Wow, what a way to get thrown into the walk!! You’d think you’d be starting an 800 kilometer journey on a light note; instead, the Camino de Santiago throws you right into the thick of it.
We started the walk in Irun, a small Spanish town on the border between France and Spain. The Camino del Norte originated historically from a bridge in Irun called “el Puente de Santiago.” This bridge is what all walkers refer to as “point zero” and serves as a type of frontier line. Luis, my parents, my youngest brother Matias, and I all stood on the bridge for a family picture, gave each other our blessings and said our good byes, before we set off on our respective cycling and walking ways.
At exactly 2:15 pm Luis took off on his Freedom Ryder, a three-wheeled hand cycle, accompanied by my father on his own bicycle. My mother, Matias, and I began walking aimlessly. We knew we had to get to San Sebastian, but we didn’t have the slightest idea how to get there. Before we knew it we were on a highway and nearly getting run over by a hundred speeding cars.
As if a miracle from God, we bumped into two other “peregrinos” (the word used for those who walk the Camino of Santiago) who were also just beginning their own journey. They must have been in their forty’s, two Spanish friends, completely well equipped with walking canes and all, and they seemed to now exactly where they were going. It didn’t take long for my mom, Matias, and I to latch onto them.
We began following them down a road when all of a sudden the sky split in two and rain started pouring. But not just rain, heavy rain, massive rain, so much rain that it began to hail with chunks of ice falling from the sky. Wet, cold and scared, we found refuge under a small bus stop and used the idle time to get to know our new found friends.
When the hail subsided (even though the rain continued) we decided to continue walking. Unlike our friends who had ponchos and rain gear, we had nothing! Ok, I’m exaggerating, my mother and I each had a tiny wind breaker but poor Matias literally had NOTHING, nothing at all to shield himself from the storm.
Nevertheless, we walked and we entered the real Camino del Norte. Through farms, up hills, around cows and horses, we began our ascent on dirt covered roads, actually better said, mud covered roads. By the end of the first hour we were completely soaking wet but we had reached the Virgin of Guadaloupe’s little chapel at the top of an immense mountain.
At that point we bid farewell to our friends who stayed behind and we continued to follow the yellow arrows that mark the way of the Camino de Santiago. My mom and I managed to change our shirts but poor Matias had nothing to change into, so he remained walking with a soaking wet Walkabout t-shirt. The path took us by surprise as we faced nothing but climb, climb, climb for two hours straight.
With not a person in sight and no civilization around us, we walked high above the clouds in the mountain tops. Ocassionally, the sky would open up and bless us with the most beautiful view of the towns below, surrounded by both sea and rolling hills. But for the most part, the walk consisted of just the three of us, and our silence, our thoughts, and our spirituality.
At around 5 pm the trail began to descend and we finally started coming back down to sea level. We reached a small little fishing village called Pasado de San Juan where we ran into the first cafe we saw. Having not eaten anything since breakfast, we ravaged the cafe’s kitchen, ordering whatever was left at the end of the day’s menu. We stuffed our faces with typical Spanish tortilla de papa, pumpkin seeds and potato chips.
The Camino de Norte’s arrows pointed us in the direction of a little dock and at that point we ran into our two friends again. They informed us that we needed to take a little boat to the other side of the river when the Camino continues. We boarded a tiny little ferry with them, and 60 cents and 5 minutes later, we were on the other side of the river ascending into the mountains again.
The rest of the afternoon was full of fear, vertigo, and trepidation. The yellow arrows took the three of us up very steep and narrow paths along the cliff of the mountain. The scenery was spectacular! A view of 180 degree of endless sea was breathtakingly beautiful. But no more than 25 minutes later, the sky split in two again and it began to downpour. It rained so so hard that we were sopping wet, head to toe, socks, shoes, underwear and all!
The Camino continued to take us through the edge of the mountains, along the sea. There was not a soul in sight. You could have yelled at the top of your lungs and no one would have ever heard you. We pushed our way through and feared that it was getting late and getting dark. I lost my wind breaker and Matias was finally persuaded to wear one of my mother’s extra dry tank-tops that looked hysterically ridiculous on him!
An incredibly good sport, Mati turned out to be our guardian angel today. He saved us from growling dogs, motivated us to push a little bit harder, and guided us through the last bit forest when it got so dark we could barely see the step in front of us. We’re sad that tomorrow he’s leaving us to head to Morocco, but enthusiastically await his return!
At 9:15 pm, exactly 7 hours later, we touched foot in San Sebastian. Our father came to collect us as we layed sprawled out on the “rambla”, the beautiful pedestrian veranda that hugs the sea. After a very warm shower and a ham and cheese toastie, we called it a night after a very long but incredibly rewarding day.
Day 2: San Sebastian to Zarautz
Day 2 of the Camino de Santiago started off with two blisters and antibiotics. Due to my wet sneakers yesterday, I developed two small but mean blisters on my two big toes. I’ve also been trying to beat a bad cough and running nose for the last couple of days, so I finally decided it was time to start the antibiotic.
My mother and I began to walk at 1 pm because we spent the morning accidentally getting lost through the streets of San Sebastian as we looked for the place that gives the peregrinos the “credential” that you need to have stamped in every town in order to receive the famous “compostela” in Santiago. After learning that on Sunday everything is closed, we made our way back to the hotel, picked up our packs, and set off for our day’s adventure.
