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The Ultimate Guide to Surviving the Camino Portugués Central hike: Tips from a First-Timer

The Camino Portugués Central

I recently got back from the most intense holiday week ever! I wasn’t sure I’d make it through, but guess what—I walked an unbelievable 210 km in just seven days! It’s shocking, I know, especially for someone who’s more used to the couch than the trail. I’m still pinching myself to believe it, and I’ve got tons of selfies to show for it!  😀

But let’s start from the beginning. At the turn of April and May, my mom and I flew to Porto, Portugal, to tackle a portion of The Camino Portugués Central. This well-trodden pilgrimage route runs about 620 kilometers from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Since we only had a week, we opted to start our journey from Valença, right on the border between Spain and Portugal.

The Camino Portugués Central

The stretch from Valença in Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is roughly 124 km, give or take a few detours here and there, plus any extra strolling through the cities along the way. Typically, each leg between cities was about 20 km—a hefty distance for some, a breeze for others. For me, it was just right! 😊 My watch tells me I took nearly 300,000 steps and covered 210 km in total during the trip, setting a new personal record!

Camino pilgrimage

The Camino, often referred to as the Way of St. James or the Jacobean Route, is a network of routes across Europe, culminating at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the apostle St. James is said to be buried.

There are many starting points for the pilgrimage, but for my mom and me, Porto was both an easy and affordable option to fly to and venture further from. Plus, a couple of my friends completed The Camino Portugués Central last year and absolutely loved it, which really sealed the deal for us in choosing this particular route.

Pilgrims, known as “peregrinos,” embark on this journey for various reasons—some seek spiritual growth, others yearn for personal reflection, or relish the physical challenge. For my mom, the dream was always to walk the Camino, driven largely by spiritual motivations. As for me, I was there to help fulfill her dream and cherish the time we could spend together on this unique adventure.

Pilgrims, known as “peregrinos,”

I have to say, the journey turned into a profound moment of self-reflection for me. It was physically demanding, sure, but it also became emotionally significant when, mid-trek, we learned that a close family friend had passed away suddenly. That kind of news really hits hard, making you realize just how fleeting life is and the importance of cherishing every moment and being grateful for what you have. Throughout the trek, I came to appreciate the choices I’ve made in life. They’ve shaped who I am and where I’m at today. Not everyone may agree with those choices, and yes, sometimes it got toughreally tough—but I persevered and came out stronger. Just like each day on the trek, whether through rain, sun, or wind, every step brought me closer to the destination. And when I finally arrived, utterly exhausted and soaked to the bone, I was overwhelmed with happiness and honestly speechless that I had actually made it!

The scallop shell

As you walk the trail, you’ll see scallop shells everywhere—embedded in walls, marked on the ground, serving both as milestones and guides for the pilgrims. Many wear a shell on their backpacks or clothes as well.

The scallop shell holds deep significance, traditionally linked to St. James the Apostle, believed to have preached in Spain. According to legend, after his death, St. James’s body was miraculously transported by a ship adorned with scallop shells to the Galician coast, where he was buried at what is now Santiago de Compostela.

The design of the scallop shell, with all its grooves converging at one point, symbolizes the various paths pilgrims take, all leading to the same destination—Santiago de Compostela. This imagery not only marks the physical journey but also the metaphorical one, with all routes uniting in purpose.

Historically, the shell was not just symbolic but also practical. Pilgrims used it as a makeshift dish for food or water, a symbol of sustenance. It also identified the wearer as a pilgrim, affording them certain protections and privileges along their journey.

For many, the trek to Santiago is as much a spiritual journey as a physical one. The radiating lines of the shell reflect the pilgrim’s personal growth, expanding outward as they continue along their spiritual path.

Where to get the shell

I made sure we were all set by ordering our scallop shells online before we left, just to have them from the get-go. But it turns out, they were pretty easy to come by along the way, with loads of little shops and churches selling them for just 2-3 euros each.

Credencial – pilgrim’s passport

The “Credencial” is a Spanish term meaning “credential” or “identification,” with its roots in the Middle Ages when pilgrims were given ‘safe conduct’ letters before embarking on their journey to Santiago. Today, this document has evolved into the Pilgrim Passport or Credencial. It’s not just a form of ID for Camino pilgrims; it also helps authenticate and document each individual’s journey along the Camino de Santiago.

The Credencial also grants access to special pilgrim-only accommodations known as “albergues” along the route.

As pilgrims make their way, they collect unique stamps in their Credencial at various checkpoints like churches, monasteries, town halls, and albergues, creating a personalized record of their travels.

