Walking the Camino de Santiago in a small group

The Camino de Santiago is one of the most treasured walking routes in the world, now welcoming almost 350,000 pilgrims every year. This isn’t a jaunt into the wilderness – and that’s the charm of it.

The various branches of the Camino de Santiago snake through some of the most famous places in Spain, including the Picos de Europa, the wine hills of Rioja, the Gothic cathedrals and labyrinthine old quarters of cities such as Leon, emerald-green Galicia and – finally – Santiago de Compostela.

Responsible Travel director Tim Williamson recently returned from his latest trip on the Camino. He started walking the Camino de Santiago in a small group in 2018 to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday, breaking the path into three-day hikes that they tackle once or twice a year.

“It’s amazing,” says Tim. “Everyone is going in the same direction, but you walk with different people and at different paces, stopping along the way for lunch or to pop into a church. Sometimes, someone in our group is walking a bit faster and that’s okay – we’ll meet them at the next coffee stop.”

“It’ll take us roughly 10 years,” Tim adds, zooming out of a map of Spain with a hint of trepidation. “We haven’t even got to Bilbao yet! But the fact that we’re still doing it says a lot. We miss it when we pack up, because we’re envious of the walkers who we see going on.”

Thankfully, our small group vacations give you the chance to walk a longer stretch of the Camino de Santiago. Instead of 10 years, you’ll spend around 12 days hiking one of the major tributaries of the trail. And unlike Tim’s group, where the person who draws the short straw must research and plan the next trip, hikers on organised tours get the B&Bs, luggage transfers and transport sorted for them – and a walking guide to lead the way.

All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and follow the scallops.

Follow the scallops

That’s right: scallops.

“You’re always looking for the little scallop shell,” says Tim. “They’re on the footpath signs and house doors. People wear them on their backpacks to show that they’re pilgrims. The route is there for you: you follow the scallops and, on small group tours of the Camino, you follow the guide. There’s something very therapeutic about getting up in the morning, putting your boots on, walking, and not having to think. It’s very set, and it clears your mind for other things.”

Lone pilgrims are rare on the Camino these days. Even people walking solo are likely to get swept up by the camaraderie and cheer on the trail that pilgrims have shared for centuries. After all, one of the best things about the Camino de Santiago is the people you’ll meet with along the way.

“You can interact with other walkers and find out their stories,” says Tim. “We chatted with a South Korean travel blogger and an American woman who was walking with her dog and meeting different family members en route. We met a German footballer who had retired early from an injury and was working out what to do next.”

“When you’re walking side by side, you have slightly more frank conversations,” adds Tim. “You find yourself telling people stuff you don’t tend to talk about – it’s like conversation therapy.”

Modern pilgrims on the Camino

“You meet different types of pilgrims,” says Tim. “Some are religious pilgrims and some are doing it because it’s a great walk. There were people doing it on bike and there’s the sea kayaking route. There are so many ways of doing it; there’s no right or wrong way. The only common thread is that everyone is heading towards Santiago de Compostela. How they get there is up to them – and why they’re doing it is also up to them.”

Small group tours are an excellent way to approach the Camino de Santiago. Comfortable accommodation is usually a mix of B&Bs and small hotels chosen for their warm hospitality, comfy beds and fortifying breakfasts. Luggage transfers will be arranged too, so all you need to carry is a day pack.

“It’s such a nice feeling turning up in what is usually a pretty gorgeous B&B,” says Tim. “Your bag is in your room, and you take your boots off and have a beer on the terrace. Some pilgrims stay in hostels or dormitories connected to monasteries and churches. It’s not one walker looking down on the other, but there are definitely different ways of doing it.”

While walking the Camino de Santiago in a small group, your tour leader will ensure you get there in plenty of time for that restorative drink on the terrace and meet you for breakfast the next morning. They’ll share the history of the path you’re walking, translate regional specialities on village menus, and pause to point out an eagle soaring high above or steer you around a clump of rare wildflowers.

Walking the French Way in a small group

Many small group tours of the Camino de Santiago follow the French Way for all or some of its length. It’s the most popular branch of the Camino, stretching from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port just over the border in France to in Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain. Other trips go for the Camino del Norte, which is slightly quieter thanks to the more challenging mountain paths.

Often, tours will add a mini extension from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre – the cape that Romans once thought was the end of the world.

“There’s some spectacular scenery,” says Tim. “As the walk goes into Galicia, the northern part of Spain above Portugal, it is very green; it’s the food capital of Spain. It’s an amazing place to go for cuisine, but it’s so green because it rains a lot.

“The last section we’ve just done is beautiful too. Most of the day we walked through the rolling hills of Rioja, and because it’s got a little bit of altitude and we did it in autumn, we got a nice chill mist in the morning. Logroño was lovely because we were there for the harvest festival by happy accident, so we could see the grape picking and pressing – and go tasting, of course.”
These routes have been used for hundreds of years. If there’s one thing you notice along the way, it’s that life goes on around the Camino and its ant’s-trail of pilgrims.

“The fact that they’ve built a power station next to the route – they haven’t moved the route; you just walk by the power station,” says Tim. “The outskirts of the towns are big warehouses, but that’s just what they are. Lots of these places are farming communities, so there aren’t any cafés and restaurants. It’s a real mixture, and it’s not all picture-postcard, beautified for tourists.”

That said, our partners have spent years perfecting their small group itineraries. The official guidebook might say to stop at one town, but the people who designed your route know from experience that a village 5km downriver has a B&B with sea views or a piazza filled with seafood restaurants. They’re also there to recommend which of the many potential diversions are worth the detour.

“There are plenty of things to see and do along the way,” says Tim. “Different villages, viewpoints, monasteries and vineyards. A group with an experienced guide will get you the most out of that part of the Camino.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Camino de Santiago or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

What are small group walking tours of the Camino de Santiago like?

Organised small group tours

Our organised tours of the Camino de Santiago have small group sizes of around 10-16 people. They expertly smooth the way for you by including transfers, luggage transfers en route, accommodation, some meals (and all breakfasts), and a tour guide in the price of the vacation. Accommodation includes comfy B&Bs and small hotels, and if you fancy your own room you can choose to pay a single supplement.

Fitness on the trail

Be prepared for about 12 days of walking broken up by a rest day or two. The walking is leisurely, sticking to well-maintained footpaths with hill climbs and descents. Up to 25km is covered daily at a conversational pace.

“You walk with different people and at different paces,” says Tim. “One day you’re walking at the front when you’ve got loads of energy; another day you’re tired and you’re walking at the back.”

“Once you know you can walk about 20km a day easily, then you know you can do it every day,” Tim adds. “It’s a really nice rhythm. The first few years, we were slightly anxious, thinking, ‘Are we fit enough? Can we do it?’ It took away some of the enjoyment. If you practise some walking in the months ahead, you can relax into it and take in more of what you see around you.”

Packing tips

A 20-30 litre day sack is useful, packed with layers such as a rain jacket, jumpers, water, snacks and sun cream. Light hiking boots are ideal.

“Walking sticks or walking poles make a big difference,” says Tim, “especially when you’re in your 50s as we are – it takes the pressure off your knees. When you’re walking 25km a day even 5-10 percent benefit is massive.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Les Argonautes] [Intro: Fresco Tours] [Follow the scallops: Jon Tyson] [Walking the French Way in a small group: Gurrea] [Organised small group tours: Fresco Tours]