The highs and lows of the Camino de Santiago trail

“Oh I´d love to do the Camino”. “Oh I´ve always wanted to go to Santiago”. “Oh I´m so jealous of you.” That’s what people told me before I embarked for three weeks on the trail. And yes, it was good. And I´m very glad I did it. But it wasn´t always fun and games whilst crossing the North of Spain.

The camino running beside trucks and flat tarmac. Yuck.

The Meseta section of the camino is a particular low point that comes to mind. Its flat and dull and boring for over 200 kilometres of trail. Huge sections of the camino run right beside roads. Sometimes the trail is the road itself and you spend hours pounding on hard tarmac. The Mesata’s long section of “Roman Road” was also not the historical experience I had hoped for. Instead it was 15 kilometers of flat, straight open path across barren fields, with no water or coffee stops, and with only a side on gale to keep me from stopping and sinking into despair.

On the other hand, meandering through rural villages was a lovely highlight on the trail. But traversing vast towns was a definite bane of my journey. The pavements through Lagrono hurt my legs so much I had to stop for a massive steak lunch. I stopped early and overnighted in Burgos to let my leg pain subside. And once I hit Leon, the last large town, I just put my head down and prayed that it would soon be over.

Cool little rural houses along the camino.

When I think “Spain”, I think “warm, sunny weather”. But most mornings were cold and damp with me wearing hat and gloves and hood. Day 1 was snow and gale force winds going over the Pyrenees. Day 4 was a full-on day of miserable rain. That day I had to eat all my chocolate biscuits out of sheer desperation and misery.

Braving the snow on Day 1 of the camino.

Amnesia was a major set back on the route. I couldn’t remember the day of the week or its date. I could never remember the village I was in. I couldn’t remember where I can come from that day or the village where I planned to go next. Everything become a slightly disconcerting, but eventually existential blur.

Seeing my ipod sky dive off my top bunk was a definite low moment. Having finally found somewhere to charge it (a socket at waist level on the wall), the only place I could balance it was on my actual bed. It wasn’t long before the ipod fell off and the screen cracked into multiple shards. The only godsent was the device still working, but that didn’t stop me from spending 85 Euros on my return so that I could read again the damn screen.

My cracked ipod screen after it took a nose dive off a hostel bed.

Snoring is the bane of anyone using the hostel/albergue system. I never knew that people could make such a variety of weird and wonderful sounds whilst being totally sound asleep. At the start, it kept me awake. So I did more miles to tire myself out and make me comatose at bedtime. By the end, a sound-asleep, roaring, overweight bearded German couldn’t even shake me from my slumber.

Snorers and bag rustlers in the hostels made me get up at the crack of dawn. But sometimes it was worth it, just to see the sun rise.

Having finished the camino, I never want to see another cheese baguette sandwich again. And I may have gone off chorizo for life. I also learnt that the out-of-fridge shelf life of salami is less than 24 hours. I found this out through finishing off some salami that had been in my bag for more than a day. I spent the next day rushing between loos, proper toilets being unfortunately far and few between on the camino trail.

Speaking of toilets, a major downer on the camino was the lack of toilet etiquette. Look behind any bush and I’d find toilet paper strewn across the ground. There was no effort to bury it or to carry it out in packs. The worst was finding an actual fresh poo right beside the trail with paper placed right beside, with not even the remotest effort to conceal it with the used bog roll.

Some cool trails on the camino.

I found out that Spanish shops have the strangest opening times. I’d wander through village after village during the day and every sign of commerce was categorically shut. Siestas were used to explain for these closures. However there must be some serious narcolepsy going on in Spain, with shops closed from 10am to 6pm in some places.

I’ve had my fair share of aches and pains over the years thanks to running. But never before have I experienced such sore calf muscles than on the camino. Despite daily stretching, it would still take me an hour of walking in the morning before my calves would let me run. Fortunately though, I escaped from the camino amazingly injury free.

Despite all the minor gripes given above, there were a lot of high points on the trail. The best day was number 14, when I ran the slopes between Rabanal and Molinaseca, crossing the camino’s highest point, the 1,515 metre Punto Alto. Some of the poor walkers didn’t know what to say or do as I ran down the rocky slopes they were stumbling down.

