2015 – A Year in Review

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2015 is almost over and it is time for the year in review which, I think, is an exercise not just in writing but in re-living the many blessings the year bestowed on me.  Here it goes and share with me some of the travels in your 2015!

In the city of brotherly love – Philadelphia, USA

My first trip of the year was to Philadelphia where family and friends live.  It is a place I love to visit though I do not get to do so often.  I welcome the opportunity whenever it comes though as I greatly enjoy spending time with my aunt and uncle who make me feel so at home whenever I go.  Though I got to see many, I did not get to see all my relatives nor all my friends which was a bummer – but good reason to go back!  As usual, my uncle likes to show me around places historical to both country and family.  I had not visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell since the early 90s and I enjoyed my visit there.  We also went to Valley Forge which had a special look since it was winter-time (and was also very cold!).

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Liberty Bell with Independence Hall behind it

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Independence Hall across the mall

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Valley Forge in winter – reminder of the cost of our freedom

Now, those places are not where the family history comes from 🙂 instead this building served as their home right after they moved up there from Miami.

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House where my parents and relatives lived

My first hike of the year – Blood Mountain, Georgia, USA

My first hike of the year was a training hike as I was going on a trek to Patagonia with Trekking for Kids.  My friend Phil who also enjoys hiking and I decided to do a hike near Blood Mountain that ended up -accidentally- in a climb of Blood Mountain.  While it was unplanned, it was a fortunate ‘accident’ as it all ended well and we enjoyed great vistas and trails.

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Entering Freeman Trail from the Appalachian Trail

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Along Jarrard Gap, the start of our hike

An amazing metropolis – Buenos Aires, Argentina

The orphanage work related to my trek to Patagonia was going to take place on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina.  So I knew I was going to be spending time in this great city – and more importantly, eating the best beef in the world paired with great wine!  I enjoyed walking about town and having nice meals with my fellow trekkers (some which I knew already and some which I met there).

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The parrillada at Campo Bravo

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Don’t forget dessert: this beauty courtesy of Cabaña Las Lilas

But the best part was meeting the children and staff of the two homes we worked with on our projects which included repairing a very leaky roof and damaged walls and furniture.  Much as I loved spending time in BB.AA., this work was the highlight of my time there!

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Painting new furniture with the kids was an adventure onto itself!

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These kids were hard workers and also great with the soccer ball!

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At Temaiken, Buenos Aires’ zoo

Back in time – Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

When planning my Buenos Aires travel, I decided to add an extra day to cross the river by ferry and spend half a day exploring a town that was a good throwback to the colonial period of the region:  Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.  I sold three other trekkers on doing this short trip with me and we had a great time walking the streets of this easy-going town.  I highly recommend making the crossing if you ever have time in Buenos Aires!

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One of the MANY vintage vehicles in town – an Austin

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Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento

My favorite spot on Earth – Chile’s Patagonia

As I wrote earlier this year, I loved Patagonia when I first visited the Perito Moreno glacier and Chile‘s amazing Patagonia in 2010.  I’d always hoped I could return some day and that did happen… in 2015, much sooner than I’d ever thought possible.  I returned to hike around Fitz Roy in Argentina, re-visit the Perito Moreno glacier, and then trek through the Torres del Paine National Park – which I had not done in 2010.  And it was a rewarding effort for sure with great vistas and a glacier hike to boot.  Memorable is not a good enough word for the experience.  And, secretly, I hope I get to return a second time for my third visit!!  (click on the hyperlinks above to see more photos from each of the visits)

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Grey glacier, where we hiked

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On the trail to Fitz Roy

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The Torres del Paine massif

The great northwest – Portland, Oregon

Thanks to work, I spent five days in Portland, Oregon.  I had never been to Oregon so it was cool that I got to go there.  I arrived at mid-day on a Sunday and decided to take a walking tour of Portland as it would be the most effective way to see the highlights of the town while enjoying the great weather.

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Portland street

Mercifully, daylight went on late so I got to take advantage of it to take a drive along the Columbia River to see the waterfalls that dot the riverside.   I also got to enjoy dinners in establishments along either side of the river which was a phenomenal day to end the workday.

Family, friends and food fest (4 F’s) – Spain, olé!

Friends of mine were going to hike the Camino de Santiago, a hike I did in 2014.  I thought it would be cool to combine my wish to meet relatives I had not met who live in the outskirts of Santiago with my friends’ arrival in Santiago de Compostela.  My grandmother has two surviving cousins she never met in person who live in Bastavales.  I had met one of them last year when I finished the Camino walk but I had not met the other.  So I met María and her son, grandkids and great-grandkids for the first time and enjoyed their warmth and sharing special memories and photos of the family.  I also visited time with Flora, the cousin I had met last year.  It was really cool.

