A High Point on Camino de Santiago

Distance walked: 17km

Elevation gain: 355m

Remaining distance to Santiago: 225.7km

When I left Rabanal at 6:30am, the ground was still wet from heavy rain overnight. Thankfully my socks and shoes were dry but as I peered out from under my dripping wet poncho, I felt a bit dubious about how the day would hold up. The poncho didn’t cover my bare legs and already they were feeling a bit chilly. Up there at 1,150m above sea level, the air was definitely colder than it had been in the meseta, just days earlier. I was a long way from where I started and I was edging further into Autumn. I already felt that all this larking around in sunny Spain was coming to an end!

For many of the pilgrims around me, a high point of their camino was only a few kilometers up ahead: La Cruz de Ferro. Literally, this iron cross stands 1,504m above sea level and, in the words of Brierley, “…has become one of the abiding symbols of the pilgrim way of St. James. Pause a while to reconnect with the purpose of your journey before adding your stone or other token of love and blessing to the great pile that witnessses our collective journeying.”

When I packed my bag weeks earlier, I included a small token to place at this famous landmark on the Camino Francés. Friends had told me that this was a nice symbolic moment on their camino journeys and I imagined that it would be a resonant moment for me, too. After all, I’d walked all that way, I’d done a whole bunch of reflecting and resolving…surely I would want to mark all of that with the placing of my “stone”, right?

In between the showers and the drizzle, the rain clouds hung low and heavy. I knew I was up high but I never considered that the wind would pick up so it was a shivery walk for me. The trail was slippery underfoot and the cold motivated me to keep moving. In retrospect, I probably should have put on some long pants when I realised, even after an hour of walking, that my body wasn’t really warming up. Instead, I shivered along the trail that morning and tried to keep some dry clothes in my pack for later that evening. Was it a smart move on my part? Maybe not the smartest!

*My* high point that day wasn’t the iron cross standing tall in the landscape. It wasn’t even the thrill of reaching the summit of Puerta Irago. Surprisingly, my high point was stopping for coffee at Albergue Monte Irago. That morning, any sort of shelter from the rain and cold would have been welcome, but I was entirely tickled with delight to wander into this place.

Amazingly, a wood fire crackled and burned in the stone fireplace inside the door. How perfect on such a day! Second, I drank my coffee from a *mug* rather than a small cup, as was the standard everywhere else on camino. I don’t know about you but for me, there’s nothing like curling up with a mug of hot coffee on a wet day…I don’t want a measly cup that’s going to run dry after three mouthfuls. I want a generous and comforting mug: I want to know that the warmth will last a bit longer!

The rustic benches were filled with pilgrims in animated laughter. The air smelled of coffee and sweet cake and, unsurprisingly, wet clothes, steaming in the warmth of the fire. In the corner,  bars of fair trade chocolate and baskets of organic fruit were available to buy and given there wasn’t another coffee stop till the far side of the peak (some 11km away with ups and downs), it was a great opportunity to replenish my sugar supplies. 🙂

This little café was a personal highlight. It’s not just that it was warm and cosy on a particularly drippy morning. Anywhere would have given some shelter but the wood fire was a particularly nice touch. I appreciated that they went to the bother of it. I also loved that the place was full of heart and charm and a quirky décor. By then, I’d stopped in countless cafés along camino and even though I was always grateful for the break, *this* place felt different. The staff weren’t harried, the furniture wasn’t made of formica, and there were hearty mugs of coffee all round.

There was lots to love! 🙂

With a warm belly of coffee and cake, I ventured out into the bleak drizzle and walked the uphill 6.5km to the iron cross. My poncho was noisy with rain. My legs felt the chill of the wind. In front and behind, a slow line of pilgrims bent into the wind all heading for the same destination. I contemplated on the token I would leave there and what sentiment I hoped to leave with it. I really wanted to imbue it with great personal meaning but the sentiment kept escaping me, like some sort of slippery fish.