Unlike yesterday, it didn’t rain today and actually the weather was quite perfect. The day’s first climb was through a beautiful farm setting, where some cows grazed while others rang their neck-line bells near by. As we continued to walk we were blown away (both literally and metaphorically) by a group of cyclists that came speeding by us. Despite their hurry, each one of them turned around to say to us “buen camino,” in other words, good trip. As we later learned, those two words are the two most frequently used words in this entire area and is the most endearing way of saying hello between one peregrino and another.
The Camino began to take us away from the farm land and Cantabrain Sea and into the heart of the mountain. Through tiny weeded paths full of shrubs and rocks, the Camino not only became narrower and narrower, but steeper and steeper. Before we knew it we were in a grove of immensely tall trees, under their willowing branches and leaves. The grove resembled a rainforest, and in one little corner, near a tiny stream stood another peregrino drinking fresh water. We introduced ourselves to Adam, from Poland, and explained to him why we were walking the Camino. We gave him a Walkabout bracelet.
We walked with Adam for the next two hours, up and down treacherous hills. I find the descents much harder than the climbs. Coming down those steep slopes, hopping from one rock to the other, skipping from one patch of dry earth to another flat surface, shakes your body and shocks your knees in a way you are not used to. And that’s exactly what happened to me. Some how, some way, I hurt my left knee so that every other time we descended further down the mountain I was overburden with an excrutiating pain.
As we reached a highway, we saw Adam further ahead talking to someone. We realized he was talking to Luis who happened to be cycling by at that exact same moment! What a coincidence, or as my mom said “an incident from God.” If Adam hadn’t crossed the highway at the exact moment Luis was rolling by so as to stop him and say “buen camino,” we would have never bumped into Luis. And off Luis went, riding into the wind on his Freedom Ryder, with his Argentine flag flapping behind!
In the town of Orio we bid farewell to Adam and my mom and I sat down for a late lunch. I needed the break, desperately, for my knee was getting worse and hurting more. After a meal of chicken and french fries, we continued down a path where we were freightened by a dog that was chasing cars. Shortly after we learned that the dog belonged to a nearby worker who introduced himself and his friend Jose Maria.
Jose Maria had been working in construction when a freight elevator fell on his back and left him paralyzed 30 years ago. We told him about Walkabout, gave him a bracelet, and offered our assistance in any way. His chair looked rusted and outdated, but nevertheless, he asked how HE could help Walkabout.
Limping, we managed to arrive in Zarautz where we arrived at our hotel and met up with Luis. Although we were all exhausted, we felt good, motivated, and accomplished. We decided since it was still relatively early, we would go back and have dinner in the old city of San Sebastian.
Over traditional Spanish tapas, Luis and I exchanged stories. He told me that today was harder than what he expected because the climbs were so steep that his front wheel was barely touching the ground and thus had very little traction. As a result, he had to push even harder and explained it to me as taking “two steps forward, one step back.” Nevertheless, he never got discouraged and continued to push, push, and push, until arriving in Zarautz.
Slightly revived but definitely ready for bed, after dinner we fell fast fast asleep.
Day 3: Zumaia to Markina
Without a doubt, the hero of the day is Luis. What he accomplished today is a feat that is so difficult for you and I to comprehend because we have never propelled ourselves up a mountain with only two arms on a bike that must weigh at least 40-50 pounds.
Although my mom and I started Day 3 in Zumaia, Luis started today’s journey in Zarautz, approximately 10 kilometers further out from our start point. We met up with Luis in Deba, a beautiful beach town on the Cantabrian coast full of Spaniards on their summer vacations.
After numerous climbs and hills, which all together amounted to more than 20 kilometers, Luis came rolling down the mountain and accompanied us to Deba’s Tourist Office where we were able to acquire the credentials needed to obtain the Compostela in Santiago.
After a stroll on the boardwalk, we decided to leave Deba together and walk in tandem for as long as the Camino would take us. My mom and I walked behind Luis who led the way to a beautiful bridge.
After crossing the bridge, together we began to ascend the first climb which is where I was able to witness first hand how difficult it is to push your entire body weight (plus the bike’s) with only the strength of your arms. Every strenuous rotation on the hand cycle is one effortless step for us, a step we don’t even blink or think twice about. And Luis continued to push, push, and push until finally he made it to the top, at which point he gleefully let the bike go, catching a rest and waving his arms in the air, like a roller coaster at an amusement park.
At the bottom of the hill, we bid farewell to Luis who was going to pick up his pace and accelerate ahead. Because it was getting late, nearly 5pm, my mom and I decided against the Camino’s path through the mountains and instead chose to follow Luis’ route through the two-lane highway.
We began to ascend, next to soaring cars and roaring trucks, and we stayed on that road for 3 hours. All I could think of was Luis and how far ahead he was. As I breathed in the sea air, basked my face in the evening sun, and walked one step at a time, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride.
I am beyond proud and honored to be Luis’ sister. He is a true testament of will power and endurance. He encourages my mother and I to push ourselves a little bit harder and walk a little bit longer. After cycling 50 kilometers (at an average speed of 10 kilometers per hour) in just one single day, Luis is living proof that whatever you put your mind to you can do. Luis, you truly are our hero!
Day 4: Markina to Guernika
What a long long day, endless actually. We woke up at 7 am and headed to the center of Markina to begin our day’s walk. But before embarking on our 26 kilometer journey, we decided to make a quick visit inside the local church. The quiet, peacefulness and serenity I experienced in just those two minutes, gave me an unexpected inner strength to proceed.
