Saturday, August 19, 2017

Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) Camino Frances with a toddler.

Ana and I got the bright, perhaps ludicrous idea to embark on the Camino de Santiago after learning about it from our friend Ryan who had previously walked the journey. What solidified the idea was another mutual friend of ours, Kate, mentioned she was planning to walk the Camino in summer of 2017. In a not so subtle way Ana and I sort of interjected ourselves into her plans, “Wouldn’t it be great if we get the band back together…” With that said, Kate put a bug in Monica’s ear who was destined to couch surf the summer away anyhow. 

Kate, Monica, Ryan, Ana, and I were part of the same cohort of newly arrived teachers to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the summer of 2013. Fate put us in the same apartment complex, Varnero, on the outskirts of the city and a far cry from the school; it was where the mud meets the sky. By mud I mean, from July to November in Addis Ababa that year it was unseasonably rainy and sticky…and with our collective shipments and cars wrapped in bureaucratic red tape stuck somewhere in customs, the days ticked slowly away. But the five of us alongside our fellow inmates: Claire Bear, no foot on the break pedal Jerry, Nutella Nella, Tricky Vicki, Downtown Jackie Brown, Eva Keneva, and Sarugula created our own fun at Varnero.

It was decided that Ana, Ximena, and I would meet Kate and Monica in Roncesvalles to walk the Camino Francés-the Saint James Way. We spent nearly a year doing our research and procuring the necessary items-day packs, shoes, underwear, a stroller…those sort of things. The idea was go light. Below are photos and useful information we learned along the way that might be of use to future pilgrims, especially those wishing to travel with a toddler. 

This post will be the mother of posts for us. We've included selected photographs snapped along the way coupled with thoughts and reflections. Enjoy.

(Photo: Day 0: Roncesvalles) Due to work obligations Kate and Monica arrived a day prior to us and started walking from St. Jean Pied De Port on the French side. We flew into Madrid and took a three hour train to Pamplona. From Pamplona we caught a bus, which was an hour long ride to Roncesvalles.
(Photo: Sculpture at the Roncesvalles Albergue) Roncesvalles sits on the descent of the Pyrenees and is part of the Basque region.
(Photo: Roncesvalles Albergue court yard) Aside from a couple of private hotels, the only place to stay in Roncesvalles is the large municipal hostel facilitated by friendly and helpful volunteers. The space is modern and set up in a semi private manner meaning two sets of bunk beds per space. If you are with a group of four, it feels like a semi-private room. A good practice after arriving at your albergue is to shower sooner than later to avoid lines. The bathrooms in the evening and early morning tend to be a standing room only affair. When you arrive at your first albergue you will purchase your pilgrim passport-the idea is to fill your passport with stamps along the Camino. Each albergue/hostel/hotel has its own stamp as do churches, cafes, bars, etc. The general rule is to get your passport stamped twice a day. Some albergues only accept pilgrims with passports. You will need to show your completed stamped passport to receive your compostela certificate in Santiago.
Day 1: Roncesvalles to Zubiri. (Photo: segment of the path between Roncesvalles and Zubiri) During our bus ride to Roncesvalles the reality hit us that we would be spending the next 30 plus days walking 500 miles across northern Spain. A heavy thought for sure. We read books and numerous blog posts, but nothing prepared us to the reality and landscape of the Camino. 


(Photo: segment of the path between Roncesvalles and Zubiri) Monica and Kate said it was a good thing we didn't start at St. Jean because of the heat wave and the gale force like winds they encountered battling a 1200 meter (4000 feet) steady climb for 20 km. If that would have been our introduction to the Camino with pushing a stroller, it might have been a short ride as in, "That's all folks."
(Photo: Bridge at Zubiri) Several pilgrims we met the first night in Roncesvalles mentioned that it would impossible for us to take the stroller on certain parts of the Camino. We learned the challenges that afternoon navigating up and downhill on large, loose, and uneven rocks. The heat was an added distraction. The landscape was beautiful as most of the trail was spent spiraling down the Pyrenees.
(Photo: Bridge at Zubiri) The quickest way to cool down is to plop yourself down in the nearest river. By early evening it was still a scorcher. We quickly established a daily ritual once we arrived into a town: 1) Shower.  2) Eat lunch-usually Menu el dia-menu of the day that includes a starter like a salad, pasta or soup followed by some sort of meat dish ending with dessert or fruit. Water and wine are included. 3) Wash clothes and 4) Take a nap. During the evenings we'd usually have a light snack and explore our surroundings. It was typical for us to be in bed between 9-10 pm (it was still light out!). We'd wake up between 5-6 am and hit the road for 6-8 hours each day taking a couple of breaks for breakfast and a snack. With the exception of a couple of days this was our modus operandi.