I walked with Kevin and Liz and was glad of the company but I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly the cross appeared. I literally rounded a bend and there it was. Casual as you like! I also wasn’t ready to “let go” of the sentiment I thought I would leave behind. Even after all that time, all that walking, all that reflection: I could leave the physical token, sure, but the emotional one was a bit harder to drop.

Up close, the rocks were strewn with laminated photos, ribbons, and holy medals. In the rain, I spotted handwritten notes and memorial cards for the dead, and countless pebbles in different colours and textures. Thousands of pilgrims before me had carried those stones from all around the world: from beaches, from woodlands, from their own back yards. They’d carried them across Spain and left them all here as a testament to their journey. And what else did they leave with them? Grief? Gratitude? I’d never know.

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I imagined I might linger a while, reflect, and really commit it all to memory but honestly, the cold and the wet were so miserable that I got moving again as quickly as I could. I left my physical token. I didn’t manage to really leave behind the emotions or conflict I wrestled with, but standing around in the cold and rain wasn’t going to change that. I walked onwards toward the peak (1,515m) and then down the far side of the mountain.

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Thankfully, the sky in the distance looked lighter. The rain cleared. And what was that up ahead? A cluster of houses marking the small village of Acebo and hopefully, some warm soup for lunch. And depending on what the weather did, maybe a bed for the night too.

So glad!

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Camino Packing List

This post is long overdue but here we go!

Planning to walk Camino is an exercise in lightweight packing and de-cluttering. I wanted to walk 800km over a 6 week period and I would need to carry all my clothing, toiletries, and medical supplies on my back during that time. Packing a light pack makes the long walking a lot easier.

I was advised to carry no more than 10% of my body weight in my backpack. I was advised to carry no more than 10kg but to really aim for 6-7kg. I was advised to weigh out every item of gear before I packed it, and to omit anything that didn’t have at least a dual role. After years of hiking and camping, I thought I had a pretty good handle on packing a backpack. Turns out, I didn’t have *that* good a handle on it because I am used to packing for wind, rain, and cold conditions – and Spain was hot and dry. I found it difficult to resist packing backup clothing and rain gear.

I packed my backpack the evening before I flew out to France.

Last minute packing at its best!

I didn’t test out my gear before I packed it. I didn’t do practice walks with my backpack for weeks in advance. I didn’t know what it all weighed when it was packed away and sitting on my shoulders. I didn’t have time to organise all of this before I left.

The night before I flew to France, I sat on the floor of my spare room with gear all around me – deciding what to bring and pulling labels off my new purchases. I’m sure this last minute frenzy is sweat-inducing for many people but my philosophy was this:

I am going to get this gear list wrong in some way – just because I’ve never done this before and the future weather conditions are unknown. So, I will pack as sensibly as I can but I will allow myself to replace or remove gear along the way if I need to. And I allow myself to figure it out as I go along.

If I do say so myself, that flexibility around my gear gave me great freedom and it allowed me to relax. I didn’t have to get it all perfectly right. I didn’t have to have all the answers in advance. I could make it up as I went along.

So what *did* I pack?

My Camino Packing List – What I Brought to France/Spain:

The Backpack:

  • 45L North Face backpack
  • 1 pair Leki hiking poles
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles when I checked my bag in at the airport
  • Scallop shell hanging on outside of pack, gifted to me (Thanks Jen!)
  • Nite ize buglit flashlight attached to shoulder strap of backpack (Thanks Katie & Jon!)

Raingear:

  • 1 lightweight Columbia rain jacket
  • 1 pair lightweight North Face rain pants

Footwear:

  • Chaco hiking sandals for 10 days then swapped to Salomon hiking shoes. (I didn’t buy the Gore Tex variety because they felt too heavy & the weather/ ground were dry)
  • 3 pairs medium weight hiking socks (2 pairs of 1000 Mile Socks & 1 pair Bridgedale wool)
  • 1 pair of Crocs (with holes!) to wear in the evenings & in the shower. Unlike flip flops, I could wear socks with them (how sexy!)
  • Custom fitted arch supports

Clothing:

  • 1 pair of Columbia hiking shorts for day use
  • 1 pair of North Face long pants for evenings (not the zip-away ones)
  • 2 wick-away t-shirts (synthetic, quick-drying)
  • 1 cotton t-shirt for evenings and bed
  • 1 Lowe Alpine fleece sweater (a really ugly one too that I’ve had for 10+ years & I didn’t mind it getting more scruffy. The fashionista in me sometimes regretted that it was *so* ugly and I felt self-conscious about looking so rough – but it was warm, dried quickly, and worked as expected so I can’t really fault it)
  • 1 fleece hat
  • 1 REI sun hat (thanks Jen!)
  • 1 quick-dry sports bra
  • 4 pairs underwear
  • 1 cotton pashmina
  • 1 pair of sunglasses, which I broke along the way so I bought more
  • 1 extra-large travel towel (the size of a regular bath towel)
  • Bandana (it hid all my bad hair days!)

Tech:                                                                                         

  • 1 wristwatch with leather strap
  • iPhone
  • iPhone charger
  • Earphones
  • Travel adaptor

Sleeping gear: (thanks Jen!)

  •  Sea2Summit pyrethrin-treated sleeping bag liner
  • Homemade blanket of silk fabric and Primaloft

Paperwork:

  •  Printed email confirmation for outbound flight to France
  • 1 money belt to go around my waist
  • Passport
  • Pilgrim Passport (compostella)
  • John Brierley’s guide book from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago
  • John Brierley’s guide book from Santiago to Finisterre
  • Cash
  • Debit card & credit cards
  • Hardback A5 journal & 2 pens
  • Lightweight fabric crossover bag (Thanks Jen!)
  • Lightweight money purse big enough for credit cards & cash
  • Medical information printed in different languages & laminated

Food & Drink:

  • Plastic spoon/fork thing with a serrated edge (it was meant to act as a knife but it couldn’t cut butter!)
  • 1 lightweight 1L plastic sports bottle
  • 1 collapsible Platypus hydration system (Thanks Megan & John!)

Toiletries:

  • 1 large double zip lock bag to hold everything (durable, see-through, lots of space)
  • Synthetic face cloth for my face (advertised as useful for cleaning my kitchen or car!)
  • Sunscreen (I used SPF 50 & SPF 30 in generous doses
  • Travel size shower gel (filled up as I went along)
  • Travel size foot cream (Thanks Edel!)
  • Travel size face wash (Thanks Edel!)
  • Shower gloves
  • 2 disposable razors
  • Female sanitary supplies (& bought more along the way)
  • Small tin of vaseline for my feet
  • Normal size toothbrush
  • Half tube of normal size toothpaste
  • Dental floss
  • Roll-on deodorant
  • Plastic hairbrush
  • Hair ties (I never counted how many)
  • 10 packs of foam earplugs
  • 10 clothes pegs
  • Lip balm

(I saw safety pins listed on other peoples’ packing lists but I couldn’t figure out why, so I didn’t bring any. Turns out, if you need to dry your laundry on your backpack while you walk, then safety pins are more secure than clothes pegs).

First Aid:

  • Band Aids (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Sterile wipes (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Dr. Scholl blister plasters (Thanks Frederique!)
  • Nail scissors
  • Mefix blister wrap (a gift (thanks Jen!) but I never figured out how to use it)
  • Compeed plasters – various shapes and sizes
  • Antiseptic cream (small)
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Antihistamines (never used)
  • Paracetamol (useful when I got a cold)
  • Antacid tablets (never used)
  • Immodium (never used)

Miscellaneous:

  • Several small Ziploc bags
  • 2 large double lock Ziploc bags (for toiletries and keeping my paperwork dry – amazing!)
  • Several plastic bags to wrap my clothes in
  • Keychain REI temperature gauge with mini compass (lost along the way, sorry Jen!)
  • 1 small glass rock to leave at Cruz de Ferro

Things I acquired along the way:

  • 1 travel adapter plug for my phone
  • 1 rain cover for my backpack
  • 1 pair of Salomon hiking shoes
  • 1 bright orange Altus poncho
  • 1 lightweight fleece jacket
  • 1 pair of fleece-lined leopard print leggings (saucy!) (in anticipation of cold mountains but I never wore them)
  • 1 wick-away t-shirt to replace the one I accidently destroyed (Thanks Fred!)
  • 1 cotton Tommy Hilfiger sequin t-shirt
  • New sunglasses
  • Sink plug (thanks Don!)
  • Strong plastic shower gel bottle (thanks Don!)
  • Anti-inflammatory gel
  • Anti-inflammatory tablets
  • 1 new A5 journal
  • 1 pocket book called “Daily Strength”, handed out for free when I arrived in Roncesvalles
  • 1 pair of earrings

Things I sent home (and why):

  • Rain pants – My first 3 days of walking were exceptionally hot & I figured I wouldn’t need them for the rest of the trip. It was a risky decision but it worked out.
  • Long sleeve thermal top – too hot to wear (again, a risk that worked out)
  • Fabric money belt – awkward to wear under my shorts *and* the waist strap of the backpack. It got sweaty and grimy and was very uncomfortable.
  • My hiking sandals – only after I finished with them and had transferred to the hiking shoes. They weighed 1kg and were too heavy to carry just for the fun of it.
  • Old phone charger. I thought it *would* work in Spain but it didn’t, so I sent it home to use again on some other future vacation
  • Used pages from my guidebook. I read (in the guidebook, incidentally) that I could lighten my pack by tearing out the pages for towns I’d already passed through. I did this for a while & sent the pages home so I could read them again in the future. (and we all know this didn’t happen!)

Things I should have sent home, binned, or given away (and why):

  • Mefix blister wrap. I never figured out how to use this (even after repeated Googling) and I carried the weight of it all 800km. Silly, silly, stupid.
  • My rain coat. I carried a raincoat *and* a poncho and didn’t really need both. The poncho was good in mild but wet weather. The rain coat was good in cold/windy, wet weather. I had very little of either and could have omitted some weight by choosing only one of these items.
  • The rain cover for my backpack. My poncho had a special flap to cover the backpack so I didn’t need an extra cover as well. I guess I was paranoid about getting wet (cold, sick, and covered in blisters) but I could have taken this out.
  • My first journal. I filled the pages with writing but continued to carry it in my backpack – afraid of losing it if I posted it home in the mail. It was a heavy luxury to carry.
  • Custom made orthotic insoles – I couldn’t find a pair of hiking shoes that these fit into so I couldn’t use them. Really, if I wasn’t wearing them on my feet there was no point in having them.
  • Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt – I hardly wore it & it only added to the weight
  • Travel size foot cream – I hardly ever used it & Vaseline would have done the same job
  • 1 white sports sock to cover the hiking poles. Really, it was ridiculous that I even carried this!

What I loved (and why):

  • Nite ize buglit flashlight – powerful light, very portable, very light
  • Columbia hiking shorts – lightweight, quick-drying, very comfortable
  • Altus poncho –even though I hardly used this, it covered everything (including my pack) but allowed lots of air to circulate in around my legs & torso – very important in mild weather.
  • Wick-away t-shirts. I know some people think all this high-tech gear is a load of overpriced marketing nonsense but I felt quite comfortable in 35 degree heat because of these t-shirts. Star buy.
  • Salomon shoes – cushioned, light, and tremendously durable
  • 1000 Mile Socks – They have a blister-free guarantee or your money back. Highly recommended.
  • My €2 shower gloves – magically scrubbed away the day’s sweat, grime, and sunscreen – in seconds!
  • Sleeping bag liner – much lighter than a sleeping bag, comfortable, quiet, and not a bed bug in sight! Highly recommended.
  • My cotton pashmina. This was a last-minute grab as I left to catch my plane for France. The morning was dark, cold, and raining, and I wanted some emotional comfort for my trip (so the scarf was a “blankie” of sorts). I used this every day as:
    • A pillow case
    • An eye mask to block out the light caused by roommates
    • A wrap around my shoulders to keep me warm
    • A wrap around my waist when dashing to the bathroom in the middle of the night & needed some modesty!
  • My Platypus hydration system. People either love or hate these things but I’m definitely in the former camp. I loved being able to drink water while I walked, without having to take off my backpack or stretch around for a water bottle. Genius.
  • Compeed plasters – I used these whenever I got a “hot spot” on my feet and remained blister-free for most of the trip. The reason they are so great is because they are more cushioned than other varieties and the glue on them stays stuck to the skin so they don’t dislodge with long distance walking. Worth the money.
  • My €2 plastic nailbrush – I used this to clean my Chaco sandals, my Crocs, and my clothes. Just like the shower gloves, this removed grime and sweat quickly – loved it.

