Why You Should Hike the 800-Kilometer Camino De Santiago

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By Karan Bajaj

I was pulled to the Camino De Santiago, the 800-kilometer walking pilgrimage from the Pyrenees mountains in France to the town of Santiago De Compostela in Spain, the moment I’d first heard of it in 2011. A seventy-year-old French artist was making a presentation about his Camino pilgrimage in the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Arts in New York one night. His face lit up as he talked about the physical hardship of the journey, the hospitality of the churches who opened their doors to pilgrims each night, and the deep sense of community among travelers from all over the world walking for weeks on the same physical and spiritual path.

I’m not religious in the conventional sense, but his energy filled up the room so much that I felt I was having a religious experience that day. My mother had recently passed away from cancer. I was feeling down and out. The unexpected talk gave me hope. I knew I would walk the Camino one day. Life came in the middle–jobs, startups, kids. But last month, more than a decade later, after I’d first planned to do it, I was fortunate to walk the full 800-kilometer pilgrimage solo, thanks to my wife’s support in taking care of the kids in this time. I hope this blog can inspire some of you to make the journey as a pay-it-forward to the unknown gentleman who inspired me:

Quick Background: What is the Camino De Santiago?

From medieval times, Christian pilgrims have walked from their homes to the cathedral of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage, a penance, and a religious experience. Today, people walk for a variety of reasons, and based on the hundreds of pilgrims I met along the way; I’d split as follows:

40%: People-in-major-transitions– Folks changing careers, seeking meaning and revitalisation after retirement or divorce, or generally questioning the apparent meaninglessness of the birth-life-death cycle.

20%: Challenge Seekers– People seeking to challenge themselves by pushing the limits of how much they can walk and how much pain they can endure.

20%: Deepening Christian faith- A notable number of people I met were Catholics looking to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ.

10%: Celebrating Relationships– Families, spouses, or friends walking together in small groups, enjoying the dedicated time together.

10% Camino Loyalists- People who fall in love with the picturesque Spanish countryside, the community of pilgrims, the health benefits of walking, and the time to reflect–and keep returning every few years.

Pilgrims of the Camino: Diverse and Deep

I was pulled urgently to the walk now in 2022, for example, given both my transition from the corporate/startup world to a potential path in the public sector and the time to reflect on the Buddhist text I’ve been reading very actively this year. As an aside, please drop me a note in the comments if you want any Buddhist reading recommendations-they that’ve had a very profound impact on my life this year. 

Why is the Camino so special?

I’ve hiked a fair amount and the Camino De Santiago is as rich and varied scenery as I’ve traversed. The landscape changes daily from misty mountains in France to the dreaded flat “Meseta” plains in Spain, then ancient, picturesque Spanish villages and iconic modern cities like Pampalona and Burgos. One day, early in the morning in the plains, my eyes teared up at the first light of dawn, so overwhelming was the beauty around me.

5:30a.m in the Spanish countryside-Overwhelmed with Beauty

More than the natural beauty though, the Camino de Santiago ranks right up there with 30-Day Yoga Teacher’s Training and multiple 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreats, as one of my most profound life experiences for more personal reasons: 

  • The Pilgrim’s Simplicity 

I loved the simplicity of the pilgrim’s way. You strip the contents of your backpack to nothing but a change of clothes and the barest gear since even 1 kilogram of extra weight is the difference between enjoying a pleasant hike and feeling like a beast of burden. Then, you just wake up and walk. Days turn into weeks. You keep walking. One change of clothes is all you need to live. And you’re the happiest you’ve been. My wife and I are minimalists at heart and have never bought a house or a car or much stuff; living off little more than a backpack. But sometimes, I second-guess our drifting life, especially after kids. The Camino affirmed the beauty of it. 

The more you know, the less you need. 

One of the most enlightened folks I met in the Camino was a former pilgrim who now just lives along the way in a hut for the past decade, serving pilgrims with fruits and coffee, charging them nothing, making enough from donations to serve food the next day. He owns nothing but has everything.

The Portrait of Enlightened Man in front of his food stall
  • The Lived Experience of Faith

The Buddha gave many important sermons on the impermanent nature of feelings and thoughts. I never understood his teachings more than in the daily walk through the pain of blisters and swollen feet in the Camino. Everything passes. The memory of the pain from the morning is a distant event while resting in the municipal church in the evening. And the next day, the warmth of the night before with its conversations and celebrations with fellow pilgrims is forgotten by the pain of walking again. Nothing lasts, good or bad. I understood spiritual truths in a daily way in the Camino. Similarly, Christ’s compassion is perhaps never more evident than in the faces of the Municipal Church volunteers, who always manage to find a space for you when you arrive dead tired after a long day of walking. 

