The pilgrims of old had to make their own way towards Santiago de Compostela, walking from home, following local advice and directions as they moved from church to church, monastery to monastery, village to village hoping to find food, shelter and safety from day to day. It seems a scary prospect now, but luckily the modern pilgrim has choices when it comes to travel, food and accommodation. Still, the idea of setting out on such an adventure on your own can feel a bit overwhelming.
If you don’t want to walk on your own, you might want to look into going with a guided group. This is a great alternative if you would like to start the walk in company – some group guides even invite the participants to meet up before you go so you can put names to faces. It is also a good solution if you don’t feel you have the confidence, time or organisational skills to plan your own walk, as the guide will be doing all that for you.
I am not including tour bus travels with a minimum of walking here.
Guide: There are many kinds of travel companies and guides, so make sure you book with a reputable and knowledgeable guide who has experience of walking the camino and is proposing a camino plan that suits you. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions you might have – the guide is there to put your mind at ease and you need to know that the arrangements are suitable for your needs. Also make sure you give the guide all your relevant info, like dietary requirements, health or fitness problems, etc. Take your guide’s advice on what to bring and what not to bring, they know the places, terrain and conditions you will encounter. If your guide also speaks the local language and knows the cultural, historical and architectural background of the places you pass, all the better.
Group: Some groups will have mixed ages and abilities, some will be aimed at a certain age group or fitness level. Make sure this is a group size and type you will be happy with, but also remember that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and you might find yourself enjoying the company and friendship of unlikely fellow travellers. That said, people are people and there will be some you like more and some less, especially when you are away from your comfort zone (and they are out of theirs) and tired from walking. You don’t have to be best friends with everybody all the time. You do however have to be polite and respectful. In short: Be the group member the guide remembers fondly!
Accommodation: When it comes to accommodation, there are many options, but depending on the time of year and the size and requirements of the group, it can be tricky to find the perfect place to stay every night. Think about what kind of accommodation you would prefer, and what compromises you are willing to make – would you share a room, would you stay in a dorm? – and see what the offers and options are. Will there be lifts or stairs? Will there be laundry services available or do you have to hand wash your clothes?
Price: What is included, what is not – travel to the starting point, such as flights? Transport to the first lodging? Accommodation, luggage transport, insurance? What about things like a credencial, is it provided, and will the guide get you the compostela when you get to Santiago? Is breakfast and/or the evening meal booked and included in the price, do you order and pay separately, can you opt out and eat somewhere else if you like? Can you cancel if it really isn’t for you or you can’t finish?
Luggage: Depending on the provider and plan you choose, your main luggage might already be forwarded from one accommodation to the next, so you only need to carry a small daypack with some essentials – water and snacks, rain gear, a warm top, whatever else you need – as well as your mobile, maybe a camera, your wallet for bar visits and your credencial for stamps. This also means you will be able to take more luggage, meaning you don’t have to do laundry as often. If this is not included, and you have extra luggage, or you just fancy a break from a heavy pack, there are companies on the way who will forward your pack for a small fee, arranged on a daily basis. Some people, regardless of fitness, develop back or joint problems when they start walking ~20 kms every day, and going pack-free is the sensible thing to do.
Walking: As you start walking, some guides will aim to keep the group together on the trail, which can be a good or a not so good thing. Having the guide right there to deal with any problems, practical or language wise, or provide interesting historical facts, or just to chat to, might feel safe and put the group at ease. But not everybody walks at the same speed, and having to rush or dawdle to suit others can be frustrating – not to mention that rushing can cause injuries. Not everybody wants to stop and eat, drink or rest at the same time, and not everybody wants to talk all the time. Other guides will stay at the back of the group to make sure no one falls behind, and let the others walk on to the bar or hotel at their own speed. As long as everybody has the guide’s mobile number, they are still able to help and provide info and support. And if you deviate from the plan, make sure to let the guide know!
