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- Strategic trekking advice for walking the Camino, including where to start to get the Compostela certificate and excursions to gateway cities like Santiago, Léon, and Pamplona
- Unique ideas for enriching your experience: Admire folkloric art and Romanesque churches, stroll through the stone archways and winding alleys of medieval cities, and soak up mountain views as you cross over the Pyrenees and descend into green valleys. See the archaeological site where Europe's oldest humans were uncovered and breathe in the salty ocean air as you finish your journey at the shores of the Atlantic
- Savor the local flavors: Enjoy authentic jamón serrano, tapas, and Galician wine, or grab cheese and freshly baked bread for a picnic lunch
- The best detours, festivals, and villages along the way: Linger in Estella, witness the running of the bulls in Pamplona, visit the monastery in Nájera, or sip wine in Cacabelos
- Essential planning information on when to go, how to get there, where to eat, and where to stay, from pilgrim dorms to private hotels, plus tips on hazards, precautions, and gear
- Expert advice from Beebe Bahrami, who has walked the Camino more than 20 times, including valuable history and context of the pilgrimage and the sacred sites, landscape, culture, and local etiquette
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout, plus a handy fold-out map of the entire route
- Helpful resources on Covid and walking the Camino
- Handy tools and background information including Spanish and French phrasebooks, visa information, volunteer opportunities, and tips for seniors, women traveling alone, religious and secular travelers, and LGBTQ travelers
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In my many returns to the Camino since my first trek in 1995, I heard a common lament from secular and religious pilgrims alike: that they were in such a hurry to find a bed, and reliant on guidebooks that did not point out the significance of what they were walking past, that they missed many of the Camino’s most meaningful elements.
I wrote this guide to the Camino Francés—the most popular branch of a vast network that crisscrosses Spain, France, Portugal, and really all of Europe, destined for the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain—to fulfill this desire for context and connection. I set out to answer not only practical questions (where should I stop for lunch?) but also deeper, cultural ones (why do locals in Basque Country hang bundles of thistle on their doors, and what do the Camino’s Black Madonnas represent?).
I also know how much pilgrims enjoy food and wine, topics that are glossed over in other Camino guides. In these pages, I’ve called out my favorite dishes, from succulent fresh-caught seafood to hearty stews, along with the best local restaurants that serve them.
The result is a book that balances crucial practical details with thoughtful insights and enriching experiences. In each chapter you’ll find:
Highlights that point out places and experiences that are not to be missed, such as tasting tapas in León’s Barrio Húmedo, waking up for sunrise on O Cebreiro mountain, and making a detour to the enigmatic octagonal church of Eunate.
Starting points, and detailed recommendations for how to reach each one, if you (like many pilgrims) aren’t able to complete the entire trek.
Recommended overnight stops, chosen either for their ideal location or for an exceptional experience that adds depth to the pilgrim journey, such as sung prayer with the nuns who run the Albergue de Santa María in Carrión de los Condes, or the delicious farm-to-table dinner at Albergue Vieira in San Martín del Camino.
Route options that help you decide what to do when the trail forks, whether you prefer to stay on a supported section near a highway, or take a quieter, more remote path with fewer cafes and accommodations. This section also alerts you to worthwhile sights that many travelers miss because they are not well marked or require a short detour off the trail.
Local food and wine callouts that highlight regional specialties and the best places to taste them, and a list of local markets so you can easily plan your journey around these festive weekly events.
Folklore callouts that describe the sacred traditions that are distinct in each region of the Camino, with a special focus on pagan rituals that have influenced modern Christian traditions. (Many churches that were built over pre-Christian sites retain elements of the older pagan forms. These are fascinating to behold—if you know where to look—and I make sure to note them so that you do.)
I also fold into these pages another aspect I have learned about pilgrimage: It is not only a sacred engagement but also a great adventure. No matter who you are—secular, spiritual, or religious—walking along the Camino’s dirt paths, through medieval villages and beautiful wild landscapes, becomes simultaneously a journey of insight and transformation and an exhilarating physical challenge.
