End of the Camino

19.5 km

Camino Sign Marker

It’s 6:20 a.m. and I’m snug in my window seat as the Santiago-Madrid flight boards. Iberia Airlines is already bringing me back to reality, piping music in English. I’d rather listen in on the conversation of the men beside me, their Gallego accents strong and clear. I’ve got plenty of time to transition–3 flights over 22 and a half hours to go. It will take a lot longer, though, to digest the experiences during 38 days on the Camino de Santiago. Thanks to those of you who have followed my journey on Facebook and here on the blog.

I met people who didn’t make it through, people who were homesick and physically sick. Upset stomachs and colds were common, as were foot and leg problems. In the early days, straps on heavy backpacks dug into shoulders, leaving them red and chaffed after hours of walking. Pilgrims complained of aching hips and backs.

By far, foot blisters were the number one problem. They and their treatment were constant topics of discussion on the trail, in albergues, even over meals. Before leaving home, I’d heard  and read of large, blistered areas that could incapacitate a walker. Now I’ve seen them. It’s a painful sight for anyone and a scary reminder to pilgrims to deal promptly with hotspots from the earliest sign.

Monte do gozo marker

Monte do gozo marker

Problems are part of the deal when you walk 790 kilometers (490 miles), but the joys and pleasures far outweigh the tough times. There’s a real sense of accomplishment when you scale a mountain, navigating rocky slopes or ford streams by balancing on rocks, keeping dry only with serious use of trekking poles.

Walking the Camino with fellow pilgrims invites conversations, often long ones with people from all over the world. Friendships form. The shared euphoria, hugs and one- and two-cheek kisses when pilgrims walk into the plazas (prazas in Gallego) around the Santiago Cathedral are deeply emotional and beautiful moments.

By Saturday, June 14, the final day of walking, Paco, Gabriela and I had become a tight team. We had 19.5 kilometers (12 miles) to cover before the noon Pilgrims’s Mass. We were up at 5:00 a.m. After washing down croissants, bought the day before, with vending machine coffee at the albergue, we were on the road before 6:00. It was still dark, especially in the forest. Between Paco’s mini flashlight and my phone light, we made our way. Paco, who could easily outdistance us, soon handed over his light and moved ahead in the faint dawn.

Gabriela and I, who had both experienced our share of foot problems, had put on backpacks on the transport shuttle for the last days. Saturday, we were hauling them and walking hard. We made a couple of quick refreshment stops during the next hours, thinking we wouldn’t see Paco until the albergue that evening. Around 10:00, we found him waiting so we could all walk into Santiago together.

Arriving in Santiago

Arriving in Santiago

We forged ahead relentlessly, passing some pilgrims, getting passed by others in better physical condition. We barely stopped for photos at Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy) and later, at the entrance to the city of Santiago.

Giddy, we walked into the massive Praza do Obradoiro in front of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela to the strains of a Galician bagpiper playing the gaita. Guides led swarms of tourists. An electric train shuttled sightseers around us. Beggars held out plastic cups and asked for alms. Vendors hawked all sorts of Camino merchandise.

Paco, Gabriela and I joined the arriving pilgrims who hugged and kissed, whooped and posed for photos. It was a magical moment reaching the goal that for many of us had first been conceived years ago. In my case, the seed was planted 8-10 years before at a foreign language teacher conference during a presentation on the Camino by a Santiago native.

In Praza do ObradoiroAfter photos, we hurried into the 1000-seat Cathedral where we were promptly turned back by a security guard and told to walk a block to deposit our packs and poles. Somehow, we still managed to get seats about mid-way back in the nave. The masses I had attended over the previous six weeks on the Camino were simple affairs, generally lasting just over a half hour. While we waited in Santiago, a nun with a voice as pure as that of her peer Sister Cristina, who recently won Italy’s The Voice competition had us practice short melodies. We were a motley, dirty thousand plus on a hot day when 6 priests and the Archbishop processed in. It was probably the only time in my life that I’ll ever take communion wearing hiking shorts and a bandana on my head.

One of the most anticipated events for pilgrims is getting to witness the botafumeiro, or giant incense burner, being swung at the end of the Pilgrims’ Mass. The tradition isn’t practiced every day. Stories about the cost, the need for 6 tiraboleiros to work the huge wheel and rope system, etc. abound. We figured we got lucky with the Archbishop’s presence.

Botafumeiro preparation

Botafumeiro preparation

When a priest announced at the end of mass that the ritual would be performed, there was silence. The organist brought the instrument crashing to life, and the botafumeiro began to swing. To our surprise, it moved parallel to the altar in the side sections that separated de nave and altar. We didn’t see the most dramatic moments, but it didn’t matter. We had witnessed the botafumeiro. From there, we hurried to the Pilgrim Office where we spent nearly an hour in line in order to show our credentials, stamped all along the way, and get the coveted compostela certificate.

Afterwards, over a late and unhurried lunch, we began the first of many reflections on the morning, moving on to the Camino journey, our friendships and plans for a possible reunion in August, 2015 for a week of hiking in the Austrian Alps where Gabriela has a house. The late afternoon shower at the albergue, the former Lower Seminary, felt cool and cleansing.

Compostela certificate

Compostela certificate

When we returned at 11:30 on Sunday for the noon Pilgrims’ Mass, we weren’t lucky enough to get seats. Wiser, we stood at the back of one of the cross sections, hoping to see the botafumeiro tradition repeated. We weren’t disappointed. Watching the huge censer fly through the air and nearly brush the high ceilings was breathtaking. The flames fanned and flared, filling the church above some 1500 participants with a sweet, smoky haze. In anticipation, the security guards had opened the doors where more people waited to catch a glimpse of the magnificent moment.


Nine hours have passed since I wrote the first sentence, and I’m 4 hours into the Madrid-NYC flight. I just pulled on a long-sleeved top that has the distinct smell of the Camino and hand-washed clothes hung out to dry on albergue clotheslines. Already, I’m missing the road, the fresh air and, most of all,  the people. But I’ve got some great ideas for a novel about 3 American women who meet on the Camino and how it changes their lives.

Thanks again for reading the blog over these last weeks!

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  1. Natalya Livingston says:

    Don and I have looked for you to be walking with Loretta and the dogs since you came back, but have not seen you. I am glad you made it through to the end. I have thought about taking the pilgrimage for the past two years, but I am still not ready. some day.

    Say “Hi” if you walk past our house at 835 Johnson Street.

    • Leslie Patiño says:

      Hi Natalya,

      Long story, but Loretta’s and my walk has been altered. We’ll try to get by one morning soon. I hope you will be able to walk at least a part of the Camino in the future. It’s truly a phenomenal experience. Thanks for writing!

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