Day 2: Zubiri to Pamplona. (Photo: Stretching on the Camino)  Stretching is important, though we didn't always follow our advice. The heat wave was still hanging around and would for several more days. We became obsessed with checking the weather forecast and charting what the temperatures would be a week ahead. We also discovered we had over packed and needed to unload some items. There's a great service offered by Ivar who runs the Camino forum where you can go to the post office (Correos) and stuff all your extra items into one of the three sizes of flat rate boxes and ship it to Ivar who will store it for up to 60 days. We did this...twice. We noticed a lot of pilgrims over-packed. Personally, I had two shirts, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of socks, toothbrush, razor, charger, Ipod, guidebook, sleep sack, pillow case, duct tape, needle and thread, lighter, a water bottle, and Ximena's clothes. It was pretty light. If you are taking a child on a stroller, get a jogger type. We decided on a Burley because it looked and felt more durable plus the storage space below for food, diapers, and tire repair kit (you will get many flats). We weren't disappointed in our stroller choice, it worked like a champ and kept Ximena safe, dry and warm. 
(Photo: Somewhere between Zubiri and Pamplona) Spanish tortilla and/or bocadillos was our usual breakfast of choice. We'd usually drank freshly squeezed orange juice (zumo) or drink a can of Aquarius (sports drink) if we were sweating buckets. There were plenty of fountains along the way to fill up on water throughout the Camino. 
(Photo: Kids jumping off a bridge between Zubiri and Pamplona). The stretch between Zubiri and Pamplona was a long one. We spent close to nine hours in the heat reaching Pamplona. The only attractions we took in is what we saw along the way to our hostel. We needed food and to cool down. Spain's big department store El Corte Inglés was exactly what we needed. We upgraded some of our gear and had lunch in the cafeteria. We needed AC in such a bad way. Like the night before in Zubiri, our Pamplona night was hot, sweaty, and noisy. Make that two nights of tossing around on bunk beds.
Day 3: Pamplona to Puente la Reina. (Photo: Leaving Pamplona and heading directly towards the hill sporting the wind turbines.) This is one of those moments when you look straight ahead knowing that big hill in the distance will eventually have to be climbed. You will also start asking yourself, "Did I really sign up to do this?"
(Photo: Pilgrim Monument) When you reach the turbines you are treated to a pilgrim monument, fabulous views, and a sense of accomplishment. I secretly liked the stares we got when I showed up on a peak pushing a stroller, it seriously tripped folks out.
(Photo: View from the pilgrim monument) On the Camino they say, "What goes up must come down." Sure it was hard pushing the stroller up on the even dirt path, but nothing prepared me for the rocks coming down. This was the hardest segment for us on the entire Camino. It was quite dangerous, especially with a stroller. Kate and Monica realized this about halfway down and waited for us. They took Ximena out and they carried her down safely. Ana and I finally navigated the rocks. We were sliding, I can only imagine when the weather is wet. Another saying on the Camino is, "The Camino has the last word." Damn f**king straight it does.
(Photo: Puente La Reina) It was a brutally hot day. We arrived on fumes of whatever our bodies hadn't sweated out. We were wrecked and And and Kate all had major blister action. Pack needles and a lighter to drain those nasty blisters is all I can say. Break in your shoes too. And if you walk the Camino during the summer, leave the boots at home and get light weight, breathable shoes. Don't go cheap. We did meet on girl on the side of the path, she had her shoes off and her legs and feet had severe heat rash and blisters. She did boast she walked 42 km the previous day. She wanted to see if she could do it. She did it alright. For the sake of self-preservation, forsake the bragging rights by not biting off more than you can chew.
(Photo: View from our room in Puente La Reina) The key to eating a good meal is to ask the volunteer at the albergue where the locals eats. And if that doesn't work, follow the Spaniards.
Day 4: Puente la Reina to Estella. (Photo: Future wine)
(Photo: on the outskirts of Cirauqui) So close, but yet so far. Eye trickery and distance perception will play with your head. Sure, seeing a town in the distance offers hope, it might look like a 10-minute walk but an hour later you're still not there. This happened a lot and I'm not quite sure if the logic of actual distance over perceived distance was a lesson ever learned by us.
(Photo: Entering Cirauqui) It took about 30-minutes to arrive at this spot from the previous photo. Add another five plus minutes to reach the church at the top. Lesson learned today: None of us had breakfast and we forgone the first cafe we encountered because I convinced our group that there would be another one towards the top or the other side as with most towns. This wasn't the case. No one likes to backtrack, so we pushed forward and I'm sure the girls were all wishing they could have stuck a dagger in me at that moment. 
(Photo: Menu of the day in Estella). Once we arrived in Estella and checked into a municipal albergue, we showered then followed the Spaniards to the best meal in town. We encountered the same group of older men who were yucking it up as they did at a restaurant the previous day. The girls and I made a pact that we will follow them wherever they go eat from this day forward. One of the guys told me to order the trout, but according to him, the jamón is usually tucked inside the fish as nature has intended.   