The Camino is in many ways the act of reclaiming a sense of wonder and beauty in one’s life. It is a great road of transcendence open to all and barred to none; a walking meditation punctuated by churches, chapels, shrines, streams, hills, mountains, rivers, and valleys. More than anything, the Camino is an experience to be savored, not rushed. This book helps you to slow down the journey, so that you discover the Camino at its best.
DISCOVER the Camino de Santiago
20 Top Experiences
Planning Your Trip
If You’re Looking For…
The Credential and the Compostela
Make the Trek
Best Food and Wine Festivals
Best Parties On The Camino
The Camino de Santiago is a great adventure, a sacred pilgrimage in the footsteps of millions of others intertwined with an outdoor trek across northern Spain. Leading from the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the border with France, it travels west for 780 kilometers (485 miles), traversing daunting mountains, lush river valleys, sweeping plains, striated vineyards, and rolling hills swaying with wheat to the purported tomb of Saint James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela. And the path doesn’t really stop there: It continues all the way to the rugged shores of the Atlantic.
The Camino is a rare chance in the busy world for solitude and self-reflection, even for self-reinvention, while traveling in the company of pilgrims from more than 140 nations and while encountering engaging and generous locals who have lived on and served the Camino for generations. It is a path of strange trail magic, where solutions are delivered just as you need them, and where someone walking past spontaneously gives the perfect answer to the very question rolling around in your head.
The Camino is also a paradox. When a person becomes a pilgrim—pèlerin in French, peregrino in Spanish—and temporarily disconnects from normal life to go for a long walk, he or she enters into a deep experience of presence and connectedness on many levels, with nature, with others, and with him- or herself. Many peregrinos marvel that the Camino naturally cultivates such a profound experience, and with it, transformation, just by walking.
Officially a Christian pilgrimage that is over 1,200 years old, the Camino is older than this. Humans have long traversed the lands crossed by the Camino, along southwestern France and northern Spain. They left signs—stone tools, painted caves, rock art, dolmens, hilltop settlements, prehistoric roads—and, only later, medieval towns and chapels. You still feel their footsteps as you step along the trail. Some locals claim that there is a special energy in the land itself, a ley line poetically tracing on the earth the path of the Milky Way seen by pilgrims in the night sky. It is a perfect melding of nature and culture, an outdoor adventure and a historic European grand tour.
20 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Taking your first step on to the Camino in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port’s Rue de la Citadelle, a cobblestone path worn smooth by thousands of pilgrims over 900 years.
2 Crossing the Pyrenees on the way to Roncesvalles, with incredible views at the peak of Col de Lepoeder and Puerto de Ibañeta.
3 Joining the locals for pintxos in Pamplona or on Calle del Laurel in Logroño, where proprietors at each bar specialize in one distinctive tiny bite, or tapas in León’s Barrio Húmedo, the “wet quarter,” so named because it contains more than 100 bars.
4 Stepping inside the enigmatic, octagonal Santa María de Eunate, known as the “Church of 100 Doors,” which was constructed as a meditation on numbers held sacred by many ancient faiths.
5 Seeing grooves worn by Roman cart wheels as you walk across the Roman road and bridge as you leave Cirauqui.
6 Filling your scallop shell with local red wine at Bodegas Irache Wine Fountain, a relatively new Camino tradition that has quickly become a classic.
7 Visiting Iglesia de San Nicolás de Barí on the spring and autumn equinox, when a beam of sunlight perfectly illuminates a capital featuring a scene of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.
8 Exploring the Atapuerca Archaeological Site, where archaeologists have unearthed 1.2-million-year-old human remains.
9 Standing inside the hauntingly romantic 12th-century San Antón Monastery Ruins, whose crumbling Gothic walls are overgrown with wild foliage.
