Pilgrim sign above a shop in Santiago de Compostela Camino Português

Since hiking both of the two main Portuguese Camino de Santiago pilgrim routes between Porto and Santiago de Compostela, I have advised hundreds of people on their Camino itineraries.

Use my insider tips and expert information to help you decide whether walking the Camino Portugês is the right walking holiday for you and choose between the well-trodden Central Portuguese Way of St. James and the quieter Coastal Camino route.

Find out what you need to know about the routes and how to prepare for such an epic adventure. I may also be able to help you work out your Camino itinerary – get in touch.

 

Who was Saint James and what is the Camino de Santiago?

Santiago is Spanish for Saint James, also known as James the Greater, one of Jesus’ first Apostles. He devoted his life to converting people to Christianity and mystery surrounds how he died and what happened to his body. 

The legends suggest that he ended up in Spain and his remains were discovered in the 9th century in a field where the magnificent Santiago de Compostela Cathedral now stands. Since then, devotees have made the pilgrimage to this site to pay homage and now there are many well-worn Caminos de Santiago (a.k.a. Way of St. James) from all over Europe leading to the cathedral.

For the full story about St. James, read this article.

Portuguese Caminos

Portugal has several Camino routes but the most well known Portuguese Camino, the Central Way, runs from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela. Most people don’t have the time, or energy, to walk the full 641 kms (398 miles) so Porto has become the most popular starting point.

Camino waymarker, schist wall and grape vines
Camino waymarker, schist wall and grape vines

How long is the Camino Portugues?

If you begin your Camino de Santiago from the UNESCO World Heritage city of Porto, the full distance to Santiago de Compostela is 252 km (157 miles) along the Central route or around 280 km (174 miles) on the Coastal Camino.

That said, I’d recommend skipping the first 13-17 km (8-10 miles) of either route unless you relish the thought of walking through busy urban and industrial areas. If you book your Camino through the tour operator I work with, they will transfer you to the outskirts of Porto so you can start walking in a more rural setting. If you’re going it alone, you can use the metro.

Get help planning YOUR Portuguese Way of Saint James

How long does it take to walk the Portuguese Camino?

If you are able to walk an average of 20 km (12.5 miles) per day, you can complete either route in around 2 weeks but if you can spare the time, I would allow 3 weeks – I’ll explain why.

At this pace, you need a minimum of 12 actual walking days for the Central Way and 13 for the Coastal Way but don’t forget to factor in transfer times to Porto and from Santiago de Compostela when setting dates.

You should also give yourself at least a full day to explore Porto and another to enjoy Santiago de Compostela so  allow at least 2 nights in each city. This is not merely for the fun of seeing these cities – there are practical considerations too.

The new ticketing system for issuing the pilgrim certificate at the Camino Pilgrim Office in Santiago means that during busy months, you may not receive your certificate until the day after you arrive so you should not plan to leave until the afternoon of the following day at the earliest.

If you are flying in and out of Porto, bear in mind that there are not many daily buses from Santiago and although the ALSA but stops at Porto airport, you’ll be very lucky if that matches your flight times. I would add a night in Porto to your itinerary if you can’t fly out of Santiago or Vigo airports.

What if you can’t spare 2 weeks?

If it’s important for you to qualify for the Compostela pilgrim certificate, you need to prove that you have walked at least the last 100 kms, or cycled the last 200 kms of the Camino to Santiago. This may affect your choice of route but you can achieve this in around a week.

Note: If you don’t have time for the full Porto to Santiago Coastal Camino, you need to decide what’s most important to you – qualifying for the Compostela or walking by the ocean as the route heads inland from Baiona, which is your probable starting point if you want the certificate. If this is the case, I would be inclined to use the Valença/Tui to Santiago Central route, which also saves you a day’s walking.

Walking boots, staff, gourd and shell. What to pack for the Portuguese Way of St. James. Camino packing list
Walking boots, staff, gourd and shell on the Portuguese Way of St. James

Should you take rest days on the Portuguese Way Of St. James?

After my experience, I would definitely recommend incorporating some rest days to break up your journey. Walking the Camino is surprisingly exhausting and you may not have the energy to appreciate some of the wonderful places you will be staying in if you have to walk day after day.

If you can spare the time, I would also suggest walking shorter distances where possible. I found that up to 15 km per day is enjoyable, 18 km is bearable, 20 km is just about okay but beyond that it can be a bit of a slog, especially on a hot or challenging day.

Sometimes, because of where the accommodation is, you will have to push on beyond your ideal daily limit but since this is no ordinary walking holiday, it’s worth taking your time over.

There are other ways around this involving taxis to skip the beginning or end of a stage or to break a stage over two days if you don’t want to miss a single step.

