Dante wrote that those who travel to Jerusalem may be called “palm-bringers”, those who visit Rome are “Rome-goers”, but the title of “pilgrim” belongs only to those who journey to Santiago. In his lifetime, Saint James the apostle (known as Santiago in Spanish) is said to have spread the gospel in Spain, gaining a handful of converts. In 44AD, he died at the hands of King Herod, and was supposedly cast off on a stone boat. The boat landed on the shores of Galicia, and his body was taken by his followers to be buried. In the 9th century AD, the remains were discovered by a hermit, guided by a field of stars (compostela or Campus Stellae). The veracity of this tale is debated to this day. What is known is that with the Muslim invasion beginning to spread northward, a defensive presence was required. Stories of a ghostly St. James "the Moor-Slayer" spread and attracted Christians across Europe to journey westward to a place named after the great saint. The town of Santiago grew, and soon, kings and queens, poets and saints, began to make the great journey. Great battles were fought and miracles witnessed along the way. The first pilgrims’ guide came out in the 12th century, and amenities for pilgrims began to flourish, as more and more common folk made the pilgrimage as an act of supplication or penitence. There are now pilgrims’ guidebooks available in a multitude of languages.

The Knights Templar were official protectors of the Camino until the 14th century. Architectural remnants of their presence are shrouded in mystery. The Camino also played an important role in the spreading and development of romanesque art and architecture, of which there is much remaining along the route. There are also fine examples of Spanish plataresque gothic style, such as the cathedrals of Burgos and Leon, as well as many baroque churches and palaces built with gold and silver pillaged from the new world. Some buildings, especially on the meseta, show strong Arab influence.

Half a million pilgrims made their way to Santiago at the height of its popularity, but the protestant Reformation and Spanish Inquisition spelled the beginning of the end. In the 16th century, as Francis Drake and a fleet of 14,000 soldiers threatened to destroy Santiago, the sacred bones were hidden away. The Camino fell until disrepair until 1879 when the bones were discovered again. Later, Spain officially restored St. James as its patron saint. In the 1960s, a Spanish priest began rebuilding parts of the Camino, painting many of the yellow arrows on walls and trees that continue to guide pilgrims on their way.

Stretching across the north of Spain from east to west, the Camino follows old Roman trade routes, traversing numerous regions of distinct topography, climate, language, food, and architecture. Rocky and narrow in places, widening in others as it cuts through open fields, it occasionally parallels the freeway, and at other points blends with local roads through towns and cities. Beginning in Basque territory, just over the Pyrenees in France, it winds over the steep mountain range and down into the fertile wine-making regions of Navarra and Rioja. It then crosses the dry plains (meseta), scales the Cantabrica mountains, and descends into the farmland of Galicia in the northwest. The lush green region of Galicia is particularly unique, showing heavy Celtic influence in local music and art.

The scallop shell is the ubiquitous symbol of the Camino. Pilgrims of old, after reaching Santiago, often would continue walking west to Finisterre (meaning Earth’s End) on the Atlantic coast. There, at ocean's edge, one would affix a scallop shell to one's cloak to commemorate journey's end. Nowadays, shells are found on backpacks, t- shirts, and most importantly, signposts. These markers are part of a well-developed infrastructure of services for pilgrims. One need not carry a map, understand much Spanish or carry many supplies to make the journey.

Pilgrims' hostels (refugios or albergues) can be found in almost every town, providing simple and cheap bunk-style accommodations. Some of these are old stone shelters dating from the middle ages; others are modern buildings complete with kitchens and internet access. A credencial or pilgrims' passport is required to stay there. This stampbook can be obtained ahead of time in your home country, or at any official pilgrims' office or major refugio on the Camino. Anyone having walked the last 100 km of the Camino (or cycled the last 200 km), and had their credencial stamped along the way, will receive an official pilgrims’ certificate, inscribed in Latin. Many thousands of international pilgrims now do this every year.

Accessible though it is, the Camino is still a physical challenge. Parts of this 800 km trail are steep, and weather can be either brutally hot or cold and at certain times very wet. Summer is crowded with many Spanish pilgrims and students walking. Either late spring or early fall are more suitable. Hiking boots are not necessary, but good sturdy shoes are. It is wise to practice walking with shoes and pack several weeks, if not months ahead of time. Many people push themselves on the trail and injure themselves.

These days, people walk the Camino for many reasons, not just religious. It can be both a mental and physical testing ground, an opportunity to leave the routines of home, step outside one’s comfort zone, and become immersed in “being”. It is a chance for us to create space to think, pray, give thanks, and connect with one’s self. It is a wonderful model of the human trajectory, as natural as setting one foot after another. But remember that the Camino is neither a tour nor a race. It is a pilgrimage. And it's always about the journey, not the destination. If you follow your heart, you will find yourself along the way.