(Photo: Kate cooling off in Estella) Want to feel better? Seriously, sometimes you just need to go sit in the nearest river clothes and all to cool down and to relieve the aches and pains in your muscles. When we returned we decided that the municipal albergue wasn't the ideal fit for us. Ana, Ximena, and I were basically bedded down in a makeshift storage closet that conveniently had a bunk bed. The common room was hot and stuffy offering little natural light. We saw one pilgrim with a cast on her leg-her Camino had sadly reached the end. It was time to make a call to another albergue in town. We packed up and headed to our new digs. We were treated to open windows, a private room, real sheets,and the first cool night of the trip. I knew we'd eventually get some sleep.  
Day 5: Estella to Los Arcos. (Photo: Wine fountain at 6:30 am) A few km outside of Estella there is a wine fountain everyone talks about. You can fill up your water bottle with the vino provided that it isn't tapped out. At 6:30 am, the spout was running dry. Only the water fountain side was working so we filled up on that. Besides, you really don't want to be drinking alcohol while walking in the sun or at 6:30. We did see several people have a beer during breakfast hours-mostly Europeans because rumor has it that they don't drink water.
(Photo: Day 5: On the way to Los Arcos) It was the first not-so-hot-day of the Camino. We traveled through farms and trees a good part of the day. 
(Photo: Stranger pushing Ximena) One of the nice parts of the Camino is meeting people. One man approached us and mentioned he wanted to train to become a grandfather. He needed practice and asked if he could push Ximena
(Photo: approaching the lavender fields of Villamayor de Monjardin)
(Photo: Mother and child in the bunk bed) I had skipped the dorm experience in college, but I felt like the Camino provided what life would be like sleeping on the top bunk. Another saying on the Camino, "The Camino provides." and with that said, "The Camino also takes away."
(Photo: Los Arcos)
(Photo: Albergue La Fuente in Los Arcos) The type of albergue on the Camino can enhance the overall experience. La Fuente has character. It is owned by a couple of Austrians who have walked the Camino several times so they know what is important to a pilgrim.


(Photo: On the road to Logroño) While it wasn't a terribly hot day, it was a long frustrating one. There was a lot of unnecessary fluctuations in elevation on the natural path. At some point we just took the road. I think the collective group was hurting knee and foot wise. It is important to consider building rest days into your schedule, not only to give your body a rest, but to experience your surroundings. 
(Photo: Viana) We had been on the road for almost 5 hours by the time we pulled into Viana. Kate and I were ahead of Ana and Monica. We found a park and just collapsed on the grass. I dozed off long enough to hear other pilgrims ask each other if Ximena and I were still alive. It was cherry season so we rested below a cherry tree. When I awoke this is what I saw.
(Photo: Viana center) We stopped in the touristy/cafe area and bought packets of cheese and jamón and built our own bocadillos with bread from a nearby bakery. Ximena ran amuck with the locals. Never underestimate the fun a bull head on wheels can provide. If only they made an adult sized one.
(Photo: Menu of the day dessert in Logroño) The complications of the day continued when we arrived in Logroño. The albergue we made reservations for didn't allow children. The receptionist was kind and called around to find us accommodations in the central part of town. Our friend Daniel who works at the Spanish Consulate in Egypt told us we had to go out and eat "pinchos" since this was his home town. We arrived on a Sunday and most of the pincho places were closed by the time we crawled out of our hostel. However, there is no short supply of ice cream in Logroño. We made the collective decision that the next day would be a rest/shopping day to buy new shoes since the blisters on the girls were only multiplying. Logroño was lovely.
Day 7: Logroño to Nájera. (Photo: Rooftop view from our albergue) When we arrived, Nájera strangely had the feel of a Colorado mountain town. Maybe it was the trees and the stream running through the center of town.
(Photo: Marching band in Nájera) You have to earn your drinks somehow. The band and their groupies positioned themselves conveniently outside of the bars. This went on all afternoon well into the evening. If you pour they will come.
Day 8: Nájera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada. (Photo: The grapes of Rioja) The Camino was a vehicle for me to expand my wine knowledge. Typically if you want a nice glass of vino at the cafe you ask for a "Crianza" which is aged in oak for 6 months to a year. That might set you back about 1.50 EUR or you can simply order "Del Año" which is the yearly wine, but be prepared to spend .75 cents for a glass.
(Photo: Way and mile marker) Only 580 km to go! We didn't encounter many mile markers like the above early on in our journey. Typically you look for waymarks on the road-follow the hand painted yellow arrows.
(Photo: Bocadillo at a cafe in Cirueña) Hands down this was the best bocadillo of the the entire trip-loaded with a two slices of jamón and grilled pimiento. So good I ate two being the glutton I am. I still dream about it.