Today’s walk was really all about forests! Although the first hour was along a flat pasture that ran alongside a narrow creek, the remaining seven hours took place inside the mountains and inside the woods.
The first town we passed through was Iruzubieta and shortly after, we walked through the town of Bolivar. Upon seeing a sign for the Simon Bolivar Museum, we detoured from the Camino and decided to dedicate the next half hour to an educational lesson on the great South American liberator. The town of Bolivar is where Simon Bolivar’s ancestors came from, and the tiny museum serves as a homage to his personal and political career.
After our first killer climb, we began to descend upon an imposing structure that resembled an Italian Renaissance church. In closer view we noticed that the church was in fact a monastery, el Monasterio de Cenarruza. In the monastery we met two peregrinos who had just walked there from Deba and were being given refuge by the head priest. Several peregrinos opt to sleep in the monastery. We met the priest who kindly stamped our credential, certifying we had been there.
My mom and I had a quick lunch on a little bench under a large oak tree and then continued to climb. We spent the rest of the day walking through woods, what seemed like enchanted forests, where there was not a person in sight. The whole mountain was ours, or so it felt that way.
At one point the Camino deviated back onto a two-land highway and while walking there, we heard a loud honk which startled us. We looked up and saw Luis who was driving by in a car to set off on his day’s ride. What a coincidence again! We bid each other a “buen camino” and off we went.
At around 7 pm, exactly eight hours later, my mother and I hit the town of Guernika where Picasso painted his famous painting “Guernika.” We were exhausted, absolutely shattered, our legs felt like jello and I had developed a new blister. On top of it all, my mom began to feel ill and I had to run around the town looking for a pharmacy. When her situation didn’t improve a couple of hours later, we had to find a 24-hour doctor in town who would see her. Luckily, she saw the doctor who prescribed her some medication and she is quickly recovering and feeling better.
Luis too had an exhausting ride. When we met up in the evening he told me that the last 8 kilometers of his day was all climb and up hill. Although he said that at first he didn’t think he would finish the trajectory, he explained to my mom and I that finding your pace and your rhythm is key. Once he found that rhythm he was able to get “into the zone” and continue. This is cyclist-ville! There are hundreds and hundreds of cyclists all over the place and Luis told us that swarms of them would pass by him and cheer him on. “Animo, animo” (courage) as they say here!
Day 5: Guernika to Zamudio
Today was the most pleasant day thus far, at least in my opinion, although it was incredibly long, 28 kilometers.
We left Guernika very early and followed the Camino through the mountain. Given that my mom had not been feeling well the night before, we decided to take it easy and walk at a very slow leisurely pace. The Camino began to ascend and for the first hour and a half of the day we found ourselves walking through rocks, mud and branches.
As we progress each day we begin to familiarize ourselves with the Camino and learn its intricacies. As a peregrino, you unintentionally begin to personify the Camino and love or hate it depending on what it throws at you. My mother and I both agree that we prefer when the Camino takes us on paved roads rather than through mountain trails. Although the mountain trails are beautiful and put you in touch with nature, the up’s and down’s are difficult, hard on the knees, and much more demanding.
At around noon, my mom and I stopped at the top of the mountain and caught our breath. We had a snack (a piece of fruit) and enjoyed the 360 degree view. In the distance you could see rolling hills, farms full of cattle, goats, and sheep. We followed the yellow arrows and proceeded down the mountain. Our goal was to get to a small town called Larraetzu 22 kilometers from where we had started.
Under the blazing sun and in the tremendous heat, we exited the mountain and took the Camino down a two-lane asphalt road. We arrived in Larraetzu, a quaint charming little town where everything was closed. Between noon and 4 pm all commerce closes in Spain.
We sat down at the only opened “taverna” and ate the sandwiches we had in our backpacks. There was a couple sitting next to us who asked us where we were from. They told us they were from Larraetzu and owned the only newspaper shop in town, about 10 meters from where we were sitting. They lived above the shop and had been living there since birth. The woman’s grandmother had owned the shop, passed it down to her daughter, who in turn had passed it down to the lady sitting next to us. She expressed that she wanted her daughter to run it once she grew old. I couldn’t stop thinking about her life in that little town. In many ways, I long for her simplicity.
On our way into Zamudio we came across two other peregrinos that were taking a snooze under a tree. These were the only two other peregrinos we saw today. They told us they were going as far as Bilbao. After 28 kilometers, just the thought of walking another 11 kilometers exhausted me.
In Zamudio, we waited for Luis to arrive who came in like a champion. He continues to amaze us and inspire us. He rode 28 kilometers in the summer heat and never stopped for even one second. Although he said the first half of the trip was treacherous (all uphill), he said the latter half was pleasant as the highway offered him a wide shoulder to ride on.
We are so excited for our short trip to Bilbao tomorrow!
Day 6: Zamudio to Bilbao
Today was a very short walking day, only 11.3 kilometers. Again we woke up very early and departed the hotel by 8 am. We don’t sleep very much at night. Between one thing and another, washing our clothes and writing in our journal, we typically fall asleep around midnight.
