Walking the Camino de Santiago had been on my mind for quite some time. Seeing photos of friends and joining pilgrim groups on social media only sparked that wish more and more.
In late spring 2019, I decided to take action and booked 10 days of holidays along with a flight ticket to Porto.
The road to one of the biggest adventures and self-discoveries of my life was paved. These are the 10 most valuable Lessons I learned walking the Camino Portugues.
1 Make good use of the albergue
Starting the day early is key to arriving in time to your next stage in order to secure a bed in a public albergue.
Albergues are your best budget accommodation option. On the days we were too late, we had to look for a private albergue.
Albergues are great places to get in touch with other pilgrims and share stories, experiences and tips.
We were lucky to meet a small group of people who we frequently met along the way. Even if you don’t exchange phone numbers or add each other on social media, you will most probably meet each other again at your next destination or somewhere along the path.
To save money, you can prepare dinner together where everyone contributes something. You can also help each other out with plasters and bandages as blisters are a sure thing to expect.
Use the power of the sunlight if you have clothes that need a quick wash. Washing machines are not common in public albergues, and if it is available, it is a paid service.
However, there is usually a basin in the backyard or garden. Bring a little bit of regular soap and a few pegs. Watch out for rain, otherwise your clothes should be dry before the next morning. Don’t forget to collect them before you leave.
Make sure to go to bed in time. Definitely bring earplugs if you stay in a dorm.
2 Food on the Camino
To have enough energy throughout the day, breakfast should never be skipped. Instant porridge or muesli that we brought in advance, did not only save us time but also our wallet. All you need is a kettle or oven to boil water. You can add fruit and tea to your breakfast. Bring or buy some tea bags in case the albergue does not provide those.
Rarely we would get a coffee or snack along the way. However, it is a nice experience to sit down and enjoy the atmosphere.
There was rarely a place without a supermarket or a store. Even in places away from the city, locals put up little food stalls where you can buy fruit, snacks and drinks.
Get some nuts, grains and seeds. Fruit and vegetables, like carrots or cucumbers, can be eaten on the go. Cereal cookies and muesli bars are a powerful snack and the good ones even contain fiber. And most importantly stay hydrated and make sure to always carry enough water with you.
Pilgrim’s menus contain a soup as a starter, a main plate with meat or fish options and a coffee for dessert. They cost between 7 and 10 euros. We didn’t make much use of this offer. Instead we bought food at supermarkets and prepared a meal in the albergue.
If you don’t have the means to cook a warm meal, buy canned sardines or tuna, olives, tomatoes, cheese and bread. This will give you some energy until you can grab your next warm meal.
3 Pack light, wear light foot wear and protect from the sun
Pack light or your back and shoulders will suffer big time. 20 to 30l hiking backpacks are ideal. I am saying hiking backpacks, not regular travel backpacks. Hiking backpacks have a full frame, an airflow system and well padded straps. They should be fitted to suit your size and body features.
The Camino Portugues does not require hiking boots. The trails are mostly paved but there are occasional stretches of unpaved but soft ground. Save your boots for the much rockier and hilly Camino Frances.
Light hiking shoes or hiking-approved trainers with a protective sole and front cap will save your feet a lot of misery. And don’t forget to break in your shoes at least two weeks before the start of your walk.
Being outdoors the entire day means you will be exposed to sun. Lots of sun. Even if the sun is hidden behind clouds, it can do damage to your skin. That’s why sun screen is so crucial. Furthermore, also bring a hat to protect your head and face. Cover your arms and legs. Always try to walk in the shade. Check out sports wear with UV protection. Bring your own sun screen and apply frequently. Even on cloudy days.
Bring a light scarf or towel that you can put around your shoulders, hip and waist as padding to avoid the straps cutting into your skin.
4 Observe how the scenery changes in front of your eyes
To experience variety in our hike, we chose a mix of the coastal and the central way. Luckily, that was also the route that best suited our timeline. We started in Porto, following the first yellow arrows guiding us towards the coast. This was the first half of our trip alongside the Atlantic ocean, taking in the sea breeze and passing long stretches of beach.
Once we left Portugal behind, we found ourselves inland again. The change of scenery felt good. Even the view of the ocean can get tired after some time. Believe it or not.
The other half of the walk was a mix of passing through old towns, along monasteries, castles, little parks, branching into forests with cozy but also challenging hiking trails.
A sudden change of scenery is a sure thing on the Camino which makes it a diverse and rich experience.
5 Stamp your pilgrim’s passport and don’t follow the rock tradition
We got our pilgrim’s passport or Credencial at a local pilgrim office in Prague. It looks different than the one you can purchase along the Camino but it fulfills the same purpose, which is getting your pages stamped.
You can collect stamps at albergues and cathedrals but also at cafes or shops. The passport should not cost more than 2 euros. The goal is to collect enough stamps to qualify for the certificate.
