Camino Portuguese – Facts, Figures and Tips
It’s been almost two weeks since I returned from the Camino, and like all these kinds of adventures the emotions and memories keep evolving.
I think in some ways it’s hard to take it all in when you’re on the pilgrimage itself. There’s so many visual and physical inputs, so much time spent just walking, or thinking about walking, or obsessing about your various aches and pains, that all the deeper stuff really comes later. When you reflect and look back, when you go through your photos and relive the moments that stood out in time. It’s a fascinating process really, and IMO I think it’s why many people come back and do these things again and again, despite all the physical effort (and pain) that’s involved. Somehow it all goes waaaaay deeper than just what happens on the trail.
But alas, I digress as usual LOL.
What I really meant to write about today is firmly on the practical side. I wanted to go through some facts and figures, tips on timeframe, pace, costs and such and comparisons with the Camino Frances. This is just a mish-mash of questions that have gone through my own head, and what I think others who might be considering the trail would be interested in.
So, here we go…
The Best Time Of Year – Still Spring or Fall IMO
The first thing I really want to cover is season and what I think is the best time of year to walk the Camino.
For the Portuguese this year we started on April 1st (on the Frances last year I started in mid-April) and honestly I think this is pretty much the perfect timeframe. April is a good month in both Portugal and Spain. There is more risk of rain that later in the year, but also more guarantee of reasonable temps, and with every year getting hotter (earlier and earlier)* this is really key.
I’m very heat sensitive, and even going as early as we did there were days on the trail this year I almost over-heated. Between heat/sun (when the air temp goes above ~27°C (80°F)), humidity (which always makes it feel hotter), cobblestones/asphalt (which concentrate the heat) and lack of shade, there were spots I felt very hot indeed. I was fine in the forests or on breezy days, but on still days I started to struggle.
I’d definitely consider late fall too, after temps cool (although I’m partial to Spring flowers and green), but I personally can’t imagine going in June, July or August. I know many do and it’s the most popular time on the trail, but unless you’re very heat-tolerant or willing to walk nights it’s a lot to handle. Just my personal take on it, anyway.
*How Early? Last week Portugal reported it’s hottest April on record, hitting 36.9°C (98.4°F) in the central town of Mora. In May it’s predicted heat-waves will already be sending the mercury over 40°C (104°F). That’s too hot, far too hot IMO!
Accommodations – We Mixed Albergues And Private Rooms
Since we were a group of 4 girls this trip we were able to do a mix of accommodations without breaking the bank, from public Albergues to private apartments. This was really nice.
Albergues are for pilgrims only, and the ones we stayed at in Portugal varied from OK to very nice. Some were bookable, but all the municipal/public Albergues were first-come-first-served, so we simply had to show up (preferably right at opening time) to secure a bed. There was one that had horrible troll-sized metal bunk beds, and one that had death-trap-stair bunk beds, but the rest were decent. Warm water everywhere, laundry options in most, no complaints really.
The nice thing about Albergues is that you mix with other pilgrims (which is part of the Camino experience IMO), but there is nothing romantic about sharing a room with 25-50 snoring/odorous/etc. strangers, so fabulous ear plugs and a good sense of humor are a must. For EUR 10-17 a night however, the price can’t be beat.
Private rooms are open to anyone, so booking somewhat ahead here can be more important depending on how particular you are about your accommodations. As a group of four we paid anywhere between EUR 25-40 each/night for our private stops, many of which were entire apartments and all of which were great. I do like comforts in my old age.
Should You Book Ahead?? Honestly this is so personal, but with ~350,000-400,000 pilgrims traveling the Camino each year, accommodation can be tricky at times. For Portugal we pre-booked ~75% of our nights and although I think we could have winged it more if we’d wanted to (the trail wasn’t overly crowded in April, except the first few days on the Coast), it was nice peace of mind for all 4 of us , especially on such a short (only 15 days) trip. For a longer trip, I wouldn’t book the whole thing simply ‘coz you don’t know how you’ll do mentally/physically each day, so having more flexibility is key. However unless I was staying in public Albergues everyday, I’d still prefer to book ~3-5 days ahead for my own sense of comfort. This is just me.
Travel Pace – Slow But Sure
As a middle-aged gal of shall-we-say average fitness, it’s fair to say I’m never going to break any distance records on the Camino. In fact I do best with a few months of training beforehand (walking 3-4 times/week), starting slow on the trail and then gradually building up the mileage over time.
