came with speeding cars, little shade and the dread of monotony. Usually, these were the moments when I hoped for a copse of trees and the bliss of a shadowy forest to materialise just around the corner.

Your body needs three liquids to function normally: water, cafe con leche and vino tinto.

I’ve always been a coffee junkie, but this reached whole new levels of necessity on the Camino. If I started my day’s walk without coffee, my body felt sluggish and my brain was slow, and I quietly begged for the first roadside cafe to appear en route within a couple of kilometres.

As soon as that first cafe con leche hit my bloodstream, though, I actively walked more quickly and felt much more energised.

Cue the mornings where friends and I would improvise caffeine-related songs of joy and praise.

Cafe con leche on the Camino

Outside of coffee, water is of fundamental importance on the Camino – and I was one of the pilgrims who decided to fill up my bottle from the drinking fountains along The Way.

Much to the consternation of a few, more suspicious others.

Undrinkable water in a Spanish village

Finally, there’s the utter joy of reaching your albergue in the afternoon and knowing there’s a bottle of red wine somewhere in town with your name on it.

Your food choices alter.

Bananas and cake at 6am in the darkness of an albergue kitchen. A bocadillo filled with tortilla at your ‘second breakfast’ stop – probably around 8 or 9am. Baskets of bread for every pilgrim menu, which you quickly get sick of. There’s no doubt that the way you eat will change while walking the Camino.

It took me a few days to understand how crucial it was to eat something little – but often – while I was walking. Luckily I have the snacking gene fully present in my usual freelancing lifestyle, so it wasn’t hard to grab for biscuits and chocolate bars every half hour in an effort to keep my energy levels up.

A coffee stop on the Camino

I’m also rather proud that I can now unzip the top of my pack, grab a banana, close the zip again and start eating – all without breaking stride. Achievements!

You have a new appreciation for Buffs, bumbags, zip off trousers and walking poles.

Aged eighteen, I packed horribly unflattering cargo shorts for my first volunteering trip to Kenya on a building project because I figured that’s Just What You Take To Volunteer – and I immediately realised upon arrival that I was never going to wear them.

I’ve hated taking trip-specific gear on my travels ever since, and buying zip-off trousers for the Camino was a really loaded decision. But it turns out that this is the kind of trip where you learn just how useful all those things actually are.

Flora in the Camino rain

I wore a Buff on my head every day – it meant my hair was out of my face and kept the frizz at a minimum. My bumbag was an absolute godsend, keeping my passport, phone and wallet close to hand and immediately accessible.

I didn’t zip off my trousers that often but loved having the option on the days where it suddenly grew bizarrely hot in Galicia – and let’s not even question my decision to buy a walking pole.

Hiking stick on the Camino

Thanks to the sage advice of a Spanish pilgrim named Luis who I met in a tiny cafe near Cruz del Ferro in the pouring rain, I learned that there were two days of slippery descents on the horizon, and a stick would make my life infinitely easier.

Without hesitation, I paid six euros for a wooden stick that barely left my hand for three weeks. A wise decision.

Cornfields, kittens and cows are all instant mood improvers.

This isn’t just confined to the Camino, of course – I’m an unabashed cat lady, and proud of it – but throughout the Camino I found myself gravitating towards adorable animals.

Maybe because it was a worthy distraction from the walking and broke up the monotony?

A sleepy Camino cat

A barn filled with cows on the Camino

I still can’t explain the cornfields, though.

Those babies always made me happy, and I have no idea why.

A corn cob in a Spanish field

Stopping to smell the flowers becomes an actual thing.

Spending every day walking through a country means you start to notice the details of the landscape – be it the sound of birds, the mice in the hedgerows, or a stretch of lavender growing in the middle of a road barrier.

That’s when you’ll find yourself scurrying through traffic to pick long stems, tucking them into your bag straps and sniffing happily at it whenever you next pass a cow field. Because those guys are adorable, but they stink.