To be eligible for the Compostela certificate when reaching Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims must have their Credencial stamped at least twice a day. This serves as proof of their ongoing pilgrimage along the Camino.

Credencial - stamps

Where to get Credencial

You can pick up a Credencial from pilgrim’s offices, churches, or confraternities linked to the Camino. It usually includes the pilgrim’s name and often the start date and location of their journey.

As I was not sure where to get it on the trail and I wanted to make sure to have it from the moment we started hiking, I ordered ours from the same website where I got the shell. I also added a waterproof cover to our order, which turned out to be a fantastic move since we encountered quite a bit of rain during our pilgrimage.

Compostela

A “Compostela” is a certificate of completion awarded to pilgrims who complete the Camino de Santiago.

To qualify for a Compostela, pilgrims must meet certain criteria:

  1. Purpose of the Pilgrimage: The journey must be undertaken with a Christian spiritual purpose, although nowadays, the pilgrimage can also be completed for personal spiritual reasons without strictly religious motives.
  2. Distance: Pilgrims must walk at least the last 100 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela if traveling by foot, or cycle at least the last 200 kilometers if traveling by bicycle. This is typically verified by stamps collected in a “pilgrim’s passport” (credencial), which is stamped at churches, hostels, and other locations along the route.
  3. Credencial Stamps: The pilgrim’s passport must be stamped at least twice a day as evidence of the journey. This document is presented at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela to apply for the Compostela.

Upon completion of these requirements, the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago de Compostela issues the Compostela, a document written in Latin, confirming that the pilgrim has indeed completed the pilgrimage.

The Pilgrim’s Office is located at the following address: Rúa Carretas, 33, 15705, Santiago de Compostela. 

Compostela

The basic process of getting your Compostela is as follows;

  • Register yourself with the Pilgrim office when you arrive in Santiago either on your phone or computer availble in Pilgrim office.
  • You will be allocated a number when you get to the Pilgrim office.
  • Wait for your number to be shown on the screen.
  • Present yourself at the counter for your Compostela, and show your Credencial.
  • Pick up your Compostela and celebrate.

The Distance Certificate

In addition to the Compostela, the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago also offers a  Distance Certificate  for those interested. While writing this post, I discovered they cost €3, but interestingly, we weren’t informed about the fee and simply received the document. This certificate provides specifics like the total kilometers you’ve walked, cycled, or ridden, starting from where your pilgrimage began. It includes details such as the start date and location, the kilometers covered, the date you arrived in Santiago, and the route you took.

The Distance Certificate

It’s definitely a good idea to have a waterproof sleeve or tube for your certificates, especially with unpredictable weather. We barely made it to our hotel before getting completely drenched! Just a heads up—the Compostela fits perfectly in an A4-sized sleeve, but the Distance Certificate is a bit larger. We had to fold ours in half to make it fit.

Fitness level

So, how fit do you need to be to tackle the Camino? Well, you don’t need to be a marathon runner, but a decent level of fitness helps. I admit, I’m usually more of a couch potato, though I do some sports occasionally.

The beauty of the Camino is that you set your own pace and distance based on how much time you have and how you’re feeling. For my 34-year-old me, the hike was a bit of a challenge, but my mom, who’s over 60, breezed through it. Seriously, if she had her way, she’d double the distance and triple the speed—I was the one slowing us down!

Everyone walks at their own pace. My mom could naturally cover about 20 km in 5 hours, while I would prefer to take it slower, with plenty of breaks to avoid ending the day completely wiped. Seeing her ready to charge ahead did push me to pick up my pace, though. On the upside, I was so tired by bedtime that I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow. We typically started our hike around 8-9 AM and would reach our stop by mid-afternoon (3-4 PM). Afterwards, we would walk around the city, eat something, and go back to the hotel around 8-9 PM.

Along the route, you’ll see folks moving at all sorts of paces. The beauty of it is, it’s your journey—there’s no rush. Take as much time and as many breaks as you need. We encountered people of all genders, ethnicities, and ages—kids in strollers, students, and seniors up to their 70s and 80s, all heading in the same direction. The closer we got to Santiago, the more fellow pilgrims we saw limping a bit—looks like the journey was catching up with us all!

Also, a quick tip: even if you feel like speed walking on the first day, remember, you have several more days of trekking ahead, so save your energy. And look after your feet—walking with blisters is no joke.