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With Maria, my grandmother’s cousin

I then welcomed my friends and their fellow trekkers as they arrived in Santiago at the end of their Camino.  It was wonderful seeing them glow in joy as they wrapped their long walk.  After they got their Compostela and going to Pilgrim’s Mass, it was time to celebrate with some cañas (beer) and tapas in one of the many beautiful old streets of this phenomenal city.  We also took a day trip to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast, a nice place.

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Beer and tapas in Santiago de Compostela

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The left side of the Cathedral

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With friends Phil and Tommy at Finisterre

The visit with my friends continued in Madrid and, after they left, I got to spend time with madrileños friend of mine, enjoying good drinks, food, and atmosphere around town.  It was fun spending more time in Madrid (check out “6 Cool Things to Do in Madrid“!).  I love Spain but I loved more the opportunity to be there with friends!

Reuniting with dear friends – California

In late May, dear friends left Atlanta to head to California due to a job opportunity.  It was hard to see them go as I spent many a Friday night over ten years hanging out with them pre-kids and after-kids.  So, it was great when work offered me the opportunity to go to San Francisco so I could spend the weekend after the conference with them in their home outside of San Jose.  They took me to two great Mexican restaurants, one of them right by where they live.  I enjoyed a drive down Pebble Beach on the famous 17-mile drive (which I still have to write about!).  And we visited the charming coastal town of Carmel – and its impressive mission.

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Glorious skies at the Carmel Mission

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Waters along the 17-Mile drive

Up-north (WAY up north) – Duluth, Minnesota

Work took me for a brief business trip up north, to a small town 45 mins north of Duluth, Minnesota.  Driving along the coast of Lake Superior was very nice and peaceful.  We only had one night in Duluth but enjoyed a nice breakfast at a mom-and-pop type of place and dinner at a pub.  Of course, being the traveler that I am, never having gone to Wisconsin, and realizing I was just a bridge-crossing, I just had to do it… We had mostly an open morning so, along with a colleague, I drove across the water to a coffee shop I found online in the town of Superior, Wisconsin!  A coffee later, we crossed the bridge again and back in Minnesota!

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Wisconsin, here we come!

Returning to one my favorites – Chicago, Illinois

I first went to Chicago in a bitterly cold January in 1991 with company for training.  And I kept returning over the years mainly in winter.  This year I got to go in August for pleasure, after spending a few days in Minnesota for work.  I got to enjoy walking everywhere, getting to the lake, which I had never done.  I also explored new parts of town thanks to friends (including little gems in terms of eateries).   Overall, what I enjoyed most about this trip was a first for me in Chicago:  going to a museum!  The Art Institute of Chicago was right up my alley as very much an amateur in terms of art.  It made it all approachable and enjoyable without overwhelming.  I highly recommend it.  I look forward to returning to Chicago and having more time to see all the friends who live there (this was practically a day-and-a-half visit) – and explore a new museum or two!Chicago, Illinois, skyscraper, cityscape, photo, glass. buildings, architecture

An epic trek to close the year – on the route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

I was not planning any other hike on 2015 after having done Patagonia earlier in the year.  However, I found out that several folks I knew from prior treks were going to do the trek to Everest Base Camp and I started wondering if I could go…  I was generally fit even if not well-trained, it was a generally good time to go from a work standpoint, and though I did not have vacation time to be able to go to base camp, the trek offered a shorter itinerary.  So, I went for it.  I had a great time and was thrilled to having seen the Himalayas, Mt. Everest, and the hamlets and people of the highlands of Nepal.  I am still writing about the trek so I will just point you to a couple of the writings:  flying into scary Lukla airport to begin the hike, day one of the hike (you can keep going from there to later days), and one of the neat sites I saw in Kathmandu.  The best part of the trek was the work done before the trek in the village of Kumari.  Check out the work we did with Trekking for Kids here.

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The prayer wheels

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Kids from Kumari

Epilogue to a year that ends…

2015 was an epic year.  From great hiking experiences, time with family and friends, new destinations, and good food and drinks, it had it all.  I got to step in South America, North America, Asia, and Europe all in one year!  However, as the year came to a close, we lost my stepdad, Rubén.  It was a bittersweet time as he had been suffering from Alzheimer‘s and his last week was one full of suffering.  So his passing offered him rest that we were thankful for, sad as it was to not have him around us any more.  Rubén, as my Mom, loved to travel.  They traveled across Europe and other places many times.  I got to travel with them and my sister and her family in several cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and the Baltic Sea, as well as explore places like Copenhagen, Panama, and Paris (where they visited me in 1999 when I was living there).  Though we will sorely miss him in this final journey he has undertaken, I know I will see again at the final destination.  Until then, I will continuing journeying here.  Rest in peace, Rubén!