Have a think about how you would like your walking day to be. Do you prefer to walk fast or slow, alone or in company? Does the social aspect of the group appeal to you, or would you prefer to do your own thing on the trail and then meet the group for dinner in the evening? Do you want to visit churches and places of interest on the way, or would stopping and starting all day annoy you? How organised would you like it to be?
Going with a guided group can also be a great introduction to the way the camino works, as I found when I joined Colleen and her little group on a walk from Pamplona to Logroño. She organised the daily stages and accommodation for the group, with luggage transport for those who wanted it, and we all walked at our own speed, some arriving long before the rest, some staying together and some drifting in and out of the group throughout the day. In the evenings we all had dinner together and talked about our day. We stayed in albergue accommodation with other pilgrims, so the group quickly got used to communal living and got a taste of life on the road. When they stopped, I carried on, and if it had been my first time on the camino, those days with the guide and group would have taught me all I needed to know to continue on my own.
David first walked the camino in a group, and has since come back to walk it again and again on his own, you can read about it here.
No matter how you choose to plan your camino, there are some things only you can do:
- Decide where you would like to go, how far, and when. How long have you got? Where would you like to start/walk/end up?
- Familiarise yourself with the route using the maps and info from your provider, or get your own guidebook, it’s a great way to start the camino before your boots hit the ground. Make notes of out places you want to see, towns you would like to stop in, get to know the sort of terrain you will be walking through.
- Choose your footwear and walking clothes, your pack, your rain gear. Consider the time of year, the terrain and temperatures. Do you need clothes that dry fast, breathe well, protect you from the sun? Or do you need warm layers and wind and rain protection? What will you need to sleep in?
- Do some real life training. How far can you comfortably walk in a day? Go for some walks on tarmac, paths, up and down hills; go for several walks on consecutive days to check out your fitness and stamina. Go for a walk in the rain, even if it’s no fun. Do your shoes give you blisters? Do you need poles? Does anything rub, leak, make you overheat or leave you cold? How much water do you need, what snacks keep you going? Will music give you extra energy, or do you prefer to listen to the sounds of nature? Are you taking a liner or sleeping bag, will it keep you cool enough in the summer or warm enough in spring or autumn? If you will be doing laundry by hand, try it after a walk and put the same clothes on again the next day. Do you have to change something?
- Pack, unpack, repack. Is your backpack or daypack comfortable with weight in it over time? Is it too heavy? Do you know what all the bells and whistles on your pack does?
- Learn some of the local language, if only to say hello, yes and no, please and thank you. It is practical, polite and makes meeting locals more enjoyable. No one will expect you to speak fluent Spanish, but you should also not expect anyone to speak your language fluently. There is always Google Translate if you want or need to communicate something, but learning a little language is always a good thing. How do you say good morning?
Find the answers one by one, or the best answer you can provide. Only you know which pack feels good, what you need to eat and drink, how far you can walk in a day, or if you prefer a poncho or rain jacket and trousers. No one else can make that decision for you. No tour guide can provide you with a perfect packing list, but they can give you sensible advice. As long as you are relatively warm, dry and comfortable on the trail, you are winning!
Chances are the camino will make you hungry, wet, cold, tired and sore – no amount of organising can magic that away. But it will also give you joy, strength, freedom, friendship, change, humility, gratitude, and that makes it worth it!
Pros: The guide’s experience and knowledge of the situation means you can relax and not worry about the logistics, practicalities or language barriers. Some guides also have a good knowledge of the history of the places you visit. The guide will take your requirements into account and you can discuss any problems beforehand so you can rest assured you will be taken care of. And you will have walking buddies from the outset so you won’t be alone.
Cons: It will cost more than it would if you organised it yourself, as you are also paying for the services of the guide for the duration. The guide has to accommodate the needs of the whole group so you might have to compromise on a few things. You might not always want to stay with the group, you might want to eat or socialise with others you have met along the way, so find out if you can opt out or if the plan is set in stone.
To make the most of a guided group walk, make sure you know what you want and understand what is provided, and bring up any questions before you commit.