The Camino immediately took us through the mountain. Our map indicated a climb, but we didn’t anticipate it to be as steep as it was. Luckily, it was cloudy so we didn’t have the scorching sun beaming on us, but the humidity was high. It took us just under two hours to ascend the mountain, and at the very top of Monte Avril, we had a 180 degree viewof the city of Bilbao.
Putting all our weight on our two knees, we slowly came down the mountain and entered the city. I can’t tell you how lucky I am that my knee is not hurting anymore. So much of this journey depends on the health and strength of your knees. I just pray to God that they don’t give out on me!
Once inside the city, the Camino took us by the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Begona and my mother and I decided to enter it. There happened to be a mass taking place so we sat in. We listedned to the priest’s eulogy who prayed that we all make a pact with ourselves to go one whole day without saying one bad thing about another. In different ways, the Camino of Santiago is always sending you messages of spirituality.
Although we had only walked 11.3 kilometers, by noon my legs were beginnging to feel like jello and my achilles tendon was in pain. Nevertheless, we got to the hotel, put our bags down and set off to visit the extraordinarly famous Guggenheim Museum. What an experience!
Just setting foot in the museum makes the stop in Bilbao worthwhile. The Picasso’s, Calder’s, Kadinsky’s and Cezanne’s are incredible. There was also a Richard Serra exhibit taking place and we enjoyed being able to participate in the installation and go through it.
We met up with Luis back at the hotel who told us he ended up riding 21 kilometers to get here! Somehow, somewhere, someone got lost. Nevertheless, you could immediately tell he was happy. He looked strong, he felt strong, and he said that the hard work from the previous days was “finally paying off dividends.” He recounted his day’s ride and told us that he was packed and ready to go by 1 pm when he noticed that his bike’s right rear tire was punctured. The problem was that to get it fixed he had to wait until 4pm when all the shops re-opened. So he did just that.
Luis situated himself on the hotel’s terrace and ordered some lunch while he waited for his bike to get fixed. At 5 pm he set off for Bilbao with a whole new tire! The first 7 kilometers of his ride were a severe climb, steeper than previous climbs he’s done. Despite having the bike in the easiest gear, he was averaging no more than 3 kilometers per hour. Once inside Bilbao, Luis reminisced that everyone would cheer him on, that pedestrians would stare in awe, and that people were fascinated by the unique bicycle.
Tomorrow will mark one week since we’ve been walking. We reflect on all that we’ve seen and traversed and cannot believe how far we’ve come but how much further we have to go. Yet every step we take is one step closer to finding a cure for paralysis thanks to your support.
Day 7: Bilbao to Zierbana
Bilbao woke us up with a cloudy day, cold and drizzling. We dressed accordingly, with long pants and sweatshirts, and stopped in a small cafe for breakfast. At around 9 am we resumed the Camino and began our day’s adventure.
The Camino took us through the outskirts of the city, through an industrial zone full of factories, cranes and garbage. Nevertheless, we walked alongside the Ria Bilbao and came across another peregrino who was travelling on his own. We introduced ourselves to Jordi and immediately turned him into a Walkabout ambassador. I think by the time we get to Santiago there will be more Walkabout logos along the Camino than sign posts for the actual trail. I’m feeling a little bit like Gretel, marking my path with Walkabout bracelets like she did with breadcrumbs.
Walking through Portugalete, we became better acquainted wit Jordi. He told us all about his life in Alicante and how he hoped to change jobs, which at the present entailed loading boxes of candy in and out of trucks. He thought the Camino de Santiago was not only the best place to meet people, but also the best way to “find himself” and figure out what he wanted from life. His perspective on the Camino made me reflect on my own reasons for undertaking such a challenge. I want to test my limits and my endurance, but most importantly I am here to build awareness for paralysis and raise funds for spinal cord injury research.
I’m not going to elaborate on the rest of the walk because quite frankly it was very monotonous and uneventful. My mother and I walked with Jordi down a paved pedestrian path for three hours straight, non-stop. The path was through a valley, surrounded by steep hillsides that were grazed by cows. I couldn’t help but stare at the cows and wonder how they don’t tip over. The Camino brings you in touch with nature and makes you appreciate the beauty of it in ways you have never done so before.
At around 2:30 pm after walking 26 kilometers, we reached the small town of Zierbana and stopped at its main attraction, Playa La Arena. My legs were numb, my back was soar, and my third blister (on my pinkie) had gotten much worse. Limping down the street, my mom and I bid farewell to Jordi and stepped into a restaurant for a much needed lunch.
I was in pain, massive pain, but I couldn’t help but feel excitement for Daniele’s visit. Walkabout’s first follower, he was set to land in Bilbao at 9 pm. After a short nap, I greeted him in the lobby with my camcorder in hand and filmed his visit. Since we’ve started, I have been documenting all major events, milestones, and landmarks on the trip. Although sometimes I wonder if video clips and journal entries can do the Camino justice.
The Camino is magical and mystical, inspiring and illuminating. The Camino is difficult and painful, rewarding and encouraging. The Camino is treacherous and strenuous, uplifting and invigorating. The Camino is all those things, and many many more.
Day 8: Zierbana to Cerdigo
Walkabout’s day 8 was an eventful day, primarily because we had a new addition to the group. Poor Daniele got thrown into the deep end, despite having no prior training and having arrived late the night before. Our walk commenced early in the morning from Zerbiana, and in typical Cantabrian fashion, a cold and cloudy day awaited us.