(Photo: The stretch between Cirueña and Santo Domingo de la Calzada). The landscape transitions out of grapes and into cereals. When we arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada we checked in to an albergue run by nuns. The door outside our room opened to the courtyard. Thanks to the 10 pm curfew, we only had to endure with the singing guy and the drunkard girl embarrassingly professing her love to him for only a short while. More advice, don't walk the Camino with a hangover. 
(Photo: Santo Domingo de la Calzada) By the late afternoon the clouds had rolled in. Santo Domingo de la Calzada wins the prize for best vending machine...it was the only place on the Camino that we saw where you can insert a 10 EURO bill into the machine and buy an inflatable sex doll and other adult toys. Of course the machine had other personal items such as razors and soap...but really, an inflatable sex doll? Where would you use it...in a bunk bed? down by the river? You might even lose the urge after inflating it.
Day 8: Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado. (Photo: Window decoration) Many of the small towns are still puttering along thanks in large to the pilgrims that shuffle through. This morning involved crisscrossing the highway a couple of times-human Frogger.
(Photo: The landscape outside of Villamayor) We met a couple in their mid-60s in the morning. They blew my mind, they started the Camino a couple of months prior by walking out of their house in Vienna, Austria. And this would be their second time doing this. We've met others who walked out of homes from all parts of Europe. Just hope they turned off the lights or didn't leave the stove on. 
(Photo: Poppy Bulbs) I had read about these in the guidebook. It would be interesting to experience the changes of the landscape in different seasons. I have a feeling many of the areas we traveled through would be quite lush during the spring.
(Photo: Taking a swing break) Sometimes you have to.
(Photo: Villamayor del Rio) Boasting a population of 50 residents, there were some lovely looking houses.
(Photo: Villamayor del Rio)
(Photo: Belorado) Belorado wins the honor of the strangest town on the Camino. It was like walking on to an episode of the Twilight Zone. The albergue had an enclosed pool in the back yard next to a farm of clucking chickens and gobbling turkeys racing around. A customer at the supermarket took Ximena's binky out of her mouth and hid it while trying to converse with her why binkys are bad. I could go into more gory details, but the town was really off.
(Photo: Belorado) There was a lot of graffiti and vandalized building on the edge of the town, but there were just an many colorful ones.
(Photo: Belorado) It wasn't uncommon site to see giant nests on churches.
Day 10: Belorado to Agés. (San Juan de Ortega) San Juan is historically an important pilgrim parish dating back to medieval times. We had booked beds for the night, but decided to move on to Agés to get an early start so we could spend more quality time in Burgos.
(Photo: Playground in Agés) Agés was fab, we enjoyed nice meals and our albergue was tops. Again, it was a small village of about 60 people, perfect for a night's rest.
Day 11: Agés to Burgos. (Photo: Cruz de Matagrande) It was a challenge to get to the cross-a rocky climb for a stroller. Burgos was in the visible distance, little did we know it would take the next five hours to reach it.
(Photo: Castañares) Sometimes you have to unapologetically stick your feet into the nearest available fountain. We took the long way-about 4 km longer through more natural paths forgoing the dreaded pavement of the city. Sure we might have added an hour to the trip, but we got to hang out with snakes along the river and walk down a path that seemed to go on forever.
(Photo: Plaza Mayor in Burgos) Many albergues were sold out because it was a festival weekend in Burgos. We settled on an airbnb apartment. Breaking away from tradition, we forwent the shower and headed straight into the streets to look for food. The girls wanted the comforts of pizza. Arriving at an off hour after lunch, most restaurants were closed until dinner. The girls went their way and I went mine to finally experience pinchos. At one of the traditional pinchos cafes, I ordered a glass of vino and the man behind the counter asked if I wanted a Rioja or a Ribera-a couple of older men sitting at the counter turned to wait for my answer. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a Rioja, but if given the choice I would go with Ribera nowadays. I must have said the right answer, the guy next to me bought me my glass.
(Photo: The cathedral of Burgos) The problem with arriving late into a city is missing attractions that are open only during the day. On the plus side there was a lively festival picking up steam as we headed off to bed. When we came home we discovered that we were sharing an apartment with several Korean pilgrims who hijacked the kitchen for much of the evening. They were nice and let us sample some of their food. Kudos to them for playing it smart by cooking a community meal. This was the trend with Korean pilgrims in many of the places we stayed.
Day 12: Burgos to Hornillos. (Photo: Fishing for crawfish) Past Burgos is the beginning of the much feared Meseta. We met pilgrims who were skipping the Meseta and picking up the Camino again in León. There are mixed reviews, some love it, others hate it. If anything it was tranquil with its' big skies. We went at a good time; cool weather and somewhat cloudy. 
(Photo: Outside of Hornillos) Hornillos is a one road road village. On the way our of town is a surprising ending; a Korean restaurant. There are many Koreans who walk the Camino, so it was interesting to see Korean food in one of the most unlikely spots. When I took Ximena walking in the evening, we met two girls from Poland who looked about the same age. Only to find out weeks later it was a mother and her daughter. The mom was doing the pilgrimage to thank God for overcoming her illness and making her well again.
