A Latina’s Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago [Photos]

Near Pontevedra Outside Pontevedra Spain, wishing Pilgrims a Good Camino in Galician.

In September of 2022 I walked part of the Camino de Santiago – to be specific, the Camino Portuguese.

Also known as the Way of St. James, The Camino, as it is commonly called, is a network of ancient pilgrim routes, some over 1,500 years old. These routes lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where it is said the bones of St. James are buried. There are over 100 known routes, originating in different parts of Europe and following a variety of paths and lengths. Some of the most popular are the Camino Frances, which starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France and passes through the Pyrenees and across northern Spain; the Camino Portugués, which starts in Lisbon, Portugal and passes through a number of towns and cities in Portugal and Galicia; and the Camino del Norte, which follows the northern coast of Spain from Irún to Santiago. There are also several other routes, including the Camino Primitivo, the Camino del Salvador, and the Camino Sanabrés, among others.

Photos left to right:

  • Upon my arrival to Santiago de Compostella, Cathedral Square
  • Santiago de Compostella, Cathedral Square from one of the main entrances at sunset on the day I arrived.
  • Ancient Fountain, Valley of Tomeza and Salcedo, Spain
Maria Botta Latin Biz Today

Author, Maria Botta

2022 was an interesting year for me, along with a milestone birthday! I knew about the Camino, as a child of a Hispanic family as we drove parts of it as a family. The idea of walking it one day has always been on my mind. 2022 was also a Camino Holy Year, originally designated for 2021 but because of the Pandemic, the Holy Year was expanded to 2022. Holy Years are a very big deal for Catholics – there are only 14 of them each century. By entering the Holy Door of the cathedral in Santiago, which is typically closed in all other years, followed by prayer, confession and communion, believers can earn Plenary Indulgence, which means complete forgiveness for all of their sins – a clean slate!

Many people asked me why I wanted to walk the Camino. I met people along the way. Some people take it as a spiritual journey, others for the physical and mental challenge – I am not sure what my reason was, I just knew I wanted to do it – maybe it was a mix of both 🙂

How did I wind up on Camino Portuguese?

In all honesty, I didn’t plan my trip that well – by that I mean, I had an idea and just ran with it! One of the best decisions I made was to work with Santiago Ways, a travel company that handled my hotels and transported my luggage from town to town. That meant that my luggage was safely being moved and more importantly – I didn’t have to lug it on my back – and the only thing I chose to walk with was a light weight runners pack. Delicious food, snacks, water, coffee and other refreshments are never far – I also opted everyday to take with me a bocadillo, which took me back to my childhood in Spain – my bocadillo of Jamon Serrano and queso Manchego on delicious bread was cut into three and wrapped in wax paper – easily accessible for a quick snack! In terms of housing, there also was a guarantee of having a hotel every night.

Photos left to right:

  • Capella de Sata Marta in Vilaboa, year 1617 AD
  • Outside Pontevedra Spain, wishing Pilgrims a Good Camino in Galician.

I didn’t train much because I live in Tulsa, and during the summer the temperatures can get into the triple digits. Fortunately, the week I spent in Lisbon, while enjoying the beautiful city, I also walked everywhere and climbed up and down the hills while averaging about 8 miles a day – this gave me confidence that I would be able to walk the over 120 miles. This also allowed me to test out my brand-new footwear – unlike other challenging hikes I have done before, like the Kepler Track in New Zealand, this was more of a cultural walk with some slightly challenging terrain and elevations – nothing I hadn’t done before…

September was the perfect time for so many reasons. 

Photos left to right:

  • Pontevedra Spain, Stay, ahead on the Camino. The red cross is one of the Camino icons as is the staff with a gourd.
  • The gorgeous city of Pontevedra, Spain. Legend says that Pontevedra was founded by Teucer, hero of the Trojan War.
  • The official stone marker of the Camino – please note the stones and the Surge protector!

Most families and college students were back in school – so that meant smaller crowds, the weather was still pleasant, and the days were a decent length – although one of my biggest surprises was how late the sunrise was!

I also chose this journey as a solo traveler, which meant not being hindered by other people’s schedules or ideas 🙂 This made it so enjoyable for me because it gave me the freedom to chat and walk with whoever presented themselves – and that was so much fun! I met many memorable people, including two retired airline pilots who had already walked other Camino routes – I called them the “Guardians of the Camino”, a wonderful Hispanic Mexican woman who saved me from getting lost and whom I have stayed in touch with, and countless others with whom I shared the journey, coffee, wine, food and laughter with.

I also met many locals along the way who offered me a smile, a nod, a tip of a hat, and those words you often hear along the way: “Buen Camino” – which always brought a smile to my face even when I was tired. Even on very long days of over 13 miles, I still managed to rally every night. As soon as I got to the destination of the evening, I would shower and put my legs up the wall for an hour – this practice reinvigorated me immediately and allowed me to explore the town, often dining with fellow travelers I had gotten to know along the way – I was never alone or much less lonely.

I was so excited prior to starting, and as soon as I received my Pilgrim Passport, it finally felt real. 

The passport is a fun way to remember where you have been, as it is required that you stamp your passport along the way and almost every establishment has their own stamp – you must present this passport to get your compostela, or Pilgrim Certificate. Along the journey there are many beautiful old churches, endless vineyards, ancient water fountains where pilgrims stopped to bathe and drink, and modern local cafes offering Peregrino Menus. A few times, I picked grapes directly from overhanging vines and ate them… I shared a few Tortas de Santiago – which are a divine confection of almond flour, sugar, eggs, and lemon zest, and almost every day on the road I had a generous slice of Tortilla Española! These staples were part of my childhood, as was the picturesque Galician countryside. As a child, we visited my mother’s family in their 500+ year old country home there – where we roamed freely on the huge estate, swam in the river and collected grapes from the vineyard – it was just as idyllic as it sounds… All of these happy memories became the backdrop for new cherished memories many, many decades later….

