Quien va a Santiago y no a San Salvador, sirve al criado y deja al Senor.
He who goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador, honors the servant and forsakes the Lord.
I saw these words painted onto the wall of the albergue in La Robla. It was the end of my first day walking the Camino de San Salvador, and I knew remarkably little about what to expect of the 120km route, and I was walking it alone. What did the words mean? I snapped a photo but quickly I pushed them to the back of my mind; all I could focus on was my hunger, the strain in my legs, the eerie quiet of the albergue.
I walked the San Salvador in late July 2016, with little knowledge of the route. I knew where it would begin and where it would end, I had a 13-page guide written in 2010 saved onto my phone. The route began in Leon, and like I’d done on past Camino’s, I found my first yellow arrow and just started walking.
It all worked out in the end; I made it through the mountains, I found things to eat, I found beds to lay my head on at night, and I made it to Oviedo. But it was not an easy Camino, it was not without struggles. The thought of pulling together a short guide for this route came to me as I was walking my final day. I would have loved some tips on how to get into the albergues when I arrived to find them locked, I would have loved some general advice about the trail, I would have loved to know what the waymarking was really like.
So this is that post, a collection of general thoughts and specific advice and information about the Camino de San Salvador. I’m including several links which will be immeasurably helpful for anyone undertaking this particular journey, and I will be more than happy to try to answer any of your questions, if you think of something that is not included here.
If you’d like to read about my journey before looking through this post, here are those entries:
Why Does This Route Matter?
Here’s a quick history lesson (and it makes me wish that I had been more fully aware of the history of this route while I was walking it!): The 120km Camino de San Salvador connects two major cities in the north of Spain- Leon and Oviedo. Back in the 7th century, King Alfonso II made a pilgrimage to Santiago, beginning in Oviedo. At the time, Oviedo was the capital of Spain, and King Alfonso had a holy chamber built in Oviedo’s cathedral to guard all the relics that had been moved there, to be kept safe from the invading Moors. When political power shifted and the new capital moved to Leon, the main pilgrimage trail also shifted: away from the Norte and Primitivo routes, and to the Frances (which remains the most popular to this day). But the relics stayed in the cathedral in Oviedo, and because pilgrims were encouraged to pay devotion here, it became necessary to develop a route between the cities of Leon and Oviedo. Enter, the Camino de San Salvador.
I may have been hazy on the details while I walked the San Salvador, but I knew enough to visit the cathedral in Oviedo when my trek was finally complete. Pilgrims receive a discount on the audio tour and, I believe, don’t have to pay anything if they only want to visit the statue of San Salvador. (My memory about that could be incorrect; in any case, it’s worth it to pay a few euros and see the cathedral). Make sure to stop at the statue! You can pick up a Salvadorana (like a compostela), a document that certifies your completion of the route, in the gift shop of the cathedral as well as in the Oviedo albergue.
Why Should I Walk This Route?
I wouldn’t recommend the San Salvador as your first Camino, unless you are an experienced trekker/hiker and prefer solitude while you hike. Otherwise, I’d encourage you to begin with the Frances, or even the Norte or the Primitivo. I’ve heard that the Camino Portugues is another good option. There were many times on the San Salvador when I forgot that I was on a Camino; instead, it felt like a good, hard trek through beautiful mountain country in the north of Spain. This isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re interested in the social aspect of a Camino, then this route may be a little too ‘off the beaten path’ for you.
But, there are so many reasons to tackle this Camino. I think it’s the perfect second or even third Camino, especially if you’ve already done the Frances and/or the Norte. The San Salvador is about a 4 or 5 or 6 day trek, and then it easily links up with the Primitivo, which begins in Oviedo. The Primitivo averages about 11 days, giving you a solid 2+ week Camino into Santiago.
The route is beautiful. It is well-waymarked. There are just enough albergues and towns with accommodation to allow you to plan a route to your fitness level/liking. You get to hit both Leon AND Oviedo. The locals, when you encounter them, are friendly and curious. And you earn a little Camino cred when you can tick this route off of your list. “The San Salvador?” people who’ve heard mention of it will say. “Isn’t that the most difficult, most beautiful route of them all?”
So How Hard Is It, Really?
It’s no walk in the park. My experience may not be the best measuring stick; I’m a strong and fit walker who once did a 50+ km day, but for almost my entire San Salvador trek I was feeling under the weather (and was very sick on my last day of walking). So overall, I found the route to be rather difficult, but I wasn’t at my best. And, surprisingly, I didn’t think the most difficult section was as difficult as I’d feared. It wasn’t easy, but just take it slow and you’ll be fine. You’re going to climb, but is it any more difficult than the trek through the Pyrenees on the first day of the Frances? Or more difficult than the Hospitales route on the Primitivo? Or the first several days of the Norte? A lot depends on how you split up your days, and I (wisely) chose to keep one of the most difficult stretches to a short, 14km day. I think that helped a lot.