It worked for me last year and it worked for all 4 of us girls this year, keeping us healthy and blister-free throughout.
Perhaps even more interestingly, my averages on the Camino Portuguese ended up almost exactly the same as those from the Camino Frances, and this wasn’t something we thought about beforehand. We averaged 16.8km/day in week 1, upping that to 19.9km/day in week 2, and had we continued on I’d probably have followed a similar track to last year.
Clearly these are numbers that work for me!
It’s important to note that the “official” guidebook stages are much longer than this on both Camino’s, averaging anywhere from 20-30km/day (12.5-18.6 miles/day), and I’ve even met people who do much more than this. The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong here. The Camino has lots of places to stop, so you are not limited to where the guidebooks tell you. The much more important thing is to listen to your body and walk the distances that work for you and your feet.
As for me, you’ll always find me happily lost in the back of the pack….Goooooo turtles!
Route Following – Pretty Straightforward
Those of you who’ve been following my Camino stories already know that the Camino route is marked by yellow arrows, and this is true in both Portugal and Spain.
For the most part I’d say the Portuguese route was really well-marked with just a few exceptions, particularly the Senda Litoral Route along the coastline (the route from Porto was not marked at all), and some of the crossings between the Coastal and the Central Routes (the crossings are not always on official routes). Outside of these two exceptions, yellow arrows were plentiful and pretty easy to follow, including along the Variants.
That said, sometimes you get chatting or blindly follow another pilgrim going the wrong way (doh…) and in that case it’s helpful to have a few Apps on your phone to check you’re still on the right track. For the Camino Portuguese I found the Buen Camino App (on Apple and Android) and Gronze to be the most helpful. Also Wikiloc (the hiking app) had several of the trail sections in their maps.
I’m not gonna lie…we used them a few times.
Backpack Forwarding – Easily Available
When I started the Camino Portuguese I absolutely, positively planned to carry my full 6.6kg (14.5lbs) backpack the whole way.
I’d spent months fine-tuning my stuff to get it down to this weight, training with it beforehand and getting comfortable with it. I knew it was fine! Of course this was before my knee gave out (a typical Nina-type event) which forced me to adapt regardless of my best intentions.
Thankfully backpack forwarding services are as readily available on the Camino Portuguese as they are on the Camino Frances.
I ended up using two services, Pilbeo for the Central route followed by Top Santiago for the Spiritual Variant (Pilbeo doesn’t service it) and both were flawless. You can can book these services online 48-hours ahead of time, book multiple legs at once or simply do it day-by-day (as needed) via WhatsApp. If you do the latter you just need to send a text with pick-up/drop-off locations** by 8PM the night before and pay via the link they send to you. Then you simply leave your bag the following AM for them to pick-up while you walk on. Costs are ~EUR 6 per stretch.
In my case I used my little packable Osprey daypack to forward ~3kg of weight, keeping my main backpack and ~3kg of weight with me (my main pack is far more comfortable, plus it has my hydration bladder and the connections for Olaf). Thanks to this off-loading my knee was able to cope, and even eventually heal on the trail.
I was immensely grateful I had this service available to me!
**Can You Send Your Bag Anywhere? There’s a lot of talk on Camino forums about backpack forwarding and rumors that you can’t forward to public Albergues or private Airbnb’s. Now I’m not saying some of these people are talking out of their behinds, but what I can say is that I’ve used forwarding services a lot and have yet to stay at a place they won’t deliver, public or private. On the Portuguese they even delivered to several private, code-locked apartments (with owner agreement) and I think that’s simply because many private apartments along the Camino cater specifically to pilgrims who regularly use these services, so everyone is used to it. I’m sure there’s somewhere you can’t forward to, but in that case there will always be a nearby bar/hotel/Albergue you can use and pick-up from. IMO it’s not a problem.
Overall Costs – Around EUR 50/day
As with all things, spending is never a fixed thing.
Some folks only stay at public Albergues and never eat out, choosing to save costs by cooking for themselves along the way, whereas others only stay at private high-end accommodations and spare no costs on eating out. Tastes and budgets vary vastly. That said, having now walked two popular Caminos I can pretty much say for sure that ~EUR 50/day works for me.
