Discovering the Way: Hiking the Camino de Santiago

Joe Florez hiking the CaminoJoe 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!  

hiking the Camino offers great views

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 photo of a shell with the symbol of the Compostela de Santiago

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. 

Joe Florez's hiking group that he traveled with while hiking the Camino

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). 

Joe Florez in a town while hiking the Camino

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

Bonus Question: 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.

Camino de Santiago sign

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.

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

Ed GagnonEdmond Gagnon grew up in Canada. A retired detective, Ed now travels the world between writing books. One of the most unique places he’s visited on his journey was Vietnam. In this quick preview, Ed shares seven reasons to visit Sa Pa, Vietnam, which he’s written about in his book, A Casual Traveler

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

When it comes to traveling, I usually venture out on my own to explore new places. In the case of Sa Pa, in Vietnam, I booked a no-brainer packaged excursion from my hotel in Hanoi. Not able to read or understand the language, I felt it was the sensible thing to do. The trip included all travel arrangements, lodging, and two days of trekking in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, just south of the Chinese border. 

After a snafu on the overnight train and a shuttle bus kerfuffle, I found myself standing on the balcony of my Sa Pa hotel. The hotel balcony overlooked the mind-blowing Muong Hoa Valley, nestled in the highest mountains in Vietnam. I found it hard to imagine what I was about to experience hiking this remote alpine paradise. 

A Unique & Exotic Place

People say that Vietnam is a unique and exotic destination to explore and they are right. But if you really want to see a truly special place, travel 350 kilometers northwest of the capital city, Hanoi. From there, Sa Pa can be easily reached by bus or train. It’s the last Vietnamese outpost, before Lao Cai, a city on the China border. 

Sa Pa is a popular trekking base. Its 10,000 inhabitants consist mostly of people from the Hmong, Tay, and Dao hill tribes. Their villages are scattered throughout the remote valley. Some are only accessible on foot or by serious all-terrain vehicles. No paved roads exist between the hamlets. Much of what is needed is carried in wicker baskets by the local women. 

A photo of some of the village deliveries

Strolling the main streets in Sa Pa is like walking backwards into time. Uniquely clad women line the sidewalks selling their hand-crafted goods — some with woven baskets and others with colorful blankets, tablecloths, and placemats. Some, wearing the classic straw lampshade hats, sell fresh produce grown locally.  

Mountain Trekking

I’m not what you’d call an avid hiker, but when I saw the pictures and read about trekking through the mountains around Sa Pa, I knew it was an adventure I couldn’t pass up. The agents told me in advance that the hike was fairly rigorous and certainly not for the faint of heart. My guide gave me a taste of what I was in for on the afternoon of my arrival. She called it a warm-up, a short jaunt through town along paved roads and easy paths.

The half-day trek seemed easy at first, mostly because it meandered downhill. We walked along a ridge on the edge of town, taking in awesome views of the valley below. Lam allowed me a beer break at a cute little village café where I gawked at the huge mountains that marked the border with China. At this point, my guide sent a woman in our foursome back to the hotel. She’d gotten drunk from a hidden canteen she carried, and my guide was afraid she might fall down the mountain. 

The hike back to the hotel was a bit harder because it was all uphill. The incline made my calf muscles tingle, and the thinner air at that elevation had me breathing heavy. I felt proud upon the completion of my half-day hike. Nonetheless, my guide, Lam, burst my bubble saying it was easy and the full-day trek the next day would be much harder.  

The Real Deal

I awoke to fog so thick I could barely find Lam outside the front doors of my hotel. It was 9 AM, and upon seeing me she said, ‘we go now’. Walking through the low-lying clouds reminded me of entering a steam bath. I heard roosters crowing but couldn’t see anything on either side of the wet and slippery path. Some local kids tried to sell me a walking stick, but I was clueless as to what lay ahead and didn’t buy one. 

It didn’t take long to get off the beaten path, a place where only mountain goats and experienced locals trekked. I found myself balancing on the edge of soggy rice paddies and figured it was only a matter of time before I fell into one. Often, I lost sight of Lam because of my slow pace, only to find her further along the path waiting for me. I tripped and stumbled over loose boulders and rocks. Lam told me my feet were too big. 

Hungry and soaked from sweat, I eventually made it to our lunch stop. It was a picnic area with a covered patio and outdoor kitchen, perched on the edge of a gorge. I heard what sounded like rushing water but the fog obscured anything below me. An eerie-looking cable bridge shrouded in fog led to the other side of the river. We ate a fresh salad and a tasty chicken stir fry for lunch.  

