El Camino de Santiago: Travel stories

If you’ve never heard of the Camino de Santiago, here’s a link for the trailer of the movie, “The Way“. It tells a little about the Camino de Santiago and the meaning behind it.

Just a heads up, unfortunately this is a long post. Fortunately, it’s got some good stories.For more pictures of our adventures, click here.

The following is kind of a travel log of our daily adventures and happenings while on the Camino. We’ll start with my packing list…just in case you’re interested in doing the CdS someday.

Packing list:

  • 2 shirts for walking
  • 2 shorts for walking
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 pair of athletic shorts
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 1 first aid kit (lots of band-aids, 2 syringes, and antiseptic)
  • 1 pair of hiking boots
  • 1 pair of flip flops
  • 1 lightweight sleeping bag
  • 1 inflatable pillow
  • shampoo and conditioner
  • hair ties
  • shower soap
  • hairbrush
  • soap to wash clothes
  • contacts and contact solution
  • microfiber towel
  • knee brace
  • sunscreen
  • 1 lightweight rain jacket
  • 1 rain cover for backpack
  • 1 roll of toilet paper
  • 50€
  • NIE (Spanish residency ID)
  • Pilgrim Credential 
  • iPhone and charger
  • Outlet converter

Tuesday, July 8 (Travel day): Barcelona to Ponferrada

I woke up early, around 6:00AM to have some time to look over my backpack, weigh it one last time (backpacks for trips like this should only weigh 10% of your total body weight, mine was well under being at only 7 kilos), have a last cup of good coffee for a few days, and look in on Olivia, who was still sleeping peacefully.

Our train for Ponferrada left at 9:30AM from Barcelona Sants so we had time to have a good breakfast, make our lunches, and talk with Mari (Edu’s oldest sister) and Teto (her husband) who had arrived the day before from the Canary Islands to stay with Olivia while we were gone. When Olivia started to wake up, I stayed in the doorway and let Mari go in and pick her up to see how Olivia would react. I didn’t think it would be this hard to leave her for a few days : ( We said our goodbyes and headed for the train station. Edu had an easier time than I did leaving.

We met up with Hannah and Audrey (our Summer Interns) in Sants and boarded our train for Ponferrada. We traveled most of the day on the train, over nine hours. We played cards, watched the movies they showed (Le Chef was my favorite), snacked, and talked. Both Audrey and Hannah are from North Carolina and they talked a lot about how some of the scenery (especially in País Vasco and Galicia) was similar to their home. Very green and lush with mountains, lakes, and rivers.

We arrived in Ponferrada at about 7:00PM. My favorite quote from the time on the train was when Hannah said, “It’s hard to sit here and not eat.” That about sums it up. It was nice to see so much of Spain but we were happy to be off the train. Originally we had planned on taking a taxi to the albergue (hostel for peregrinos or pilgrims on the Camino) but we wanted some exercise so we decided to walk.

We arrived and got settled in. We were assigned our bunk beds, shown where to put our boots, and were shown the kitchen, and bathrooms. We decided to go to a little café before heading to bed and find something to eat.

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Wednesday, July 9: Day 1, Ponferranda to Vilafranca de Bezeiro (22,35km)

We woke up around 6:00AM to the noise of alarms and people packing their backpacks. Most peregrinos wake up early to take advantage of the cool morning and walk several hours before it gets hot. We ate breakfast, some muffins and bananas, and other things we purchased the night before from a grocery store, filled up our water containers, and then started out. It was much colder than we thought so we put on our light jackets that we had brought for rain to keep us warm.

We stopped once or twice to rest for a few minutes throughout the walk and then started again. We started walking at 7:30AM and arrived at our hostel at about 1:00PM. The last few kilometers were hard. Our feet hurt, not so much shooting pain, but aching and sore. I saw a man in his forties with an older gentleman stopping to put on sunscreen at about the halfway point. I saw the younger man alone later and asked if his father was behind him. He said it wasn’t his father and introduced himself. He was from Ireland and we talked for a while about why each of us was doing the Camino. I introduced him to Edu and they talked for a while before Edu slowed down to wait for Audrey, Hannah, and me. James continued on to arrive in Vilafranca but we kept up with each other and saw each other along the Camino and got to know him other days that we saw each other.

After arriving in Vilafranca, the first thing we did was take off our boots. Such a feeling of relief. We checked in to our hostel, Ave Fenix, got assigned our beds, and set off to find lunch. A shower and siestas would have to come later.