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In Panama in 2009

Finisterre: The End of Earth No More!

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A “short” 90-km walk from Santiago de Compostela, where the famous Camino (Way of St. James) ends, is Finisterre.  Finisterre is a town but the more famous Finisterre is the cape that signifies “the end of earth.”   Back when folks assumed this was the end of earth, hence the name.  (Note:  It is also known as Fisterra in the local dialect, Galician or gallego).

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The town of Finisterre from a distance

Many pilgrims who do the Camino, keep going past the end point, the city of Santiago de Compostela.  I did not when I went because the end goal of the Camino, in my book, is entering the Plaza del Obradoiro and then going to Mass at the massive and old Cathedral.

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While 0k for the Camino is in Santiago, this is 0 km too

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Posing with friends – and friendly photobombers!

However, I highly recommend hiking or somehow making it to Finisterre.  I personally loved walking the rugged terrain past the lighthouse.

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The Atlantic Ocean at Finisterre

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Water activities abound in the area

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Pilgrims leave articles of clothing upon reaching the end of their Camino

It reminded me when I went to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa (check it out here), maybe just a little less spectacular here but impressive nonetheless.

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Finisterre lighthouse

If you drive from Santiago, there is an inland route, more direct, and a route that hugs the shoreline.  I recommend the latter on the way over to Finisterre so you can see Finisterre from the distance and see the beautiful coastline.  I am sure in other times of the year this coastline is slightly less hospitable but on the beautiful July day I went, it was nothing short of spectacular.  On the way back, we did take the fast route back – and that was fine with me.

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The Cape (top left) and the town of Finisterre to its right

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A small coastal town watched over by windmills, a common sight around there

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Beautiful waters!

Finisterre, Fisterra, Spain, sea, ocean, travel, photo, Galicia

A small town along the route

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Smart to rely on these guys given how windy it is!

On the way over, before getting to the coastline, we stopped at a small village by the Rio Tambre to visit a charming town right of CP-0201, not far from Santiago.  The Ponte Maceira crosses the river into the village and forms part of the Camino as witnessed by the many pilgrims we saw cross it.  The village is graced not only by the bridge but by a chapel, an old mill, and a very approachable riverside.  Definitely a “must stop.”

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Pilgrims crossing the Ponte Maceira (Maceira Bridge)

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The Rio Tambre

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The village by the bridge

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The old mill and an approach to the river

The only bummer for my visit was that there was a small festival (for the Feast of St. James) going on near the Cape and we could not stop.  I would have so loved to eat fresh seafood and mingle with the locals.  I hear any of the towns along the shore will have incredible fresh seafood.  I believe it!

If you do have time to explore the area, don’t just go to the cape.  Not that it is overly touristy or that it isn’t spectacular, but there are other parts of the coast that are well worth exploring.  The Rias Baixas (which you may know if you know Spanish wine…), just south of Finisterre, are a series of estuaries/inlets from the Atlantic Ocean that create a mini-ecosystem rich in marine life and with many beaches and water activities, a magnet for tourists from Spain.  While certainly not the French Riviera, it also lacks the over-touristed ambience of places like that, making it more relaxed.  So, give yourself an extra day or two and enjoy Finisterre and all that the area around it offers in the region of Galicia!

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Beautiful coastline

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More of the coastline

On the Camino de Santiago: Day 7 from Lavacolla to Santiago!

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The big day arrived on Day 7.  On this day, we departed on the Camino for the last time as we left lovely Pazo Xan Xordo to enter Santiago de Compostela as many have done over the last 1,000 years on this ancient pilgrimage for the final 2.5 hours of our trek.  We were excited but were also on a schedule as we needed to arrive on-time to attend Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela at noon.  Since this Mass gets packed, we wanted to be there at minimum 30 minutes in advance.  We wanted to sit on the nave on the side of the altar in case they used the “botafumeiro.”  They did not, to our great disappointment, but if they had, it would have flown right over us!

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Waiting for Pilgrim’s Mass to start

Monte de Gozo

But I get ahead of myself.  So we left Lavacolla sharp at 8 AM and made one stop at the impressive Monte de Gozo on the outskirts of town.  It was from this vantage point that pilgrims would get their first glimpse of the final destination.  “Gozo” means happiness which is exactly what the pilgrims would feel at this point after so many months/years of hiking their way across Europe and Spain.  I was more impressed by the monument built here and taking pictures of the sun showing through the top of the monument.

