El Camino de Santiago

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During Easter break of my sophomore year of high school, I was lucky enough to embark on the Camino de Santiago. I was an exchange student with AFS Intercultural Programs in Madrid, Spain. One of the most anticipated trips of the year was the Camino. I was excited and a bit unprepared for the amount of walking I was going to be doing for the next week. The packing list was extensive but luckily my host family let me borrow one of their backpacking backpacks. I travelled with my fellow exchange students from the Madrid area to northern Portugal to begin our trip. We met up with AFS exchange students from all the other autonomous communities within Spain. Many of them I had not seen since orientation, and it was nice to reconnect and meet new people as well. I do not remember each of our stops but I remember the connections I made with the volunteers and fellow exchange students along the way. We saw the picturesque countryside and ate delicious local food. It was my favorite trip I took during my exchange year in Spain and I hope to do it again someday. Now it is time for your journey to begin!

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Have you ever dreamed of backpacking through Europe but didn’t know where to start? Forget the hassle of deciphering public transportation or figuring out car rentals. All you’ll need for this journey is a pair of comfortable hiking boots and a backpack, so get ready to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. The route you will be traveling on is the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James.

The Camino de Santiago is a network of paths originating in France, Portugal, and Spain, converging towards a singular destination: the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Established in the 9th century following the discovery of the relics of St. James the Great, this network evolved into a Christian pilgrimage route during medieval times and has persisted through the centuries. Beyond its religious significance, the Camino de Santiago welcomes anyone seeking to appreciate the beauty of the Iberian Peninsula.

Every pilgrim, known as a 'peregrino,' is required to possess a pilgrim passport, which must be stamped along the journey to Santiago de Compostela. These passports are obtainable at 'albergues' (hostels) or tourism offices. When lodging in public 'albergues,' the passport is essential for accommodation and serves as a delightful record of all the locations you have stayed.

With a plethora of routes to choose from, selecting the right one can be a daunting task. While most of your journey will be in Spain, the starting point may vary. Here are a few routes to help you determine which might be the best fit for you.

  1. El Camino Francés, the French Way: This one is the most popular route and each year accounts for over 50% of all pilgrimages. It starts near the border of France and is a combination of mountainous and flat terrain. Due to its higher foot traffic, it boasts many services and places to rest, making it suitable for families with children.
  2. El Camino Portugués, the Portuguese Way: As the second most favored route, this journey passes through cities such as Lisbon, Porto, and Santander, offering a scenic route along beautiful coastlines and sandy beaches.
  3. El Camino Norte, the Northern Way: Regarded as one of the most challenging routes, the Northern Way features multiple ascents and descents. It guides pilgrims through the rugged northern coastline of Pais Vasco (Basque Country) and Asturias in Spain.
  4. El Camino Primitivo, Original Way: This is considered to be the first pilgrimage route of the Camino. It has beautiful valleys and is considered more physically demanding. It has less amenities along the way but is known for its picturesque nature.

Now that you've chosen your route, where should you start? While there's no strict rule on where to begin your Camino journey, many opt to walk at least the final 100km, or 62 miles, to fulfill their pilgrimage. There is no set time frame for finishing the Camino. Each ‘peregrino’ can go at their own pace and experience the more laidback lifestyle of Spain. Take your time relishing a morning 'cafe con leche' or indulging in that elusive siesta you rarely allow yourself. Along the way, you'll cross paths with fellow ‘peregrinos’ from various corners of the world, united by a shared goal. Immerse yourself in the local cuisine, delve into the language, and embrace the culture of every town you visit. The Camino de Santiago presents a remarkable opportunity to form connections while discovering a new facet of the world.

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