We met up with a group of three American girls and a guy who had arrived at the same time as us. They had just graduated from uni and a guy from Holland was walking with them. We tried to get into a supermarket before it closed but we didn’t make it in time. So, we split up. Some people went to buy a kebab and others went to a restaurant for a bigger meal. Once we got back to our hostel, we cleaned up, showered, took some ibuprofen for soreness, hand washed our dirty clothes and hung them to dry, and then laid down to rest for a while. The hostels are big open rooms with bunk beds so as people arrive and get settled in or as they leave, it’s hard not to make noise. Many people were coming in and out so we didn’t sleep much, but enough to rest. We went to a grocery store later to purchase some yogurt, sandwich meat, bread, and fruit for dinner. We came back, ate, played cards, talked with some other peregrinos, and went to bed around 9:30PM to get up early the next morning.

Thursday, July 10: Day 2, Vilafranca de Bezeiro to Vega de Valcarce (17,43km)

We started out around 7:00AM and chose the route through a valley along the highway, a flatter route that went through green forests and had lots of shade. We didn’t see many other peregrinos until later but we did get our picture taken by Japanese tourists who were on a break from their tour bus and standing in the road. We saw James and his friend again and talked for a while. We stopped for a five minute break around 11:00AM and ate a few snacks before continuing. We considered going on to O Cebreiro (12,3km more) but decided against it. It would have been a challenge and I think we made a good choice to do such a hard stage with fresh legs and feet the next morning.

We stopped in Vega de Valcarce and met some girls in our hostel from Belgium who had gotten bed bugs in Madrid. I had never seen the bites and nasty sores they can cause. She didn’t know that she had been bitten by bed bugs and by the time she caught it, the sores were in the later stages.

We got some lunch, some of us did laundry, and then took naps. We woke up around 6:00PM to go to the grocery store and find some things to make for dinner. We decided that a vegetable soup would be good so we bought the necessary ingredients and headed back to the hostel to make dinner. The kitchen was packed so we waited for a while and then decided to cook. As we were sitting down to eat, we met a guy from Germany and got to hear why he was doing the Camino. After dinner, we played a few rounds of cards and then went to bed about the same time, 9 o’clockish. Unfortunately my water bottle was left open and I put it on my bed without knowing it. A little while later, one of the girls from Belgium mentioned that there was something wet on the floor. The water in my bottle had completely soaked the mattress and was dripping out. We changed out the bed with another mattress and went to sleep.

In the morning we made breakfast and packed up to start one of the most difficult stages in the Camino de Santiago.

Friday, July 11: Day 3, Vega de Valcarce to O Cebreiro (12,3km), Transport to Sarria

The hike this day wasn’t hard because of the length, it was a challenge because of the climb. We started at about sea level and ended at who knows how high.

Because there were parts that were so vertical, we ended up walking separately most of the time so everyone could go at their own pace. One of the great things about this stage were the views. The higher we went, the better views we had of the mountains and green landscape. I think we stopped once for a few minutes to have some water, get snacks out of our packs, and continue on. I really enjoyed the solitude going up with such beautiful scenery. IMG_3971IMG_3990

Edu arrived in O Cebreiro first and found someone who could taxi us to Sarria. When I arrived, he told me that the taxi would be there in about 15 minutes so we had a chance to go to the bathroom, take some pictures, get our credential stamped, and buy some water before leaving. It was about a 30-40 minute car ride to Sarria. IMG_3981

When we arrived, we got a little lost but finally found the albergue municipal (municipal hostel). Sometimes peregrinos arrive before the hostel opens so you have to wait outside. This causes an interesting situation, because hostels, especially municipal hostels are based on a first come first serve basis. Some have a lot of capacity, others don’t. This particular municipal hostel had about 40 beds. Obviously, there are other hostels in the city but this is the one that is provided by the city and is usually cheaper (5€/night). Private hostels can be 25€ or more but you also get a room with a bathroom and more privacy.