Amazing Scenery

After lunch, we headed across the bridge and into another valley. Like a bedsheet being drawn back, the fog slowly retreated, revealing bright green rice paddies built on terraces that climbed the side of the mountains. Puffy cotton ball clouds sat atop the rocky peaks, crested by powder- blue sky. It was rural and rugged and wickedly wonderful all at the same time.   

Oxen and Water Buffalo grazed in fields and fat pigs played in muddy pens. Village men used hand tools to chisel and carve new terraces into the mountainside for their rice paddies. Dirty-faced and bare-bottomed children chewed on sugar cane and played, oblivious to the large and sweaty white man grunting and puffing on his way by. 

Two village children

Colorful Hill Tribes

The indigenous people were more colorful than the scenic valley they called home. Lam explained to me how at the age of 12, their culture expects women to weave, sew, and dye the materials to make their own clothes. The deep red and indigo colors may seem haphazard to a stranger but each village has their own particular outfits, some including headdresses or knee socks. I saw one woman stirring a vat of indigo dye, another weaving a basket, and plenty of others carrying them to their villages.

The men work the fields while the women tend their children and homes. The average household comprised itself of nothing more than a grass and mud hut, some built with wood and corrugated metal that villagers hauled up the mountain manually. Lam showed me her village and checked in on her kids while I snooped around town and took some pictures. 

She’d been guiding for seven years, picking up as many languages just by conversing with trekking tourists. She only earned a few dollars a day and she worked seven days a week. Nonetheless, Lam said it was better than trying to pedal cheap souvenirs. It was no wonder to me that she was in such great shape, hiking five to ten miles every day. Her sister minded the kids while she was away at work. 

A view of the valley, one of the many reasons to visit Sa Pa

Remote Mountain Villages

Each village we came across was different, although each was mostly distinguishable by the women’s attire. Some places were so remote access could only be made on foot or by animal. Lam commented after one of my trips and near falls that if I became disabled, she would simply strap me to the back of the closest oxen to get me down the hill. The vision worried me but I liked her sense of humor. 

I saw a man fishing from a boulder about the size of a large bulldozer. It practically blocked the stream. We had to walk across fields of bowling-ball-sized rocks in one dry river bed and a rickety bamboo bridge that crossed the water. Lam went first to watch me cross. She waited until I was about half-way to say she wasn’t sure the structure would hold my weight. A picture of me on the back of a smelly beast flashed through my mind and I scurried to safety. 

Lam grinned, turned, and carried on, expecting me to play the part of a good soldier and follow the leader. Our 10k trek ended at a mountain village that eventually met up with Sa Pa via road. I had time for a well-deserved beer and reflection of my all-day awesome adventure before getting on the shuttle bus back to the hotel. I wanted to hug Lam for getting me back alive but gave her a huge tip instead.

Land of Lam

My trip to Sa Pa and trekking in the mountains was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It is a truly beautiful and unique place that I will never forget. If you’re interested in reading more about my adventures, Land of Lam can be found in my travel book, A Casual Traveler

More of my travel stories can be found on my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Adventure Traveling in Peru: Biking, Hiking, and More

Adventure Traveling in Peru part three of a four-part series. Click here for part one and here for part two.

Day 4 – Get Your Bags Ready

My adventure traveling Peru is going amazing. The long-anticipated excursion was finally upon me! After packing three days’ worth of clothes into a tiny backpack and leaving the rest in the hostel’s storage room, I patiently waited outside on a cold, dark morning for my guide from Lorenzo’s Expeditions to pick me up. Lorenzo did offer a duffle bag (at a small fee) to put your belongings in so you didn’t have to carry your life on your back while you trek countless miles a day. I, unfortunately, was too stubborn and cheap to go with this option and consequently wound up looking like Quasimodo at the end of each day. What did I say in part one again? Oh, yeah, you live and learn. Don’t be like me.

The Beginning

After a short wait, my guide, Wilbert, scooped me up. Upon entering our van, I was met by the rest of my group. Although we were all a bit tired and quiet at first, once the sun rose and we could see the beautiful landscape, we all warmed up to each other. Accompanying me was a Belgian couple, a Portuguese couple, and two Argentinian women; all of whom were extremely amicable. Our van ascended and ascended as we climbed through the mountains. Soon, some of us (not me) began to feel the effects of the altitude even more (okay it was me). Thanks to Wilbert, this was where I learned the proper way to chew coca leaves (fifteen leaves, chew for five minutes, rest for ten to fifteen minutes). This came in handy throughout my adventure traveling Peru.

abra málaga biking traveling dreams abroad

Abra Málaga: Ripping Down the Mountains

After two hours of driving, we finally stopped at Abra Málaga, roughly 4,000 meters (~13,000 feet) above sea level. For the first time while in Peru, I couldn’t see any tall mountains in the distance because, well, we were actually at the peak of those mountains. Not to mention the fact that we were placed delicately above the clouds. One of the coolest things to see was a little cotton ball of a cloud slowly drifting past us while we changed into our mountain biking gear.