What I would change next time round:

  • Backpack – The size was good but the item itself weighed 1.5kg when empty. Frankly, that’s too heavy.
  • Hiking poles – They’re 10+ years old and a bit heavier than the new varieties. I’d try to get lighter ones.
  • Arch support for my shoes. I use arch support in my daily life but didn’t use any on camino (because I bought my shoes along the way and my custom-made insoles didn’t fit). Painful decision.
  • Pack 2 sports bras
  • If I were walking Camino Francés (in particular), I’d bring Brierley’s maps but not the full guide book. Everything was so well sign posted & I didn’t read all his extra material, so the maps alone would have been sufficient.
  • I’d carry less water each day. Someone convinced me to carry 4 litres while crossing the Meseta – that’s 4kg of weight – madness!

What do you think?

Camino Footwear: Do my feet look big in this?

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision.

Every year, hundreds of pilgrims log on to online forums to discuss this very thing – along with the weight of their backpacks and how to prevent blisters. First timers like me want to know what they should wear on their feet.

Boots or walking shoes?

How heavy or light?

Waterproof or not?

Should you wear the pair you’ve owned forever or invest in a new pair?

Everyone wants to talk about footwear.

 

A lot of people thought I was crazy to walk in hiking sandals.

Maybe I was.

In terms of footwear, I already owned a pair of 3-season, GORE-TEX, leather hiking boots from a German company called Han Wag. They were sturdy and reliable on wet, unsteady ground. I loved those boots. I thought about bringing them with me but they were too heavy and strong for gravel trails. They were also too warm for walking in September and October.

I crossed them off my list.

Next, I had a pair of hiking shoes from a company called Keen. I’d had the shoes for years and they were well broken in, but they scraped my heels after just a few hours’ wear. If I wore them more than one day at a time, they gave me blisters. There was no way I could walk 800km in them.

I crossed them off my list, too.

The only other thing I had left were a pair of hiking sandals from a company called Chaco. I’d had them even longer than the Keens. Parts of the straps were starting to fray, and if I wore them in the rain they sometimes sliced my skin, which hurt. On the plus side, they had pretty good arch support and they would keep my feet cool. The week I started walking in France, the temperatures were in the mid-30s (Celsius). I needed to keep my feet cool for as long as possible, and minimise the risk of developing blisters.

The sandals were the most likely contender.

Honestly, I tried to figure out a more sensible option before I departed for France, but it just didn’t work out. I planned my Camino in just a month, while at the same time resigning from my job. My days were busy, my weekends were packed, and I had a head full of ‘to do’ lists. I didn’t have much time to find a new pair of shoes and I had almost no time to break them in before departure.

A small aside: ordinarily, I’m supposed to wear custom-made orthotic insoles in my shoes. It’s something to do with having overly flexible feet. I’m not flat-footed and I don’t have fallen arches, but apparently I’m somewhere on the scale towards being double-jointed. So, my joints and ligaments are just a bit too stretchy and when I go walking long distances, it can affect my gait, my knees, hips, and overall alignment. I like to walk long distances but I don’t like having sore knees. So, some years back, I was fitted out for a very practical pair of insoles to keep my feet in a steady position within my shoes. They aren’t sexy and they make shopping for shoes rather tricky.