Anyway, when peregrinos arrive at the hostel and it isn’t open yet, you normally put your pack in the order which you arrive and sit in the shade while you wait. So your pack kind of holds your place in line even though you’re not right by it. When the doors opened to start letting people in there was a stampede and the line theory didn’t work at all. We got in line but there were people in front of us who had cut and there were people behind us who had arrived first. In particular was a young Spanish couple who had been the first ones of anyone to arrive but was now at the very back. Edu whispered to me that he thought the girl was crying and I asked why. He explained to me what had happened and I called out to them and asked if they wanted to come in front of us. They said no, it wasn’t our fault and that they were fine. There were two other Dutch people trying to cut in front of us and I remembered them arriving after us in the line earlier. I asked the couple again and said that they should come in front of us. It wasn’t fair that they had left at 5:00AM from their hostel so that they could arrive early and be sure to get a bed. We insisted once more, and they accepted. The girl wiped the tears from her eyes when she was in front of me and I told her not to worry. Unfortunately, there was a seventy-five year-old man named Paulino that arrived after us, had put his pack in the line with his walking stick but there were several people who had jumped in front of him and was also now at the back behind us. It frustrated me to see how fellow peregrinos seek their own good instead of the good of others. Isn’t this whole journey about service, and being thankful, not demanding and seeking your interests firsts?

In the end, everyone made it inside and had beds. We were with a group of French men who were traveling together and had no problem getting undressed and walking around in their underwear and napping in their underwear. I know it was hot, but no. Not necessary.

We had a doner kebab for lunch, and went back to wash our clothes out and let them dry. Some of us took naps, and I looked at pictures of Olivia. Later we went to the grocery store to get food for dinner and breakfast. We made baguette sandwiches and ate at the hostel and played cards for a while before going to bed. Edu and I had tuna baguette sandwiches with cheese, cold gazpacho soup, and Aquarius (kind of like Poweraid/Gatorade). If I remember correctly, we also bought some bananas for potassium.

Saturday, July 12: Day 4, Sarria to Portomarín (22,7km)

IMG_3991We woke up at 6:00AM, packed up our bags, ate breakfast, doctored our feet (a daily ritual), and started walking about 7:00AM. It was nice and cool on the way out of Sarria and the trail led us through fields most of the morning. My water bottle fell and broke so I had to get rid of it right as we were starting out. The trail led us through tiny little towns, bunches of houses cows really, and sometimes through forests. We went up and down, and up and down again. The road turned and curved and went through valleys and fields. Sometimes it was straight, but usually it felt like we were coming around a bend or coming out of a curve. With all the up and down being hard on mine and Audrey’s knees we figured out that by walking backwards down steep inclines it took a lot of pressure off our knees and actually gave us some foot relief too.

IMG_3993I don’t think the hard thing about the Camino is the tiredness you feel, I think all of us would say it is the pain in your feet. Your legs don’t get so much tired as your feet just start feeling a lot of pain after walking so far. With each step, your toes really start to hurt. The blister pain is different, this is just pain from walking so much. We finished most days walk-limping into the municipal hostel. And then I think about the seventy-five year-old Paulino, or the grandmother from Italy in her seventies who had been walking from St. Jean in France and try not to complain so much. Sometimes, you feel like stopping, but the bad thing about stopping is when you start up again, your whole body hurts, even if you stop and don’t sit, you’re feet hurt more when you start again so it’s better to take the step by step pain and keep going rather than stop.

There are steep descents into Portomarín that really do a number on your toes slamming against your boots and your knees trying to take the jolting impact so I started doing a little jog down the steep descents. If you fall, you’re dead, but if you can control yourself, it helps. I saw a man from Paris doing it and decided to copy him. It takes more energy to run, but it goes by faster. I caught up with him and got to talk a little with him before his mobile phone rang.

I basically ran the rest of the way down the hill and across the bridge into Portomarín. I was so glad to be finished. A girl from Chile started laughing at me saying I was crazy. She was really nice, we saw her later in Santiago. It just felt like I had come to the point of not being able to go any further at least 5 times and had to keep going. After arriving, I felt like I just needed to recover for a few minutes and not talk, not walk, just take off my shoes and put my head on my knees and be thankful we had arrived. No more until tomorrow. I felt like this most days after arriving at the hostel.

We sat down in a line outside the hostel to wait for it to open and unfortunately I got stung by a wasp in the face. There were nests in the stone wall that we were leaning up against while waiting. Fortunately, a guy named John from NY had a first-aid kit with wipes for wasp/bee stings and as soon as I put it on my cheek, it had a cooling effect and the swelling went away.

We had lunch, rested, and then went out later to find a grocery store for dinner and breakfast. Edu and I had our usual, baguette with tuna, gazpacho, fruit, and Aquarius again for dinner.

