Joe Florez is a native Californian who has spent his career in Silicon Valley developing the technology that fuels the Internet today. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, good food, and fine wine. Recently, we spoke about one of his many passions, hiking the Camino de Santiago.
While on the Way of St. James, Joe met a group of friends who he refers to as his Camino family. Joe recalls this friendship as immediate and inseparable. They spent all of their time together while on the trail, leading to a lifelong bond — one that will be forever etched into his heart and mind. However, Joe feels that when traveling with a group the entirety of the time you don’t fully explore the wilderness or travel at the pace you would like to follow. It’s possible to feel rushed at times.
Joe spent a good amount of time researching the trip, which areas to overnight, how he would tape or video things, but in reality, none of it happened. He didn’t use wi-fi much except to contact family back home. He enjoyed the company of his new Camino family — social media was not at the top of his daily checklist. Here’s what Joe had to share about his first adventure hiking the Camino.
As a Catholic growing up in California, how did you find the Camino de Santiago?”
Oddly enough, growing up I wasn’t introduced to the Camino de Santiago at all. I was somewhat familiar with the Fatima Pilgrimage in Portugal, and to a lesser extent, the Via Francigena pilgrimage to Rome. It wasn’t until 2017 while following several people vlogging on the Pacific Crest Trail that I happened upon a daily vlog by a pilgrim on the Camino that captivated me. I had watched a few other videos by people who had walked the Camino, but I found it hard to identify with the very-young early-20s adventurers and the long-retired folks.
When I found the video, there was a middle-aged, slightly-younger-than-me, Cuban-American guy who, because of life circumstances, had time on his hands. Because of his profession in video content publishing, he knew how to convey through his daily vlog all aspects of the pilgrimage really well; I could identify with and see myself in his shoes. And I felt intrigued. Shortly afterwards, I found myself devouring vlog after vlog, forum after forum, and joining Facebook groups dedicated to hiking the Camino de Santiago. Less than a year later, I had booked my flight and first-night’s accommodation, and was ready to go!
To what extent is the Way of St. James more of a hike or pilgrimage to you?”
For me, there are aspects of both hiking and that of a religious pilgrimage. Obviously, the physical demands and social aspects are familiar to any long-distance hiker. And with the incredible growth in popularity over the past decade, the experience has tilted towards more of a hike than a pilgrimage. But, I think there are still plenty of opportunities to experience the spiritual aspects of a pilgrimage. Seeking out and visiting the churches along the way, attending pilgrims’ masses, and stopping and observing the many religious symbols along the way that the Camino is rooted in are all ways to recapture some of the spiritual aspects.
What do you remember most about hiking the Camino?”
I remember the physical demands at the beginning where I immediately faced crossing the Western Pyrenees from France into Spain. I remember meeting new friends that would later become almost closer than family. The mental stress of walking the seemingly endless treadmill of the flat meseta (the plains), where the scenery was unchanged for hours on end in the heat of the day, and sometimes driving rain which washed the plateau clean has stuck with me. I remember reaching the hills before the last province of Galicia, and the bittersweet feelings of the journey coming to an end. Lastly, I remember the incredible feeling of elation, and celebration at walking into the Praza do Obradoiro and completing the Camino.
How many times have you walked it since?”
I have only walked it once. While I hoped to have walked the Camino Portugues from Porto last year, I had to cancel plans when there was a death in the family. I plan to walk again either this year, or next, as they are Holy Years. Pilgrims who walk to Santiago de Compostela during a Holy Year and pass through the Holy Door of the Santiago Cathedral are forgiven of all their sins. People call this a plenary indulgence.
A common complaint about the Way is that a lot of it passes through built-up areas. What’s your favorite rural stretch?”
