This is a long post.
It might take you around 10 – 15 minutes to read. Might I suggest grabbing a cup of something delicious to go with it?
I wanted to tell you exactly what it is like walking a winter Camino and provide the information I had wanted while planning my trip.
I like reading people’s stories, but I found many Camino posts too generic, not enough actual stories. Maybe I didn’t look in the right places.
I also wanted to find a woman’s perspective. An older woman’s perspective. One that wasn’t a walker or particularly fit.
Be warned; I am not sugar coating anything. This is my raw, honest account of my winter Camino.
So, if you read this post in its entirety, firstly, thank you for taking the time.
Secondly, let me know if I missed something that you specifically want to know. Leave a comment below or contact me via this website.
If you don’t already know, the Camino is a pilgrimage to St James Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There are many routes, the most popular being the Camino Frances which crosses northern Spain with most pilgrims starting in St Jean Pied de Port, France.
Thousands walk the Camino each year for many reasons other than religion. It has gained massive popularity in recent years, with most pilgrims making the trek between April and October. I have read that the summer months can be crazy. Very busy.
A winter Camino, or autumn/winter in my case, is a bit more unusual.
Upon arrival, pilgrims walking all routes to Santiago de Compostela go to the Pilgrim Office, where they receive their Compostela (certificate).
In September 2019, the daily average of pilgrims arriving at the Pilgrim Office was 1408 (I believe, let me know if you have different numbers).
On the day I arrived, 14 December 2019, there were 68 pilgrims in total.
I walked the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied de Port, France starting 31 October and arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on 14 December 2019.
An 800 km trek that I am still amazed I managed to finish.
There were days I did not think I would make it.
I was what some term a “slow walker”, taking 45 days. Of course, many walk it in less. But I had allowed that much time. Thankfully I did. I needed it.
What started as a mother/daughter adventure changed on day four when my daughter returned home.
That was hard. Very hard.
I knew she needed to go, but I was scared. Just like that, I was walking the Camino in winter alone.
Leaving her behind in Pamplona and walking on alone was one of the most challenging days I had emotionally.
However, I am grateful for the experience of walking solo. It taught me a lot about myself.
It was my first time walking a Camino. It was my first time walking anywhere. I am not a walker, nor did I exercise much until I started training for this adventure.
It turned out to be the biggest challenge of my life, and not a day goes by that I am not entirely stunned that I did it.
I put off writing this post because I just didn’t know where to start. There have been a lot of emotions to process.
How do you describe something equally difficult, painful, relentless and at times harrowing as it was incredible, life-changing and inspiring?
I read a lot of Camino blog posts and watched a gazillion Youtube videos. I thought I had some idea.
I did not.
People thought I was nuts. Why would you want to walk the Camino?!! In winter?!
Let’s start with that.
Firstly, I didn’t set out to walk in winter when I initially thought of walking the Camino. However, I had an important family commitment that I did not want to miss at the end of October.
I left a few days after.
As for why I wanted to walk the Camino in the first place? IThe Camino called me. Simple as that. And if you think that sounds ridiculous, many pilgrims will tell you the same thing.
About four years ago, I came across a blog post titled “Reasons the Camino Santiago Sucks”, or something like that.
It caught my attention. I had heard about the Camino, but I had disregarded it. I mean, who wants to walk that far?! Or at all?!
I don’t know what changed.
I wanted a challenge. To push me and see what I was capable of.
I thought that the year I turned 50 would be meaningful — a renewal of sorts. And it was, from a life of anxiety to one of freedom.
Now I feel there is nothing I cannot do.
This was my first Camino. I have nothing to compare it to.
From everything I read, a winter Camino is very different. A fellow pilgrim and I joked in Santiago that we should have special badges made – “I walked a Winter Camino!”
From what experienced pilgrims said, the weather we encountered was extreme. Out of 45 days walking, there was approximately one week in total that was rain-free.
69-year-old Marie, from Reunion Island (5th Camino), said she would have never come back if this had been her first Camino.
The days were short. Most days, we started between 8, and 8.30 am, just when it was getting light. Unless it was raining, then it would still be dark. It got dark at 5.30 pm.
In some villages and towns, you might find one Albergue, sometimes more. But there might not be an open cafe or bar. In some towns, everything was open. Most small villages had nothing. There was no rhyme or reason.
You had to be prepared by carrying food in your pack at all times.
Cerrado! Closed. I got very used to seeing this. Spain was closed. Or that’s how it felt.