Best towns and cities for rest days on the Portuguese Camino

If you have no time restraints, the following towns and cities are of particular interest, as well as Porto and Santiago of course:

Central routeBarcelos, Ponte de Lima, Valença do Minho, Pontevedra and Padrón

Coastal route – Vila do Conde, Viana do Castelo, Caminha, Baiona, maybe Vigo if you want to go to the Cies Islands, Pontevedra and Padrón

Should you choose the Coastal or Central Portuguese Camino?

The best Portuguese Camino route for you will depend on many factors, not least the season and your capacity for walking uphill. Both routes have some hills but only the Central Way has a small mountain to climb. The views are worth the effort.

If you are undecided, read about my experiences of both routes to see which route suits you best.

wooden-boardwalk-leadign-to-a-disused-windmill-near-agucadoura-coastal-portuguese-Camino
Wooden boardwalk on the coastal Camino

Although the idea of walking by the ocean sounds romantic, strong winds from the Atlantic can make the Coastal Route more tiring than it needs to be. It’s also important to understand that, despite the name, this route is not all by the ocean, in fact most of it is inland.

Find out more about the Coastal Camino

 

Ponte D. Zamiro near Vilarinho in northern Portugal on the Central Camino Português
Ponte D. Zamiro near Vilarinho in northern Portugal on the Central Camino Português

The more established and well-trodden Central Camino takes you from one historic town or city to another with plenty of beautiful scenery and tiny villages in between. And that small mountain I mentioned.

Find out more about the Central Camino

Where should you spend the night on the Camino Portugues?

If you are walking independently and using the albergues (pilgrim hostels), you will have slightly more flexibility about where you make overnight stops but when using the services of a tour operator, the stages (walking days) are determined by the location of suitable accommodation, i.e. at least a 2-star hotel, depending on the tour operator.

For this reason, some stages are shorter than others but they average out at around 20 km (12.5 miles) per day.

These maps show how each Portuguese Camino route is normally broken into stages at this pace.

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What accommodation is there on the Portuguese Camino?

There are hostels, a.k.a. albergues, along the route where you get a bunk bed in a massive dorm room with anything from 30 to 60 other people on a first come, first served basis for about 6 euros.

They do offer plenty of opportunities to meet fellow pilgrims but I wouldn’t recommend them if you actually want to sleep. Although ‘lights out’ is around 10 pm, there will inevitably be someone in the room who snores like a freight train and I’ve heard tales of all sorts of shenanigans that may keep you awake.

Even if you manage to sleep through that, be prepared for an early start. Because you can’t usually book a bed, fellow pilgrims will be up before dawn and ready to get a head start, especially during peak periods.

There are private hostels and simple bed and breakfasts or guest houses in most of the same locations where it’s possible to book ahead.

I stayed in hotels, arranged through a partner tour company, so I knew in advance that I had a comfortable bed for the night and decent en suite bathroom facilities that I only had to share with my friend. They also transferred my suitcase each day so I only had to carry essentials.

My accommodations ranged from country inns through 2, 3 and 4 star hotels. If you have higher standards, it is possible to upgrade the accommodations to a mix of 4 and 5 star hotels, depending on what’s avaialble. Some of the overnight stops are very small towns and villages so there isn’t always the full gamut of options.

There is also the option of staying in country houses instead of in towns and cities. These are typically traditional manor or farm houses that have been restored and adapted for tourism, often family run and with home-cooked meals – ask me about the Country Inns option.

If that level of comfort appeals to you, click here to get in touch and I’ll arrange for a quote.

What’s the best time of year to do the Portuguese Camino

Grapevines, mountains and fields of flowers, Lima valley, Portuguese Way of St. James
Grapevines, mountains and fields of flowers, Lima valley, Portuguese Way of St. James Central route

April, May and June are the best months for wild flowers and warm weather, although you may get some rainy days. May is a particularly popular month so plan and book ahead.

July and August are far too hot to be doing this kind of extended walk, although people do. If this is the only time of year when you’re free, be sure to get very early starts, protect yourself from the sun and stay hydrated.

By mid-September, the temperatures should be more bearable, plus the grape vines will be ready for harvest. This is another very popular month.

After mid-October, your chances of cold, wet weather increase but the routes are open all year.

That said, high winds and grim weather make the Coastal Camino unpleasant in winter so if this is the only time of year you can do it, I’d stick to the Central Way. Even then, you may find that some accommodations have closed for the winter.

See this article about the best time of year to visit Portugal

Reasons for walking the Camino de Santiago

Everyone has their own reasons for walking the Camino, which is part of what makes it such a special journey. For many, the journey is deeply connected to their religious beliefs and they do the pilgrimage as a form of penance, atonement or a show of devotion.

But you don’t have to be a Catholic or even a Christian to walk the Camino.

Religious or not, walking the Camino de Santiago marks a turning point in many people’s lives, perhaps the end of a particular phase and a fresh start for the next. For others, like me, rising to the physical and mental challenge of a multi-day hike and the sense of achievement upon reaching the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is the greatest satisfaction.