Half a year before our trip, my mom and I committed to taking longer walks, about 10-15 km, every weekend. You’d be surprised how quickly weekends fly by! Before we knew it, the trip was upon us and we hadn’t walked as much as we’d planned. I started doing some exercises twice a week about a month before we left. Normally, I can handle walking 20-30k steps in a day, but racking up 40k steps daily for a week turned out to be a whole different ball game! 😄

Blisters and how to avoid them

Blisters can really put a damper on your walking plans, especially when you’ve still got hours of hiking ahead each day.

After the first day when we walked really fast, I noticed blisters starting to form, so I went into full foot-care mode. Here’s what I tried to save my feet:

  • Break in your shoes: I bought my hiking shoes a few months before our trip and wore them often to get accustomed to them.
  • Invest in hiking socks: These are specially designed to support long hikes.
  • Pace yourself: Walking slower can reduce the force of each step and minimize rubbing inside the shoe.
  • Adjust when needed: At the first sign of discomfort, I’d stop to readjust my shoes.
  • Air out your feet: During breaks, I took my shoes off to let my feet breathe.
  • Consider using Vaseline: I read on some forums that applying Vaseline can reduce friction between your feet and socks, though I didn’t try this myself.
  • Apply band-aids carefully: When using band-aids, make sure they’re applied smoothly without pressing or rubbing to avoid new blisters.

Taking these steps made a big difference in keeping my feet happier on the trail!

Taking care of my feet

Luggage forwarding

My mom had a back injury last July, so carrying a heavy backpack was out of the question for her. Plus, we were both feeling a bit lazy and didn’t fancy lugging around big, heavy packs for hours on end. Luckily, I found a company that specializes in luggage forwarding services called Tuitrans. Each day, we’d just leave our bags at the reception or a designated spot, and by the time we reached our destination, our bags were already there waiting for us. It cost about 86 euros for both of us for the entire trip.

Their customer service was excellent—they responded to all my emails immediately and work with the majority of hotels, hostels, albergues and private accommodations. There were only two places they didn’t pick up from, but they provided alternative locations for us to drop off and pick up our luggage. Overall, I’m really happy we went with them, and I’d use their services again in a heartbeat!

Packing list

With our big luggage taken care of by the luggage forwarding company, we were left to manage just our day packs. Here’s a rundown of what we carried and some lessons learned along the way:

Backpack: A proper hiking backpack is crucial. My mom started with her regular city backpack, but we soon had to upgrade to one with proper back support in one of the sports stores along the way.

Waterproof Jacket: The forecast predicted rain for most of the week, and although we had a couple of dry days, it eventually caught up with us. We wore lightweight, breathable jackets and had rain covers for ourselves and our backpacks.

Backpack Cover: To keep our valuables dry, we used backpack covers. They were especially handy during light drizzles.

Hat, Sunglasses, and Sunscreen: The sun is relentless, and even though there are shaded sections, it’s best to protect your skin and eyes.

Walking Sticks: These were invaluable, especially for the hilly sections.

Headlamp or Flashlight: We carried one just in case, though we never ended up needing it. It’s good to have for early morning or late evening walks.

Water Bottle or Hydration System: Initially, we carried a lot of water, but soon realized there were plenty of shops and cafes along the way. It’s best to carry enough water to get you to the next stop without weighing you down.

First Aid Kit: This should include blister care, band-aids, pain relievers, and any personal medications.

Power Bank: Essential for keeping your phone charged.

Pilgrim’s Credential: Don’t leave this behind; it’s your passport on the Camino.

Layering: Weather can shift quickly, so layering your clothes is wise. One moment you might be in short sleeves enjoying the sun, and the next, you could be soaked.

Snacks: Even with many food options available, it’s nice to have your favorite snacks on hand for a quick energy boost.

Hotels vs albergues

There’s a variety of accommodation options along the Camino. While some pilgrims choose not to book in advance, preferring the freedom to walk as much or as little as they like each day, I preferred the security of knowing where I’d sleep each night, especially since I needed specific addresses for the luggage forwarding service. So, I booked all our accommodations in advance.

Albergues, the hostels designed specifically for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, are a quintessential part of the experience. To stay in one, you need a pilgrim passport. These accommodations are usually dormitory-style, with bunk beds and shared facilities. While some albergues can be reserved ahead of time, many of the municipal and parish ones operate on a first-come, first-served basis, which suits pilgrims who are flexible and open to spontaneity.

The cost for a bed in a communal dormitory typically ranges from 5 to 15 euros a night. Private albergues might charge more, particularly for private rooms. Many also offer communal kitchens, which not only help pilgrims save on food costs but also foster camaraderie and friendships.