10 Joining the nuns in sacred song at Albergue de Santa María in Carrión de los Condes.
11 Stepping into a swirl of color filtered through stained-glass windows at Catedral de Santa María de León.
12 Crossing the Puente del Paso Honroso, the 19-arched medieval bridge, made famous by a medieval jousting tournament, that leads to the village of Hospital de Órbigo.
13 Laying a stone at Cruz de Ferro on Monte Irago, the Camino’s highest point, as you silently enact a ritual of gratitude, forgiveness, or letting go.
14 Transporting to the era of knights, pilgrims, and passionate causes as you cross the drawbridge of the Castillo de los Templarios, a 12th- and 13th-century castle with thick, high walls and toothy ramparts.
15 watching the sunset and sunrise from O Cebreiro, a charming Galician village that marks the Camino’s third-highest point.
16 Exploring the Castro de Castromaior, a partially excavated hilltop fortress surrounded by concentric rings of protective walls.
17 Partaking in the ritual drinking of queimada, a heated concoction of spirits, sugar, coffee beans, and orange and lemon peels that’s said to quemar (burn) out all bad karma and energy and to prepare you to approach Santiago with a clean slate.
18 Arriving (at last!) at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, where you can deliver a traditional hug to the statue of Saint James before collecting your Compostela.
19 Taking a final pilgrimage to the coast, where you can gaze out on infinite sea and sky at the lighthouse at Cabo Finisterre or Virxe da Barca Sanctuary in Muxía.
20 Looking up at the Milky Way as you ponder the fact that the route of the Camino traces this celestial galaxy.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Where to Go
Basque Country and Navarra: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Pamplona
The Camino de Santiago today officially begins at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a stunning threshold at the Pyrenees and the border with France and Spain. You have two traditional options here: the popular Route Napoleon or the Route Valcarlos, which is used in winter and bad weather. Both ascend green-gray mountain peaks capped with snow and speckled with grazing sheep, leading to breathtaking views before descending to the huddled monastic hamlet of Roncesvalles. Throughout you are immersed in ancient Basque and Navarran culture, its hospitality, and its celebrated, colorful cuisine. This initial stretch is one of the most challenging on the Camino and includes the second-highest peak of the entire way. Especially from fall through spring, the weather can be prohibitive.
Navarra: Pamplona to Logroño
Beginning in Pamplona, Hemingway’s famed stomping ground, the Camino climbs and descends between open plains, high ridges, and steep ravines into wild and dynamic landscapes where early humans built dolmens and medieval masons created enigmatic and beautiful churches reflecting a mix of influences (pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim), including Eunate, Torres del Rio, Cirauqui, Puente la Reina, and Estella. The Camino also traverses an ancient Roman road and takes you into wheat and wine country, including a surprise at the monastery of Irache: a fountain flowing with wine.
La Rioja and Castile: Logroño to Burgos
Defined by radiating vineyards and billowing wheat fields awash with red poppies in spring, the Camino treads along dark, rust-red earth that, toward Castile, turns gold. Here, you enter into remote pine forests rich with song birds and pass some of the path’s most spiritual monasteries, at Nájera, San Millan de la Cogolla, and San Juan de la Ortega.
Castile and León: Burgos to León
Deep into Spain’s breadbasket, the Camino gradually climbs and enters the famous meseta—high plateau—of north-central Spain, with infinite swaying wheat fields where shepherds have tended their flocks for millennia. Land of hefty hilltop castles and frontier towns, this is El Cid country, saturated with epic poems of chivalrous (and roguish) knights. It is characterized by endless sky and wide horizons, which brings a different cadence to the walk. The food reflects this sturdiness with hearty farmer fare and strong wine. At an albergue in Carrión de los Condes, singing nuns invite you to listen to or join in sacred song. Burgos, at the begining of this route, is home to a world-class human evolution museum and also the gateway city to the Atapuerca archeological site, inhabited by humans 1.2 million years ago.
