In the spring of 2016 I walked more than 400 km along the two main Portuguese Way of Saint James (Camino de Santiago) pilgrim routes between Porto in Portugal and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Not all in one go, I must admit, but I have followed the well-trodden Central Route and the various stages of the quieter Coastal Route.
I can understand why people love walking the Camino de Santiago so much.
Ancient Pilgrim Paths
Countless people, including royalty, have followed the ancient paths of the Portuguese Way of Saint James from Porto Cathedral to the cathedral in Santiago where the remains of St. James are believed to be held. Find out more about the history of St. James and the Camino de Santiago.
Coastal or Central Camino?
There are many Caminos de Santiago, depending on which country and town/city you start from. The two main routes from Portugal are the Central Way and the Coastal Way. Either route can be done within two weeks if you start from the World Heritage city of Porto, although it’s best to start walking a few kilometres away from the centre to avoid having to trudge through busy industrial areas.
If you have less time or want to build in plenty of rest days, you could start your journey a little further along the Way.
What is the Coastal Way like?
The most important thing to know is that it’s not all by the ocean, in fact much of this Camino is inland. Find out more about the Coastal Way.
What is the Central Way like?
The more established and well-trodden Central Camino takes you from one historic town or city to another with plenty of beautiful scenery in between. Find out more about the Central Route here.
Which Camino should you choose?
The best Portuguese Way of Saint James route for you will depend on many factors, not least the season and your capacity for climbing hills. Although the idea of walking by the ocean sounds appealing, strong winds from the Atlantic can make your Way more tiring than it needs to be.
How long is the Portuguese Way?
If you start your Camino in Porto, the full distance to Santiago de Compostela is 240 along the Central Way or 260 on the Coastal Way. That said, I’d recommend skipping the first 13 km unless you relish the thought of walking through busy urban and industrial areas.
How long does it take?
If you are able to walk an average of 20 km per day, you can do either route in less than 2 weeks but if you can, allow 3 – I’ll explain why.
You need a minimum of 11 actual walking days for the Central Route and 12 for the Coastal Route 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.
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 day.
Sometimes, because of where accommodation is, you have to push on beyond your ideal daily limit but since this is no ordinary walking holiday, it’s worth taking your time over if possible.
When to go
April, May and June are the best months for wild flowers and warm weather, although you may get some rainy days. July and August are far too hot to be doing this kind of extended walk but by September, the temperatures should be more bearable, plus the vines will be ready for harvest.
After 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 Way unpleasant in winter so if this is the only time of year you can do it, I’d stick to the Central Way.
Where to sleep
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. I wouldn’t recommend them if you actually want to sleep. I stayed in hotels, arranged through a tour company, so I knew in advance that I had a comfortable bed for the night and decent en suite bathroom facilities.
What to take
Exactly what to pack will largely depend on whether or not you intend to carry it around with you. My back complains 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 and learned from experience though. These are my tips on packing for the Camino de Santiago whether you are carrying it yourself or using a luggage transfer service (highly recommended!)
How do you prepare for the Camino de Santiago?
For various reasons, I did my Portuguese Ways in three separate stages. The first 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.
Do you need a guide to walk the Portuguese Way of Saint James?
The routes are very well-marked and if you have a decent guide book and instructions 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.
Is it safe to walk the 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 put my camera away. Even then, I don’t think anyone wants to run the risk of intentionally harming a pilgrim – who knows what punishments might await them!
If you need help when you’re walking, don’t be afraid to ask – people are usually more than happy to oblige.
As for feeling lonely, you’ll stand more chance of meeting fellow pilgrims on the Central Way than the Coastal Way. If solitude is your thing, don’t worry, you can quickly shake people off if you don’t want to walk with them but I enjoyed teaming up with other pilgrims for part of some stages.
If you arrange your self-guided Camino with a tour operator, you will have the security of having insurance as well as a local contact number should you run into difficulties or have an accident.