Roncesvalles Church-in which they made space for me in the Basement when every bed was full!
  • The Subtle Realisation of The Good Life 

On a typical day in the Camino, you set a challenging goal of walking a little more than your ability, then stretch your limits to accomplish it, and sit back and celebrate your accomplishment in the evening with your fellow pilgrims. A microcosm of a good life, as it were.  In life back home, one or the other of these is always missing, usually the celebration.

Sightseeing with a pilgrim at the end of a 35 kilometer walking day

Finally, no Camino is complete without mention of the revolving yet profound community of fellow pilgrims you meet along the way. People don’t make small talk. They cut to the core immediately. I have so many memories–a Belgian social worker trying to forgive himself for a failed marriage and estranged kids, an Irish grandmother who married a native Indian and lived in the wilderness for decades, an American couple who found love for the first time in their sixties–all of their stories shifted something in me. We’re processes, not people, capable of infinite re-invention and many second acts.

How to do the Camino in 26 Days?

The Camino de Frances, the most popular Camino route, usually takes 35 days to walk, including rest days. I wanted to finish in 26 days to be back home for my kids who were starting camp in a new city–and give my wife some relief. This is the route I followed- stretching but never too much–with the side benefit of stopping mostly in villages off the beaten trail. I also liked the daily momentum of walking, so I took only one complete rest day in the whole pilgrimage. Instead, I opted for walking shorter 20-kilometer days when I felt I was overdoing the 30-35 kilometer days:

  • Day 0: Took Bla Bla bus from Madrid to Bayonne, followed immediately with a train to Saint Jean Pied De Port, the Camino De Frances official starting point.
  • Day 1: Saint Jean Pied De Port to Roncavalles (25 Kilometers)
  • Day 2: Roncavalles to Larrasoana (27 Kilometers)
  • Day 3: Larrasoana to Uterga (32 Kilometers)
  • Day 4: Uterga to Azqueta (36 Kilometers)
  • Day 5: Azqueta to Viana (32 Kilometers)
  • Day 6: Viana to Navarette (22 Kilometers)
  • Day 7: Navarette to Ciruena (31 Kilometers)
  • Day 8: Ciruena to Belorado (29 Kilometers)
  • Day 9: Belorado to Atapuerca (30 Kilometers)
  • Day 10: Atapuerca to Burgos (20 Kilometers)
  • Day 11: Burgos to Hontanas (31 Kilometers)
  • Day 12: Hontanas to Boadilla Del Camino (29 Kilometers)
  • Day 13: Boadilla Del Camino to Carrion De Los Condes (24 Kilometers)
  • Day 14: Carrion De Los Condes to San Nicolas Del Real Camino (32 Kilometers)
  • Day 15: San Nicolas Del Real Camino to Reliegos (38 Kilometers)
  • Day 16: Reliegos to Leon (25 Kilometers)
  • Day 17: Rest Day in Leon
  • Day 18: Leon to Hospital De Orbigo (32 Kilometers)
  • Day 19: Hospital De Orbigo to Rabinal Del Camino (37 Kilometers)
  • Day 20: Rabina Del Camino to Molinaseca (25 Kilometers)
  • Day 21: Molinaseca to Villafranca Del Bierzo (32 Kilometers)
  • Day 22: Villafranca Del Bierzo to Linares (31 Kilometers)
  • Day 22: Linares to Sarria (36 Kilometers)
  • Day 23: Sarria to Gonzar (29 Kilometers)
  • Day 24: Gonzar to Boente (37 Kilometers)
  • Day 25: Boente to Lavacolla (37 Kilometers)
  • Day 26: Lavacolla to Santiago  De Compostela (10 Kilometers)
And finally the destination, St James Cathedral in Santiago!

Does this inspire you to walk the Camino De Santiago?

The pilgrims and church volunteers I met along the way all wished more Indians would walk the path as they’ve seen barely a handful in the last decade. So if you’re reading this from India, do know you’ll be welcome with open arms. And if you’re ready to drop everything to walk soon, please drop me a note in the comments if you need any of the following so I send it your way:

  • Best Packing List- How to pack a 7 kg backpack with everything you need.
  • The Only Camino App you need and the best places to stay.
  • Total Costs of the trip–start to finish.
  • Anything else you need!

Buen Camino! May your life be a great journey.

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