This journey was a joyful one for me. However…

Scallop floor marker, Tui, Spain

I did run into some who were carrying a great deal of pain that they hoped to release on the Camino. Traditionally, on the Camino people leave stones or other small objects along the route as a way of leaving behind a physical representation of their experience. This practice began in ancient times, when pilgrims would place small stones or other objects at the side of the road as a way of marking their progress. It was also a way of asking for protection on their journey. They are often left on large stone markers that are decorated with scallop shell representations. One of the strangest and funniest things I saw – was an actual surge protector left atop one of the markers, and it took me down so many ideas about our modern-day issues with connectivity, and thoughts about leaving some of it behind on the Camino…..

There are several symbols of the Camino.

  • The scallop shell is perhaps the most iconic symbol. Pilgrims would traditionally carry a scallop shell with them as a way of identifying themselves as travelers on the Camino. The shell also served as a tool that could be used to collect water or as a spoon.
  • The yellow arrow is a marker that is used to indicate the route of the Camino de Santiago. The arrows are typically painted on walls, buildings, or other structures along the route, and they serve as a guide for pilgrims as they make their way to Santiago.
  • The cross of the Camino is a distinctive red cross that is used to mark the route of the Camino, it is typically made of stone, metal or painted on walls and is placed at intervals, the cross serves as a reminder to pilgrims of the spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage.

These markers mark the route so you don’t get lost, but a lot of people like me are so enthralled that we still get lost!

I also witnessed others helping people who would not otherwise have the opportunity for such a journey – I was specifically touched by a group of about 8 French people who guided 2 blind women on the route. The Camino can be done in many different ways – my first companions on the Camino were a brother and a sister in their 80s – they too rescued me from wandering in the wrong direction (this might have been one of the themes for me), although they were fit, vibrant, full of witty commentary and stories, they explained that their choice was to do small segments. They were traveling with 2 other siblings who were much younger. However, for them, they would walk a few miles and then call a taxi or Uber to get them to their next destination. In fact I met a number of senior groups who also broke up the Camino either by taxi or organized tours. Then there are the crazy over achievers, who practically barreled through the whole thing, and those on electric bikes – these folks made me laugh because I was definitely NOT in a rush and enjoying every bit of the journey.

What would I have done differently?

Let me say that what I discovered is that there isn’t a “right way” to do the Camino. It’s very individual., and everyone should do the Camino in their own way. In retrospect, I would have enjoyed two more days exploring the picturesque city of Pontevedra and the Roman thermal baths in Caldas de Reis. I got to enjoy these baths for a few hours and I understand why they have been a popular tourist attraction for centuries.

Photos left to right:

  • Hiking through some ancient forests where I met a few magical people on my way to Calda de Reix.
  • I met these two outside of Tui, Spain, they were headed to Portugal and had been walking from North Italy. The donkey and the man had a special sweet bond.

The last two miles I almost felt like I couldn’t make it. It was steep and hilly, and the asphalt was incredibly hot on the outskirts of the city. Just at that moment I met 3 ladies who must have seen the near defeat in my face – one of them said, “No way! You are walking into that square in front of the cathedral with us. As you walk into the huge square, other groups of pilgrims greet those arriving with applause.” When I did eventually make it, I felt calm and serene inside. Later that afternoon, I attended the Pilgrims mass at the Cathedral. This mass is held every day and is an opportunity for pilgrims to give thanks for their safe arrival in Santiago. It is also an opportunity to pray for the intentions of all those who have made the journey. The Mass includes the Botafumeiro ceremony, in which an enormous incense burner is swung overhead. The origin of this ceremony is interesting, starting in the Middle Ages when the cathedral was often crowded with pilgrims. The swinging of the Botafumeiro was seen as a way of purifying the air and masking any unpleasant odors.

Photos left to right:

  • I found these to be so peaceful against the morning sky.
  • Gorgeous full red wine grapes on the vine, just prior to the harvest.

A vista from one of the ridges I climbed

Finally, the day after I arrived, it hit me, I did it! Happy tears of joy flowed as I headed to the Pilgrim Reception Office at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to request a pilgrim certificate (compostela). There you must present your credentials – your pilgrim passport with your stamps and show your daily progress along the Camino. In order to be eligible, you must complete at least 100 kilometers (62 miles) on foot or at least 200 kilometers (124 miles) by bike. The distance is calculated from the starting point of your journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Special dispensation is given to those who are unable to walk the full 100 kilometers due to illness, disability, or other reasons. In this case, in order to receive your pilgrim certificate you must present a certificate from a doctor or other medical professional stating that you are unable to complete the full distance and request a pilgrim certificate.

Funny, when I told my friends I was doing the Camino and asked if anyone wanted to join me – nobody did. I would like to think I inspired 10 or so people who are planning on doing it next. I will also do it again. Next time, I’m considering walking the Camino del Norte along the northern coast of Spain from Irún to Santiago, passing through the provinces of Vizcaya, Gipuzkoa, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia. I plan to visit San Sebastián, Santander, Aviles and Gijón.. And take my time to enjoy everything. I will also relive some of my childhood memories of my time living in Asturias. And make new ones.

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