We began our 34-mile descent with Wilbert leading the way and me following closely behind. It didn’t take long for Wilbert to notice that I was itching to go faster. We ended up ripping down the mountain Tour de Peru style, periodically stopping to enjoy the views and wait for the rest of the group to catch up. Along the way, we passed through clouds, small villages, and alongside thick jungle. After three hours, we finally ended our ride in a town called Huamanmarca. As I was getting off my bike, I noticed that I’d had a huge grin the entire time, which had made my cheeks so sore. Worth it.

Vilcanota River

We piled back in our van, passing village after village until we finally reached our bed and breakfast. We dropped our bags off and were served a nice lunch by the owner and his family before heading down to the Vilcanota River that the bed and breakfast overlooked. There, we met another group and some river guides and started preparing for our rafting activity. It turned out I was the only one with rafting experience. Unfortunately, everyone unwisely put their trust in me to keep them alive. I would normally say that our river guide helped us out, but he almost flipped us on some rocks and let us smash into a rock wall. Needless to say, we all got a little banged up. Once again, worth it.

abroad peru tyler black hiking biking mountains

Day 5

The next morning we set off on our hike. I wore pants and a sweatshirt to start off the day because it was a bit chilly with the sun still hidden behind the mountains. I had my sunscreen and bug spray ready since I knew I’d be shedding layers as the sun came up and the bugs woke up. Wilbert explained that diseases such as malaria and yellow fever aren’t prevalent in this part of Peru, but to make sure to apply bug spray often. I did not get any vaccinations before coming, but I highly recommend you do. Better to be safe than sorry, especially so you can make the most of your adventure traveling Peru.

Coffee & Coca Leaves

adventure traveling peru inka trail hikingPassing through the jungle, Wilbert occasionally stopped to show us coffee plant fields. He picked off the beans for us to see what they looked like unroasted. He also explained how the local economies rely on these plants, as well as coca leaves. The first half of the day was spent walking uphill. Nonstop. Eventually, the sun poked its head out and relentlessly made us question why we thought we were capable of handling this. Luckily, Wilbert continued to stop along the trail to let us take a break and get ourselves together.

After seven hours, countless jaw-dropping views, and a delicious lunch, we ended our hike at some hot springs in Cocalmayo. We all enjoyed a nice drink and rested our achy feet in the relaxing water. Once we felt rested enough, we piled back in our van for a short trip to the town of Santa Teresa. We would be staying there for the night in a gorgeous hotel. I hopped into the shower for fear of setting off any alarms with my sweaty scent. I later joined the group for dinner across the street before crashing into my bed for the night.

Day 6

When I woke up the next day, I knew we were going zip lining. But I really didn’t know what that entailed, to be honest. We were shuttled up into the mountains outside of Santa Teresa where we put on our gear. The next thing I knew, I was flying over giant valleys! On one of the lines, they even made me go upside down! Just when I thought my adventure traveling Peru couldn’t get more exciting, we traversed a very wobbly bridge with a 500+ foot drop that turned my legs to Jell-O. The adrenaline rush was unreal. We ended the activity after climbing up a giant cliff and zipping close to a kilometer back to the starting point.

Hiking Towards Machu Picchu

peru machu picchu traveling peru

Right after such an adrenaline rush, it was now time to start hiking again. This time we hiked on a giant dirt trail filled with many other explorers on their own adventure traveling Peru. At one point, Wilbert took a small detour and allowed us to see something he had discovered many years ago. Hidden in the jungle, we happened upon a stone structure which was believed to host sacrifices by the Inca. It gets crazier, though. Each point on this rectangular slab perfectly aligned with a cardinal direction!

But wait, it gets even more crazy! Amongst surrounding trees, there was one clearing which looked high into the mountains. Wilbert took my phone, zoomed into the mountains, and took a picture. What did we see? A building from Machu Picchu perfectly facing us. That’s right: we were at the base of Machu Picchu! Unfortunately, we had to walk all the way around it to Aguas Calientes.

Shower, Food, and Sleep

And so, after another whole day of hiking, we arrived at the cute little town of Aguas Calientes. It was packed with people from all around the world. Just like the night before, I ran for the hotel shower before grubbing with the group and heading to sleep. It was hard to fall asleep this time, though, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what awaited me tomorrow.

Stay tuned for the finale of the trek of adventure traveling Peru!

aguas calientes adventure traveling peru