What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, is a network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and converging at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The most popular route is the Camino Francés, which starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port near Biarritz in France and stretches for about 780 kilometers to Santiago.
The journey is a remarkable mix of spiritual, historical, and cultural experiences. As pilgrims walk through picturesque towns, over rolling hills, and through bustling cities, they encounter medieval bridges, gothic cathedrals, and Romanesque churches, immersing themselves in centuries of European history and tradition. The Camino is not just a physical journey but a spiritual one as well, with many pilgrims walking for personal, spiritual, or religious reasons.
For someone planning to walk the Camino for the first time, it’s an adventure that requires physical preparation, but it’s also a deeply personal journey that can be life-changing, offering time for reflection, discovery, and connection with people from all over the world.
The Pilgrim’s Credential or Accreditation is the document given to pilgrims in the Middle Ages as a safeguard. Today there is an official Credential model distributed and accepted by the Office of Pilgrimages of the Diocese of Santiago. You can get it by requesting it in person at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office or other institutions authorized by the Cathedral of Santiago for their distribution, such as parish churches, Associations of Friends of the Way of St. James, pilgrim hostels, confraternities, etc.
In Spain and abroad, some associations related to the pilgrimage have been authorized to distribute their own Credentials with a reference to the goal of the pilgrimage at the Cathedral of Santiago.
The American Pilgrims on the Camino, our national organization is recognized by the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. We issue pilgrims credentials to any pilgrims who request them at no charge. you can request a Credential here.
If you do not get your pilgrims credentials before you leave for your Camino there are many places where they are available in France and Spain. In Saint Jean Pied du Port you can get one at the pilgrim’s office. In many locations, you can go to the Cathedral in town and simply ask or at the local municipal albergue. They may be able to offer you one or may direct you to a bar, restaurant, or even the local pilgrim’s office.
You must have your credential stamped each day. Typically this will be done at the albergue where you spend the night. If you do not stay in an albergue you should still be able to get a stamp of some sort at the place where you do stay. Once you are 100 km from Santiago de Compostela you must then get two stamps per day. Again, typically at the location where you spend the night and usually at a bar or restaurant during your day. The “Compostela” is only granted to those who make the pilgrimage with Christian sentiment: devotionis affectu, voti vel pietatis causa (motivated by devotion, vote, or mercy). And it is only granted to those who make the pilgrimage to reach the Tomb of the Apostle, doing in full at least the last 100 kilometers on foot or horseback, or the last 200 km by bike or 100 nautical miles and the last km on foot.
The “Compostela“, is the accreditation of the pilgrimage to the Tomb of St. James.
Since the pilgrimage to the tomb of Santiago, which came about spontaneously before the ninth and tenth centuries, was institutionalized and took on certain social and religious considerations, it was necessary to accredit its completion. To do this, badges were first used that could only be acquired in Santiago, in the shape of the scallop shell. It is obvious to see how easy it was to falsify this rudimentary certification. The counterfeiting soon took on and they were sold at the entrance to the city, forcing the prelates of Compostela and the Pope himself to decree excommunication penalties against the counterfeiters. More effective, as they were more difficult to counterfeit, were the so-called cartas probatorias (evidentiary letters), which were already issued in the 13th century. These letters led directly to the Compostela.
In the 16th century the Catholic Monarchs constituted the Foundation of the Royal Hospital and to house it they commissioned the building now occupied by the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, converted in 1954 into a luxury hotel. On presenting the Compostela, pilgrims acquired the right to stay free of charge for three days. The pilgrims’ health needs turned the institution, after the necessary extensions, into the most important hospital in Galicia and later into the headquarters of the famous Compostela medical school. In 1954 it became a Parador de Turismo hotel, although, as a tradition of hospitality, the hotel continues to offer free meals to the first pilgrims each day who come to the Hostal; they must always present the “Compostela” or a photocopy of it.
The appearance of motor vehicles and, in this century, the popularisation of tourism, represented somewhat of a crisis for pilgrimage: it was feared that the effort and sacrifice in the expiation of sins embraced in the pilgrimage on foot would be exchanged by a pleasant and enjoyable activity for the holidays. Such was the case that authorities in other sanctuaries began to issue visiting certificates imitating the “Compostela”. The Chapter of the Metropolitan Church of Santiago continued to issue the certificate and in modern times the award of the “Compostela” is limited to those who come to the tomb of the Apostle for religious and/or spiritual reasons, and follow the routes of the Way of St. James on foot, by bicycle or on horseback. They are required to have traveled at least the last 100 kilometers on foot or horseback or the last 200 by bicycle, which is demonstrated by the “Credencial del Peregrino” duly stamped along the route traveled. Therefore other forms of travel to access the Compostela are excluded, except in the case of the disabled.
To get the “Compostela” you must:
Make the pilgrimage for religious or spiritual reasons, or at least an attitude of search.
Do the last 100 km on foot or horseback or the last 200 km by bicycle. It is understood that the pilgrimage starts at one point and from there, you come to visit the Tomb of St. James.
You must collect the stamps on the “Credencial del Peregrino” from the places you pass through to certify that you have been there. Stamps from churches, hostels, monasteries, cathedrals, and all places related to the Way are preferred, but if not they can also be stamped in other institutions: town halls, cafés, etc. You have to stamp the Credential twice a day at least on the last 100 km (for pilgrims on foot or horseback) or on the last 200 km (for cyclists pilgrims).
You can do the Way in stages, provided they are in chronological and geographical order. However, if you only do the minimum required distance (last 100 or 200 km), you must always get your Credencial stamped at the start and end of each stage, including the corresponding date, to show that the pilgrim has resumed the Way in the same place where they last stopped (i.e. you should always get the stamp at the starting point even though you have already stamped the card in the same place at the end of the previous stage).
Children and pilgrimage. Children who make the pilgrimage with their parents or in groups, have received the sacrament of Communion, or have the ability to understand the meaning of the spiritual or religious nature of the Way, can receive the “Compostela”. If they are not mature enough due to their young age, they are given a special certificate with their names. In the case of infants or very young children, their names are included on the parent or accompanying adult’s “Compostela”. If you are in any doubt, please contact us at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office so we can look at each case.
The English translation of the text is as follows:
The Chapter of this Holy Apostolic and Metropolitan Cathedral of Compostela, custodian of the seal of the Altar of St. James, to all the Faithful and pilgrims who arrive from anywhere on the Orb of the Earth with an attitude of devotion or because of a vow or promise make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Apostle, Our Patron Saint and Protector of Spain, recognizes before all who observe this document that: …………… has devotedly visited this most sacred temple with Christian sentiment (pietatis causa).
In witness whereof I present this document endorsed with the seal of this same Holy Church.
Issued in Santiago de Compostela on ……… of …………… year of our Lord ……….
Deputy Canon for Pilgrims.