Sunday, July 14: Day 5, Portomarín to Palas de Rei (25,06km), Transport to Arzúa

We got up at 6:00AM, packed our things, rolled up our sleeping bags and went downstairs to eat some breakfast before heading out. Edu, Audrey, and Hannah left at 7:00AM and I stayed back with the other group to wait for transport. Instead of walking the whole 20km like Edu and the girls, I cheated (and still have mixed feelings about it) and went 10km by car and walked the other 10km.

There is a hostel called “La Fuente del Peregino” or “The Fountain of the Pilgrim” and its run by a non-profit organization. In the Summer of 2005, I worked at this house with a group of other university students on a mission trip. The two week experience is what opened my eyes to missions and to see that the Gospel is for all peoples, nations, and cultures. I hadn’t been back in nine years so I was excited to see it again. It was closed when we passed through but it was neat to stop in, say hello, and see how the place had changed so much. The top picture is from 2005 and the bottom picture is from 2014. 

IMG_4131When we arrived in Palas de Rei, we got our credential stamped and then went by car to Arzúa (about 20 minutes). When we got to the municipal hostel for peregrinos there was a small line outside. We got in line and waited for the rest of our group to arrive before checking in. There’s kind of a rule about not being able to reserve beds. It’s understandable but there were nine of us total and one person was held up in Palas de Rei waiting for transport. The lady who worked at the hostel, Celia, did us a huge favor and reserved a place for him and then helped his wife check him in later.

We went to go get lunch at a restaurant and unfortunately the cook, the waiter, and the person behind the counter were all having a bad day and not getting along. There weren’t a lot of lunch options, almost everyone got grilled chicken with salad. We ate, paid, and went back to our hostel to do laundry. Some of us splurged and after hand washing our clothes split the cost of a dryer. It looked like it might rain and we needed our clothes to be dry for tomorrow. Normally we walked in a set of clothes, and then when we arrived we showered and put on our clean set, hand washed the other, hanged it to dry, and packed it when it was dry to wear the next day after finishing.

We found a small mom and pop supermarket that was open (amazing since it was Sunday) but it was expensive. We only bought what we needed, something for breakfast, and some drinks.

There was a World Cup match that night so some people stayed out to watch it in a bar and others went back to the hostel to sleep or be there to open the door for the other people when they arrived. Most hostels close their doors around 10:00/10:30PM. Most people came back at halftime around 10:45PM.

Monday, July 15: Day 6, Arzúa to Pedrouzo (19,20km)

Today seemed like a long walk even though it wasn’t really longer than other days. I remember thinking how green and lush the landscape looked.

As we were going through a forrest with Eucalyptus trees, a man asked if we were American. We said, “Yes” and asked where he was from. He said, “Belgium” and I asked, “Which part?” He told me he was surprised by such an intelligent question from an American and that led into a conversation about Belgium history and politics. Similar to many countries, Belgium has a long history of conflict between the north and south. The north being stronger economically and industrially and the south being poorer and more agricultural. In this case, the northern part of the country is Dutch-speaking while the southern part is French-speaking (there is also a small part that speaks German). In any case, we started talking about our motives for doing the Camino and he shared that his father had recently passed away and he was doing the Camino in remembrance of him.

He asked what we did for a living and I shared that we work with a church, that Edu is a pastor in training, and that he enjoys teaching. “Teaching the gospel?”, he asked. It was my turn to be surprised. “Yes, the gospel. What’s that mean to you?” I asked. For the remainder of the walk, we went back and forth and talked about faith, Jesus, and church. He shared with me that he believes all people are good and they never really do bad things intentionally. His optimism took me by surprise and I asked about Hitler. “He wasn’t a bad person?” I pressed. He defended his stance saying that Hitler was trying to do a good thing in the wrong way. “His intentions were good” said my new flemish friend. I confessed saying “I’m not good, I’m sinful.” He didn’t believe me. We started talking about Genesis, sin, the biblical narrative, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death for us. My friend said that he had once believed but he had seen so much corruption and hypocrisy that he couldn’t truly believe in Christianity anymore. I didn’t try to dodge his bullets of doubt, disbelief, and anger at the errors of “Holy Men” who had been church leaders and also pedophiles. I listened and did try to point him to faith. Even if all of his questions could be answered to his satisfaction, I reminded him that he would still have to believe in faith that Christ died and rose from the dead for us. It was a good conversation and we decided that if we saw each other in town later we would have a coffee or something together.