Crazy European who doesn’t know about the existence of rucksacks lugging his bag up to Punto Alto.

The next day I took a diversion out of Villafranca and towards Dragonte. The route ran up mountains and through three valleys with crazy descents and muddy, ill marked climbs through remote rural villages. It nearly killed me but I loved it. I arrived at the only hostel within 4km at 4pm to find that it was full. The exhaustion on my face must have made the man take pity, and he threw a mattress on the floor for me to sleep on. He even changed the cover once he discovered his cat had peed on it.

Another great thing about the camino is the amount of sleep I got. Nine hours of blissful slumber every night, going to sleep at dusk and waking gently at dawn. And what with the camino keeping far away noise from the outside world, I had lots of intense and crazy dreams that I would fully remember in the morning.

One of the many medieval bridges on the camino.

Simple things became the best things whilst on the camino. Most of these involved food and soap. Hot showers made me so happy. Dry, warm clothes were the business. Getting clothes washed in a proper washing machine was the ultimate in splashing out. 10 Euro three course meals with bread and red wine were my staple. Three breakfasts a day were the norm, with copious amounts of coffee, croissants, and pain au chocolate. Galaician beer was definitely very tasty but caused an unfortunately massive hangover. The ultimate in food exploration was a trip to the local Supermercado with rows and rows of food for me to ogle over. Then there were the slap-up celebratory meals. On reaching Santiago I ordered a thick steak, properly rare, smothered in chips, my excuse being to counteract any potential traces of exercise induced anemia. And on reaching Finisterre and the Atlantic Ocean, I gobbled the best paella ever with cockles and mussels and little baby octopus.

Where all my nice red wine came from!

Wifi made me extremely happy on the camino. I never have had so much fun surfing and tweeting. Where wifi wasn’t available, there was often a desktop with an internet connection. Though I’ll never understand why to under God Spanish keyboards have to randomly jumble up the position of all the keys.

But I’m glad I did the camino. I know this fact because I had a momentary choked-up moment on arriving in Santiago. I had spent so much time journeying to that town that I did become a tad emotional on finally getting there. I’m also really grateful that I had the time to go out and do the camino, time that not everyone has the luxury of. Overall the camino is an incredibly well-marked and well-maintained trail. It has plenty of places to stop and eat, with cheap 5 Euro hostels all over the place. Its a brilliant way to meet random people from all over the world. And some of these people, through this journey, can become the closest of friends.

The end of the road, the Atlantic Ocean and Finsterre. 0.00km on the camino road clock.

I continued on from Santiago and did the extra 90km to Finisterre, Spain’s furthest point to the west. And there I definitely knew it was time to go home. I had weathered the camino’s lows and was glad of its many highs. But I was happy to finally return to my own normal life, and to return to the weird and wonderful highs and lows that I get to live anyway without having to run 40km every day.

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10 thoughts on “The highs and lows of the Camino de Santiago trail

  1. i am just about to finish running the french way (tomorrow) and was wondering if you know of any other women who have run the entire way? i did it slower, averaging a half marathon a day for 34 days… kudos to you on the speed! are there many of us?

    1. Congratulations Astrid! And enjoy your arrival in Santiago. I don’t know anyone else who ran it, but I am sure there are others. I hope you enjoyed your run!

  2. Hey!,
    My boyfriend and I are planning on doing the trail thus summer, we are considering running but not sure where to start with the training for that. Currently we are varsity athletes at a university in XC and Track and Field but I understand their is large difference in doing a 5km and doing 50km. Any suggestions would be helpful. Heres my email, mountain2009@hotmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

  3. I also enjoyed your blog, in particular the section on Spanish siesta. So very true. I visited Spain over ten years ago and every time we would decide to get a bite to eat, nothing would be open!

  4. You do realise that the guy you refer to as a “crazy european” probably thinks everyone else is insane with their rucksacks and is wondering why nobody else has noticed the invention of the wheel !

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