Day 13 Hornillos to Castrojeriz. (Photo: A morning in the Meseta)
(Photo: A morning in the Meseta) Ana and I both loved walking through the Meseta. We loved the change in the landscape, the silence it provided. The air smelled different and the sky was overwhelming. The fast moving clouds added to delight.
(Photo: A morning in the Meseta) The previous night in Hornillos, I overheard a loud conversation of a girl talking on the phone with her boyfriend-she was describing the Meseta as a desert. I'm not quite sure what she meant by that.
(Photo: The ruins of San Anton) 
(Photo: Castrojeriz) A series of unrelated events...or are they? a) Enjoyed a rabbit stew for lunch. b) The heat started creeping up again. c) Ana got stung in the head by a wasp at the playground. d) It was a Sunday so almost everything was closed.
Day 14: Castrojeriz to Frómista. (Photo: looking back towards Castrojeriz) An early start with a climb up Alto de Mostelares.
(Photo: Crossing the plateau of Alto de Mostelares and gauging the drop to the other side) 
(Photo: View from Puente de Itero)
(Photo: On the path to Frómista)
(Photo: Frómista Canal de Castilla)
(Photo: Iglesia de San Martin) There wasn't much to do in Frómista other than take in a couple of churches and watch the flock of racing birds that went in and out of openings in the churches. Every day could be a Sunday there. 
Day 15:  Frómista to Carrión de los Condes. (photo: Band shot) Leaving
Frómista was our first taste of walking alongside a treeless main road (sendas). Our guide book calls these sendas "soulless." Soulless is a polite description. We opted to take the longer natural tree lined path up until the last 5 km before we got dumped back on to the main road where the sun showed little mercy.
(Photo: Zip lining in Carrión de los Condes)  The park was an equal opportunity provider to both children and adults-certainly the place to be when not splashing around in the river. The town was buzzing and alive unlike most stops along the Meseta.
(Photo: Carrión de los Condes-watch for the crossing sheep!) Seriously.
Day 16: Carrión de los Condes to Terradillos de los Templarios. (Photo: Somewhere in the Meseta) Ana, Monica, and Kate left at 5 am to avoid the heat since there was a stretch that had no services for 17 km. Ximena was sick so we didn't want to put her through the walk that day. I caught the 11:50 am bus to Terradillos de los Templarios. One of the pilgrims on the bus was someone we walked with off and on for nearly a couple of weeks. A doctor told her to take a rest day. This was her tenth time in ten years walking the Camino.  
(Photo: Terradillos de los Templarios). This farming village was literally a ghost town until a series of loud horns jolted us from our nap. I went to go investigate only to find a flock of villagers gathered around a truck selling fresh produce out of the back of it. Since there's no market in the village, buying produce (and meats on a different day) from a truck in the later afternoon is the norm. 
(Photo: Looking away from Terradillos de los Templarios) This photo was taken just a little after 9 pm. Ximena was struggling with bed time so I thought pushing her though the village would do the trick. By evening most of the towns folk were out and about sitting on their benches taking in the impending twilight hour.
Day 17: Terradillos de los Templarios to Bercianos del Real Camino. (Photo: Ximena walking the Camino through Sahagún) Sahagún seemed like a place that could use more exploration on our part. The walk was mostly along the main road with trees, but the trees didn't add much change to the aesthetic of a flat and featureless road. This day's walk reminded me of a website stating 10 arguments not to walk the Camino-this was clearly one of them.
(Photo: Sahagún-San Tirso)
(Photo: House with bullfight window decor in Bercianos del Real Camino) Bercianos del Real Camino was a slight upgrade from Terradillos de los Templarios in that there were more human sightings. An odd fixture in the village was brand new public exercise equipment. I don't think I saw many residents outside our albergue less than 70 years old.
(Photo: Abandon building in Bercianos del Real Camino) Our albergue Hostel of pilgrims Santa Clara was pretty amazing. We stayed in the "matrimony" room. The owners were very kind, friendly, and helpful. The walls and the decor had character-the hostel is a labor of love.
(Photo: Stairs to the bells in Bercianos del Real Camino)
Day 18: Bercianos del Real Camino to Mansilla de las Mulas. (Photo: Along the path) Much of the morning was a cat and mouse game spent dodging the rain and wind. At one point we had to run to an underpass to avoid being struck by lightning. 
(Photo: Yours truly puttering along) Another day of walking along a mostly abandon local road (thanks to the new highway).
(Photo: Our 10 year anniversary photo with a pilgrim statue in Mansilla de las Mulas)
(Photo: Rio Esla)
(Photo: Another pilgrim statue in Mansilla de las Mulas)
(Photo: Ximena's new haircut) Ana asked me to go have Ximena's hair trimmed and this is how she returned. I guess we had different ideas about "a trim." In the end it suited her well, but I'm biased.