The hill walking into Pedrouzo wasn’t necessarily big as it was long.. At one point, Audrey and I looked up to see Hannah running up the hill and saying, “It never ends!”  Since we arrived so early, we put our backpacks down and went to get a coffee. It felt so good to put flip flops on and sit in a chair inside where there was A/C. After our coffee, we went back to the line and met a Brazilian man. We found that we understood each other better by me speaking Catalan and him speaking Portuguese instead of both of us trying to speak Spanish. It’s amazing how many romance languages can be understood by knowing 1 or 2 of them well, having a good sense of humor, and speaking slowly. We must have talked for half an hour about family, life, etc. He shared with us about his wife and how she wasn’t able to travel with him and showed us the pictures on his camera and his love for flowers.

We got some lunch, went grocery shopping, and then made dinner in the craziest kitchen ever.

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There must have been twenty people in there cooking everything from spaghetti and pasta, to french fries in a wok. A group of French people in the common area started singing (think Edith Piaf music) and Audrey started the pasta while I went to go investigate. We finished our pasta so we took it outside to eat.

As we were on our way in and about to head to bed, I noticed a guy from the kitchen sitting outside. From the way he cooked earlier, I thought he must be a chef, so I asked him. He said that he wasn’t and we started talking about the Camino and our motives for walking. He was from Italy, in his early twenties, and started walking in St. Jean (southern France). He shared with me how he had saved up, working as a server in London for eight months to be able to walk the Camino for 5 weeks or so. We started talking about spiritual things and he started asking me questions about commandments and rules. He thought it was unfair that God would put limits and restrictions on what we can do. I shared that its more like our trust in God leads us to obey Him, not just a set of rules that we do/don’t adhere to. Conforming to the rules, obeying the law, doesn’t save you. It’s realizing that we haven’t obeyed, haven’t measured up, and Jesus is our sacrifice for that. Our trust is what leads us into a relationship with God. I enjoyed listening to him, his honesty and hearing what he believes and how he lives. We talked for a long time on the bench outside the hostel and he said he would try anything once. I shared my story of how I started reading the bible on my own several years ago and had people to talk through it with me. I challenged him to read it for himself and know who Jesus is before rejecting it completely. He liked the idea of that and said he’d do that.

Before heading off to bed, I introduced him to Edu and they chatted for a little bit before turning in.

Tuesday, July 16: Day 7, Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela (19,98km)

Our last morning was like all of our other Camino mornings. Wake up, pack, eat breakfast, doctor our feet, and head out. Somewhere amidst the walking, the quietness, meeting new people, getting to know people you already knew even better, the tiredness, life became so simple. I think that’s one of my favorite things about the Camino. Questions like, “What will I wear today?”, “What have I got to do today?”, “What are we going to eat?” become very simple to answer. I will wear the clean shirt in my backpack later, because I’m already wearing the other one. The task before us is to arrive at our destination. We’ll probably eat a sandwich and other things that we’ll buy at the grocery store. We walk, we eat, we sleep, we make new friends, and we journey together.

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When we arrived in Santiago de Compostela it was a little anti-climactic for me. Partly for the reason that I had been there twice before, but also because the last week hadn’t been about arriving, it was about the journey we took together. We ran into my Italian friend from the evening before, and I introduced him to the other people in our group. He seemed quite lost and disappointed. It was apparent he thought that when he arrived he would find a part of himself, but he didn’t. He said he didn’t really know what to do now and was surprised by this feeling of arriving at the end, and being let down. I helped give him directions to the Oficina de Peregrinos (Pilgrim’s Office) and said goodbye. We walked around Santiago the rest of the day and enjoyed our accommodations with a bathroom in every room! From public showers with no doors to your own bathroom, that’s luxury my friends.

Wednesday, July 17: Day 8, Santiago de Compostela to Barcelona

In a little over an hour, we covered the same distance in a plane that many people took thirty days (or more) to walk. We met people from places like Belgium, Ireland, Spain, USA, Holland, Germany, Italy, France, and many others. To hear who they are, how they live, and what they believe about God. The Camino is a place where you can share your story and that was our heart, to connect with other peregrinos, and share our story of how He redeemed us and extends that invitation to others.

It was good fun, but I was ready for a long hot shower, my comfortable bed, and to see our sweet Patita. Who knows, maybe we’ll find our way back to the Camino next summer…

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3 thoughts on “El Camino de Santiago: Travel stories

  1. Thanks for taking the time to share!! Loved hearing about the details of your trips and conversations. Pictures are gorgeous…would love to do this someday! Love y’all.

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