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The monument at Monte de Gozo

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Each side of the monument commemorates something different

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Loved catching the sun through the glass cross

The great arrival in Santiago de Compostela

At some point in the walk (I think it was on a big downhill), we stopped being “outside” of Santiago and entered the outlying sectors of the city.

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One of the last villages we passed before entering Santiago proper (after Monte de Gozo)

We crossed a long bridge over a highway and we felt like this was the final stretch.  OK, it was a long final stretch and we did stop at a café to make a final pit stop and to get a snack (not sitting down).  We knew once we hit Santiago, we were likely not going to get a break until noon Mass ended so this was a smart choice!

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Welcome to Santiago de Compostela!

As we got closer, it seemed the streets got narrower which kept making us more eager to finally get there.  I was eager to see the reaction of my fellow trekkers when they first saw the Cathedral (I had been there in 1994 already).

Getting the Compostela and Pilgrim’s Mass

Our plan was to hit town and immediately head to the Pilgrim’s Office (on rua Vilar) to get our “Compostela,” the certificate granted to those who complete the Camino.  A nice volunteer from Ireland named (of course) Mary helped English speakers with instructions to be ready to step inside and get the Compostela; a few questions were asked and the credencial (passport) was briefly examined.

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Pilgrims filling out their papers while waiting for their Compostela

It was an exhilarating moment to get the Compostela (after standing in line about 25 minutes) even if I briefly embarrassed myself by telling the lady that she had gotten my first name wrong.  She politely told me that they write the first name in Latin not in its regular form…  As soon as I got to the hotel later, I took photos of the Compostela just in case something happened to it on the rest of the trip!

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The big moment of getting the Compostela!

We had been told we could not take our backpacks in for Mass so we then proceeded to drop off our backpacks next to the Pilgrim’s Office for 2 euros.  We then were free to make our way to the Cathedral but, first, we took quick group and individual photos in the Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the Cathedral.

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Our Trekking for Kids group posing in front of the Cathedral

We then moved in to claim our spots for Mass and we took turns while we waited for the start of Mass to go behind the main altar to see the tomb of Santiago (St. James), after all, all this started because of him!

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Another detail of the interior

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St. James’ tomb

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Details from inside the Cathedral

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A side altar

During Mass, in the part where they greet the pilgrims, they mention groups by name.  I had told them at the Pilgrim’s Office that we were a group, Trekking for Kids, from the U.S. and Canada and it was neat to hear us greeted during Mass.

We had heard that because 2014 was the 800th anniversary of St. Francis doing the Camino, the Church of San Francisco (St. Francis), not far from the Cathedral was issuing another certificate to pilgrims (the “Cotolaya“) so we went later that day to claim it (at this point, we would have taken any certificate issued to pilgrims, I think!).

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Walking towards the Church of San Francisco (St. Francis)

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Main altar at the Church of San Francisco

So our week-long trek along this millennial pilgrimage came to a glorious end.  It was a unique experience and I loved returning to Santiago de Compostela of which I will write some more in another post.  I have some suggestions for those considering the Camino.  Keep an eye out for that post!

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Read more about my Camino:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

On the Camino de Santiago: Day 1 from Sarria to Barbadelo

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As I explained in an earlier post, my time to do the Camino de Santiago was limited so we started in Sarria, west of León, 110 kms from the end point in Santiago de Compostela.

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The first marker of our hike: the 110 kilometer marker!

The itinerary though had us visiting O Cebreiro and Samos prior to starting the hike so that didn’t leave us much time on Day 1 to hike.  So we hiked a very short distance that day going from Sarria to Barbadelo, a small town with a very nice small hotel “Casa Barbadelo.”

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Our group in Sarria, about to start the Camino!

I am certainly glad to have seen O Cebreiro and Samos but it made for a long day on the road and I was, along with my fellow trekkers, eager to get on the Camino for real.  Though the hike that day was very short (1.5 hours or so), it was a good warm-up.

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The ever-present shell of the Camino – you see it anywhere in Europe where the Camino goes through!

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The way forward marked by the sign and the yellow arrow!

The terrain we crossed went by some major highway but it was very rural and lush, crossing farms along the way.

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Highway near Paredes

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Very lush lands between Sarria and Barbadelo

The highlight was crossing a 12th century bridge named the Aspera bridge that crosses the Celeiro River.

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The Aspera bridge (and the ever-present yellow arrows!)

We did enjoy arriving at Casa Barbadelo where we shared 3 rooms among eight of us.

