Planes, Trains, and Spain: How to Get to the Camino de Santiago

Your pilgrimage begins as soon as you walk out your door, says a popular Camino mantra.

Historically, that’s true. After all, the original pilgrims to Santiago didn’t have the choice to hop on a plane or train to get to a well-marked and collectively-accepted starting point. They just picked up their belongings and started walking.

(There are still a handful of pilgrims who do this, by the way. I’ve met men and women from as far away as the Netherlands and Switzerland who set out on foot from their homes, eventually connecting with one of the established Camino paths.)

But for many of us, there are some major obstacles, like oceans, between us and Santiago. According to Google, it’s 5,217 miles (8400 kilometers) from home to Pamplona, where Laurel and I started our Camino journey a month ago. And that’s the direct route, without layovers.

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Why did we start our Camino in Pamplona?

First, because Laurel had limited time off work, and couldn’t afford to backtrack to St. Jean Pied-de-Port and then walk an extra three days. Second, because Pamplona is an amazing, magical city. And third, because the last time I walked over the Pyrenees I swore I would never, ever do it again.

Mostly, though, it’s the convenience. Pamplona is one of the biggest cities on the Camino Frances. While there are no direct flights from the United States, there are plenty of direct ways to get there in half a day from Madrid by train, regional flight, or bus.

(In comparison, here’s an overview of what it takes to get to St. Jean Pied-de-Port.)

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Pamplona

Still, a 5200-mile journey can be long and sometimes baffling for two tired, generally un-travelled Americans from the West Coast.

Here’s what it took to get there, and what I learned along the way:

 

Step 1: Leave for the airport at 4:30am Saturday in order to catch a 7am flight from Seattle.

For Laurel, this is actually Step 2, because she lives on an island almost 3 hours from the Seattle airport. She left home on Friday and came to my apartment, where she spent a short and probably-uncomfortable night sleeping on my office daybed, with my too-curious cat.

We arrive at SeaTac Airport by 5:00 and navigate a surprisingly crowded security checkpoint easily, because all we have are our carry-on (and carry-everywhere) backpacks.

Travel tip: don’t bring your trekking poles. You can pick up an inexpensive pole or two in any European sporting goods store – there are Camino-themes stores all along the Camino Frances – for less money than it costs to check a bag, and far less aggravation.

 

Step 2: Fly 5 hours from Seattle to Charlotte.

This makes me really appreciate how much longer it takes to fly around the bulk of the Earth, rather than over the poles. Two years ago, Eric and I flew to Paris via Iceland to begin our Camino in Le Puy, and our total time in the air was less than 10 hours. This year I’ve gone more than half that already, and I’m not even in sight of the Atlantic Ocean.

Laurel and I sit separately for this flight, which is a typical domestic steerage experience, with no entertainment, no pillows, and little leg room. I try to sleep as much as possible, despite the very nice, very chatty physics professor beside me.

(There are no photos of any of this, because really, an airplane is an airplane.)

 

Step 3: Spend 2 hours in Charlotte Airport.

I’ve connected here before, and it’s a good place to kill some time. We stop at a restaurant and had lunch/dinner, thinking it would be the last time we ate until we arrived in Spain. Because airlines stopped serving food on flights years ago, right?

Right?

 

Step 4: Fly 8 hours from Charlotte to Madrid.

And this is when I learn how different international travel is than domestic, at least on American Airlines.

Laurel and I sit together this time, tucked in one of those middle sections of seats that’s so far away from any window that it’s impossible to know where we were or what was happening outside. As soon as we board, it’s clear that American Airlines has a plan to make the next 8 hours as non-awful as possible. There are entertainment screens on the back of every seat, and a pillow and blanket waiting for each person. Almost as soon as we take off, they start serving a full dinner: a choice of two hot entrees, a salad, rolls and butter, and dessert. (Okay, the food was nothing to get excited about, but the effort was appreciated.) Plus, it came with free beverages, even wine.

I fly 6-hour direct flights fairly often to get from coast-to-coast in the US. When was the last time I was on a plane that gave me free food, let alone wine?

Travel tip: fly internationally more often, and don’t worry about eating before you board.

As soon as dinner is over, the attendants announce that they’re turning out the lights. The implication is clear: time to sleep. It’s only 3:00 Pacific Time, but in Madrid it’s midnight, so smart idea. I sleep restlessly, mostly because our seats are in front of one bathroom and across the aisle from another, so there’s steady traffic, noise, and light. But it’s possible to convince myself it’s night, especially when at “5:30am” (Madrid time, so 8:30pm in Seattle) the crew comes around again to serve breakfast.

Two meals in one flight?

Step 5: Take 3 hours to navigate Madrid Airport, train to downtown, and wait.

It’s 7am on Sunday, we’ve had a handful of hours of interrupted sleep, and we’re in a foreign airport. No problem.

That’s what I tell myself, and it works. We get through customs without anyone even asking questions, find our way out past security, use an ATM to acquire euros, and we’re ready to go.

Travel tip: the most efficient, least expensive way to get local currency in another country is to use an ATM. American banks will charge more, and currency exchanges in airports are a rip-off. Rick Steves agrees with me. 

We need to get downtown to the Madrid Atocha rail station, to catch our Renfe train to Pamplona. (There are trains to Pamplona that leave directly from the airport six days a week, but alas, not on Sundays.)

And here’s where I make a mistake. For some reason, I think that we have to take the Metro – Madrid’s urban subway – to get downtown. This requires buying tickets on machines that are not at all intuitive and then navigating two separate connections on the subway.

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It’s complicated, it’s not air conditioned, it takes an hour, and we’re both a little punchy-tired. But we do it.

Then, when we get to the Atocha station, there are signs all over promoting the direct Renfe train that goes directly to the airport in 20 minutes. The woman at the information desk says we didn’t even need to buy a ticket; if we have a Renfe ticket, the airport connection is free.

Well, live and learn.

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Madrid Atocha Rail Station

Travel tip: The Renfe (Spanish rail system) website is a pain to navigate, but their trains and services are great. There’s a platform in the Madrid Airport right next to the local subway. 

We still have a couple of hours before the train departs, so we wander outside for our first cafés con leche and fresh air in 27 hours (or 18, depending on time zones). Madrid is fast and crowded and noisy, and I instantly love it.

 

Step 6: Train for 3 hours from Madrid to Pamplona

It’s hard to keep my eyes open as we rock gently and cross vast open spaces. There’s a group of nuns in habits giggling in the car, and an old woman who’s probably drunk speaking animatedly with anyone who will listen. But my Spanish is still rusty and I can’t pick out any of her words.

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Laurel on the train to Pamplona

And then, at 4:00 Sunday afternoon, 22 hours after we left my apartment on Saturday morning, we arrive.

We walk 2 kilometers from the station to our albergue in the old city. Soon, 2 kilometers will be nothing, but today it feels like 20. It’s the heat of the day, we’ve been awake for days, and we don’t have our walking legs yet.

But at least we’re here.

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At the gates of Pamplona
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