Obviously not all of Spain. But a significant portion. That meant we walked through deserted villages and towns. Cities were not a problem. Although, I always seemed to have a rest day in a city on a Sunday, when nearly everything was closed!
Some days we had to walk over 10 km to find a café for food and coffee.
That meant long, arduous days walking through the pouring rain, driving wind, and sometimes sleet and snow with nothing open. Nowhere out of the weather to rest and nowhere to eat.
It means I needed a plan each day before heading out. First, there would be morning chats with other pilgrims (if I wasn’t alone) about where we were stopping that afternoon. What was open? What had we heard?
Most of us used the list provided by the Pilgrim’s office (hit and miss), apps and the Aprinca website.
On my second last day, I had to walk an extra 6 km’s to find an open Albergue. Unfortunately, the list from the Pilgrim’s Office was often incorrect.
On the last day walking from Santa Irene to Santiago, there was nothing open for 13 km. It was cold, wet and windy, and all we wanted was coffee and food.
So, you might be wondering if I would walk a winter Camino, again? Yes, I would.
I am an introvert, and I hate crowds. So walking at a quieter time of year suits me. There were times I found myself in an Albergue alone, which was nice. Other times it was quite crowded; only once was an Albergue full.
As long as you plan your days knowing which towns will have an open Albergue, you will be fine.
No Hot Weather
I admit the weather was hard to deal with at times. But as long as you have the right clothes and gear, you will be fine. But, of course, you will have days that you feel miserable from the cold and wet. But remember there will be a hot shower and bed waiting at the end.
Mostly, I did have a couple of cold showers, but I don’t want to turn you off completely!
I would much rather walk in the cold than the heat. I could not imagine walking in Spain in summer. I hate Australian summers at the best of times, so there is no way I would be walking 20 – 25 km per day in the heat.
No Bed Race
The Camino Frances has become so popular that people race for beds in the busier months because it is so crowded you cannot be confident of getting one. In addition, I am a slow walker; I would never get a bed in summer.
Fewer people, Closer Connections
You don’t meet that many people on a winter Camino.
Sure, some days there seems to be quite a lot. Other days I didn’t see a single soul. So, when you do connect with someone, you really connect. There is a camaraderie that forms very quickly. And even though you may only walk a day or two together, or meet in a café for an hour, it doesn’t matter.
I have never experienced anything like that.
A winter Camino just means more preparation. Not to book ahead but know what is open and carry food. The only accommodation I booked ahead was in Puente La Reina. It was my first day walking alone after leaving my daughter. I didn’t want to have to think about where to stay when I was feeling so emotional.
We left St Jean Pied de Port in pouring rain and wind, and I arrived in Santiago de Compostela in pouring rain and wind.
That was the theme of my Camino.
During 45 days, I also experienced sleet, snow, paths that had turned into streams from melting snow and then ice when it plummeted to zero temperatures overnight.
By the end, there was so much rain that creeks and rivers were rising fast, and on my second last day leaving Melide, I had to cross a stream where rising waters had submerged the stepping-stones.
I had expected wet weather. I travel to Europe in autumn/winter and am used to rainy days. This was something else.
TIP: If you need additional clothing or equipment, a free bus goes out to Decathlon in Burgos.
Because of the weather, it meant some paths that were already rough were even more washed out. With the rain and later the melting snow, some tracks became rivulets which turned to ice overnight, making them extremely slippery.
I fell more times than I care to admit.
Some pilgrims chose to walk along the road to avoid these paths or muddy tracks. I’m stubborn. I took great care and took my time with my walking poles proving invaluable for navigating those tracks.
The track between Rabanal del Camino and Foncebadon was particularly slippery, and the path (if you could call it that) between Riego de Ambros and Molinaseca was bad with trees down, ice and sharp rocks.
Not Physically Prepared
I was not as prepared as I should have been.
I had been doing training walks/hikes for three to four months up to 5 times a week. Before that, I focused on my core strength and yoga.
The longest I walked at home was 12 km. Time just did not allow me to do longer walks.
I trained on Blue Mountains hiking trails, notorious for stairs. I thought the relatively flat Camino would be no problem.
Walking day after day was tiring. It took my body a long time to adjust.
My pack was no more than 10% of my body weight, and I could not cull anything else. However, a winter Camino does demand more items like a sleeping bag and warmer clothing.
The second day broke me. Completely. Physically and mentally.
Let me explain.
We chose the Valcarlos Route instead of the Napolean Route because I did not want to walk almost 30 km on my first day. Technically we could have walked the Napolean Route as we started on 31 October. However, it closes on 1 November until March. There are hefty fines for anyone walking that time.
