Flechas Amarillas

When walking El Camino, the variety of people one comes across can be just as numerous as the beds they’ve slept in or landscapes traversed.

In our experience, we have come across pilgrims that trek an upwards of sixty kilometers a day in an adrenaline-fueled test of their bodies endurance; or else a race towards a departing flight. And, on the less crazy end of the spectrum, those like Kate and I who are content with walking a fraction of that distance each day, teetering on the fine line of walking just enough to feel accomplished but not so much as to willingly bring chronic bodily ailments upon ourselves.

There are pilgrims who perform minor surgery on their feet day after day in the form of blister care and others who perform minor miracles by having no foot problems whatsoever. There are 87-year-old Italian priests and twenty-something college students. There are bikers, walkers, and apparently, horseback riders, though we haven’t seen any of the latter yet. There are early risers, late departers, eat-iners and going-outers. There are Spaniards, Germans, Dutch, Canadians, Brazilians, Israelis, South Koreans, and Australians. There are the religious and those without any religious affiliation whatsoever, but in search of something outside of themselves all the same. And, while El Camino is traditionally a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James, there is only one thing that unites all the different kinds of people, and it’s not Christianity, rather, the unwavering devotion to the all-knowing yellow arrows, or flechas amarillas.

Painted on rock faces, tree trunks, street curbs, and traffic signs, to name a few, the flechas are an ethereal lifeline of sorts, pointing each pilgrim in the right direction. While on El Camino, when we find ourselves lost along the way or unsure of whether or not we are moving in the right direction, we pray that a flecha reveals itself, giving us a sign that everything is okay. When we are in the dark or at a crossroads and there are no flechas to be found, we curse them for abandoning us. “How could such an omnipresent force of good be absent at such a time?” is a question that has often passed through our minds. Though, no matter how sparse their presence has been or how frustrated their absence has made us, whenever a flecha is spotted, we are thankful for it, for we are assured that we are moving in the right direction. And on El Camino, as in life itself, that’s all you can really ask for.

Since their inception over three decades ago, the flechas have become synonymous with the various routes to Santiago and for good reason. Despite being a pilgrimage route for over a millennia, by the 1970s, the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago had dwindled to the hundreds. Then, in the 1980s, a priest and El Camino scholar named Elías Valiña mapped out a route starting in the south of France and painted flechas along it every couple of kilometers or so to guide pilgrims towards Santiago. Elías chose to use yellow arrows because he had seen them guiding hikers through the mountains of France and took note not only of their visibility in the dull browns, grays, and greens of nature, but also of their durability to remain seen through variable weather and seasons. And so, the arrows were conceived and brought to life precisely at the time El Camino experienced a rebirth itself. The original route he mapped out, now popularly known as Camino Francés, attracts nearly 200,000 pilgrims every year and on countless other routes, including the one we have been walking on: La Via de la Plata, the arrows serve as a guiding hand, pointing pilgrims towards their destination, whatever or wherever that may be.

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In the province of Extremadura, large stone blocks not only pointed us in the right direction, but also informed us whether or not we were following a Roman road.

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Occasionally we will come across flecha stickers courtesy of a prior German pilgrim.

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Can you spot the flecha in the distance?
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A flecha pointing us towards Cáceres
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Sometimes the flechas are almost indiscernible from yellow moss that also populates the tree trunks and stones of the Spanish countryside.
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A sign pointing us towards our albergue, which is always a welcome sight at the end of a long day of walking
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Sometimes, there is little to no doubt about which way to go

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When flechas amarillas can’t be found, flechas in other forms, like this one made of sticks and rocks, will make an appearance
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And here’s one pointing you towards Kate’s poem

 

Flechas Amarillas

On your right—
cows.
On your left—
trees.
Only one way to go—
straight.
It´s a flecha fiesta—
painted boulders,
trunks,
posts.

We come to a fork:
gray stones,
mossy branches,
wired rails.
Where are the flechas?
Fast asleep,
it´s time for siesta.