(Photo: Church in Mansilla de las Mulas) Just when I think I won't take another church photo... Mansilla de las Mulas was a blast to walk around. Monica and I explored some of the old ruins of the fortified walls surrounding the town.
Day 19: Mansilla de las Mulas to León. (Photo: Cathedral) We ended up staying in a college dorm that is rented out to pilgrims during the summer. All afternoon I thought I should be more active with the camera...sadly the idea mostly remained a thought. León was bustling with tourists and pilgrims. We ate a weak Mexican lunch for the sake of variety. There was much to see and explore that León warrants another visit.
Day 20: León to San Martin del Camino. (Photo: La Virgen del Camino) It was a long walk out of
León and into the suburbs. We were suppose to stay in Villadangos del Paramo, but it was one giant truck stop. Instead we opted to walk 5 km more to the lovely Albergue Vieira.
(Photo: Ximena testing the waters) Albergue Vieira was another one of our favorites. The owner Amelia and staff really took care of us. Although it sits alongside the main road, it channels a relaxing vibe. The food is excellent and much of the vegetables they serve come from their on-site garden. Also to note is the massage therapist who visits in the evenings. She was the female version of Richard Simmons; upbeat, funny, and athletic. She made me squeal like a baby and wrapped up Ana's leg in red clay and told Ana that she needed to take a rest day or her ankle would continue to swell.
(Photo: Papi and Ximena time)
Day 21: San Martin del Camino to Astorga. (Photo: Puente at Hospital de Orbigo) Ana would take the morning bus to Astorga and snap some fine pictures when she arrived. Monica, Kate, Ximena and I opted for the natural longer scenic route away from the main road. 
(Photo: La Casa de los Dioses) An oasis of goodness. Fill up on nuts, fruits, drinks, cookies, for a donation. Nothing makes you feel better than seeing someone's labor of love devoted to helping others out. To meet the owner David go here.
(Photo: The outskirts of Astorga) After taking this photo, I had a "small world" encounter with fellow San Diegans. While grabbing breakfast in Hospital de Orbigo a guy named Tom introduced himself to me and we chatted for a few minutes and he told me that he and his buddy also named Tom were traveling with a couple of ladies from San Diego. So I met one of them, Claudia and the other one, Karla, was busy on the phone. Fast forward to Astorga, I meet up with Karla on the path and we chatted for a short bit. Ana later tells me our friend Chelo from Calaca Press in San Diego has a cousin walking the Camino. So what are the chances that I met Chelo's prima? Well it turns out Karla is indeed Chelo's cousin and that her traveling partner Claudia works with my friend Ces and that I had been to her house about 12 years ago. Yup, small world. 
(Photo: Astorga) Ana had many cool stories and encounters prior to our arrival.
(Photo: Gaudi's Palacio Episcopal) Astorga felt like a tourist trap. While lovely to walk around and explore, everything seemed over priced including the ever present mantecadas (think muffins made with lard) and flavored chocolates. We splurged on a nice room since most of the hostels were sold out. Ximena had passed her cold on to me and I spent the evening trying to juice myself out of it. 
Day 22: Astorga to Rabanal del Camino. (Photo: Rainbow ahead) It was gentle and easy walk considering I was coughing up and sneezing ever couple of minutes.
(Photo: Walking into El Ganso) Ana and I chatted with a local lady who grew up in this literally crumbling village of a handful of residents. While she had moved to Madrid to be close to her children, she opts to spend her summers here. She was happy that we stopped to talk with her. She feels that most pilgrims just walk through towns never getting to meet or know the people. I thought of the many times we just passed through places...thought we always offered a "buenos dias" but seldom engaged in short conversations with locals. It was good to hear her perspective. As a treat she gave Ximena a bag of popcorn and us a bag of nuts to take along the way.
(Photo: Doing the daily ritual of laundry) Rabanal del Camino was a welcoming town with decent food. It had a laid back chill and somewhat of a pagan vibe about it.
Day 23: Rabanal del Camino to Molinaseca. (Photo: Looks can be deceiving, it was a cold and windy morning) The descent into Molinaseca is gnarly one and was told that the natural path would be difficult in spots for the stroller and the winding road wouldn't be safe alternative either. Ximena and I walked for the first 8 km until Manjarin. Manjarin is sort of a refuge, an otherworldly outpost on many levels. Surrounding by crumbled houses, there sits an albergue on the side of the road run by Tomás who somehow resurrected the town and is the sole resident. I witnessed Tomás and his vanguard team volunteers/spiritual soldiers(?) usher a statue of La Virgen in a ceremonial fashion with a couple broken and flat sounding instruments. It was the real deal, the devotion of the troupe sent chills down my spine. I took the advice of many and Tomás called a taxi for Ximena and I just as we saw a near head-on collision in front of the alberque. I took it as a sign that Ximena and I didn't need to become a statistic or remembered in some sort of makeshift memorial on the side of the road bearing crosses and our photos.
