Arlene and I spent almost one year preparing for our Camino - we read many books - joined forums - read posts on facebook pages - yet were still not fully prepared for our experience. In the following notes we offer these as suggestions - accept them for what they are - we are not experts - even those who have walked multiple Caminos are not experts - as what worked for one may not work for another. We met one couple from the USA who did not want their experience diminished by outside influence - so they read nothing - did no research - bought no guide books - simply showed up one day at SJDP and began walking. If they did no research at all - I am sure they were overwhelmed by their Camino experience - not necessarily in a good way.
It is our opinion that anyone who is going to invest the time - money - energy - walking the Camino - needs preparation. The guide books are a good starting place - less reliable are individual anectdotes and posts on forums and social media sites - as these are opinions and comments - not necessarily filtered through the best analytical minds.
Following are common sense and not so common sense tips acquired on our Camino
1. The Camino will NOT provide - you are walking thru underdeveloped land - you will be in rural locations for the majority of your camino - be a good scout - be prepared. Everyone focuses on ultralight back packing which we agree with - but do not expect to find a Decathlon (Spain's version of REI Sports store) in every village. If you forgot it - lost it - broke it - you will have to make due until you do get into a town big enough to have a store.
2. Most villages will have a mercado or supermercado but not a sports store - they will probably be closed when you are walking thru - Murphy's Law
3. If you need to shop for food, water, equipment, medicine - they will be at siesta in the middle of the afternoon - continue walking or buy the day before - or after you stop for the day.
4. Not all villages have an ATM - many do but they are not obvious - ask a local "donde es el bancomat/telebanco" - carry at least 200 Euro on you at all times.
5. English is the universal language around the world - except in Northern Spain - learn basic Spanish - do not try to bully your way through and speaking really loud and slow will not make them understand your obnoxious yelling any better - instead try hand gestures and patience - they are putting up with you - remember you are the intruder not them - learn their language
6. Carry Euros - credit cards are not used in the small villages on Camino - cash is their bread and butter € = $
7. You do not get butter with your bread in Spain - maybe olive oil at dinner - at breakfast "desayuno" - if you order toast bread "tostada" you will get butter and marmalade and a knife and fork - in Spain you eat breakfast foods - toast, croisants, donuts - with a knife and fork
8. Do not expect eggs for breakfast - eggs are only served as a lunch, snack, tapas, raciones, dinner choice between 10:30 am and 7:30 pm.
9. Menu (pronunced men-new) means a specific type of meal - "the Pilgrim or Peregrino Menu" - a three or four course dinner served after 7:30pm consisting of 1st course (starters such as soup, salad,pasta) - 2nd course (fish, meats, pasta, eggs) - 3rd course (desert - ice cream, flan, tart) - included in "menu" is bread/wine/water - depending on area can cost from 5€ to 15€ per person.
10. The "menu" varies from village to village - you usually have 3 options for each course and as you move towards Santiago you will notice regional changes - so reading that somebody got sick of eating pork night after night was their fault - there are plenty of options to change your evening meal.
11. If you do not want the standard 3 course menu and want less food you have that option - just request "la carta por favor" and you will be handed a printed menu of food options - tapas/raciones.
12. Albergues all seem to follow a standard system - municipal, private, hostel - when you request a bed/bunk they will let you know if one is available - if you hear "completo" - they are full and you have to find another albergue. Sometimes all the individual bunks (2 & 3 levels in some places) are filed - they may have multiple person rooms available - at a slightly higher price. Before they sign you in they will walk you to the bed/bunk to get your approval - if early enough you can request upper or lower - by a window - away from the bathroom door etc - once you agree to the bed - you walk back with them to register and pay the fee in cash - present both your international passport and pilgrim passport (credencial) and make sure they apply their personal stamp and the date on your credencial - if staying in a "donativo" you will make a donation rather than pay a set fee - prices for us in Sept 2013 ranged from 5€ to 15€ per person - private double rooms with private toilet/shower ran 40€) - after you pay you may move yourself and equipment to your bunk.
Note - almost every albergue will have you remove your boots and leave in a common area, likewise with hiking poles. One church run albergue also made us leave our backpacks in a common area which made it difficult. That was not the norm. One peregrina was heard to say after showering and washing her clothes and rearranging her bed and backpack - "I finally I have my house in order - for today" (and you do exactly that day after day). One "trick " that we utilized is that when not in use - our trekking poles were strapped to our backpack and when we checked in at an albergue - with our poles attached to our packs - we were never asked to leave in the common area. It makes it a tiny bit easier sleeping in a strange place if you know where most of your belongings are.