A pilgrim's backpack on the Camino

Foreign graffiti is worth deciphering

Pilgrims meet, talk and then split ways again – it’s one of the idiosyncrasies of the Camino that your friendships are often fleeting. But occasionally you’ll lose touch with someone who you really want to see again, and that’s when the Camino graffiti comes into play.

Portomarin graffiti on the Camino

There can’t be many tiny Spanish villages that have messages in French, German, English and Japanese scribbled onto street signs and the sides of dumpsters. Depending on what you’re able to translate you’ll see every kind of message, from positive to thoughtful to the downright emotional.

When you see a church, you automatically go inside.

After my first week of walking, I realised I’d been in more churches in seven days than in the last year. I wasn’t on the Camino for any religious reasons but the first girl I walked with was, and she liked to say a quick prayer at each town’s church.

So I grew accustomed to stepping inside the cool, calm, warmly lit buildings and taking a moment to think.

The botafumeiro in Santiago cathedral

Plus they usually had adorable elderly Spaniards sitting at wooden desks to stamp our passports, too.

Inside a tiny Spanish church on the Camino

You expect everyone you walk past to say ‘Buen Camino!’

Walking the Camino feels a bit like being part of a secret club, where you give sly smiles to anyone wearing Crocs or sitting outside a roadside cafe with a backpack beside them. And that’s just in Spanish towns and cities.

Speaking to a Camino pilgrim

When you’re walking, it’s plainly evident that most other people around you are walking the Camino too. So we’re friendly. I know a lot of pilgrims I met got a little sick of saying a chirpy ‘buen camino’ to every single face they saw, but I always enjoyed doing it.

Maybe I just really want to be in a gang with a secret password.

The kindness of strangers is a real thing.

A handful of fresh figs from an old lady’s car in the midst of an approaching hailstorm. A bunch of grapes passed across the fence from a woman in her garden’s vineyard.

The utter, unbelievable joy that is a donativo stand in the middle of nowhere on a baking hot afternoon.

Tortilla at a donativo stand on the Camino

No matter what the media tries to present to the contrary, I do believe that people are inherently good. If you’ve ever doubted it, then get yourself to Spain and walk the Camino.

Every day, I was overwhelmed by people I’d never met who extended their generosity to me in so many little ways, and it was beautiful, inspiring and completely humbling.

A handful of figs from a stranger

You’re constantly in awe of people’s faith.

All along the way, you see photographs of loved ones propped up against little towers of stones; ribbons tied around chainlink fence; crosses made from sticks tucked neatly into barbed wire.

Mementos on the Camino

Some pilgrims carry objects with them to represent feelings and emotions they’ve held onto for long enough, and as they walk they part with them – both physically and hopefully mentally too.

It’s somewhat overwhelming when I actively looked at all these offerings, and realised that every single one represented a person and something monumental in their lives.

A death. A life. A struggle. A hope.

Cruz del Ferro in the rain

You’re already planning which Camino route to walk next.

For some pilgrims, walking the Camino gives them the gift of time. Removing themselves from their busy schedules to simply ‘be’.  For others, it’s relishing in the simplicity of walking, or discovering hidden parts of Spain, or challenging their bodies to do something they’re unaccustomed to.

Often you won’t learn the reasons behind someone’s decision to walk. It’s a personal topic, and many won’t share why. But as I reached the end of my Camino, the most common topic of conversation was which Camino we thought we’d walk next.

Shadows walk along the Camino

People say that the Camino gets under your skin in more ways than one, and it’s totally true. I walked four hundred kilometres over three weeks and it simply wasn’t enough.

I know I’ll be back. It’s just a matter of when.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing about the Camino in much more detail. Check out the full series of articles about my Camino experiences here!

Happy hikers on the Camino

Have you walked the Camino? What else do you miss about The Way? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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47 Responses to You Know You’ve Walked the Camino When…

  1. Andrea Anastasiou October 13, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    Lovely post, Flora! I’ve never considered doing the Camino – until now! What is the best time of year to do it?

