Focus on the Authentic
Last year, the Camino de Santiago had more than 300,000 pilgrims walk the journey. The Camino was never intended for so many pilgrims and none of the towns along the way can accommodate the needs of that many people. Because of this demand, many tour operators are changing the official Camino and corrupting the true spirit of the journey. Some tour operators have you walk to a certain point, then they pick you up by bus and take you off the Camino to a luxurious hotel. I’ve seen some tours promoting “Walk the foodie Camino” or “Camino by boat”, all the while pretending to be experienced Camino operators.
The Camino is over a thousand-year-old pilgrimage that has been walked by millions of people. It is about following a walking path, letting go of the crutch of technology and meeting people from all over the world in spiritual solidarity.
By staying off the Camino in a city hotel, or taking a boat around Portugal, you are missing out on the true experience. When looking for a tour operator, specifically ask if there are transfers between stages or if your accommodations are on the Camino. Ask if you’re staying in popular stopping points or staying and dining only with your group off the path. Look at the tour operator and see if they have 10+ tours, with only a few that look authentic. When tour operators stray from selling only the Camino, they probably are not true Camino specialists.
Make sure they are legal
Nowadays, there are several tour operators selling Camino de Santiago tours but there are also individuals that put groups together themselves through ads in parish bulletins or even LinkedIn where they advertise as official tour guides. The popularity of el Camino has made it a money-making opportunity so you should take some precautions when booking your trip. For example, Spain has legal requirements about who can work as a tour guide in the country. It is very unlikely that a US resident is allowed to do so legally. You want to make sure that you have the right protection in place.
We recommend US travel providers as they are familiar with selling travel to Americans, can provide the level of service that you are used to, and can offer other services in connection with your tour such as airfare to Spain, airport transfers or travel insurance in a full package.
If the provider you choose is in the US, they should be a travel agency or an independent contractor of a travel host so that they are allowed to sell travel to you. Also, make sure to inquire about who is providing the services at your destination point, as most tours are operated by Spanish operators. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s just nice to know who will be providing your actual experience.
While travel agents in Spain must legally include travel insurance with your tour, the insurance only covers events related to the tour itself and not the rest of your trip. They also might not have the limits or coverage that you desire, and it might be complicated for you to understand the policy and file claims against a Spanish company.
So when looking for a Camino travel company, try and find one based in your home country that can offer you the full range of services and has operations established both in the US and in Spain, through partners or authorized independent contractors.
Pay attention to the details
When comparing tours and prices, make sure you look at the fine print in the guided tours. Is luggage transfer included? Are all meals provided or only some? do they have a support vehicle? Make sure your guided tour has all the services you expect. They can range from supporting you on the Camino to making sure you are able to navigate within Spain safely.
For most pilgrims that don’t speak Spanish, have never been to Spain, thought of arriving in Madrid or getting up to the starting point on the Camino can be intimidating. See if your tour company offers the level of support you need. Also see if you have an issue while walking the Camino, what type of support they can offer. Do they support you even before you arrive by helping you decide what to bring, sending you a welcome packet, and getting you ready for your trip? Or is that all handled when you arrive in Spain? Preparing people before the trip is just as important as helping them when they arrive in Spain.
You will need to understand the type of accommodations that are provided with your tour. Accommodations vary greatly from the public hostels (albergues with shared rooms and bathrooms), to private hostels, rural houses, Spanish “pensiones” and hotels. Cost varies accordingly and so does the authenticity of the experience.
Best tour companies book accommodations right on the path with rooms that have private bathrooms.
That statement may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how rural some of these places can be, and with the demand of the Camino, the best places go fast. It’s so nice knowing that after walking all day, you will be able to rest in a nice room, enjoy a great dinner and not have to worry about anything.
Check for Relevant Experience
When you decide to book a guided tour, have in mind the origin of the tour company and how they can relate to you. If you book through a Spanish company or through a reseller, you’re probably buying a generic tour. If it’s your first Camino, you aren’t familiar with the Spanish culture, or you’re looking for personalized service, see where your tour operators are based and if your guides have ever lived in the destination country.
For example, you may have seen individuals advertising in your parish bulletin offering to walk the Camino with you because they have done it 10 times before. While it’s great that they know the Camino, their knowledge of the Spanish culture or the curiosities and hidden gems of Spain and the Camino will be limited as they have just experienced it as tourists and not as part of their daily lives.
Spanish companies do have that knowledge but on the other hand, they lack understanding of what would be new and appealing experiences to Americans, as they consider things in Spain to be the norm. They won’t know that Americans normally don’t have vermouth on tap, or that they have never tried patatas con alioli.
Look for a tour company that can give you insider tips, share the rich cultural history of Spain and allow you to have an authentic Spanish experience that only someone familiar with both cultures can provide.
Emphasize your Inner-Journey
In my experience, the Camino is a life-changing journey. Whether it’s walked for spiritual reasons, for the physical challenge, or just for the sake of enjoying the peace and quiet in the beautiful countryside, the Camino leaves its mark on you. When choosing a tour company, make sure they align with these goals and allow you to walk YOUR Camino. If the tour company has afternoon activities planned after the Camino, you might feel pressure the walk faster or that you won’t make it. If you must make it to lunch at a certain time or check into a hotel at a specified time, once again this may put pressure on the walk.
It’s important that the Camino you walk is yours. If you feel like stopping every 2 hours for a Sangria, cool. If you want to sit for a bit in a medieval church and pray along the way, great.
You need to be able to take the time to experience the journey, because the Camino is the journey, not the destination. On that same note, once you arrive in Santiago, most pilgrims are overwhelmed by the noise and the people. Walking along forest trails, experiencing the solitude and beauty of silence can be overwhelming once gone. Your guide needs to understand this and not put pressure for a tour, or book busy activities for the day you arrive if you don’t what that. You need to see if your tour company treats the Camino as just one more of their tours, or as a journey of the spirit.