The route can sort of be described by three sections: the first is in the province of Leon, and for about 40km follows the east bank of the Rio Benesga. This walking is fairly flat, there is some minor road walking but it’s mostly on dirt paths. The second section crosses the Cordillera mountain range (part of the Picos de Europa) to Pajares, a village in Asturias, and there are some hefty ascents and descents here. Guides claim that the last section of the trail is relatively flat (though all I can remember from my last day of walking was a very long, never-ending uphill stretch and I thought I would never make it to the top. So in this case, ‘mostly flat’ must have meant ‘no mountains to cross’. Basically, expect some hills in this last section).
How Long Does it Take to Walk the San Salvador?
There are many ways to break up this route, and I’ll list a few of them for you based on my own experience and what I’ve found in other guides. I intended to walk the route in 4 days: I consider myself an experienced pilgrim and before coming to Spain I had been doing some light hiking in the mountains in France, so I thought I might be able to tackle some long days. But after my first day of walking I decided that I needed to slow down and tack on a extra day to the walk, splitting the 120km into 5 stages. This worked for me; some will use 7 or 8 days to complete the trek, and I met a woman who did the San Salvador in 3 days (HOW????). So think about your comfort level and experience and how much time you have, and plan accordingly. (Note: the distances are approximate; sometimes my phone showed me very different totals, but these are what the guides I found report).
My route (5 days):
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27 km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 4: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 5: Pola de Lena – Oviedo, 34km
Day 1: Leon – Buiza, 40km
Day 2: Buiza – Pajares, 28km
Day 3: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 4: Pola de Lena – Oviedo, 34km
5 days (another option):
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Campomanes, 28kmDay 4: Campomanes – Mieres, 27km
Day 5: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
Day 1: Leon – La Robla, 27km
Day 2: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 3: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 4: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 5: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 6: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
Day 1: Leon- Cabanillas, 16km
Day 2: Cabanillas – La Robla, 11km
Day 3: La Robla – Poladura, 26km
Day 4: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 5: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 6: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 7: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
Day 1: Leon- Cabanillas, 16kmDay 2: Cabanillas – La Robla, 11km
Day 3: La Robla – Buiza, 15km
Day 4: Buiza – Poladura, 10km
Day 5: Poladura – Pajares, 14km
Day 6: Pajares – Pola de Lena, 26km
Day 7: Pola de Lena – Mieres, 15km
Day 8: Mieres – Oviedo, 19km
I’ve Heard the Route is Very Isolated; Am I Going to Get Lost?
I was a little worried about this after walking my first day on the San Salvador. That first day was well-marked, but I knew that soon I’d be heading into the mountains, and the guide I had warned of several confusing sections ahead. In the albergue on that first night I found another guide on the bookshelf, this one was a thick booklet, compiled by a man named Ender, filled with pages of photos and descriptions in Spanish (here’s the link, this one has been translated to English, and I’ll reference it again later on). I snapped a photo of every single page and kept these stored on my phone in case I’d need to use them. This guide, as well, showed several areas in great detail, as if to warn pilgrims of the possibility of losing the path. So I was worried when I headed off into the mountains, but I hadn’t needed to be: the waymarking on the entire route was exceptional. Sometime in the years between when I walked (2016) and when my guide was published (2010), someone came through and carefully put markings all along the path, especially in the confusing sections.
Now, I want to add that I was very careful to read through my guide and study the photos from Ender’s guide before I set off each morning, and typically checked them again on my breaks. I wanted to have a visual of the areas I’d be walking through, and to read up on anything about the trail in case it would be helpful. Maybe I didn’t need to be this careful because I remember lots and lots of arrows along the route, but I still think my preparation helped. I was alone, so this extra vigilance gave me some confidence as I walked through the isolated mountain paths.
The Camino markings changed with each section of the route; the first 50km are marked with brown posts, the middle section with yellow metal scallop shells (welded and painted by Ender, author of that wonderful guide!), and the last 50km have the concrete posts with the blue and yellow shell (like those you’d find in Galicia). All along the way are yellow arrows, as well.
You’ve Mentioned Wandering Alone Through the Mountains. Am I Going to Meet Any Other Pilgrims?
Maybe. On the route, possibly not, but almost certainly a few in the albergues (unless, perhaps, you walk in the winter but I wouldn’t recommend it because of bad weather on the mountain passes. Be careful in the spring, as well). You will most likely meet at least a few other pilgrims, but they won’t be many. All of the Camino routes are becoming more popular (and I’m writing this guide with hopes to encourage others to try this route, so I suppose I’m adding to this trend), but I suspect that the San Salvador is never going to become overwhelmingly crowded. It’s a little too unknown, and to those who’ve heard of it, it has a reputation of being difficult.