    • Flora October 13, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

      Great news Andrea! I like to think I chose the perfect time to walk – In July/August it’s boiling & there are huge numbers of pilgrims, whereas late September/October is when the bad weather kicks in. Although I was also seriously lucky with only two days of rain in three weeks, and bizarrely sunny weather in a typically cloudy, cold and rain-filled Galicia! :p

      • Andrea Anastasiou October 20, 2015 at 9:56 am #

        Excellent! I’d rather walk through the rain than in the heat :-) Thank you!

  2. Beverley | Pack Your Passport October 13, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

    Ok so you know how on Sunday when we had coffee and I flippantly said ‘wow, I’d love to walk the Camino one day’

    I NOW WANT TO DO IT!

    • Flora October 13, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

      TOLD YOU!!!

  3. Pauline October 13, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    Pretty sure this is going to be my reply to every single post you write on the Camino: “I MISS THE CAMINO AND I WANT TO GO BACK!”

    On a side note, you know you walked the Camino when: there is an inexplicable joy in your heart at the end of each day because of everything you experienced thus far (also because there’s a washer AND a dryer in your albergue!).

    • Flora October 13, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

      I swear that I’ve never been so excited to see a piece of machinery in all my life. Washer/dryer happiness is the best kind of Camino happiness 😀

  4. Edna October 13, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

    That donativo stand may be my favorite photo. What a wonderful sense of community! I don’t usually pay much attention to Camino posts but looking forward to hearing more from you!

    • Flora October 13, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

      There’s a whole gushing post to come about the community spirit on the Camino Edna! (And that was honestly the best tortilla I’ve ever eaten :p)

  5. Francis Tapon October 13, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Felizitaciones, Flora on a Buen Camino! What’s your next camino?

  6. Lainey October 13, 2015 at 6:13 pm #

    Flora I will never walk the Camino but thanks to you I can enjoy it vicariously and not suffer blisters. The pictures are terrific. Keep them coming as they are great companions to your fantastic writing. Much love Lainey!,,,

    • Flora October 15, 2015 at 9:36 am #

      Thanks so much Lainey! I’m so glad you’re loving all the photos :)

  7. joy October 13, 2015 at 6:35 pm #

    Love reading your posts! Thanks for this one. Some of my married in family is doing this right now, so it makes it more real.

    • Flora October 15, 2015 at 9:40 am #

      Thanks for reading along, Joy – and buen camino to your family member!

  8. The Wallflower Wanderer October 14, 2015 at 3:06 am #

    My feet hurt just reading about this! But it also sounds amazing, and the photos are stellar :)

    • Flora October 15, 2015 at 9:43 am #

      Aww I love the foot pain sympathy! But I promise it was never *that* bad… when it was I refused to keep walking anyway :p

  9. Joy | Joy Goes Places October 14, 2015 at 6:33 am #

    I didn’t know anything about the Camino walk prior to reading your post so I’m glad I saw this. Before my first mountain climb, I never thought I enjoy long walks and treks. I’ve been physically lazy for the most part of my life so I didn’t see the appeal in doing anything outdoors. But after that first climb, I started becoming a nature nut and the idea of walking and wandering has become super attractive to me. So this Camino walk is something that I definitely want to try. I don’t know when but I would love to do it. Thanks for this awesome post, Flora! :)

    • Flora October 15, 2015 at 9:45 am #

      Yep, I totally get you, Joy – I didn’t really understand the attraction before I started the Camino. But there’s such a huge difference between walking around the place you live and actively spending the majority of your day outside, moving constantly, appreciating the world around you… Ahh I’m sure you’d love doing the Camino too!

  10. innercompasstravel October 14, 2015 at 9:37 pm #

    I’ve been following you on your journey since the beginning and I have to say… I am so freakin psyched to walk the camino!! I won’t be able to walk it until next September, so I have a lot of time to plan and maybe start “training”. Quiero que sea septiembre yaaaa!
    y me encantan tus fotos! son hermosas…

    • Flora October 15, 2015 at 10:04 am #

      Ahh q buenooo que quieres caminar a Santiago!! Es una experiencia mágica e inolvidable :p Best of luck with your training – I’ll be writing a separate article about this soon, but just make sure you practice walking WITH a full pack of the same weight you’ll be carrying. Makes such a difference!