While many complain about the built-up areas, and truly one comes across urban areas quite often, I loved arriving at the large cities of Pamplona, Logrono, León, and Burgos. These were places to rent an Airbnb apartment, take a rest, and be a tourist for a day. But, the true pilgrim lives for the rural stretch. That is where you find the most peace, within yourself and communally with others. My favorite rural stretch was between Foncebadón and Ponferrada. Here is where we leave a stone at the foot of the Cruz Ferro (Iron Cross). The stone, brought from home, represents the burden(s) that we carry. When we leave the stone, we leave our burden(s) behind. This is also the stretch where we come upon a Templar Castle in Ponferrada. The villages here are idyllic and the sights memorable.
What are the signature dishes hikers should try on the Camino?”
You cannot experience the Camino without having tortilla, the proper chunky Spanish one prepared with eggs, onions, and potatoes. It is the ubiquitous breakfast, and often lunch for a pilgrim. You will eat so much tortilla that you will begin to have a love/hate relationship with it. Secondly, the bocadillo is a staple on the Camino. A simple bread roll, some butter, or tomato sauce, a slice of jamón, and manchego cheese will fuel your appetite during the day. In Basque Navarra, pintxo bars offer a cornucopia of tasty bites, from fried cod to croquetas. You simply must set outside an evening sampling these quintessential northern Spanish dishes. When in Galicia, pulpo (octopus) is definitely a signature dish, as well as caldo gallego, a hearty broth perfect to warm you up in this cold and rainy province.
After a long day’s walk, what drink do you recommend as a pick-me-up?”
An ice-cold caña of beer is both refreshing and refuels tired muscles with its carbohydrates. Wine with lunch is an easy choice as it is almost always offered as part of the menú del día, a bargain set meal including starter, main course, and dessert, in every bar/cafe or restaurant you stop at.
What lessons does the Way teach you?”
As an introvert, I generally do not have small-talk conversations with strangers if I can avoid it. But, while on the Camino, I learned that not only could I strike up conversations, I could also have meaningful conversations and appreciate meeting new people. I also learned that I can push my body further than I thought I could. And, lastly, I learned to have patience and enjoy a different simple kind of life than I had become accustomed to “in the real world.”
Which book do you recommend reading in preparation for walking the Camino?”
I recommend either A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St Jean Roncesvalles Santiago by John Brierly or the Village to Village Guide to the Camino de Santiago by Anna Dintaman and David Landis. These guides will prepare you for each day’s walk, and provide you with information about what you will need to take, where to stop along the way, and the distances required to complete the Camino within the average 35 days (if you start in St. Jean Pied de Port, France).
Are there any films you suggest watching before trekking the Way?”
My absolute favorite is a Hollywood movie, but one that really captures the essence of the Camino. It is The Way written, directed, produced, and starring Emilio Estevez, and his real-life father, Martin Sheen. This is probably the most popular movie about the Camino de Santiago.
I’d also recommend Footprints: The Path of Your Life, a documentary about a Spanish Roman Catholic priest who sets out from his parish in Arizona with nine young men from different backgrounds to hike the Camino del Norte. This film captures the beauty of the landscape completely, the emotional rollercoaster of the pilgrims as they struggle each day to find the energy, motivation, and desire to continue on, all while learning the valuable lessons of perseverance on The Way.
What part of the Camino de Santiago history do you find the most fascinating?”
I find the most fascinating history to be about the Knights Templar and their role in supporting and protecting pilgrims on what used to be a very dangerous journey. The Templars, known for their fierce bravery, intelligence, and devotion eventually grew to be so powerful they were considered a threat by the very church they served. The church disbanded them out of fear they had grown too potent a force. Today, history seekers can find the remains of their legacy in the castles and unique architecture of the churches in the areas where they reigned.
Joe will do the Camino again. He is looking forward to it. If able, he would like to do the Camino this year during the Holy Year. But, if travel restrictions still limit flights, he will return to walk it in 2022. This time, he will walk the Camino de Santiago his way. Joe explained that he would like to walk it in more than 35 days. He wants to take his time and plans to stay more than one night in a town so that he can do some sightseeing with leisure. Joe aims to be sociable but will refrain from forming a group and meeting them at the next stop. It sounds like he found his own way on this next adventure. You can discover more about his travels on Twitter where he Tweets about the Camino and his other passions.