I knew we would be jetlagged, and there was no option to break the walk at Orrison as it was closed at that time of the year.
We stayed in the municipal Albergue in Valcarlos our first night. We were the only ones in the Albergue, which was good considering this was my first experience in one. It was basic, and I won’t lie, I was a little shocked.
But I was unprepared for the second day.
Where the Napolean Route goes up and over the Pyrenees, the Valcarlos route goes through the valley. A valley you need to climb out of to get to Roncesvalles. That’s what I found extremely difficult.
I was exhausted by the time we arrived. There were tears. But even though I felt utterly shattered, it was nice to meet other pilgrims for the first time.
There is a whole routine to get used to. I admit it took me a while, and I probably didn’t become fully adjusted until week 3.
- Arrive at albergue/hostel
- Leave your boots in a rack
- Find your bed and make it (the paper sheets are particularly special)
- Unpack what you need for the night
- Find/sort food and lots of Vino Tinto!
- In the morning, after surviving a night of tossing and turning as I do in a bunk bed (and noisy roommates), it’s up early
- Find food and walk or walk and find food (either one works). Occasionally an albergue offered breakfast. But I did not encounter many.
Yep, I developed blisters, and on Day Four, I hobbled into Pamplona. We checked into a hotel so I would have space and comfort to rest my feet.
Painful, rotten blisters.
I thought I was doing everything right, but the biggest problem was the rain. Every day it rained, poured.
Before leaving, I learned I needed to stop as soon as I felt hotspots.
The reality was a different story. It was impossible to stop when it’s raining. ALL. THE. TIME.
90% of Spain is closed at that time of the year. That meant there were very few cafes open. Entire villages were closed and deserted.
Both of my little toes became encased in blisters. Eventually, I lost the tops of them, nails and all. I had blisters on the sides of my heels on both feet and developed large ones between my big toes and second toes.
I used Compeed and learned to dress my feet with padding to alleviate some of the pain.
What I thought I would never do, but worked the best, was a needle and thread. I had been wary of this procedure, but one of my fellow pilgrims, a retired doctor, took one look and pierced and threaded the enormous blisters.
The relief was immediate, and they dried out very quickly after that.
I got sick. Twice.
The weather had been wet and freezing. Some days the wind was unrelenting. As a result, I developed a cold that quickly settled in my chest.
After a dreadful afternoon and night, I realised I had developed a chest infection.
We were in Villafranca Montes de Oca and had been chased in by snow the previous day. I was facing a long day’s walk through the snow. We were 34 km from Burgos.
I hated the decision, but I caught a bus to Burgos and found medical treatment at the hospital emergency room. After a stop at the pharmacy, I had antibiotics.
I booked a private room for two nights to recover. Four years previously, I had pneumonia and ended up in the hospital, so I was not taking any chances.
I suffer from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). A change in my diet while travelling can be challenging. This time was no different. However, now I was faced with long days and hardly any toilets available, so I had to manage as best I could.
Gastroenteritis had passed through (sorry for the pun) several pilgrims, and I thought I had escaped. I don’t know if it was a gastro bug or just my system having a complete meltdown, but I had to stay put in Portomarin for a couple of days when I could not keep in any food. I booked a private room and managed to get to a pharmacy for medication.
I was only four days away from Santiago and extremely frustrated by yet another delay.
TIP: If you feel unwell and need to get a private room, book one via Booking.com during the day. That way you will have somewhere to go when you arrive—nothing worse than trying to find accommodation when you are unwell.
We received a list of albergues (pilgrim hostels) at the Pilgrim’s Office in St Jean Pied de Port including dates of operation. It turned out to be hit and miss.
Most pilgrims used a combination of the list, Wise Pilgrim app (or a similar app) and the Aprinca website. The latter seemed to be the most accurate.
Occasionally, you came across an Albergue, not on the list and other times, ones listed as open were not.
Sometimes we were spoilt for choice between a municipal Albergue and private ones.
You can always call ahead to make sure an Albergue is open, but I never did. I only had a problem once, and I knew I had a backup plan.
I experienced a variety of accommodation, from municipal albergues that are basic, but generally adequate (except for a filthy one), to private albergues that can range from basic to lovely and comfortable.
I also stayed in private rooms with standards across the board. And some private hostels in the larger cities and the hotel we stayed in Pamplona. I will be writing my Camino recommendations shortly and will include the best accommodation.