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Approaching Casa Barbadelo

The rooms were basic but spacious and the buildings in Casa Barbadelo were quite new.  The grounds were quite nice and the place even had a pool.

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The front yard of Casa Barbadelo – note the outdoor seating area on the right

We enjoyed a GREAT meal and lots of good laughs that night accompanied (or triggered?) by one or two glasses of sangria.  A perfect ending to a long but short (does that make sense?!), easy first day on the Camino!

On the Camino de Santiago I Went – Another Pilgrim

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The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage indeed with a timeline of over 1,000 years.  Pilgrims from all over Europe would come from far and near to visit the place where St. James (or Santiago) is buried:  under the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain (Galicia, to be more precise).

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A map in O Cebreiro showing the many routes pilgrims took from all over Europe to get to NW Spain

In modern days, though, not all who “do” the Camino are necessarily doing it for spiritual reasons but I would find hard to believe that most don’t get something spiritual out of the sacrifice and effort doing the Camino requires.

The Camino is a joy not only for the experience of trekking these ancient “ways”.  I have to admit that the social and culinary were also part of my Camino.

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One of my favorites from my childhood re-encountered in the Camino: croquetas!

I will aim to share about the experience in a couple of different ways in this and upcoming posts:

  • The first way will be to simply share what everyday was like using photographs and other thoughts – whether you ever plan to or want to do it.
  • The second will be by sharing what I did to prepare and do the Camino, in case you are yourself hoping to, or actually planning to, do the Camino.

Why I went

I first learned more about the Camino when I met a co-worker back in 2003 who had just done the Camino from St. Jean Pied de Port – so about 30 days’ worth of trekking (close to 800km or 500 miles).  It all sounded hard and just too much time.  Over the years, as we became good friends, I enjoyed hearing stories about what the Camino was like and the friendships he struck along the way.  It made me curious about the Camino though I never thought I would want to “walk” for 30 days.

Years later, as I got more into trekking/hiking, I started thinking that I -some day- would want to do it (or part of it, to be more precise).  Watching the movie “The Way” helped inspire me but not tons more.  The coup de grace was when an organization I do treks with, Trekking for Kids, announced they would do a trek to do the Camino in the summer of 2014.  That sealed the deal.  Combining both my desire to do the Camino with the mission of Trekking for Kids (to improve the lives of orphaned and at-risk children around the world) was the perfect reason to go.

Trekking for Kids, trek, Bayti Centre, voluntourism, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, photo

The group of trekkers and the children and staff of the Bayti Centre in Essaouira

How we did the Camino de Santiago

The Trekking for Kids trek mixed a few days at a center for at-risk children in Essaouira, Morocco, called Bayti Centre, followed by seven days on the Camino (read more about our time at the Bayti Centre here).  Because the overall trek had to be kept to less than two weeks, the starting point of the Camino had to be picked such that we could do the minimum required distance (100km for those walking; 200km for those cycling) to be able to get the “compostela” (or the certificate issued in Santiago de Compostela that validates that you did the Camino) yet stay within the desired overall trip duration.  In addition, it had to allow for the travel day or two between Morocco and the start of the hike.

The preferred route was the traditional Camino Francés which is sort of parallel to the northern coast of Spain but further inland.  It is likely the most popular route of all though I wonder how the other routes are (and secretly hope I can check out some day!).

This meant we would need to start the hike at the last possible point we could and still meet the minimum walking requirements:  the town of Sarria, which meant we would do more than the 100km minimum (at least, 110km).  There were, however, a couple of important towns right before Sarria that were worth seeing (O Cebreiro and Samos), yet we did not have time to hike through them (would have required one or two more hiking days) – so the itinerary included driving through these towns before being dropped off on the trailhead from which our hike would start.

Our Camino route

Our hiking itinerary was as follows (click on the Day to read the post for that day!):

  • Day 1:  Begin at Sarria.  After a very short (“warm-up”) hike, we would overnight at Barbadelo.
  • Day 2:  From Barbadelo to Portomarín
  • Day 3:  From Portomarín to Palas del Rei
  • Day 4:  From Palas del Rei to Boente
  • Day 5:  From Boente to Salceda
  • Day 6:  From Salceda to Lavacolla
  • Day 7:  From Lavacolla to Santiago.

The map that follows highlights in a blue oval the town of Sarria, our starting point (immediately to the right, you will see Samos; further to the right, you will notice O Cebreiro).  The purple line that connects the blue oval to Santiago de Compostela to the west (left, on the map) is the route of our itinerary.Galicia, Camino, Santiago, Compostela, camino frances, Frenc route, Sarria, map, pilgrimage

On to Day 1!

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