  11. adventureliesinfront October 14, 2015 at 10:23 pm #

    I’ve wanted to walk the Camino ever since I heard about it! Your posts are only going to make me more determined to do it!

    This is such a beautiful reflection of your time on the Camino and I think was the perfect way to start the series of posts, post-Camino.

    • Flora October 15, 2015 at 10:19 am #

      That’s great news, Britt – I really hope you end up walking, as it’s such an amazing experience :) And I’m glad you enjoyed this article as the precursor to (ALL) the rest!

  12. Clare October 15, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

    I LOVE your photos Flora, and I’m so excited to read more about your Camino journey. I hear you when you say you didn’t get the attraction beforehand – I was the same before I did the Everest base camp trek, I always thought I was firmly an indoor girl when it came to any kind of gratuitous walking but now I’m like ‘take me to the mountains!’

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:40 am #

      Isn’t it SO weird?! Now I honestly can’t get enough of ‘going for a good, long walk’ – and there’s me always thinking I was the lazy type :p

  13. Rebecca October 16, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    Really bizarrely I’ve just finished listening to Zero to Travel podcast about walking the Camino and I’d never heard of it before. It’s instantly appealing though, the thought of completing a long hike and noticing things around you and about yourself that wouldn’t have revealed themselves otherwise.

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:41 am #

      Ooh I should give that podcast a listen, then – thanks for the tip, Rebecca!

  14. Amanda Williams October 16, 2015 at 4:31 pm #

    Great post and awesome pictures. I’d love to do this, but after I gave myself a stress fracture last year I’m a little nervous about walking holidays!

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:42 am #

      Argh yeah, that’s not the best injury to set off on the Camino with… Although I did meet a lot of people with varying injuries who were walking regardless and just being extremely careful!

  15. GadAbouttheGlobe October 17, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    Walking the Camino has been on my travel list for a few years now. I was thinking of doing it next year, but then I had another trip come up that is a bit time sensitive so I’m jumping on that opportunity instead. Your post was beautifully written and just reminded me of how much I want to do this. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences.

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:43 am #

      Fantastic, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And I hope you make it to the Camino at some point soon – it really is the most incredible experience 😀

  16. Kate October 18, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

    What an amazing experience!!

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:44 am #

      Totally!!

  17. Amy (Two Drifters) October 18, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

    Everything you’ve mentioned about the Camino makes me want to do it so bad! And I know Nathan would be up for it. We’ll have to plan for the perfect time of year to do so. Maybe 2017 ! :) But what a lovely post and what an amazing experience. I would love to see all the cats and cows too! haha

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:46 am #

      Amy, I’m a hundred percent sure you guys would LOVE it! Definitely pick a good time of year though as I reckon the experience changes drastically in the sun/heat/cold/rain etc…

  18. Rebecca October 18, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

    Congratulations! My cousin walked it for only five days and she said the same thing about the kindness of people. She wasn’t prepared AT ALL (ie. took no food with her, had only bought her shoes the day before and didn’t come with bandaids) and she said that everyone along the way pitched in to help her.

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:52 am #

      Aww that’s the Camino spirit! As there are plenty of cafes, bars, restaurants and band-aid-stocked pharmacies along the route, I think the only real issue your cousin would have faced would be not wearing in her boots beforehand… but there’s always the option of buying sandals somewhere. The Camino always provides…!

  19. Kanchan October 20, 2015 at 6:19 am #

    Fantastic post, I enjoyed it. This is a perfect travel post. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:53 am #

      And thank you for reading it, Kanchan!

  20. rebecca November 4, 2015 at 1:18 am #

    Loved this post! Kinda really inspires me to do the walk

    • Flora November 9, 2015 at 12:12 am #

      Fantastic to hear it, Rebecca – you should definitely give the Camino a shot!

  21. Tom Allen (@tom_r_allen) December 17, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    This is great. I walked a section of the Camino Frances this year, and yes, I left Spain planning my next one…

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