The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route that leads to Santiago de Compostela, in western Spain. Literally, el Camino de Santiago translates into English as the Way of Saint James.
Back in the day, James, a cousin of Christ, was sent to the Iberian Peninsula to proselytize and spread the Good News. He wasn't too successful (estimates put the number of converts at fewer than 12), and when he returned to Jerusalem he was beheaded by the current King Herod. Legend has it that his body then was miraculously transported to the west coast of Spain in a stone barge and buried in a hillside. Fast forward to the 800s, when a monk discovered the remains, the local Bishop authenticated the find, and Apostle James is elevated in status to Saint James. Now we have a destination for one of the most important pilgrimages in Christendom.
The remains of Saint James are now entombed in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and the city has become a destination in its own right. A vibrant university town, Santiago offers a wide array of historical, architectural, cultural, and culinary delights. In 2015, more than 262,000 people arrived into Santiago as pilgrims on the Way.
In the early days of the pilgrimage, people journeyed to Santiago by walking out the front door of their homes and joining one of the established routes that wend their way through the European continent. Now people come from all over the world to walk the Camino de Santiago, and most fly and take a train or bus to one of the main towns or cities along the 800 kilometer stretch that begins on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains and ends in Santiago de Compostela.
Records show that in the Middle Ages hundreds of thousands of people arrived in Santiago each year, and when they did, they received a ‘plenary indulgence’ from the church that enabled them to skip the temporal punishment of purgatory. Now pilgrims who reach Santiago after walking at least 100km (or cycling at least 200 km) receive the Compostela. To receive the Compostela, a pilgrim must claim the reason for the pilgrimage as either religious or spiritual. Pilgrims who walk for different motives receive a certificate rather than the Compostela.
The most popular route to Santiago is called the Camino Francés. This route begins in France, on the East side of the Pyrenees Mountains, in Saint Jean Pied de Port, and continues all the way across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino Francés passes through many cities, towns, and hamlets, including Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, Leon, Astorga, Ponferrada, and Sarria.
There are several other popular routes to Santiago de Compostela, such as the Camino Norte, Camino Primitivo, Via de la Plata, and the Camino Portugues. There are also several routes that start in France that eventually join the routes in Spain: from Paris, Vézeley, Le Puy, and Arles.
Learn how to get started on your Camino experience.
See more photos of the Camino de Santiago.