That being said, more are walking than a few years ago, and I suppose that some days can feel ‘crowded’. Rumor had it that a week prior to when I walked, there were 18 people (!) staying in the albergue in La Robla (where I spent my first night). On my trip, I was the only one in that albergue until 7:30pm, and then was joined by a few bikers and one other walker. On my second night I was all alone in the albergue, the third night I’d needed to take a room in a pension because the albergue was closed (bed bugs, I suspect), though 4 pilgrims were also staying in that pension. Then, on the last night before Oviedo, there were 5 other pilgrims in the albergue with me. But this was in July! And in all of my walking, I only passed that group of 4 pilgrims once on the 4th day of walking. Otherwise, I never saw another pilgrim actually on the path of the Camino. For someone like me, who loves solo-walking, this was incredible, and I felt like I had the mountains all to myself. But an isolated route like this one might not be to everyone’s taste (or, if you’re worried about being alone, bring a friend!).
What Other Tips Do You Have For Me?
#1: This is the biggest one: have a working cell phone with you. There are a few reasons this could come in handy: for one, you’re on a rugged, sometimes difficult trail through the mountains and there are not many people on it with you. If anything goes wrong, it would be good to have a way to get help. I need to follow my own advice because my US cell does not have an international calling plan, and I neglected to set up a SIM card in my phone that would allow me to make local calls. Luckily, I never needed the phone because of injury or danger (and to be honest, this didn’t occur to me as I walked but I promise I’ll be smarter about this in the future), however, I did need a phone for a different reason: the albergues.
Twice on this route, I arrived to an albergue to find it empty, and locked. There was always a sign on the door with a phone number- problem was, I had no way to make the phone call. But in both instances the albergues were in small towns and in the first I was able to have a woman in the tourism office help me, and in the second I was able to find a pay phone. At another point on the route, I’d needed to call ahead to a town to reserve dinner for the night, so I needed to track down another pay phone to make this happen. You could always ask another pilgrim to use their phone- but it’s hard when you’re in an albergue alone and have no one to ask.
Click here to be taken to a link on the Camino forum about how to set up a SIM card on your phone, once in Spain.
#2: My second tip is this: learn a bit of Spanish before you go. I’ve been on a few Camino’s in Spain and have picked up just a tiny bit of Spanish (which means I can sometimes understand a few words of what is being spoken around me, and have learned the basic pilgrim lingo). But on this Camino, I really wished I could have spoken at least conversational Spanish. I got by without it, but I think I met three people in those 5 days who could speak a little English, and it was frustrating to have questions about the route and the albergues and how to find food in the next town and not be able to easily ask them (or understand the answers when I could). Plus, how nice would it be to chat with the locals, rather than only wave and smile?
#3: Take your time walking the middle-ish section through the mountains, which could possibly mean stretching your planned walk from 4 days to 5, or 5 days to 6 (and more specifically, I recommend doing a 14km day from Poladura to Pajares). This section is difficult, so it may take you longer than anticipated anyway, but you will appreciate having extra time to go slow and enjoy the stunning scenery.
Tell Me About a Favorite Moment from Your Camino:
I wrote about this on my blog, but I’ll tell it again, here. On my second day of walking I was about to head into a long, isolated stretch that wouldn’t pass by any towns or villages for a long time. I had a decent amount of food in my pack but I wanted to stock up a bit more, so I set off to find a grocery store. It was early in the morning and neither store I found was opened. Rather than wait around, I decided to head into a bar and buy a pastry; it would be my treat once I got to the top of the mountain. But when I asked for a croissant ‘to-go’, the man behind the counter just looked at me in confusion, then disappeared to the kitchen for about 10 minutes. When he finally emerged, he handed me a beautiful package: a croissant on a plate, wrapped in tissue paper and tied up with brown string. He placed it in my hands and I thanked him over and over but all I could think was- how in the world am I going to fit this into my pack? I couldn’t. So I walked up that mountain with my walking stick in one hand, my croissant in the other. And when I finally made it to the top and found a place to rest on a large, flat rock in the sunshine, I finally opened my package. That croissant was maybe the best thing I’d ever tasted.
Here are some resources to help with your planning:
Link to Ender’s guide, translated into English
San Salvador page on the Camino forum (with tons of helpful threads)
CSJ Guide (this is the more updated version of the one I had)
Piers Nicholson’s Picture Website (300 photos of San Salvador)
There is so much more I could describe and share from the Camino de San Salvador, but this is a good start. If you’re interested in this route, please write a comment or send me a message- I would love to answer any questions you might have.