A Friend on the Caminoa helping hand on the camino frances
Leaves crushed into the dirt on the Camino de Santiago
I’ve read and heard a lot of descriptions of the Camino de Santiago by other people, but I’ve rarely heard or seen a description of the actual trail. What is it that you will be walking on?
Unless you want to base your idea of what the Camino trail is like from “10 Reasons Why El Camino Santiago Sucks” (dude, it’s definitely more than 1% narrow dirt trail). You’ll be spending much of your time on the trail, and you will, over the course of a few weeks, become closely acquainted with types of walking surfaces that you encounter.
None of the Camino de Santiago is technically difficult and you barely need hiking shoes to complete it, in fact, I’ve seen people walking in everything from bare feet to plimsols to heavy duty hiking boots. But you are walking great distances and your feet will get tired!
I’ve included descriptions of the different parts so you get a better idea of the trail on which you are going to be taking a million steps (give or take a few).
Farm Tracks and Wide, Flat Trails
Most of the Camino is this kind of trail. The agriculture of Northern Spain will be your constant companion. You will often be passed by huge tractors or other farm equipment moving between the fields. These tracks are often quite well maintained so that they work well for both hikers and tractors – BUT – sometimes the roads become mangled muddy messes if there has been a significant amount of rain. If you are walking through the fields in the rain, be aware that you may get bogged down and your boots will be completely clogged with mud. It can be a long hard slog through the mud and rain especially when you are carrying an extra 2kg of mud on each foot!
When you are further along on the trail, into Galicia you will also encounter a lot of ‘caca de la vaca’ (cow poo) on the farm tracks, and sometimes on the main street of the towns and villages! You may get to the point where you only avoid the really messy wet cow pies and just get used to the rest.
There are a few issues with this part of the trail, like the Senda (see below), there are few private places to pee (bushes and trees you can go behind if you really, really need to) and not much shade.
When the tracks wind through wooded areas they can be lovely, cool places to walk, and the sunshine in the open fields can warm your soul.
Walking through wine country
Walking through Logroño the morning after a wine festival
Paved roads through Towns and Cities…
When going into and out of cities and towns you are walking on city streets, with city traffic, lights, and noise. Sometimes, if you’ve been out of the city for awhile, this can be disconcerting. But with the city comes all the delights of fancy foods, stocking up on supplies, and the chance to mail forward more things from your pack that you don’t want to carry anymore!
There is often the temptation to take a city bus the last few kilometers into a town. Decide for yourself what you want to do, and don’t feel like you have to live to anyone else’s standards of a “true pilgrim.” If you aren’t strict about your Camino walking, feel free to take a bus, after all, walking through industrial suburbs and boring tract housing on hard pavement through rushing traffic can be the worst part of the Camino.
On roads, please be VERY careful about traffic. Don’t be stupid, stick to the sidewalk/pavements and don’t forget to follow traffic rules and traffic lights.
…and through the Countryside
If you aren’t on a dirt track going through the countryside, you are probably on a paved road. These are often tiny country roads that wind through the fields, much like the dirt tracks but paved!
Paved roads are hardest on your feet and joints. Make sure you have fresh insoles in your shoes (you’ll probably benefit from changing them partway through the walk).
This type of track is usually found when going up or down steep hills – at the top of the Pyrenees, going up and coming down from the Cruz de Ferro, up to O Cebreiro, and in some parts of Galicia. The rocks can be quite slippery when wet, so be cautious. Walking poles can be quite useful for these situations.
A paved road in the countryside
The Senda on the Camino de Santiago
The translation for “senda” is just path, or track, but on the Camino the senda refers to the track that runs alongside the straight flat roads of the meseta. The meseta are the plains in the middle of Spain (the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains, or so my grandfather used to tell me) and I had a couple of Albertans once swear that it looks exactly like Alberta. So very flat, with lots of agriculture! And also long, straight flat roads with burning sunshine and distances that go on forever.
Many people avoid the meseta, either taking transport through it, or biking through to get to the other side as fast as possible. In my opinion, the meseta can be the most beautiful part of the walk. It is the most meditative, the longest vistas, and has some of the prettiest towns.
Keep in mind, that there are often ‘alternative’ routes that are much more interesting and soft on the feet and with more shade. Sometimes, even if they are a few kilometers farther, they make for a much more pleasant day walking.
WARNING: be careful of the bollards or posts in the middle of the senda. I met a guy who was paying more attention to the view than where he was walking. I’m sure he was thinking that the path was just a flat gravel path. But he tripped over one of the bollards and dislocated his knee — end of his Camino. Pay attention to where you are going!