Hey guys, I'm back! As you may have seen on Instagram, I recently finished the Camino de Santiago. Overall, it was one of the most profound and enriching experiences of my life.

It wasn't all sunshine and roses, though – it was hard, both physically and mentally. Mostly, it was just long – I walked the camino for 36 days.

But first, what is the Camino de Santiago? The camino is a network of European pilgrimage routes that all converge at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

While traditionally the camino was a religious pilgrimage, today many pilgrims (a.k.a. the people who walk the camino) do it for non-religious reasons.

I started my camino in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. Which means I walked nearly 500 miles to reach Santiago de Compostela. Nope, I can't believe that either.

Anyway, I have a LOT to share about the camino: life lessons, packing posts, budgets – everything. But I wanted to start with what surprised me about the camino. Because honestly, a lot did.

(Firstly, Compostela, as in Santiago de Compostela, means ‘field of stars' in Latin. Isn't that poetic?)

The trail varies wildly.

The camino looks like this…

…and this.

I was surprised by how much the trail varies. One day you're hiking through misty, verdant mountains, the next you're ambling through miles of vineyards.

And some parts of the camino were downright ugly and industrial, like the outskirts of cities like Burgos and León. I can smell the sulphur just thinking about it.

 

Some pilgrims bring their pets.

His tiny socks and pack just kill me

I met several pilgrims who brought their pets on the camino; two pilgrims were walking with donkeys, and one woman was walking with her dog.

Honestly, I was so jealous of the woman with the donkey – he could carry all her stuff, right?! Until I found out that she often slept outside because the donkey wasn't welcome in town. Ehh, no thanks.

 

Many pilgrims form ‘camino families'.

Me and my ‘camino family' at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrims often form ‘camino families', or groups of pilgrims who walk together.

Funny enough, I thought I would walk the camino completely alone, despite this being completely unlike my personality. But I ended up finding my camino family on the first day, so joke's on me.

But in the end, I was so glad I found a camino family. It was nice to know that someone was always waiting for me, and that I could choose to walk alone or in a group.

 

It's super hard to get lost.

Before doing the camino, I had no idea how well-marked the trail was. It turns out there were trail markers everywhere – I almost always knew which way to go.

And what were the trail markers? They were usually yellow arrows or shells. So basically, if you see a shell or an arrow, go that way.

 

Some pilgrims didn't care at all about the local food or culture.

Life-changingly good foie gras in Pamplona that cost three euros. Amazing.

As a die-hard foodie, I was excited to try all the local foods of Northern Spain. And gorge myself on as much jamón ibérico (Iberian ham) as possible.

So I was shocked to find out many pilgrims didn't care at all about the local food or culture, and instead were doing the camino purely as a physical challenge.

I met one girl who had been walking in Spain for a month who didn't know what a pintxo was (basically a Basque tapa). Um, did you miss the week we walked through Basque country?

 

I met very few people doing it for religious reasons.

Surprisingly, I met very few people walking the camino for religious reasons.

On the contrary, most people were doing the camino because they were at a crossroads in life; many had just quit their job or gotten divorced. And some were just taking time to figure out their next step.

 

It was hard to cook.

One of the few nights we actually cooked.

Before I did the camino, I planned on cooking every night. Sadly, this did not happen; I made avocado toast like twice.

To be fair, it wasn't easy to cook. Many of the towns were so small they didn't have supermarkets, and not all albergues (pilgrim hostels) had kitchens. One albergue even removed all the pots and pans to prevent pilgrims from cooking! Whaa?

 

It's a language learner's heaven.

If you want to brush up on your language skills, consider doing the camino. Every day, I met pilgrims from all over the world, many of whom didn't speak English. I got to practice my French and Spanish daily, which was fun.

 

The locals were sometimes rude to us.

I've spent a good amount of time in Spain, and have always found Spanish people to be kind and welcoming.

Sadly, I did not have the same experience as a pilgrim. Locals were often short with us and generally seemed exasperated by our presence. (Though some were incredibly kind, too.)

This may be because I did the camino in October, so perhaps the locals were sick of pilgrims after six months of dealing with them. I'm not sure.

 

Pilgrims were of all ages.

One thing I loved about the camino is that people of all ages do it; I met twenty-somethings, families, and many pilgrims well into their seventies. The median age was probably around 50-60, which I didn't expect.

 

There's a free wine fountain.

I read, oh, about a million blog posts about the camino prior to doing it. But shockingly, I never caught wind of the free wine fountain.

It turns out there's a free wine fountain on the camino (near Estella, if you're interested).

Sadly, it was a bit of a let-down. Once I got there I found rancid wine trickling from a tap; it would've taken hours to fill a small water bottle. But I mean, it's still a free wine fountain, sho who's complaining?

 

It's inexpensive.

The camino is surprisingly cheap; I met some pilgrims who were doing the entire camino on less than 500 euros. My budget was about 30 euros a day.

How is that possible, you may be wondering? Accomodation was very cheap – most albergues only cost 5-6 euros a night.

Food in Spain is also inexpensive: we usually paid a euro for coffee and three euros for a full breakfast. Not bad.

 

People get super competitive on the camino.

One thing I didn't like was how weirdly competitive some of the pilgrims got. People would brag about doing fifty kilometers in a day, or drone on about how they didn't need a rest day.

Guys, we're not summiting Everest – we're doing a religious pilgrimage. Calm yourselves.

 

You can only do so much introspection.

Don't get me wrong, I did A LOT of self-reflection on the camino. After all, I was walking six hours a day – I had ample time to think.

But it turns out there's only so much introspection you can do. After finding answers to many of my ‘bigger' questions, I sort of stopped thinking and transcended to a walking meditation. It was glorious.

 

It feels really good to walk for seven hours a day.

Walking all day felt (mostly) incredible. I slept like a baby, barely had cramps, lost fat and gained muscle. Mentally, I felt worlds better too.

Now I kind of feel like a caged animal; I want to walk for hours every day, but sadly, modern life makes this challenging. (Especially in Uganda.)

The camino made me realize that human beings are meant to move, be outside, and be with each other, as hippy-dippy as that sounds.

 

Readjusting back to regular life has been tough.

As you guys know, I've traveled a lot. But readjusting back to regular life after the camino has been the hardest readjustment yet. I think it's because life on the camino was so simple – all I had to do was walk, eat, and sleep. Regular life feels noisy and commercial and intense by comparison.

 

Would you guys ever consider doing the camino? Have you already done it? I would love to know your questions about the camino so I can answer them in future blog posts – so please let me know in the comments!

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Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is an American travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Uganda. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Colorado. She's been to forty countries but somehow still gets lost in her home town. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour magazine.
Ashley Fleckenstein
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