How to See Northern Spain on 25 Euros a Day

No, this isn't a Rick Steve's or Frommer's guide from the 1980s.  You really can see northern Spain on 25 Euros a day (30 Euros a day if you splurge every once in a while) in the year 2011.  It's so easy to do you will wonder why more budget-conscious travelers don't.  I'll tell you why.

Because you have to walk it. 

It is called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or the Way of St. James.  This is an ancient pilgrimage path, used by pre-Christians long before the remains of St. James were discovered in rural Galicia by a hermit and authenticated by the local bishop.  Over the past thousand years or so, millions have walked the Camino across northern Spain.  Many have walked for religious or spiritual reasons, and most recently, many walk to clear their head, figure out the answers to life's bigger questions or see it as an adventure.

So, how do I walk to Santiago de Compostela?

There are books you can buy that will tell you everything you need to know to walk the Camino.  There are websites with online forums that have people from all over the world who have walked the Camino willing to share their wisdom.  I recommend you check out those links if you are seriously considering the walk.  You can even contact me, and I will do my best to give you solid advice. In the meantime, here's a brief overview of things to consider.

The most walked route is the Camino Frances, which begins in several different places in France, but many pilgrims start in the small French village of St. Jean Pied de Port.  It is a day's walk from St. Jean Pied de Port over to the Pyrenees into Spain to the sleepy Spanish outpost of Roncesvalles.  From there you will continue walking through Basque country, into Navarra, then the wine country of La Rioja, followed by Castilla y León, and finally Galicia.  If you choose to walk from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, you will walk 800 km (just under 500 miles). 

St. Jean Pied de Port, France
Photo: Heather Knight
Where To Stay
Along the Camino Frances (and many of the other routes), there is a network of pilgrim hostels known as albergues.  They range in price from donativo (not free, you make a donation) to 3-6€ for municipal/parochial albergues and up to 12€ for private albergues.  Some albergues provide a simple breakfast of tostada con marmelada y cafe con leche, others also provide dinner, both for an addtional cost.  These are basic accomodations with bunk beds, showers, and sometimes a kitchen to cook in.  Be warned, all of the Xunta albergues in Galicia have the most amazing kitchens, with nothing to cook with!  They also don't have shower curtains in the showers.  Why?  It's anyone's guess.  The Spanish do things sometimes that make me scratch my head and shrug my shoulders.  You just have to be flexible.

Camino 16
Albergue in Roncesvalles, Spain
Photo: Erik N. from flickr

What To Pack
I am only go to say this once.  PACK LIGHT! Plan to wear a small backpack, no larger than 50L.  I am a big fan of Osprey packs like the Exos, the Talon and the Hornet series.  Your pack (minus food/water) should weigh no more than 10% of your total body weight.  This is not like backpacking.  Here is a basic packing list, you can adjust as needed.

Sleeping bag (under 1kg/2 lbs) 
Hiking pants (2 pair)
Long sleeve shirt (1)
Underwear (2 pairs)
Thermal bottoms (if hiking in Spring or Fall, not necessary in Summer)
Socks (4 pairs, wool or synthetic, no cotton...include 2 pairs of liners too!) 
Small toiletry kit and travel towel
Journal, pen and an e-reader with the guidebook and a Spanish phrasebook loaded onto it
Headlamp (or a small torch, or a squeeze light)
Laundry line
Rain jacket and pants (or a poncho, your choice)
Puffy jacket or vest
Boots, trail runners or hiking shoes (your choice, just make sure they are broken in and maybe 1/2 size too big)
Sandals, flip flops or a lightweight pair of shoes (for walking around town after you are done for the day)
Hat (one that covers your neck)
Earplugs (for the champion snorers you will encounter)
Foot Care Kit (moleskin, alcohol wipes, Compeed, tape, etc..I will be posting more on this later)
Water bladder for backpack, 1-2L is sufficient
Camera w/charger
Light My Fire Spork (trust me...this was the best thing I brought!)
A spirit for adventure, an open mind and a grateful heart.  It would also be helpful if you speak a little bit of spanish.

Camino de Santiago
Backpacks aka Mochilas
Photo: Freecat from flickr 

Things to Leave at Home or Ship Ahead
Electronics (they weigh too much, they might get stolen and you won't need them, trust me!)
Extra clothes (if you are a world traveler with a big pack, ship everything ahead to Santiago, for 25€ this place will hold your bag in a secure location for 60 days)
Anything you "think" you might need.  If you need it, you can buy it along the way.

What's a Typical Day Like on the Camino?
Every person does their Camino different.  Here is what my day usually looked like:

6:00a  Get up, if someone had not already awoken the entire dorm at 5:30a to get a head start
7:00a  Eat breakfast (usually yogurt and fresh fruit bought the day before)
8:00a  Start walking
10:00a  Stop for breakfast #2 in a bar along the way, usually tortilla de españa with a cafe con leche, 2-3€
12:00p  Stop for lunch in  bar along the way for a bocadillo and coca cola, 5€
2-4:00p Stop walking for the day, find an albergue for 3€ to 10€ (in Galicia, they can be as high as 12€ for private ones)
4-6:00p Do my chores (shower, hand wash/line dry clothes, take a nap)
6:00-10:00p  Find dinner or a grocery store, then back to the hostel to hang out, write in journal and in bed by 10:00p

What are the cost breakdowns?
I posted a few numbers above.  Basically, allow 8€ for breakfast and lunch, an average of 5€ for albergues and 12€ for a pilgrim dinner (or groceries to cook yourself).  The totals will average themselves out over the course of the 33-35 days you walk and will come pretty close to 25€/day.  Some days you will spend more, some days you will spend less.  The pilgrim dinners include water or wine (sometimes a whole bottle to yourself!), two courses and a dessert.  Sometimes I found this to be too much food.  I would often go to a bar that did not cater to pilgrims and order a plato combinado (hello breakfast for dinner!) for 6€.  25€/day is more than enough to have a great Camino experience!

Still looking for some motivation?
Here are two video trailers you should watch.  The first one is from The Camino Documentary, a film currently in post-production in my home town of Portland, OR.  Full disclosure: I am a volunteer on the film, but trust me, it's going to be amazing when it is finished!  Watch it and tell me what you think.

The second movie trailer is for, The Way, a new movie currently out in select theaters throughout the United States.  I saw the movie about two weeks ago and it had me laughing, crying and yearning for another walk on the Camino.

I will be posting more thoughts on packing and other bits of information in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!