You might have heard of a pilgrim’s tradition to carry a rock from home and leave it somewhere along the walk or at the end of it. This is more common for the original Camino Frances. However, this tradition also spread to the Camino Portugues with the result of millions of small rocks piling up. They can be literally seen everywhere. Mostly around monuments like statues and crosses or on signposts.
While it might add to the Camino experience it is having an impact on the environment. I wouldn’t be surprised if locals take away some of the rocks from time to time and throw them into a river or displace them.
Bringing a rock and leaving it behind might have a symbolic power but so do immaterial and waste-free gestures. Leaving a thought or prayer behind will not harm nature and can be as empowering.
If you feel the need to leave something material behind, collect a wild flower along the way or build something from branches lying around. Take a photo of it if you have to, then move on.
6 Use an app to mark your route
I used Maps.me to download an offline map of Portugal and Spain.
After that, I searched online for Camino routes which can be downloaded and imported easily into the app. They contain not only the recommended daily stops on your route but also the exact locations of albergues, restaurants, supermarkets and landmarks.
You can mark your own locations and save as favorites. This way you can keep track of your personal highlights.
Using this great navigation app will help you immensely with planning and not losing your way. I opened it from time to time to check how far it was to the next stage. Apart from that we just followed the yellow arrows or even simpler the crowds.
7 Keep a journal
After arriving at the planned stage for the day and getting enough rest, I would take out my journal, find a quiet place and note down some memorable events, sights and thoughts that popped up during the walk. Along with the name of the stage or places passed along the way.
Tell the journal all your fears, secrets, inner battles, inspirations and ideas.
Especially those things that weigh on you. You will feel an immediate relief. As your journey progresses, you can track how your writing changes and more and more hope shines through.
To be more creative, you can add postcards, tickets, stickers and flyers. You can also include drawings, sketches and photos of your journey.
Reading the journal years later will take you down a beautiful memory lane.
8 Take time for yourself
Before I embarked on my pilgrimage, I was worried that meeting people would be difficult. This proved to be far from true. It was fairly easy to get in touch with other fellow pilgrims who would accompany you for parts of your walk.
Nevertheless, from time to time, I longed for some solitude. For many people walking the camino becomes a personal journey. Either they are confronted with life changing decisions, need to regain hope, or have to deal with personal hardships. The camino is all what you want it to be. Walking heals and offers plenty of time for contemplation or meditation.
I have seen several messages pilgrims of all times left behind, written on rocks, paper or shells with lines of grief and pain but also hope and good spirits.
Whatever the camino is for you, make your time worth. Even if you don’t follow any personal agenda, walking the camino itself can bring you joy, form friendships and ultimately leave a lifelong memory.
9 In Santiago de Compostela book a hostel in advance
Once you march into the finale of your pilgrimage, the much acclaimed Stantiago de Compostela, you would not want to spend the next hours hunting for a bed. The public hostels are likely booked out and even affordable private hostels are not guaranteed to be available.
To save yourself from frustration, consider reserving a bed in advance. It will calm your mind so you can fully concentrate on the last kilometers of your walk.
Especially that part is one of the most memorable. When you realize that you almost reached your goal. It can be a relief, but it can be depressing at the same time. When you start your walk, you cannot wait to put the first couple days behind but once you near the finish line, you long to go back to day one.
The moment you arrive at the infamous cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, is hard to describe with words. You would want to hug each and every other pilgrim, especially those who shared a part of the journey with you.
After the initial adrenaline kick wears off, you just want to rest and celebrate. But not before you get your certificate, which is free. It just takes a little bit of patience waiting in line.
10 Prepare yourself physically and mentally for the pilgrimage
If you’re like us and frequently take long-distance hikes, you will be well prepared for the camino. If you are just an occasional walker, you would need to put more training and effort into your preparations.
You can start with walking 5 to 10 kilometers a few times per week, depending how much free time you have. Gradually increase the distance up to 20 kilometers. If you plan enough time for your camino you will not cross this limit. For those with less time it can happen to walk more than 30 kilometers on a day.
I recommend to pick a camino route in advance with the exact amount of kilometers between stages. Based on this you can coordinate your training program.
Despite the physical challenge, the camino also bears a mental one. It can happen that you get into a bad mood during your walk for different reasons. You did not sleep well due to someone’s snoring or you have thoughts of giving up because the strain proved harder than expected. These and other circumstances can make you doubt your journey. In these situations it can be helpful to maintain a positive attitude and to not get fed up easily.
To mentally prepare for an emotional crisis, I recommend making it clear to yourself why you embarked on this journey. Write it down. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, read the note to yourself and channel your bad energy into something positive.
You can bring a MP3 player (longer battery than phone) with your favorite playlist. It is also a great helper against snorers. Listening to music will motivate you and most likely distract you from your anger.
Most importantly: don’t stress yourself and walk in the pace that feels right to you. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.