(Photo: Cruz de Ferro) Cruz de Ferro is said to be the highest point of the Camino at 1,505 meters (4,938 feet). The simple cross is surrounded by rocks. The significance is that each rock or some sort of token was placed there by a pilgrim. It rock/object symbolizes a burden left behind. It is a place of significance to reflect on your reasons and purpose for embarking on this journey. Many of the rocks had scribed messages on them. Ximena picked up a rock at the start of our journey in Roncesvalles and delivered it here. Maybe her burden was having to sit in a stroller for 500 miles. The photo above does bother me on a certain level because I didn't understand the context in why the cyclist carried his bike up the rocks and had his friend take the photo like it was some sort of trophy.
(Photo: The puente in Molinaseca) The ride down the mountain was wild, dotted with a few memorials and pilgrims on foot and bikes who had forgone the natural path. We were delivered safe and sound to the bottom. We checked into the albergue and headed out to have a fun filled Ximena-centered day of play and swimming. From noon and until night the semi-dammed river was the municipal pool where everyone gathered to escape the summer heat...this would be typical in most places that had a river running through town.  
Day 24: Molinaseca to Cacabelos. (Photo: Josse-A Korean preacher ) A couple of weeks back, Josse approached Ximena and I. He was curious to why Ana and I decided to take our daughter on the Camino. He mentioned something about noticing me when I stopped walking to give Ximena milk or a snack. Something about my simple action had a significant impact on him that he was going to share with his parish when he returned home to Korea. At some point during the Camino Josse caught a terrible cold and fever for nearly a week. He was on the verge of quitting and struggled with his health not only on a physical level, but an emotional one as well. He believed it was God's will for him to continue on and finish. Our paths crossed daily for nearly three weeks. When we arrived in Santiago and after getting our certificates Josse invited and treated us to a Korean meal-we considered our last supper with him one of the best meals on the Camino. Another back story of this photograph was that Monica wanted to take the alternative route which was 2 km longer which went around Ponferrada instead of directly into the the city via the road. With strong reservations I agreed, but I was still somewhat resentful about it...I know it sounds immature and irrational, but it was how I felt at the moment. We hadn't seen Josse for a couple of days, we speculated that he was too sick to continue. I couldn't believe it when I saw him standing on the sidewalk outside a cafe. Think what you want, but it hit me that there was a reason why we went the way we did and sometimes we get blinded by our perceived needs before we discover the fruits of an outcome. 
(Photo: Castillo de los Templarios in Ponferrada)
(Photo: Río Cúa in Cacabelos) Walking into Cacabelos was like entering a set in an old Western movie. It looked like a one-horse dusty old town. By the time we reached the center and especially the other side near the river it was a completely different place. Here another river turned pool and bridge turned diving board. A car with speakers drove around announcing the one tent circus next door, which explained the llama, pony, camel, water buffalo, horse, and dog posse grazing in the pasture in a field adjacent to the river.
Day 25: Cacabelos to Vega de Valcarce. (Photo: Catching up on the highlights of the running of bulls at a cafe in Villafranca del Bierzo) The path to Vega de Valcarce was all pavement alongside a main road and underneath a major highway. While the natural surroundings: river, trees, and other greenery were all pleasant, it was difficult to escape the sounds of cars and semi-trucks rolling overhead.
(Photo: Lua) We're not quite sure if Lua belonged to the humming massage therapist or Maria the owner of Albergue El Paso. Ximena loves the idea of cats and dogs but is terrified to touch them. Maria essentially adopted Ximena and got her to pet Lua and to play ball with him. Ximena loved it so much there, a small stream of water passed by the patio for her to stomp in. There was a pasture with horses. The setting and hostel were perfect in every way.  
(Photo: Horse in the pasture at Albergue El Paso) I feel that one of the things missing from a child's education is a physical connection to animals and the earth (dirt/grass/mud/water). I remember growing up and visiting family who had farms in New Mexico. I believe farms offer an education and experience that can't be duplicated elsewhere. Ana and I talked about taking other trips that would give Ximena an experience like the one in Vega de Valcarce.
Day 26 Vega de Valcarce to Biduedo. (Photo: It was an intense climb) The massage therapist said he was going to give me strong legs for tomorrow's journey because it was going to be an intense day. I was told to take the winding one-lane car/bike path to O'Cebreiro. Today marks our entry into Galicia which I thought was the most physically challenging segment of the Camino-as in, "saving the best for last" OR "if the other parts of the Camino haven't beat you into submission, Galicia might do the trick." I thought of another saying that I've heard, "The Camino is no joke." 
(Photo: Looking down the other side of O'Cebreiro) Good thing for the magical legs because not only did I have to climb 2300 feet in elevation pushing a stroller almost 10 km for three plus hours, but the other side was a roller coaster of hills. Even the cycling dudes were walking their bikes. 