Pilgrims staying in albergues are expected to respect certain norms like keeping noise down during quiet hours, maintaining cleanliness, and adhering to curfews.

While albergues are a significant part of the trail and offer a great way to meet other travelers, neither my mom nor I wanted to sleep in a dormitory since we’re both light sleepers. We also valued having our own bathroom, so we opted for hotels. I primarily used Booking.com for reservations, as Hotels.com seemed to have fewer options available.

Food

Initially, we tried to stock up on buns and more substantial food for the road, but after a couple of days, we discovered that bars, restaurants, and cafes were abundant along the pilgrim route. It was actually quite convenient not to have to carry all our food. Plus, stopping for a warm tea and a rest was a welcome break. So, we just packed some chocolate bars to munch on while walking and made stops along the way for meals. Everything was open even on a national holiday, which was a pleasant surprise as we had thought that might be a day without food.

However, keep in mind that restaurant kitchens in the cities usually close around 3-4 PM and reopen around 7-8 PM. This timing was a bit of a challenge for us since we typically arrived around 4 PM, starving, only to find that while places appeared open, they only served drinks until the kitchen reopened. By the time dinner service started, we were too tired and ready for bed. We ended up having our main meals at the last restaurant on the trail around 2 PM and skipped eating later in the evening.

What time of the year

We hiked the Camino at the end of April and the beginning of May when the temperature was a pleasant 18°C, and the trail wasn’t too crowded. However, as we neared Santiago, the path did get busier, making it tricky to maintain our pace while maneuvering around slower walkers and cyclists.

I wouldn’t recommend doing the Camino in the summer. Our friends who walked it in August said it was brutally hot, with temperatures reaching 30-40°C, forcing them to take long midday breaks. Plus, the trail is much more crowded. One of the highlights for us was those moments when it was just me and my mom alone against the trail. It was also easier to find a spot in cafes for quick breaks.

Many people also recommend September for hiking the Camino. The weather is still warm then but not scorching, and there are fewer pilgrims. Despite this, the Camino is growing in popularity, with increasing numbers of hikers each year. So, if you’re looking for a quieter experience, the shoulder seasons are definitely the way to go – some more statistics here.

How to find the route

You won’t get lost on the Camino. The route is well-marked with scallop shells guiding the way. Every 200-500 meters, you’ll find milestones indicating the distance left to Santiago de Compostela. Although, for some reason, the last 10 km seemed to stretch on much longer than the rest!

If you do feel a bit disoriented, just look around. There’s usually only one direction everyone is heading: towards Santiago. Follow the groups of pilgrims with their backpacks adorned with shells, and you’ll be back on track in no time.

I also used an app called Mapy.cz to keep track of how far we had left to go each day, and to decide whether to stick to the main trail or take a detour. It was really handy for planning our daily journey and staying oriented.

Route

  • Porto – Valença

We landed in Porto at midday and immediately hopped on a train to Valença, where we planned to start our hike the next day. I booked our train tickets through the official train website, CP – Comboios de Portugal. On the train, we met many travelers who were also on their way to various cities along the route to begin their own Camino journeys. It was a great start, filled with excitement and anticipation, sharing stories and plans with fellow pilgrims.

  • Day 1: Valença – Tui – O Porriño – Distance: 17km/10.5 mi
  • Day 2: O Porriño -Redondela – Distance: 16 km/10mi
  • Day 3: Redondela -Pontevedra – Distance: 20 km/12.4 mi
  • Day 4: Pontevedra – Caldas de Reis – Distance: 23 km / 14.2 mi
  • Day 5: Caldas de Reis – Padrón – Distance: 20 km/12.4 mi
  • Day 6: Padrón – Santiago de Compostela – Distance: 25 km/15.5 mi
  • Santiago de Compostela- PortoWe caught a bus back to Porto straight from Santiago de Compostela, and just an hour and a half into our journey, we were already passing by Valença—the starting point of our trek that had taken us six days on foot. Seeing that distance whiz by from the bus window was both hilarious and a bit surreal. It really made me appreciate living in an era where crossing three countries in a single day is no big deal. It gave me a whole new respect for the technology at our fingertips—just imagine the days when such a journey could only be made on foot!Porto was our final stop, and we spent a fantastic day there, soaking up everything the city had to offer. I’ll share more about our time in Porto in an upcoming post soon!

I hope you enjoyed reading this lengthy post! If you ever decide to embark on your own Camino, good luck—it’s definitely an experience you won’t forget.

Buen Camino—as they say on the trail!

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