This includes a mix of accommodation types (public and private), eating out everyday (usually multiple breakfasts, lunch and a full meal for dinner), beer, wine, snacks, ice cream and basically not holding back much. I don’t eat at fancy spots, but I eat well and I eat often! When we went as four to Portugal we used about the same with awesome food and good accommodations, and we tracked our joint expenses via a genius (free) App that Erin steered us to with called Settle Up.
And this deserves a quick extra note….
Now, I’m not the kind of person who likes to have a bunch of extra apps on my phone, but if you’re ever traveling as a group IMO this one is well worth it. With Settle Up we were able to pay meals/accommodation/etc. without having to worry about splitting each and every bill simply by entering them into the app. The app kept track of each expense, split it in 4 automatically (you can also split manually), and kept track of who owed what to whom, including visually via a set of bubbles so you could easily see who owed the most (biggest bubble pays the next meal….). And no, I’ve no affiliation.
It was SUCH an easy and stress-free way to track group expenses.
How Did The Portuguese Differ From The Frances?
So far almost everything I’ve talked about could relate to either of the two Caminos I’ve walked, but there are a few specific differences which I want to highlight too.
Time On Trail: On of the most obvious differences between the Camino I walked last year and this year was time on trail. I spent 40 days on the Camino Frances (790km/490mi) whereas we only walked 15 days on the Camino Portuguese from Porto (280km/174mi). You can walk the latter from Lisbon too (640km/391mi), but many of the pilgrims I talked to who did this mentioned horrible highway walking, and not many interactions. This time on trail makes a difference, physically as well as mentally. I find it takes ~2 weeks to get totally comfortable with long-distance walking (to the point that it doesn’t really bother you anymore) so on the Portuguese I was actually just reaching my “prime” as we came into Santiago. Also the 2 weeks I spent in Portugal didn’t take me nearly as deep (emotionally) as my Frances experience. That said, not every trek needs to be a personal transformation and two weeks away is easy and fun. It wasn’t bad, just different.
More Route Options: On the Frances everyone pretty much walks the exact same trail with just a few short variants here and there, which means you see the same people the whole way depending on your pace. That creates a strong sense of pilgrim community as you meet and re-meet people, something I found quite special and emotional. On the Portuguese however pilgrims often part ways as some take the Coastal or go inland to the Central, strike out to the Senda Litoral or take the Spiritual Variant. It provides more flexibility and variation in walking (the coast is so different from inland!), but also means you don’t get to re-meet most of the people you see, with just a few exceptions. For this very reason I’m particularly happy I went as part of a group on the Portuguese (rather than solo) as it gave me that sense of strong connection I was looking for. It was luck, but it worked out.
Fewer Albergue Meals: Perhaps one of the most surprising differences we encountered in Portugal was the lack of communal meals at the Albergues. On the Frances it’s common for Albergues to offer a communal meal which is a great way to meet and interact with other pilgrims. It’s another community thing that bonds you, and takes the sting out of having to sleep with everyone in the same room. On the Portuguese however we only encountered one place (Casa da Fernanda) that offered a communal meal, a night that became one of our favorite memories. Once again, since we walked as a group this wasn’t a huge issue, but if I’d been solo I think I would have missed having that daily connection.
Cobblestones: I mentioned these in my last post (more than once LOL) so I won’t overdo it here, but it can’t be denied that one of the biggest differences between the Portuguese and Frances Caminos are the cobblestone trails on the former, particularly on the Central Route. They’re everywhere and they’re really hard on the feet! Both Caminos have their share of road-walking and industrial areas so it’s not all natural trails either way, but the Frances definitely has more soft(ish) spots.
It’s All Worth It
About a week after our Camino finished the 4 Cheeky Chicas were reminiscing on our chatgroup about the walk and what it meant to become a pilgrim.
Which we all agreed is an actual thing.
Once you walk a Camino it stays with you, oozes into your bones, becomes part of you. I suppose all long-distance hikes may be like this (I’ve only done the two), but it’s a specific and unique feeling. We’re not alone, I mean 400,000+ people do this thing every year, but we all face our own personal challenges when we do something like this, and I do believe that changes us fundamentally in some way….and bonds us.
If you ever get the chance to do it, perhaps you’ll let me know if you feel the same way.
Related Post: Wanna read more? Read Linda’s summary of our time together in her blog post here: Camino Portuguese
Any Questions I didn’t answer? Feel free to ask away in the comments below!