The first half an hour of the Camino was spent walking through Playa de La Arena. Although it was a beautiful setting and called for a breathtaking view, it was by no means ideal for a peregrino covered in blisters. By the time we reached el “Puente Azul,” my sneakers were full of sand and all the band-aids I had sealed around my toes were already beginning to wear off. Luckily, I had safety-kit in my backpack which was put to good use.
The first climb of the day entailed a flight of stairs with over 130 steps. Once at the top, the Camino took us along the sea, up and down rolling hills. My mother’s ankle was progressively getting worse and looked more swollen than the day before. In an effort to relieve her of weight and thus pain, Daniele decided to carry her backpack for the rest of the morning (one in front and one in back).
We followed the Camino along the national two-lane highway, the N-634, through the town of Onton. By mid-day we reached a small village called Miono, full of people, music, and food. It didn’t take long for us to learn that it was the annual village festival, and the locals were hosting a party in the town square. But the party was not just any party, it entailed a contest, a tortilla de papa competition. Each family worked hard for the first prize, vigorously cooking to make the most delicious tortilla. Fortunate for us, we were able to try difference pieces. I can’t tell you how much we savored each bite!
From Miono we walked to Castro Urdiales and by the time we reached the town our sandwiches were burning a hole in our backpacks. We stopped at a cute playground and silently ate our lunch while we let our feet rest. On a full stomach and with our legs having quickly gotten stiff, resuming our walk proved to be harder than we expected. Nonetheless, we decided to take a wide detour to see what was meant to be a picturesque town and to have our credential stamped. We were not disappointed. Although not particularly glamorous or architecturally beautiful, we loved seeing a bustling port and the church was definitely worth the extra time. Sightseeing done and credential stamped, we got back on our way, eager to complete the last 5 kilometers of the day.
The last stretch felt like a race to the meeting point where Pedro and Ines, good family friends of ours, were waiting to pick us up and take us to Pedro’s mother’s house where we were going to spend the next two nights. We arrived at the agreed-upon location and without fail Pedro, Ines, their daughter Silvia, and their adorable dog Dama were waiting for us. It felt like having a welcoming party at an airport after a long long journey home.
We arrived at the house, overjoyed about being in a warm home and having a home-cooked meal. By the time Luis arrived a couple of hours later we had enjoyed a nice shower, a great nap, and we felt much rejuvenated after 25 kilometers of walking!
We all met downstairs for dinner, completely famished! Three appetizers, two main courses, two bottles of wine, and several desserts later, we replenished our stomachs, felt full, fat and happy! Pedro’s mother is the most welcoming and generous person I have ever met, not to mention incredibly funny and energetic. She made us feel right at home right away.
Over dinner Luis shared some fun facts from his 50 kilometer ride! He felt good and strong and so went well beyond our daily target. And while on his ride, when running out of energy on a steep climb, a large group of hell’s angels, a motorcade of motorcyclists, passed him and cheered him on. Giving Luis motivation, he gained an extra push of strength and made it to Pedro’s mother’s home!
Oh home sweet home! We feel so close but are so far. Nevertheless, we are so grateful for the additional company (thanks to Daniele) and the warm and gracious hospitality (thanks to Pedro and his family)!
Day 9: Cerdigo to Santona
What a day, what an absolutely fabulous day! The best so far, or at least the most beautiful.
We woke up bright and early in Pedro’s mother’s house and had a full breakfast of eggs, cake, donuts, cheese, croissants, coffee and yogurt. My mother’s ankle was still not better, actually worse. It was swollen, inflamed, and she could barely stand on it. So we figured her best bet was to not walk today but stay resting in the house. In any case, I had Daniele and now Pedro, Walkabout’s third follower, to accompany me.
Pedro’s mother’s house is in Liendo and we had to drive 10 kilometers to Cerdigo, the town we finished in yesterday. At 9:35 am sharp, Pedro, Daniele and I were well on our way, walking through different towns and villages. We came down a hill only to find ourselves standing face to face with a lama. Two feet away stood a big black buffalo, and to our right a camel! The three of us stood staring at each other, attempting to decipher what on earth these animals were doing there! Around the corner we noticed a circus. Thank God because for a second I thought all the walking had gone to my head and I was imagining things.
We detoured away from the yellow arrows as Pedro took us along different little paths and routes. Walking with a Spaniard makes all the difference. But Pedro is not only a Spaniard, he’s a local! Having spent his childhood summers in Liendo, he knows this area of the country like the back of his hand. Thus, I didn’t have to look at a map or worry about getting lost. Instead, I could take in the surroundings and enjoy the scenery. For the first time in 10 days, I was able to take the back seat and follow someone else’s lead.
Walking in a single file line, Daniele and I marched behind Pedro who took us up a large mountain promising us the most beautiful view. And he was right! Indeed, from the top of the mountain we had a breathtaking 180 degree view of the Cantabrian sea and we could see, in the far far distance, where we had come from several days before.
We continued walking on empty stomachs until we found the perfect spot to sit down and have a rest. Along a cliff perched high up top, we found a flat patch of stone and set up our picnic. Among the three of us we shared several sandwiches and made sure to properly hydrate ourselves. It didn’t take long for two other peregrinos to find us and join in on our conversation. We learned they were two young boys from Germany and were walking the Camino for purely physical reasons and not because of any spiritual purpose.
