On the Camino de Santiago, Expect the Unexpected

By Carolyn Ray, Editor-in-Chief of JourneyWoman | December 6, 2021

This post is an exclusive and AWESOME feature from Carolyn Ray, the Editor-in-Chief of JourneyWoman. If you’re not familiar with JourneyWoman, it’s a reliable and lively resource for women–for travel tips and advice on solo travel, JourneyWoman is wonderful company to keep. Carolyn also shared her experience of becoming a genuine cowgirl in the Canadian Rockies with Wild Women Expeditions this summer too–

The Camino de Santiago: Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.

I’m a guest on a tour with a group of adventurous women who all come from different places and a range of professions. An architect, a social worker, a scientist, retired women – and me, a travel writer. We are all so different, but we share the same passion for travel as a way to enrich our souls and expand our worldview. Every morning, despite our pains and injuries, we rediscover our resolve and commitment to finish what we started, on our own terms, in our own way.

The path is rocky, rainy and steep, but our drive and determination push us to the next day. It’s a demanding and challenging walk, known to bring healing and personal discovery. But even if you walk with other pilgrims on the route, this is your journey. No one can walk the Camino but you.

Six things that surprised me about the Camino

When I was invited on this nine-day “Camino Way” tour by adventure company Wild Women Expeditions, I thought I knew a lot about the Camino de Santiago. I had researched it for months, hosted a webinar on the topic, written articles about women had walked it and read books and watched the film “The Way.”

I had been told that on the Camino, what you don’t have, you find. What you need, you are given. What you seek, you find. Here, in this northeast corner of Spain, I discover several things I didn’t expect on my Camino.

1. Galicia’s mysticism pulls me in

On my first day from Barbadelo to Portomarin, I trek along lush forests and farmer’s fields. I can’t help but wonder if I’m really in Spain. The Spain I know from previous trips is populated by orange trees, gardens and Moorish architecture. Here, I’m greeted by lush, green, rolling hills, dotted with sheep, farmer’s fields and small villages. The Galician countryside is pastoral, like something out of a photograph, and the weather is sunny but misty and cool, perfect for walking.

While Scotland and Ireland are most associated with the Celtic people, I’m surprised to learn that this part of Spain also has a strong Celtic heritage. Celtic crosses and knots decorate many of the buildings and small villages, and there’s the occasional sound of bagpipes. There’s a reverence for nature here, for the forests, rivers and trees, and a feeling of magic and mystery.

Walking toward Palais de Rei, a short detour to stand on the scenic remains of the Castromaior archaeological site just outside Portomarin. You can imagine the village that was once here from the stone walls on top of the hill.

2. It’s easy to walk at my own pace

Those new to the Camino are often concerned about the physical challenges of the walk.

Even when we start walking together, some are faster than others. After realizing I can walk 20 kilometres (12 miles) a day, I slow down. This makes the trip more memorable for me. The slower I walk, the more I feel my curiosity heighten. I focus on the details. I pause at a church, revelling in the brickwork, imagining how something so beautiful could have been constructed 500 years ago.

The scallop shell we all wear on our backpack is an open invitation to call out “Buen Camino!” with a smile. There are always opportunities to speak with others, ask questions and learn more. Or not, it’s up to you. We are all pilgrims, heading in the same direction.

The group’s first steps in Barbadelo, near Lugo, Spain.

3. I can travel solo in a group

With so many bars and restaurants closed, Wild Women makes the trip incredibly stress-free by arranging everything for us in advance – food, hotel, and transportation. All of the places we stay along the route are unique and beautiful, ranging from convents to family-owned farmhouses. As much as I love planning my own travel, this allows me to focus on the experience, not the logistics.

Every day, we start from the same point together. Some days I walk alone for hours, then meet with the group. There is only one path, and it’s impossible to get lost, particularly with all the scallop shell signs pointing you in the right direction. We stay in stunning boutique hotels, or a chateau. We have several hours before and after dinner to do our own thing. This small group model allows for all the flexibility of solo travel, but the camaraderie of a group.

4. The cuisine will win you over

The food is mouth-watering and irresistible. There is pastel de cuajada, flan, biscotti and tarte. Pulpo, cheese and scallops. Not to mention bread, potatoes, seafood, peppers, eggs, fresh squeezed orange juice and soups. his region of Spain has delicious wineries which offer unique blends and is known for its white wine.

However, many restaurants are closed. Those that are open are staffed by the owners and family, who sometimes share their struggles to stay open during the pandemic. Miami-born Vanessa and her wife Ashley bought Taberna Vella to follow her dream of living in the same small community where her father grew up. Despite years of delays getting electricity, permits and covid, she has reopened. Stories like these, which I hear throughout my time in Spain, motivate me to tip generously at restaurants.

5. Not spiritual, but meaningful

The Camino is life-changing., but not for the reasons you might think. It creates a bond that can’t be broken between women. I will never forget walking alongside the women in my group who shared their story with me, bringing me to tears with their bravery, resilience and courage. By the time we reach midlife, we have all had major traumas that affect our perspective on life – addiction, cancer, divorce, the loss of a child, parent or partner, our health. These we carry with us every day. They form part of who we are.

Maybe that’s why I got a scallop shell tattoo on my wrist. The scallop shell is said to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world, all walking trails leading to one point: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. Like the medieval pilgrims, I wear a scallop shell attached to my clothing, signifying to others that I’m a pilgrim.

6. How sad I was the last day

Our last morning began on top of a hill looking down on Santiago. I can see the three steeples of the Compostela de Santiago in the distance.  As we start walking, a wave of sadness passes over me. I realize, as I have done several times on this trip, that I am merely walking in the steps of thousands of pilgrims who made this journey.

It can be hard to predict the synergy of women on a trip like this. It’s simply astonishing that women from all over North America can bond so quickly, so deeply, and have the maturity to be non-judgemental on any level. We walk together as a group into the city of Compostela de Santiago, staying close together as we wind through the medieval cobblestone streets. We decide to step off the route for one last coffee and realize we have lost our way. Here, the signs have disappeared and there’s construction everywhere.

When we hear the bagpipes playing, we know we’re getting close. Rushing into the square beside the Compostela de Santiago, we’re greeted by our guide, who leads us to a large scallop shell in the middle of the square. We have tears in our eyes as we put a foot into the shell and step back for a photograph. As I press the toe of my dusty hiking boot into the scallop, I grin like a crazy person. Five other women are doing the same, looking at each other with a mixture of awe and surprise. We did it. On our own terms, in our own way.

I look around us, where hundreds of people are singing, dancing, crying and taking photographs. I have no idea who these people are, where they are from, what route they walked or how far they walked. It doesn’t really matter. Today, we are all pilgrims.

The triumphant group in Santiago!

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