When you make the decision to walk all or part of the Camino de Santiago, your most important question is answered..you have started your trip. However, you will have many other questions to answer..how will I get to Spain, what equipment will I bring, how fit do I need to be, what frame of mind will I need to be in? It does get a little daunting to say the least. For me, I knew very little about the pilgrimage and it was only after I returned from my 2011 trip from Sarria to Santiago that I started to appreciate what the Camino de Santiago was really about. I haven’t looked back since.
When you decide that you want to walk to the Cathedral, you must then decide if you wish to plan your Camino yourself or have a third party do so. Organised Caminos are run by many companies and most can be arranged and booked online. There are many in Ireland who are very successful. These companies pre-book your accommodation based upon a schedule and daily mileage prediction determined by you and they then organise hotel rooms to meet your pace and duration of Camino. Vehicles then shuttle all of your baggage from one hotel to the next so that everything that you need is waiting for you on your arrival.
While the above may sound perfect for the infirm or for groups and families, there are a number of advantages to planning and organising your Camino yourself:
Flexibility: There is nothing better than being able to walk at your own pace and in your own time. One morning you could wake at 7 am and choose to walk 10kms, while the next, you could walk 25km. This would not be the case in an organised Camino where your hotel is booked for you and you have no choice but to stay there for the night in the selected town. Or what if you meet some great people while having a cafe con leche, you don’t have the option to walk with them further, which can be disappointing. So I would say that not knowing how many kilometres you are hoping to walk the following day is a good thing.
Cost: While many would argue that this is not the case, the Camino is a pilgrimage. It has been for hundreds of years. The aim of the Camino should be to seek a sacrifice while at the same time, escape from the trappings of modern-day life – money being one of them. I usually walk my Caminos on a budget, however, many companies charge extremely high prices for even the final 7 days from Sarria. For me, it cost close to €1500 for Sarria to Santiago in 2011, while staying in very plush accommodation. However, this defeats the purpose of a pilgrimage in my opinion. Meals come in the form of “menu del dia”, an inexpensive 3-course meal, or you can cook yourself (or in a group). Nowadays, €30-35 per day should be enough for breakfast, a few cervezas, the albergue, and a meal at night. Flights from anywhere in Europe cost next to nothing if you book them in advance.
Albergues: Albergues are low-cost hostels run by volunteers or by private owners. They cost as little as €5 and up to €18 for the more expensive ones. There are some donation-only albergues, however, they are rare. Albergues are basic with bunk beds and can sleep from 20 to 150 pilgrims. I was blown away at first when I entered my first albergue in Astorga in 2012. However, most hospitaleros treat pilgrims like royalty. An albergue can be daunting to a first-time pilgrim. First, there is often jostling for beds, a lack of privacy, and simplicity. On the other hand, it often offers a fully-equipped kitchen where small groups of pilgrims fix their meals separately but at the same time. This is where a community of pilgrims is met and created. Many then will alternate between municipal and private albergues. They also offer a washing machine and dryer as well as access to the internet. A hotel organised through a company will give you a chance to take a long bath, the possibility to spread out your few belongings and sleep as long as you want. However, you won’t create these friendships that you could do in albergues. I am still in contact with friends from as far back as 2012. My favourite moments were in albergues.
There are downsides to booking through a company – the loss of independence, cost & mingling and meeting people from all over the world. But what alternatives are there for you?
Booking.com, TripAdvisor.com & Jacotrans: If you still feel anxious about organising a partial or full Camino yourself, I would recommend deciding using Booking.com to reserve a bed, whether it be a bunk or a private room, the night before you walk. Don’t do it weeks before because you will only limit yourself. And if you feel like you can carry your backpack, do it! Practice carrying your backpack as much as you can before you leave. If you can’t, you can avail of the services of Jacotrans. Jacotrans.com is a great service that brings your bag from one destination to another. You leave a tag on your backpack, pay a fee and start walking, knowing that your backpack will be waiting for you when you finish. It’s great to use if you pick up an injury. And in this great day and age, there are mobile phone applications for each of the above services.
So, if you are reading this and are fit and able to walk the Camino de Santiago, then my advice is to have a little faith in yourself and avoid third party companies. Do the organising yourself and save yourself a little money. You will also make some lifelong friends in the meantime. I have walked both types of Caminos and I know in my heart what is the best way. Choose wisely.