As Pedro, Daniele, and I continued on our way, we got on the topic of religion. Pedro said something that I will not forget. He said that the “fuerza” (force/strength) you have to put into the Camino to walk it, opens up a fountain of spirituality unbeknownst to you at the time. I can assure you that the Camino slowly enlightens you with a whole new meaning of life. By the end of the 30 days, maybe the German peregrinos will have discovered something they didn’t even know they were looking for.
The last part of today’s walk was amidst the most beautiful setting I’ve seen thus far. The Camino took us along an incredibly narrow path along the cliff of a mountain and dropped us off on Laredo beach. I was amazed at how well Daniele and Pedro had done, how far they had walked, and how much they had endured without ever uttering a single complaint. They were true champions and I am eternally grateful for their support and companionship.
As the sun was setting on the beach, we took off our socks and shoes and spent the last 7 kilometers walking with our feet in the water. Out of a movie, it was the picture-perfect way to end a long day, walking into the horizon with the infinite sea beside us.
Day 10: Santona to Santander
Today marked 10 whole days since we started walking, we’re nearly one third of the way there. Fortunately my mother’s ankle is slightly better but not 100 percent so she decided to rest another day. Pedro agreed to walk another couple of days with us so luckily I had a companion.
We drove bright and early from Liendo to Santona, the town we finished in yesterday. Pedro had left his cane/walking stick there and to our amazement, he was able to find it in a nearby cafe. We set off on our 35 kilometer walk and our first stop was a prison! El Dueso, as it’s called, looked like a fairytale castle, absolutely gorgeous with an amazing view of the valley. Two worlds completely apart, I couldn’t help but think of my vast freedom versus the prison’s confinement. The Camino introduces you to new people, takes you to new places, and shows you a whole new perspective on life.
Walking with Pedro through the mountains we started philosophizing on life. We discussed that the Camino proves to you that you really don’t need much to live on, that you can do without the superfluous luxuries of life, and that with only a bare minimum of possessions you can still amount to great successes. While exchanging thoughts and ideas, we passed through the towns of Arnuero, San Miguel de Merulo, and Guemes always following the yellow arrows.
Around 2:00 pm the sun came out and began to heavily shine down on us. Hot and hungry, we stopped on a hill of wild grass and terrain and made ourselves at home. We laid down, took a ten minute power nap, and had our lunch, tortilla de papa! After regaining some strength and energy, we set off on the last 15 kilometers of our journey.
It’s fascinating how your body begins to adjust to exercise and physical training. The first few days were brutal and I was in excruciating pain. My muscles ached and every inch of my body hurt but I couldn’t stop and had to keep going. Today, it’s a whole new story. Although I feel fatigue, I no longer feel pain. My tendons have stretched, my muscles are strong, and I can go on for hours and hours.
Walking towards Somo we heard a whistle and saw Luis on his bicycle go speeding past us. Like a comet through space, Luis zoomed down the road and waved from behind. From the corner of my eye, I could see his smile and his muscular arms. Even though I am with him every day, I can actually see the difference in the size of his arms from the day we started to today. It’s astonishing how much bigger his biceps have gotten!
Luis and my mother (who was riding in Luis’ support car) waited for us in Somo where we re-joined as a group. While waiting, Luis circled around the town, over and over again, accumulating kilometers. When we arrived, we exchanged stories from our day’s adventures and heard that Luis had cycled 32 kilometers non-stop! Taking each climb in stride, he suffered from the heat and blazing sun but never gave up. Ever since Luis had his accident, his body lost the ability to sweat. Therefore, the heat becomes unbearable for him so every once in a while he slows down to throw a bottle of water over his head.
Luis continues to be our source of motivation and inspiration. Whenever the going gets tough, I think that if he can do this with only his arms, I sure can too! The last part of our day consisted of a ferry ride to the center of the city of Santander. Cruising on the Bahia with a view of the city directly in front of us, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I can’t believe we’ve come this far.
Day 11: Santander to Santillana del Mar
Today was the day of the peregrinos! We started our walk in Santa Cruz de Bezana, a little town right outside the urban nucleus of Santander. There, my mother (who’s ankle is much better) and I met up with Pedro and began our 35 kilometer journey.
Within the first 10 minutes of our walk, we met a group of peregrinos we hadn’t seen on the Camino before. We began to walk with them, in tandem, like children on a school field trip. Little by little, we got to know the different characters of today’s story.
One was an Argentine living in Chile, who had lost his passport in Barcelona and was stuck in Spain. He decided to walk to Santiago before dealing with the hassle of consulates and embassies. Another was a Polish young girl who had a 10-day vacation and was walking to see how far she could get. She was an opera singer, or so it sounded like it, who graced us with her beautiful voice throughout the morning. The third young guy, a 26 years old, was Polish, Ukrainian and Danish, but lived in Berlin. His name was Lucas and he had no plan, no timing, and no destination. Lucas was absolutely hilarious! I spent the whole morning listening to his stories and laughing hysterically.
We slowly lost the other peregrinos as each one stayed behind, one at a time. Lucas, however, decided to continue walking with us, keeping up with our fast pace. He told us that he was travelling alone, was absolutely shattered, and had walked nearly 40 kilometers that morning. Poor thing didn’t realize he had another 10 kilometers to go!
The Camino took us along paved roads throughout the entire day. At one point, the arrows pointed north, up a massively high mountain. We read in our book that if we detoured through the train tracks, we could not only avoid the climb, but also cut 6 kilometers! We didn’t even think twice about it.
