Of all the mystical roads in the world, El Camino de Santiago – The Way of St. James – is one of the most easily accessed and enjoyed. Seeing a surge in popularity in recent years, the Camino is an adventurous, breathtaking hike to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the faithful believe St. James is buried.
The most popular route – the 500-mile trek from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France – is famous for its opulent natural beauty, medieval architecture, and cultural highlights. You will walk the ancient road from village to village, from hostel to hostel, eating and drinking the local fare and – some say – breathing in the ghosts of ancient times.
Here are 8 secrets to experiencing the magic of the Camino.
Bring a Stone from Home in Your Backpack
At the Cruz de Ferro, or the Iron Cross, pilgrims place a small stone on the mound at the foot of the cross as a symbol of leaving their burdens or mistakes behind. Bring a stone (or other small object) with you from home, that symbolizes some pain or worry you’d like to leave to the past. At the Cross, put down your burden, and walk toward Santiago with a light heart.
Open Your Heart to Strangers
If you are traveling solo, never fear! Thousands of pilgrims take to the Way on their own. Staying each night in the communal albergues, or pilgrim’s hostels, makes it easy to meet new friends from around the world. Many albergues host a pilgrim’s dinner in the evening, a friendly gathering of travelers speaking dozens of languages, but united in their quest to reach Santiago. Don’t be shy! Join the table, break bread together and share your story with your fellow travelers. You won’t be alone for long.
Accept the Gifts of the Villagers
Many townspeople along the Camino believe that a pilgrim on the Way is under the protection of St. James; they’ll offer you succulent grapes right from their vineyards, briny oysters fresh from the sea, warm bread, wheels of cheese or flasks of wine. Accept their delicious gifts with a smile and a heartfelt gracias. Don’t try to give them money for these offerings – they believe St. James will bless them for their generosity.
Walk in Hemingway’s Footsteps
As memorialized in The Sun Also Rises, you can linger between enchanted forests in the town of Burguete, where Hemingway lodged while fishing in the mighty Pyranees mountains. Then visit the main square of the vibrant city of Pamplona (without the bulls running). Don’t miss the Café Iruña, right on the Plaza, for small snacks, wine, spirits or a country meal. Papa Hemingway loved the warmth and charm of Spain, and after walking in his footsteps, you will, too.
Experience the Queimada
The Queimada is an ancient Celtic ritual to ward off evil spirits. Your host fills a clay pot (representing Mother Earth) with Orujo (a potent Spanish brandy), coffee beans, lemon peel and sugar. The “potion” is set afire, creating a waterfall effect of blue flame, while an ancient prayer is recited. Then the clay pot is covered with a heavy lid, extinguishing the fire, and the warm drink is shared among friends. Tradition holds that if you drink 3 sips, you will fan the flames of passion in your own life. In Galicia, the Queimada is most popular at Halloween (Sahmain), and on Witches Night or St. John’s Night (June 23).
Gaze at the Botafumeiro
When you arrive in Santiago, your first stop will be the majestic spires of the Cathedral. During the pilgrim’s Mass, you’ll witness the spectacular Botafumeiro, in which the massive golden censer, or incense burner, is filled with incense and then set aloft in the Cathedral, swinging rhythmically over the heads of the pilgrims. The powerful aroma of the incense seeps into every corner of the Cathedral. It takes 8 men to operate the Botafumeiro, as it weighs over 100 pounds, and can reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour!
Walk to the End of the World
If you have time (and are not too weary to walk a little more), journey on to the lighthouse at Cabo Finisterre, a village on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. Its name actually means “End of the Earth”, as the Romans believed the world itself ended here. Don’t miss the dramatic sunset over the rocky, untamed coastline. If you’d like to observe tradition, this is the place to discard the clothes and boots you wore on your pilgrimage, symbolizing the casting off of old habits and worries, and the beginning of a fresh, new start.
Buen Camino! (Good Journey!)
Veterans say the that the real Camino begins after you return home, as you adjust to “normal life” after days or weeks of being on the Way. You may feel calmer, less worried about everyday things, or more exhilarated about life in general. You’ll cherish your loved ones more, and maybe even feel more spiritually connected. Will you be one of the many pilgrims who return to walk the path again and again?
Everyone’s Camino is unique, so treasure yours, whatever it turns out to be. Whether you go for spiritual renewal, physical challenge or self-discovery, the magic of the Way will stay with you, long after you return home. Buen Camino!