13. Albergue etiquette - only occupy your bed - do not put your backpack, poles, clothes or a nearby bed - you are invading somebody elses space. Bring earplugs - people snore - loudly - especially after drinking a full bottle of wine (that you got on the menu) - do not wake a person that is snoring - it is not their problem - it is yours - cope with it like an adult - you did pack ear plugs didn't you? Don't use all the hot water - that last person in deserves a hot shower too. If you want/need to wash clothes-stop walking early and do your wash immediately - if the sun is out and if you have a breeze - your expensive technical shirts and shorts might be dry by morning - but don't bet on it. If you bought the expensive technical undies they will be dry by morning but your wool socks will never be dry - bring safety pins and pin your damp socks to your backpack and they will dry as you walk - assuming it is not raining. Most of the clothes dryers available do not work very well except at using up Euros-best to line dry. Here is one trick - since you have a bunk bed and you took a lower - you will be able to tuck the edge of your socks, undies, t-shirts under the slats above your head at the end of the bed and they can hopefully dry during the night. If that girl - with ice in her veins - who took the bed next to the window - is polite enough to leave the window open during the night so you get fresh air and don't have to listen to everyone coughing due to poor air circulation - leaves the window open your clothes should dry overnight. To that girl or guy who insists on closing the window - you paid for one bed not the entire room - who gave you permissuin to make 20 other people suffer because you don't want the window open - if that is your concern then take the bed in the far corner where nobody will bother you. If you want to leave at 5:00 in the morning do not wake everyone else in the process - sleep in your clothes for the next day and have your backpack packed and ready to go - if you need to adjust something do it outside the sleeping area - better yet do it outside in the street. No matter what you think plastic makes a noise no matter how slowly you fill that sack so do that the night before. If you need your headlamp to see in the albergue - use the red lens not the white one - unless you want to wake everyone and then they will be seeing red.
14. Trekking poles are used to help you keep your balance and for help going up and down hills - they are not rhythm instruments - use rubber tips when walking on hard surfaces - your pilgrim friends really do object to listening to your constant tappity-taping and they are not joking when they mention that you walk to the beat of a different drummer.
15. If you have the opportunity to attend evening Mass in the villages - do it - you do not have to be Catholic to attend Holy Mass - it will be in Spanish - you most likely will not understand the readings or prayers - if Catholic do receive communion - if not Catholic stay in the pew at communion time - do make the sign of the cross - Catholic or not - stand for the final blessing and dismissal - sometimes you will also receive a special pilgrim's blessing - you will know when you hear the priest say peregrino. Cry when the old fellow assisting the priest sings a song at the end of Mass and although you don't understand the words - his devotion and sincerity will touch your heart - this is one of the special Camino moments you have heard about.
16. Wi-fi (pronounced we-fee) is available at the majority of albergues and bar/cafe/restuarants - some are open - you do not need a password - set your wireless to automatically join any network - and you will - the remainder will have a password - in the albergues that password is normally posted on the wall by other information posters
17. Some albergues offer a community meal in the bed price - eat there - help with food preparation and clean up - take part in the community conversation - get involved. Many other albergues have no community meal but do have a kitchen to use - play nice with others and share - your other option is to eat at a restuarant - you may be seated with other peregrinos - talk to them
18. If doing the camino on a bike - use the bell to warn those walking that you are approaching - and warn early enough so they know which side of the trail to step to - if you have no bell - then raise your voice and give a verbal warning. **Special note to bikers - many parts of the trail are filled with rocks, stones, small boulders, ruts, roots - if you are not use to dirt biking or trail biking it might be better to stay on the asphalt rather than take a nasty spill or bend your wheel - there are no bike repair shops on the camino - you are your own mechanic - carry the proper repair kit
19. On that stretch of 1050 meters with the 12 degree incline - you will struggle walking or biking - many bikers end up walking their bike up that hill - you can rejoice at the top that you made it up - unfortunately the downhill which comes up quickly is 18 degrees and smooth concrete - walk slowly and don't fall off the edges and bikers resist the urge to free wheel down - there is a quick turn near the end that will be dangerous at high speed
20. For those who are unable to walk with a backpack and use a transport service to move your backpack from albergue to albergue - please don't be so smug about how many kilometers you can walk or how easy the camino is - carrying 10-20 pounds on your back and coping with the rough terrain is a challenge you will not experience - be mindful that many peregrinos will be struggling with their daily walk in a way that you will not know - you do not want them resenting you.
21. Walk on the left when walking the asphalt shared with cars and trucks - you want to see what is approaching you - for safety sake - especially when walking in the rain.
22. Learn the proper way to use trekking poles - you can find videos on You Tube - they are not part of the peregrino costume - they have a purpose - when you start to trip they will help you avoid falling on your face if your reflexes are good and you have practiced with them.
23. Walk a lot before you start your camino - get good hiking shoes/boots - break them in - wear merino wool socks - when your feet start to hurt it is time to stop for the day.
24. Learn how to treat blisters - prevention is best - bring a small needle and thread for treatment - carefully insert the needle into the white dead top layer and go all the way through - pulling the thread through - cut so that the thread sticks out both openings - leave the dead tissue in place - do not remove - you have just created a surgical drain - the lymph fluid will easily flow out - your blister will heal quicker.
25. Carry oranges - apples - bananas with you - they provide needed electrolytes lost while perspiring - now is not the time to diet - eat your bread, meats, sugars - you need to "carb load" so you will have reserve energy to walk each day **Hint- you will lose weight anyhow.
We could go on - but these hints address the most common issues discussed between peregrinos on our camino - common sense and good manners apply always.
Dale and Arlene