Everything your parents have ever told you not to do, we did. We walked, ran, skipped, and jumped through the train tracks. Praying for my life, I held onto a metal pole as a train came speeding by. Feeling my hair and body get swept away by the gushing wind, I closed my eyes and counted the seconds for it to be all over. Once the train was gone, we ran as fast as our two legs could carry us.
To get to the town of Requejada, an industrial village full of chemical companies, we had to walk down an endless path surrounded on either side by two rusted metal pipes. The pipes seemed like they were infinite, like they extended into space forever, and ever. It must have taken us nearly 2 hours to walk the entire path, until fortunately we left that area behind and crossed a river.
The last 5 kilometers of the Camino took us back through farmland and rolling hills. We met up with four other peregrinos, another Argentine and three Spaniards. Two of them were a couple, and they had all started the Camino de Santiago that day in Santander. Boy oh boy, did they have a lot to go through! I can’t even imagine just starting to walk. We gave them all our tips and suggestions as to what to do and not do on the first few days.
The 45 kilometers we walked today were well worth the destination. Santillana del Mar is the most gorgeous little medieval town, as if it were out of a movie! I kept thinking it was the real Disney World, the real Altos de Chavon, the real Princess Bride and Robin Hood setting. Full of Cobble stone streets and castles, Santillana del Mar was a trip to the past. I’m so glad my mother was with me to be able to enjoy it together, although I missed Luis and longed for his presence. But with pride I remembered that Luis was only a few kilometers behind us, having cycled 25 kilometers in one afternoon.
Day 12: Santillana del Mar to Comillas
Magic is the only word capable of describing today’s adventure. Ines and Pedro organized for 15 of their Spanish friends to join us for the day and walk with us from our start point to our destination. I am utterly grateful for Ines and Pedro’s support and all their friends’ participation.
Ines had coordinated for all of us to meet in the Plaza Mayor of Santillana del Mar at 9:30 am where we initiated our 21 kilometer journey. My mother and I were introduced to all the new faces and were incredibly excited to get to know our new companions. We were also thrilled to welcome Ana and Guillermo to the group, old friends from our home town in Greenwich who happened to be in a nearby town on their summer vacation.
We began to ascend up the mountain, walking in small groups but nevertheless, all together. We looked like a heard of cows, or an army of ants, walking in procession. I stayed behind, towards the ed of the line, and got to know Lola and Marta who are good friends of Ines’ from Madrid and spend their summers in Comillas. Both of them came with their respective sons, Jaime and Alvaro, both 19 years old. The boys were joined by their friend Jorge and Bea, who is Ines’ daughter. Having a bunch of teenagers on the walk made it that much more fun and exciting!!
I was incredibly surprised by everyone’s agility and ability to walk so many kilometers in such tremendous heat. A not-so-typical day for Comillas, the sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the temperature reached 33 degrees. Nevertheless, everyone kept up with our steady pace and never once complained (albeit with blisters, jeans, and not the most comfortable sneakers).
Around 2 pm, after walking nearly 5 hours straight, all 18 of us perched ourselves on a hilltop and had a small lunch. We lost two friends, but gained an extra two, who joined us for our picnic. We each brought our own sandwich but exchanged extra’s and leftovers. It was like a carousel of food going round and round in circles!
With our “pilas recargadas” (batteries recharged), we gained strength to push through the last 5 kilometers. We detoured away from the yellow arrows and decided to follow a different path that one of our local friends recommended instead. The unmarked path took us directly along the coast, parallel to the water, with the most amazing view of the Cantabrian sea. Pointing out different houses and sharing each family’s different story, Ines’ friends made us feel like we were part of their community. My mother and I felt right at home.
When we finally reached the town of Comillas around 5 pm, an unexpected surprise awaited us. Ines’ friend Sonia had organized a banquet of food in her home. The tortilla de papa, croquetas, and pastries were devoured, and we were all blow away by her beautiful house located right in the center of town.
I dreaded bidding farewell to my new friends because I longed for time to stand still and hold that moment of today forever. Walking with 18 people made the whole experience truly magical. There are few words that can describe what it was like to see Walkabout’s following. To compare it to Forrest Gump and his followers is a valid analogy, of course on a much smaller scale.
Back at the hotel we waited outside for Luis to arrive from his 25 kilometer ride. As he came speeding in, I managed to get my camcorder out just in time and film his grand arrival! He told us that on his last climb, just when he was about to give up, a car drove by and the people inside yelled “animo Luis, fuerza Luis!!” He didn’t recognize who they were, but was pleasantly surprised to have total strangers cheer him on. It turns out it was some of Ines’ friends, Walkabout’s new friends, that gave Luis the strength he needed to carry on.
Day 13: Comillas to Unquera
When people tell you that the Camino de Santiago is just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one, they hit the nail on the head. This really is a mind game, one that you are constantly trying to battle and figure out how to win.
Today was a spectacular day, not only because of the views, but also because of the company. My mother and I were joined by Ana, Guillermo, Ines, Pedro and Sylvia (Ines’ daughter), and last but not least, Dama (Ines and Pedro’s dog). We all met at a rotunda in the center of Comillas at 9:30 am and began our 27 kilometer walk.
It’s funny how the Camino turns your world upside down and reverses your perspective on life and everyday occurrences. While you typically long for sun during the summer, during the Camino you pray for clouds. I guess my praying didn’t amount to much because it was bright and sunny all day.