León and Galicia: León to Sarría
Mountainous terrain makes this one of the more challenging sections of the Camino. Slowly leaving the open meseta, the Camino passes into the multicolored mountains of León, so rich with minerals that ancient peoples, including Romans, built extensive roads here. After summiting Monte Irago, the Camino’s highest point, pilgrims can leave a ritual stone at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro iron cross—for many, one of the most meaningful experiences on the journey. You next trek into a vast valley and garden paradise of fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, and unique El Bierzo wines. The trail then enters narrow mountain valleys dotted with riverside villages, making a steep ascent into Galicia’s mountains at the ancient mountaintop village of O Cebreiro.
Galicia: Sarría to Santiago de Compostela
As one of the most convenient places to begin the final 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the Camino (required to earn a pilgrim’s certificate, the Compostela), Sarría is one of the most popular starting points. From here, the Camino leads through a green and mysterious realm defined by deeply folding river valleys and mountains covered in ancient oak and chestnut forest, some of the oldest in Iberia. Listen to locals tell stories of meigas (white witches) who cast healing cures, try queimada, a heated elixir of well-being offered to pilgrims, and sample celebrated cheeses from local cows (who are often more present on the trail than humans). You can also get a taste of the nearby sea in cafés serving Galicia’s famous spicy octopus, pulpo á feira.
Santiago de Compostela
The Camino ends here in this mythic medieval city, at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, where the body of Saint James is entombed. Pilgrims head straight to the cathedral to hug the statue of Santiago on the high altar. Afterward, wander arcaded cobblestone streets lined with granite churches, monasteries, museums, shops, and galleries built of gray granite, or visit the Mercado de Abastos, one of northern Spain’s most colorful and dynamic daily markets. The restaurants and cafés surrounding the cathedral showcase Galicia’s most tantalizing dishes from ocean, field, river, and mountain. One in particular, Casa Manolo, has been a popular pilgrim meeting spot for more than three decades.
Camino Finisterre: Finisterre and Muxía
The Camino doesn’t have to end at Saint James’s tomb in Santiago de Compostela: More and more pilgrims are trekking farther west toward the Atlantic coast towns of Finisterre and Muxía. At first, the journey through dense forest, undulating hills, and challenging small mountains feels deceptive: You can smell the ocean, but you can’t see it until you are almost upon it. At last, you meet finis terrae, earth’s end: a narrow finger of land with endless sky above, crashing waves below, and infinite watery horizon ahead. The coastline known as the Costa da Morte (“coast of death”) is rugged and dangerous, but that just adds to the filmic ending of a long walk across northern Spain. End-of-journey rituals include collecting a scallop shell from the beach or taking a purifying swim in the Atlantic.
When to Go
Whenever you decide to begin your Camino, remember that rain—and need for rain gear, at minimum a rain poncho—is a year-round prospect. Also consider that the last 114 kilometers (71 miles), from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, is the busiest section and you will feel a significant surge in numbers here. You may want to plan the timing of your Camino by thinking about when in your walk you will reach this benchmark.
High Season: May-September
Some 85 percent of annual trekkers walk the Camino from mid-May to mid-September. This is a time when you can carry the least amount of gear, but you do need to carry more water, watch for dehydration, and protect yourself from sun exposure. You’ll also have to deal with the crowds who can inundate the trail as well as the accommodations. But if you like warm weather, the company of other pilgrims, want to travel light, and are ready either to deal with the “bed race” or to book ahead, then this may be your season.
Low Season: November-March
If you desire solitude, late November to early March can be ideal. You will need to carry more gear for warmth and also be prepared for around 60 percent of the albergues to be closed, usually from October until the week before Easter Sunday. This may demand that you stay in hotels, or walk farther to reach open albergues, but there is no bed race whatsoever. You may also need to carry more food, as some cafés and restaurants also close in winter.
Shoulder Season: March-May and September-November
For a balance between socializing and solitude, spring or autumn are ideal, and are also the most pleasant, moderate seasons to walk. Most seasonal albergues
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- On Sale
- May 24, 2022
- Page Count
- 568 pages
- Moon Travel