Seven Values I Learned by Walking the Camino Across Spain

A Camino de Santaigo pilgrim rests and looks at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images

A couple of summers ago, I hiked the ancient Camino de Santiago trail across Spain. It was the best month of my life for many reasons. Along with a lot of other great things I got by walking almost 500 miles, it also taught me some valuable lessons.

Every pilgrim (peregrino) who walks the Camino has a passbook to get stamps along the way to prove they are doing the trail. My pilgrim passport hangs proudly on my wall and gives me something more than just memories: it lists 7 values each pilgrim should live by while on the trail. I’ve found these values useful for everyday, post-Camino life.

1) “Live in the Moment”

To prepare for the month long hike, I loaded my iPhone with hundreds of hours of audiobooks. I left my iPhone turned off the first day to fully experience it. I never turned it on after that. I’m glad I didn’t, as the Camino turned out to be so much more interesting with its own soundtrack.

LIFE LESSON: I will unplug my earbuds and plug into the world around me more, especially at the start of a new experience.

2) “Welcome Each Day, its Pleasures and its Challenges”

The Camino is clearly marked with yellow arrows and the scallop shell symbol to guide pilgrims. Sometimes they are on poles, sometimes they are simple arrows spray painted on the ground. Because the trail is so well marked, pilgrims don’t have to spend hours each day with their nose buried in their guidebooks and maps to make sure they don’t get lost. By having the path clearly marked, we were able to focus on appreciating all the things around us.

LIFE LESSON: Each night, I will set a simple goal for myself to welcome the next day. That daily goal will serve as the yellow arrows for my day so I can focus on experiencing the pleasures and challenges along the way.

3) “Make Others Feel Welcome”

My first bad blister appeared on a Sunday night in a small town. Other pilgrims told me the local pharmacy was open until 9 or 10 pm so I hurried there one limp at a time. When I got to the door it was locked with a “closed” sign. I didn’t knock, but an older gentleman was in there cleaning up and came to the door. He opened it and simply asked me if I was a peregrino. I said “sí” and showed him my blister as a shortcut to a word they didn’t teach in my high school Spanish. He let me in and, without another word, he pushed a button and said something on the call box outside the door. A few minutes later an irritated pharmacist appeared from outside and asked me what prescription I needed. I pointed to my blister. She huffed, and while giving me the antiseptic gel, she angrily told the cleaning man this wasn’t what she considered an “emergency” for her after-hours on-call status. The old man played dumb with a “sorry, I misunderstood the American” shrug. I paid and he showed me to the door. Letting me out, he took my hand with a conspiratorial smile and a wink and said “Buen Camino.”

LIFE LESSON: Be the stranger someone will tell stories about for your random act of kindness.

A photo from my 500 mile hike. Author provided

4) “Share”

Every night, I ate with a different group of peregrinos who happened to be at my same stop. The group was always an eclectic one, with people from many different countries. One day I stopped at a village and saw another peregrino I had met before so we decided to do an impromptu picnic in the little park. I bought a bottle of wine and she brought some chips and we shared. Within a few minutes, our picnic grew as other peregrinos came along. Some contributed food or drink or maybe just shared their different guidebook. Some had nothing to share. Fast forward two years, and I still count several people from that picnic in this picture as good friends.

LIFE LESSON: Giving away things for free today can be very profitable tomorrow.

5) “Feel the Spirit of those Who Have Gone Before You”

Not everyone has the time, health or means to do the Camino. It’s also a physical challenge that can be dangerous. One day’s hike started with a grueling, long climb up a steep hill under an unforgiving July sun. About half way up the hill, I saw a memorial marker for a peregrino who had died a few years before at that spot. I paid my respects, rehydrated, and continued on. When I finally reached the top of the hill, I was stunned by the view and I snapped a picture of the landscape. (In fact, if you are reading this story, that view made an impression on you, as it is the picture at the top of this story.) So my fellow peregrino may never have made it to see that view himself, but his spirit lives on with every peregrino that stops to pay their respects at the memorial his family placed on that hill.

LIFE LESSON: Whenever I walk by a memorial marker, I will stop to read the story it tells, because that story was important enough to someone to leave that marker.

6) “Appreciate those Who Walk With You Today”

Every day I had a moment with a woman who was walking the trail alone. She was older and slower than me, so I passed her each day. Our daily shared moment became a ritual that I looked forward to, partly to see she was OK and able to continue her solitary pilgrimage. Every time I passed her I exhausted my French with a “Bon Jour!” and “Ca Va?”. She always smiled, albeit a more tired smile each day, and replied with different words in French that I pretended to understand. When I reached the end of the trail in Santiago, I went to the mass for pilgrims in the cathedral. The mass capped off a very emotional final day for everyone with many hugs and tears. The hug that meant the most to me was the one I got from this woman who I had gotten to know, and care about, in 30 one-minute interactions.

LIFE LESSON: Whenever I ask someone, “how are you?” I will actually mean it.

7) “Imagine those Who Will Follow You”

I wrote this article to help others interested in the Camino. If you have read this far, maybe the next peregrino to follow me will be you. If so, allow me to be the first to say “Buen Camino!”

LIFE LESSON: If I feel others can benefit from my experience, I will take the time to craft the story in a way that others will find useful and interesting. (And I’ll lead with a great picture.)

Victor Prince is a leadership author and trainer who has worked with clients in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest book,The Camino Way: Lessons in Leadership from a Walk Across Spain, is available now.