Better Than Awesome:
Experiencing the Life-Changing Camino de Santiago

For many years, especially after watching the 2010 film The Way, a collaborative effort between actor Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen, my wife Marisol and I spoke casually about setting out to trek the world-famous Camino de Santiago. It became one of those “bucket list” items we remarked one day we’d get to do. We only needed to carve out the time to train and successfully complete at least the minimum 100 km (just over 62 miles) to be awarded the Compostela certificate which proved we had reached the desired goal. Since 2022 marked our 25th wedding anniversary, we determined this was going to be the year for this dream to become a reality.

The pilgrimage turned out to be a sublime, “better than awesome” experience which we are still praying and discerning about even weeks after having returned home.

When we considered our initial plans, we knew little about the Camino. The idea was to follow centuries-old pilgrimage routes to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where tradition says lay the relics of St. James the elder, one of the twelve apostles, brother of John the beloved disciple, evangelizer and patron of Spain. Jesus humorously nicknamed his brother John and him the “Sons of Thunder” for their fiery evangelical zeal.

One of my wife’s cousins had completed the Camino Francés route in 2018. The trek of over 700 km (436 miles) took him more than a month to complete, but his input gave us the basic information to resolve when to go and which of the many options to try. We also spoke to other people who’d done the Camino and they remarked, without exception, that the pilgrimage was so exceptional they were already planning to do it again.

Ultimately we decided to walk the Camino Portugués de Costa route. This is one of the most popular, stunningly beautiful Caminos, and not as taxing, though by no means easy. I only had a two week vacation, so we chose to pick it up at A Guarda, Spain. Leaving from Lisbon, Portugal would have taken us up to a month, and leaving from Porto (about half way between Lisbon and Santiago de Compostela) would have meant traveling 13 to 20 miles per day in some segments.

They say the Camino actually starts once a plan is being developed, as this is not a typical hiking expedition, nor is it your usual European vacation. Care has to be taken to choose the best time of the year, usually spring or fall, so as to avoid the often grueling temperatures of summertime in Spain. Also of importance is tracing out the “stages” of the route, including the number of miles between each planned stop; deciding between staying in hotels or albergues; and determining whether a luggage transfer company will be necessary.

To embark on this journey, one has to train and get the gear one needs to be able to walk several miles a day, whether in sunny weather or rainy conditions. But one also has to prepare spiritually, especially understanding that a religious pilgrimage is a time of particular openness to the Holy Spirit’s action.

El Camino de Santiago ultimately was not what we expected…but it was so much more than what we dreamt it would be. We cannot begin to describe the wholesomeness of the undertaking. The voyage had so much of what we are grateful for in life: being together as a couple, enjoying one another’s presence, contemplating the beauty of creation in its simplicity, and truly basking in the presence of the Lord at every step. Some say the Camino “makes you,” and a large part of that has to do with the people that one meets along the way (a reflection of our “incarnate reality”). Not everyone is doing it for a spiritual reason, but all are embarking on a pilgrimage, of the body, of the mind, and of the soul.

Arriving at the Plaza del Obradorio in Santiago de Compostela at the end of the walk was similar to having completed a race: everyone was joyful, with a sense of accomplishment that is difficult to put into words. Ultimately, once in the cathedral, participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with people from so many walks (different nations, different tongues, different Caminos) gave us a sense of the mystical reality of the Church, all gathered around the altar of Christ’s self-giving in the Eucharist. One of the most majestic artworks of this stunning temple is called “El Pórtico de la Gloria” (the Portico of Glory), conveying that peregrinos enter a reality of Heaven as described in the book of Revelation.

Many liturgies at the Cathedral of Santiago end with the astonishing botafumeiro, a gigantic, silver-plated, brass censer which swings from the ceiling above the main altar. It is carried and swung by eight men in red robes called tiraboleiros. The botafumeiro, filled with burning incense, is set in motion forming an arch trajectory along the transepts, to the awe of all in the congregation. Seeing what for many is only a spectacle, brought tears to our eyes, as the celebrant priest conveyed the meaning of prayers of praise elevated to the Almighty represented by the centuries-old ritual.

I could add so many more details to this account, but I would be remiss not to mention the clear accompaniment of our Blessed Mother Mary, Santa María Peregrina, along this way. We clearly felt her intercession, closer than we have felt it before in our life as a couple. I especially “felt her” during the moment I approached the Sacrament of Confession. In that sense, the pilgrimage has been life-changing, and we will be continuing to “ponder all of these things in our hearts,” just as she teaches us.

At the Oficina del Peregrino, in one of its chapels, a sign declared: “blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic ‘Camino’ begins when it is completed.”

Now we fully understand why everyone who takes on the Camino de Santiago gets “hooked” (“enganchado”). But, indeed, it is not the Camino itself, but what God has accomplished by that pilgrim disposition in our innermost being.

¡Buen Camino!

Dr. Rodriguez is a medical oncologist practicing in Boynton Beach, Florida. He is the president of the Palm Beach Physicians Guild and serves on the CMA’s national Media and Communications Committee, the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) on Justice in Medicine Committee, the Educational Committee and is chair of the Spanish Outreach Communications Subcommittee.