During the first half of the walk, we ignored our map and yellow arrows, and instead followed Guillermo’s lead along the coast. Ana has been coming to Comillas ever since she was a child so her and Guillermo know the surroundings like the back of their hand. They suggested we detour from the Camino and walk along the coast instead, which provided a breeze and much better views. They were right! The trail was spectacular, along beaches, cliffs, and protected wildlife.
At around 1 pm we arrived at the small fishing town of San Vicente de la Barquera and although we didn’t have time to go visit it, I could tell from afar that it was an incredibly charming little place. With a fort, church, and tons of little colorful boats, the town reminded me of a scene out of one of Ernest Hemingway’s maritime stories. In San Vicente we said good bye to Ines, Sylvia and Dama who, after walking 10 kilometers (and yesterday’s 22), called it a day.
The Camino pushed Guillermo, Ana, Pedro, my mom, and I up our first climb, which wouldn’t have seemed so bad if it weren’t for the blazing sun. Panting, we reached the top of the mountain where we decided to have lunch on a small terrace/playground peering onto a small church. Lunch was delicious, thanks to Ana’s sandwiches de milanesa!
Our lunch was interrupted by a photographer from the local newspaper La Alterta, who had been sent to photograph us for a story on Walkabout which was said to come out over the weekend. He took some pictures of my mother and I with our fellow peregrinos and we couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the shots were, some of us sitting on a ledge, others of us standing beside an arrow.
On full stomachs we set off walking again, with Guillermo and I leading the pack. We talked about the mental strain the Camino puts on you and he reiterated to me that it’s a long 30-days and best to take it one day at a time. He also mentioned something that I’ve heard before but will never forget, “that life is about the journey and not the destination.” For some reason, probably given the idyllic setting, those words reverberated in my head over and over again.
By late afternoon we found ourselves in the middle of the forest in the middle of a mountain, stranded with no exit other than to continue to climb. We knew we were getting close to Unquera but we were all shattered, hot, and exhausted. Pedro kept sighing out loud, moaning and claiming that it’s best to release physical pain verbally. If it helps him, to each his own!
The way down the mountain was the hardest part of the day. We came across a mud pond and I stupidly stuck my foot in it and got soaked! With a wet, dirty, and muddy foot I had to make my way down the vertical slope! The worst part was my mom and her bad ankle. Luckily, we had Guillermo who appeared like an angel from God and helped her down the slippery rocks (with her walking sticks) one step at a time.
If you had tried to write a better ending to this day, you wouldn’t have succeeded given the sequence of events that occurred. When we finally entered the town of Unquera (and the province of Asturias) around 6 pm, we sat down as a group to have some cider at a local cafe. All of a sudden, the whole town stopped to look at Luis that came speeding by. With his Argentine flag flapping in the wind and his muscular arms peddling back and forth, we all hollered and cheered him on as he went. He turned back around and joined us for a coffee, eager and excited to see Ana and Guillermo’s old faces. What a coincidence that he had finished his ride nearly at the exact same time as us, it was perfect timing! Or as my mother would say, “maybe it was an incidence from God.
Day 14: Unquera to Llanes
Good morning sunshine, good morning Asturias, and good morning to all the friends of The Walkabout Foundation!
Today is the 14th day of our journey. My mother and I woke up very early as usual, around 7 am, eager to complete one more stage of the Camino but sad to have left behind all of our friends and fellow peregrinos. One of the amazing things that the Camino gives you is the special bond you develop with the people you meet along the way. These people can be both old friends or new. It doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, it’s an experience that you share that binds you together.
Having initiated our journey in Unquera, at around 10 am we arrived in Colombres, a town famous for its Indian architecture that came about during the Asturian emigration to the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries. We were able to absorb this Spanish/Indian culture by visiting el Archivo de Indianos, an incredible and beautiful museum dedicated to this given period.
Shortly there after, the Camino took us from the small quaint town of Colombres to a busy and loud highway. On “la Ruta Nacional-634,” we found ourselves walking for hours and hours on endless pavement. The cars, the heat, the smog, and not to mention the suction we felt every time a big truck passed us by, made this stage of the Camino not only frightening but quite unbearable.
How could we talk, how could my mom and I communicate? Impossible! For hours and hours we were immersed in our own thoughts and watching each other’s backs, while crossing the towns of La Franca, Buelna, Pendueles, Vidiago, and San Roque. At 4 pm, we stopped in San Roque, in a camping ground, and caught our breath eating a big bowl of pasta carbonara. The temperature must have been around 40 degrees and given that we were so tired, a plate of spaghetti and a big “cafe con leche” felt like the last coca-cola in the desert. Try getting up from a lunch after 6 hours straight of walking. I think it must have been San Santiago that gave us another push to continue.
By now you don’t even think about walking anymore. Your brain automatically moves your legs and in a robotic fashion, you propel forward. We are immune to signs and distances however endless the Camino seems. A few more kilometers and we finally arrived in Llanes! We went straight to the hotel where Luis was already waiting for us. Although tired, we dropped off our backpacks and followed Luis who was going for a ride in the center of town. In town, we bumped into Rosana (our cousins’ cousin) who is truly an angel that God sent our way. She had made a huge banner with The Walkabout Foundation’s logo on it and was waiting for us in town with her two daughters, Ana and Amelia.
Walkabout 2009 – Camino De Santiago
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