There are at least 7 main Camino routes but which is the best Camino? How many days does it take to walk each Camino de Santiago? Where does each Camino trail start and end? And . . which is the safest?
There are seven main routes of El Camino de Santiago . . The Way of St James: Camino Frances, Camino Portuguese, Camino del Norte, Camino Primitivo (the original Primitive Way), Via de la Plata (the Silver Way), Camino Inglés (the English Way) and Camino Finisterre-Muxía. But which is the most popular Camino? How long does it take to walk each Camino de Santiago? Where does each Camino trail start and end? And . . what are the safest ways to travel?
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In general, apart from death by blisters and bed bugs(!) the Camino de Santiago is one of the safest travelling adventures in the world - whether you are walking the Camino alone as a woman, an inexperienced traveller going on the Camino for the first time, or even suffering from some sort of ailment or pre-existing medical condition.
Spain’s very own Correos (the national Post Office that helps with transport of heavy loads for Caminantes) advises / notes that travelling the Camino de Santiago is very safe, if you plan, monitor and comply with safety regulations. But year after year people ask about safety in hostels, and the difficulty of the terrain.
So, is it safe to travel the Camino alone?
Yes, it's safe, say Correos, and a very common choice for those who want to “disconnect and re-connect with themselves.”
The low level of problems on the Camino de Santiago is the predominant issue. One of the reasons is that, in reality, you will never be alone. Departure times and arrivals each day are usually the same for most pilgrims, starting early in the morning and arriving at their destination in the afternoon. This of course broadens in high season, from April to the end of September.
Walking in solitude can be a life-changing experience, one of great spirituality for many pilgrims, thus, there are many who decide to undertake a solo walk in order to "connect" with themselves. Travelling alone, far from meaning vulnerability, allows for meeting other people and for leaving the Camino with a great sense of experience and with a backpack stuffed full of memories and stories!
Which is the best Camino?
So let’s consider some of the main routes (because some are a lot more busy than others, especially in the Summer and, if you want to experience walking alone, other, less popular routes may be more appropriate): Don’t forget, every year more and more people choose to do the Camino de Santiago as an alternative to going to the crowded beaches of summer.
In ten years, the number of travellers on The Way of Saint James has grown from 114,000 to more than 300,000 last year, according to data from the delightfully-named Pilgrim's Office. The international interest in this journey / pilgrimage / route / walk (call it what you will) is indisputable. In addition to any religious or spiritual significance that it might have, it is also said to be an opportunity to get in touch with nature, discover historical monuments and meet people. "It's a kind of bubble where you will only find solidarity and good vibes," says one intrepid traveller, aged 71, who is celebrating his eighth pilgrimage this year.
But it is more than that: Those who have lived the experience have a hard time explaining the sensation upon entering the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. "It's very exciting to arrive in Santiago," says a 52-year-old lady from Madrid with 4 pilgrimages under her belt, "you arrive at the square and start to cry."
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She travels every year with the United Hearts for Health Association, which organises activities for people with cardiovascular ailments. They travel about 100 kms of the Camino de Santiago in a week with a bus that accompanies them and carries their backpacks . . and a defibrillator. At the end of the day, it takes them to their lodging and, in the morning, it returns them to the point where they were picked up the day before.
"The Camino de Santiago has something magical," says another traveller: “According to legend, stone pebbles along the Way contain the souls of earlier pilgrims!”
Where does the Camino trail start and end?
Although the final destination is, of course, always Santiago de Compostela (and the Cathedral), there are many routes and ways by which pilgrims can travel to the city:
The French Way is by far the most popular route. More than 180,000 people (60 percent of the total number of pilgrims) chose this Jacobean route last year. For this reason it is not conducive to those who seek peace and loneliness in the natural environment. "The landscapes are very beautiful," says one young lady walker, "although places like Astorga can be very crowded in summer.”
However, el Camino Frances does have the most complete network of shelters and is better signed. It is also the journey with the greatest historical tradition and it is the best known internationally, in addition to having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
How many days does it take to walk the Camino de Santiago?
Getting to Santiago de Compostela from a neighbouring country like France or Portugal can take a month or more to walk, if you plan on walking around 25kms per day (which is more or less the norm). The 800kms of the Camino Francés for example, can be divided into 32 stages from Jean Pied de Port. There are however several different starting points and routes from France: Paris-Tours, Vézelay-Limoges and Le Puy-Conques entering Spain through Roncesvalles (Navarra); Arles-Toulouse entering through the port of Somport and continuing through Jaca (Aragon). From the Puente de la Reina (Navarra), there is a single route that crosses different cities in northern Spain, such as Logroño, Burgos or Ponferrada.