So, when it came time to look for Camino footwear I was looking for something:

Durable

Comfortable

Lightweight

Possibly waterproof

Affordable

Supportive

Blister-free

Cushioned

Trustworthy

and

Orthotic-friendly

 

I’m not joking when I say I found only one pair of hiking shoes that accommodated my orthotics properly. They were waterproof, sturdy, and trustworthy. They were relatively comfortable but heavy. They also looked remedial and made me look more club-footed than I wanted.

The shoes were ugly and ‘too much’ commitment when I was under time pressure.

So, I started Camino in my Chaco sandals and I wore them for the first 154km to Viana. All things considered, I think that was pretty good going – especially since those kilometres had included the ascent and descent over the Pyrenees. I knew my shoes weren’t perfect but I was open to buying another pair if necessary.

I don’t need to be perfect: I’m willing to change and I will figure this out as I go along.

The benefits of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. I’d already broken them in
  2. They kept my feet cool
  3. They allowed my feet to swell without giving me blisters or chafing

The downside of wearing my hiking sandals:

  1. They had no cushioning
  2. They had limited support
  3. The straps cut into my skin a bit, even when dry, which hurt. I wore socks to minimise the abrasion and keep my feet clean. That was one of many fashion disasters 🙂

In the evenings, I wore a pair of newly purchased Crocs:

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The plus side:

They were really light

The holes allowed air into my feet

I could wear them in public showers and they drained out pretty quickly

 

The minus side:

They were bulky and took up quite a bit of space in my backpack

The occasionally scraped the skin off my toes. Ouch. But this was because the skin on my feet grew softer over time, from wearing shoes and socks every day. Not exactly the Crocs’ fault.

 

Why didn’t I wear flip-flops?

I thought I might need to wear socks in the evening and if I did, they would fit better in a pair of Crocs than in a pair of flip-flops.

The few times that I did wear socks, the Crocs allowed me to do so without having a thong thingie between my toes. That would have been another level of fashion disaster!

Flip flops seemed to be more popular but one woman told me that the thong between her toes gave her chafing and blisters. Like me, the skin on her feet had grown soft over time and the flip-flops seemed to dig in and cause problems.

I’m sure there’s some way around that.

 

Would I recommend walking the Camino in hiking sandals?

Not really.

They served me well in the first few days – particularly in the heat – but by the time I’d reached Viana my feet were horribly sore from over-stretching and flexing. I needed better support and structure. That said, by the time I’d reached Viana, my feet had swelled so much that I needed shoes that were a full size bigger than normal. I wouldn’t have known that if I’d bought my footwear before departure.

A lot of people thought I was crazy to buy shoes on Camino and break them in while I walked.

Maybe I was.

But I was delighted to find an outdoor gear shop in Viana, and deeply grateful to have a range of shoes available to me. I tried on everything in the shop – with my hiking socks and swollen feet, and in the end chose these, a pair from a company called Solomon:

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The upside:

LOADS of cushioning – they were like walking on springy mattresses!

Great support

Lightweight

Breathable

Non-remedial in appearance 🙂

 

The downside:

They didn’t accommodate my orthotics

They weren’t waterproof (time would tell whether that was an issue)

 

When I walked out of Viana in them the next morning, I knew a transformation had taken place. My first week or so of Camino had been painful and had taken a lot out of me. I thought I was being soft or whiney. I didn’t like that about myself, and thought I should shut up complaining. No one else seemed to be whinging, even though many people had nasty blisters by then. I’d come away without a single blister to date: what was I complaining about?!

When I put on the new shoes, I realised that the walking was instantly easier. No more screaming tendons, no more overly stretched ligaments – my feet felt comfortable and supported for the first time. Comparing the two sets of shoes:

Walking in the sandals felt like walking on cement in my bare feet

Walking in the shoes felt like bouncing on mini trampolines

It just goes to show: getting the right footwear makes all the difference.

Choosing your Camino footwear is a big decision but you don’t necessarily have to get the perfect gear before you depart: you can buy footwear along the way and break it in as you go.