As an insatiably curious traveller, I also relished the opportunity to walk through the verdant landscapes of northern Portugal and Spain, discovering authentic villages and historical towns. I found I experienced them in a different way from my usual travels – I had time to stop and look at things that caught my eye, like unusual haystacks, and to listen to the frogs croaking in ponds and the bright chatter of birds.

Do you need a guide to walk the Portuguese Camino?

Waymarker in Tui, Portuguese Way of St. James. One of many you'll find when walking the camino de SantiagoWaymarker in Tui, Portuguese Way of St. James

Having attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to follow short local walking trails in Portugal using leaflets and patchy signage, the (mostly) clear directions of the Camino were a welcome relief.

With a few minor exceptions, the Portuguese Way of St. James is well-marked by yellow arrows or scallop shells and locals often preempt any moments of indecision if you hover at a junction.

If you have a decent guide book and/or detailed route notes with you, it isn’t necessary to have a guide.

You will probably enjoy the experience more if you have a friend or loved one with you to keep you moving forward when the going gets tough. Between you, you will be able to find your Way, although it is possible to arrange guided Caminos if you prefer.

Meeting other people on the Portuguese Camino

I was unprepared for, and amazed by, the sense of comradeship I encountered on the Camino. I walked some stages alone and others with a friend and met some remarkable people, some of whom I have stayed in touch with since.

The day Dori and I arrived in Santiago de Compostela we bumped into Michael, a cheerful Australian guy we’d chatted to on several occasions along the central route, which made our arrival even more special for having shared it with others.

Even those you meet only briefly can stick in your mind – we saw one poor guy wincing with every step and stopped to offer him support. He declined but this spirit of helpfulness and kindness seems to be a common theme, judging by the stories I heard from fellow walkers.

Note: While you are bound to meet other pilgrims at some point during your Portuguese Camino, it will depend on the route and time of year. I have spent entire days walking alone without seeing other pilgrims. In situations like this, the emergency phone number provided by a tour operator can be reassuring.

Is it safe to walk the Portuguese Camino alone?

I have always felt safe when travelling in Portugal and Spain. I walked some stages of the Portuguese Caminos on my own and had no concerns about being a woman walking alone or about being robbed.

There was only one short stretch on the way into Vigo that looked dodgy enough for me to judge it wise to put my camera away. Even so, I don’t think anyone wants to run the risk of intentionally harming a pilgrim – who knows what punishments might await them!

Should you need help when you’re walking, don’t be afraid to ask – local people and fellow pilgrims are usually more than happy to oblige.

If you arrange your self-guided Camino with a tour operator, you will have the security of having a 24-hour local contact number should you run into difficulties or have an accident.

The Central Camino is more popular so if you want to increase your chances of meeting fellow pilgrims, this might influence your choice of route.

What to pack for the Camino de Santiago

Exactly what clothes and equipment you should pack for your Camino will largely depend on whether or not you intend to carry it around with you.

My back hurts at the best of times so that was never an option for me – I used a luggage transfer service and just carried water and the bare essentials with me as I walked.

I have done my research though, and learned from experience. 

These are my essential tips on packing for the Camino de Santiago whether you are carrying it yourself or using a luggage transfer service (highly recommended!)

How to prepare for the physical and mental challenge of the Camino

For various reasons, I did my Portuguese Caminos in three separate episodes. The first of these was 4 days on the Coastal route, followed  by a 10-day stint on the Central Route and a ‘mop up Camino’ of the remaining stages of both routes.

Because of this, I was able to learn from my mistakes and each time I set out better prepared and equipped.

Here’s my advice on how to prepare yourself physically for such a long walk.

How to qualify for the compostela pilgrim certificate

My Compostela certificate achievement from walking the Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela
My Compostela certificate achievement from Santiago de Compostela

As mentioned above, if the certificate of an achievement is important to you, it’s necessary to prove that you have walked at least the final 100 kms or cycled the last 200 kms to Santiago de Compostela. 

You do this by collecting stamps from the cafés, accommodations, churches, shops and restuarants that you pass in a credencial, which is a cardboard pilgrim ‘passport’. You can buy these at albergues if your tour operator doesn’t supply one for you. You’ll need a minimum of 2 stamps per day, ideally spaced out along the day.

When you get to Santiago de Compostela, you need to go to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office and take a numbered ticket with a QR code that marks your place in the queue. You can see the estimated waiting time using the QR code – in peak periods, this could even be the following day.

Once it’s your turn, hand over your pilgrim passport, tell them that your reasons for doing the Camino are either religious or spiritual (‘tourist’ reasons don’t earn you the beautiful certificate) and, assuming your credencial proves your achievement, they will use the Latin version of your name, if at all possible, to complete your Compostela certificate.

Get help planning YOUR Portuguese Way of Saint James

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