A Day on El Camino

Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!

So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.

For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:

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In the cases where we have a private room to ourselves or everyone else in our dorm is waking up at the same time as we are, the lights go on and we begin getting dressed and packing our things.
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Occasionally, you’ll have one or two people still sleeping at six, in which case we gather all of our things in the dark and move them to the common area of the albergue to pack up.
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To make things easier (and more water resistant) we have all of our stuff separated into plastic bags. So, in the morning, we just have to put the bags in our backpack and we’re ready to go.
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Sometimes we’ll have breakfast in the albergue…
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…or on the road while watching the sunrise…
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…or, if we’re lucky enough to have a café open at the ungodly Spanish hour of 7 a.m., go there for breakfast.
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Most days begin under the stars, which means poor visibility and frequent second-guessing ourselves about whether we’re going in the right direction or not.
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Though we’ve learned that if we keep the brightening horizon on our right, that means we’re going north and in the right direction.
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Our favorite part of the day is always at dawn, when the scenery is at its most beautiful and the temperature at its coolest.
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A hilltop village at sunrise.
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We’ve also been delighted at times to find a ruin or two sitting on the horizon as the sun comes up; like this castle…
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…or this Roman bridge, which we unquestioningly made a detour to explore.
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After sunrise, it’s business as usual, trying to get into the next town as early as possible so the brutal heat of the midday sun doesn’t turn our trek into a trudge.
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In the days when we have longer walks we’ll stop in a shady patch for a picnic lunch, but usually we make it into the next town around noon and have lunch there.
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After getting our pilgrim credentials stamped and paying the albergue’s fee, which for us has ranged anywhere from free (though they ask for a donation if you have the means) to 15€ a night, we unload our bags, grab a bed, and get showered.
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Then we wash our offensively stinky clothes…
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…and hang them up…
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…before finally getting off our feet!
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To wile away the afternoon, we may work on a hobby like writing or editing pictures.
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If we don’t feel like working on a hobby, we will explore the village or city we are staying in for the night. The picture above is from Caceres, one of our favorite places we have explored so far.
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And cards are almost always played.
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Then, once supermarkets open back up after siesta, we will go get our groceries for dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day.
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Then we cook…
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…eat…
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…and almost always enjoy a drink together before ending the day around 9:00 or 9:30 when most pilgrims, including these ones, head to bed.

 

La Vía de la Plata – A Week in Photos

“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
W.H. Davies

One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.

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Outside the cathedral in Sevilla, our starting point for La Via de la Plata
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Spotting our first of what would be many yellow arrows pointing us towards Santiago de Compostela.
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Having a picnic lunch outside of Italica, an ancient Roman ruins site that has recently gained fame for being used as a shooting location for Game of Thrones.

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An olive orchard
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An old watchtower sitting over the crest of a meadowed hill

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For most of the walk, we’ve enjoyed as our companion an unending supply of beautiful natural scenery
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The symbol of El Camino. All of the lines in the shell represent the different routes one can take to arrive at the same destination: Santiago de Compostela.
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The view from our albergue over Castilblanco de los Arroyos, one of the villages we stopped in
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Many of our days have begun at a village cafe eating tostada con tomate and sipping on a mug of tea. This morning came before our first trying day on El Camino, an 18-mile trek over hilly terrain to Almadén de la Plata.

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Checking out an old, ruined house along the way.
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A steep, seemingly endless hill is not what you want to see at the end of an 18-mile day, but we conquered it nonetheless.
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A site for sore feet.

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Golden fields at dawn have been a consistent part of our walk. We’re hoping it stays that way!
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Some friendly farm dogs we came across

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Exploring the castle in Real de la Jara

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A much deserved beer along the way
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Occasionally the scenery is not the greatest…
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…but it can change quickly.

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We began seeing a bunch of these small flowers that grew out of the ground individually without a stem or leaves.

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Our seventh day took us past fields of grape trees
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Some of them were being harvested
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Exploring the town of Zafra

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