The Portuguese Way is probably the second most popular, with almost 20 percent of travellers - about 60,000 visitors last year. It is less crowded and probably less difficult than the French Way. The route has three main departure options. From Lisbon, about 600kms to Santiago de Compostela; from Porto, just over 100kms; and from Tui about 120kms. The longest route consists of 25 stages and the shortest of only 5. The biggest drawback of this route is the passage through an industrial estate in O Porriño! However, since 2013 they have opened an alternative route to avoid this stretch which has more charm!
An attractive alternative for the summer months is the Portuguese coast road, overlooking the sea, which runs along the Atlantic coast from Porto, passing by Viana do Castelo, A Guarda and Vigo.
The third most popular Way of St James is the Northern Way, especially for those who like to shelter from the excessive heat of the summer in this part of Europe: Last year it was traveled by more than 17,000 pilgrims and so is much less crowded than the first two. From Irún, it runs for 824kms and is usually divided into 32 stages. This route is of important cultural heritage although it can definitely rain here and walkers should be prepared with rainwear, etc. The green of the mountains and the blue of Cantabrian sea gives this journey great scenic beauty. It is also known as the Camino de la Costa. In 2015, it was declared, together with the Primitive Way (below), a UNESCO National Heritage. "You go along the seashore and the cliffs,” says one seasoned traveller, although he warns, "it is the hardest road, but it is worth it because you are in contact with the sea".
The fourth way, Primitive Way, is the oldest. Less than 14,000 pilgrims travelled it last year. This ancient route is recommended for the more experienced mountain lovers, due to the requirement of some of the climbs, and its passage through fairly unpopulated areas. However this route, with its magnificent landscapes and few made up roads, compensates for the difficulty of the road. A World Heritage “Site”, it starts in Oviedo and traverses some 300kms over 11 stages that pass through Lugo before joining the French Way, 55kms from Santiago de Compostela. Its main drawback is the shortage of public shelters , although the offer of private accommodation compensates for this lack of public lodges or albergues.
Finally, the so-called English Way from the north is a medieval route that was used by those who arrived by sea at Ferrol or A Coruña. This path is shorter than the previous ones, being only 120kms over 5 stages from Ferrol and only 3 stages from A Coruña. With less than 12,000 annual visitors, it is much quieter.
It is also worth mentioning La Vía de la Plata from Portugal (once the fourth busiest route after the Northern Way). However, in the last three years it has been relegated to sixth place by visitor numbers: The 700kms that separate Seville from Astorga are not advisable in the summer, as it has many sections without shade and this is one of the hottest parts of Europe. And for those looking for the less explored paths, Muxia-Finisterre had only 655 walkers last year, and the Winter Road only 555. In addition, there is the Mozárabe, which departs from Málaga on the way to Almería to join La Vía de la Plata.
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Returning to the safety question, many people ask:
Will my belongings be safe?
Robberies are uncommon on the Camino, although you have to take into account that you will often be in crowded places, which can increase the risk of theft. And whilst it is not a common trend, Spain’s authorities take the matter very seriously and see it as their responsibility to minimise the chances of an unwanted event occurring.
Safety in hostels is one of the main concerns of pilgrims. Year after year, hostels improve their services and many are already offering locker services, which are of course recommended for leaving valuable belongings. However, people typically have to keep backpacks in their hostel room, which is shared with several people. To prevent petty theft, avoid carrying too many real valuables and do not leave your belongings such as backpacks, mobile phones, cameras and other precious items unattended. Always carry money on you, along with your mobile phone, glasses and other important items.
The same applies for what are delightfully called Bicigrinos - those who travel El Camino by bike / bicycle. Of course, they are constantly worried about their bikes. The bike is their most faithful companion! and, to avoid theft, it is recommended that you stay in shelters that have a safe place for bike storage.
Lastly, what about route signage, getting lost and road safety on the Camino?
All the main routes of the Camino de Santiago have good signage. It is easy to follow the path indicated by the many markers, signs, yellow arrows and even mounds of stone that are left by pilgrims. On the other hand, it is also easy to get distracted whilst talking to other Camino pilgrims or taking in the landscape. So, in 2015, the Spanish Government created a Road Safety Committee on the Caminos de Santiago, in charge of analysing all of the arrangements necessary to improve the transit of pilgrims.
Here at My Camino Jewellery, we are "Amigos del Camino" (Friends of the Camino) and we strive to offer jewellery in our shop that has real significance for Camino travellers - little jewellery pieces that can hopefully help make someone's Camino feel safe and successful. The Camino de Santiago is an unforgettable experience for all pilgrims and travellers, which usually makes an indelible mark on someone's psyche and spirit. As Correos says: “If you follow certain preventative measures, you'll be able to enjoy each and every step to the fullest, leaving aside all your fears and enjoying everything the Jacobean routes have to offer.” PUNTO!