I honestly thought I would stay in private rooms and hotels more. However, I mostly stayed in Private Rooms on my own when I was unwell — having my own bathroom made life more comfortable at those times.
But I missed the camaraderie. Surprisingly, even as an introvert, I enjoyed the albergues and company of other pilgrims. I didn’t always enjoy the bunk beds or shared bathrooms.
Sometimes I found myself alone in an Albergue, other times with one or two people. And yet other times, I slept in large albergues with lots of pilgrims.
I got used to sharing with men. Everyone was respectful.
I found it hard to adjust to shared bathrooms. For example, the Xuntas (municipal albergues in the Galicia area) had no shower doors but were not unisex.
Very often, I was one of a couple of women or the only one, so it was easy enough to have the bathroom to myself. We Australians are a bit conservative that way. Or at least I am.
I will be writing a comprehensive packing list soon. I will list everything I took, what worked, and what didn’t. And what I would do differently.
Here are the items I think are essential for a winter Camino. These might be instead of, or in addition to items on a more common Camino packing list.
I also run hot (good ole menopause at work), so layers were essential.
- Sleeping Bag. Mine was down and rated to +15 °C, but it was enough inside the albergues. Sometimes I used my wool scarf as an added layer if there were no blankets available and the heating hadn’t been turned on.
- Waterproof Gloves. To keep the cold and wet out.
- Rain Poncho. Most pilgrims I met wore rain ponchos. They must have sleeves, underarm ventilation and a zippered front to keep you as dry as possible and not flap around in the wind. Mine was super long down to my knees.
- Waterproof Pants. With driving rain and cold temperatures, these are essential. I eventually bought a pair from Decathlon in Burgos and wore them nearly every day in the last week of my Camino.
- Thermals. Once temperatures dropped, I wore these under my hiking pants every day and kept me toasty.
- Hat/Beanie. I hate beanies, but even I dragged mine out when temperatures plummeted.
- Warm Jacket. I had a down jacket that I wore on the coldest days walking, but more so in the evening when I went out for a meal.
- Scarf/Buff. I had both. The buff was Merino wool, and the scarf was woollen. The scarf was big, and I wore it in the evening and used it as a blanket. The buff was good for cold days.
- Merino Layers. I had a long sleeve and short sleeve merino tops that kept me warm. On the coldest days, I also wore my thermal top underneath. With a zip-up jacket on top, I was warm when walking.
There is a lot of talk about Camino Family.
So, what happens when there are very few people walking?
Unless you stay in private accommodation or hotels, you will meet people. You isolate yourself when you stay apart from the crowd.
I met Jerk from Germany who walks sections of the Camino for two weeks every year. I was staying in a hotel, in a shared room as the Albergue downstairs was closed for winter.
He told me he stayed in hotels the whole way. He also said he hadn’t met any other pilgrims.
Even though sharing a room and bathroom and sleeping in a bunk bed takes some getting used to, it is an important part of the Camino.
You feel connected through a shared experience.
Like in life, you don’t gel with everyone. But the people you do connect with, become very important.
I met wonderful, interesting people. People that I hope will be life-long friends.
But be aware fewer people are walking at this time of the year, so if you are looking to socialise a lot, this time of year may not suit you.
For a solo, reflective Camino this time of year is perfect.
I know this experience sounds gruelling. It was. At times it felt unrelenting. I was exhausted by the end.
But I was also stronger – physically and mentally.
I had become more resilient than I ever imagined possible.
I am surprised as anyone that I am considering another Camino. Not just one, but two!
I vowed every day that I would never do anything like this again. I hurt, I struggled.
But something happened when I got to Santiago.
I was proud. Proud of myself for what I had achieved, and what I had overcome to get there. I could not believe I had made it.
And then the perfectionist in me came out. Next time I could do this. Next time I would do it this way.
Every time I tried to speak about my experiences, I couldn’t. I was too emotional.
Everything I did had purpose and meaning. Life was simple.
I haven’t struggled to fit back in at home. I love my life with my partner Dan, living in the beautiful Blue Mountains in Australia.
But the feeling of freedom and confidence I have now is indescribable. It’s like a drug. I want more.
For now, I am considering walking the Camino Frances again, and I would like to do a shorter route, so perhaps the Camino Portuguese and continue to Finisterre and Muxia. It won’t happen for another couple of years, but this first Camino took four years to do so I can be patient.
What do you think? Am I crazy?!!!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering would I walk at the same time of year.
Yep, yes, I would.
Maybe I am completely nuts!