(Photo: Lunch) When we reached Biduedo we were treated to a heart attack on a plate. Our hotel was the only game in town. 
Day 27: Biduedo to Sarria. (Photo: Leaving Biduedo at 6 am) Today would start off the opposite from the previous day. While the girls took the shorter natural path, Ximena and I traveled the back roads which tacked on a hour (5 km) to the day. I sort of panicked after an hour because I didn't have a map of the roads and the village names weren't matching up to the guidebook. We eventually got to where we were going. When we arrived in Triacastela it was covered in dense fog.
(Photo: Caballos in the fog)
(Photo: Long and thick black slugs outside of Triacastela)
(Photo: Approaching Sarria) I met a Monica from Sweden who was trying to find the path by holding out her iPhone hoping for a signal. After a moment or two of watching her antics I told her I had a book and to follow me. We chatted for quite some time until she reached her destination. I asked her an off the cuff question because I was curious if she did snus (Swedish snuff). She couldn't believe I know what snus was. She showed me her can and confessed that she came to the Camino with enough to take up a significant amount of space in her pack. By my calculations we had about five days until we reached Santiago, she was worried because she only had four cans left. I told her in my previous life I loved snus but hadn't done it in awhile. It was our secret handshake. A couple of days later I met a pair of twenty-something year-old girls form Norway. My friend Knut is from Oslo and does snus so I figured why not ask the girls if they did snus. Again, they were surprised I knew want it was and said they still had several cans in their packs and offered me one. I declined the kind offer.
Day 28 Sarria to Portomarín. (Photo: morning fog that lasted most of the walk.) One of the disadvantages of leaving before light is hitting a dark trail. In the mountains it is important to see where you are going. The path was full of new pilgrims since you only have to walk 100 km to earn a certificate. If you had been on the Camino for awhile, you have to mentally prepare yourselves for the influx of new bodies. The tranquility for the most part will vanish. Your ears will be assaulted with conversation, singing, and worst of all ill mannered teens blasting music. The vibe had changed for the worse for the remainder of the Camino. 
(Photo: 100 KM marker to Santiago) Let the countdown begin. Keep in mind that in a car this would take under an hour, but for us it will be four days of walking.
(Photo: Pool in Portomarín)
(Photo: Cathedral in Portomarín)
(Photo: Pilgrim mural in Portomarín) Many of the places we passed through had murals and statues dedicated to pilgrims. I realized that I didn't take any photos of them along the way-so to rectify the situation...
Day 29: Portomarín to Palas de Rei. (Photo: Somewhere) Mostly pleasant surrounding. The smell of damp eucalyptus trees was powerful.
(Photo: More trees)
(Photo: A humble home) This reminds of Charlie Bucket home (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). A humble home wedged between two buildings.
Day 30 Palas de Rei to Ribadiso de Baixo. (Photo: Rain) Much of the day was spent being wet.
The hostels in Ribadiso de Baixo outnumbered the houses. Strangely enough there was a park connected to bar...Daddy watched Ximena play over a glass of vino. 
Day 31: Ribadiso de Baixo to O Pedrouzo. (Photo: More eucalyptus trees) This was somewhat of an sentimental day for me because the end of the Camino was a day away. What I was feeling had to do more with quitting the trail cold turkey, I was already missing the ritual of waking up and hitting the path. However, I'm more than certain the girls didn't share my sentiment as they were ready to lay down the walking poles.
(Photo: Ana's feet) On our last evening Ana and the girls went to pilgrim mass followed by a massage. Ana came home with her feet wrapped-pictured above. Ximena and I spent our last evening touring the playgrounds of O Pedrouzo and enjoying a small snack at Taste The Way when Monica joined us. Taste The Way highlights food and wine from regions along the Camino. 
Day 32: Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela. (Photo: Group shot of the Toms, Claudia, Karla, Kate, Monica, Ximena, and I) The girls got an early start and I slept in a hour later because it would still be dark out. It was still fairly dark when I left and more so going through patches of dense trees. I tagged along a couple with a flashlight. It was the quickest 20 km walk as we only stopped once for a stamp in the passport. And going back to how I feeling the previous day, I approached this morning like it was a task. I didn't kiss the ground or get down on my knees when we arrived. It felt like another day in a crowded city in that I was ready to leave as soon as I arrived.  
(Photo: The cathedral getting a facelift) The certificate office was like a reunion. We saw so many familiar faces; people we met and saw along the way. We were all happy and feeling accomplished. It was nice to have closure of wishing fellow pilgrims farewell. We met the Korean pastor for lunch then checked into our albergue away form the center.
(Photo: My last photo of Santiago) Later in the evening Ana, Ximena, and I returned to the center to pick up souvenirs and to find a playground. Santiago was preparing for the Apostal Festival of St. James so it was getting the pre-festivities underway. We had booked a car for the following day. We were heading to Cee and later the end of the world; Cabo Fisterra. Stay tuned.

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