31 Mar 24

The Spiritual Variant of the Portuguese Camino

Adrian Mayer Camino

Choosing which Camino route to walk can be  daunting. You may be new to the Camino and have seen many possible variations and become overwhelmed. Or you may have already done a Camino and are now looking for something different to do for your second one and are wondering about some of the alternatives you’ve seen.

The Spiritual Variant (or Variante Espiritual in Spanish) is a newer alternative path or ‘detour’ from the usual Portuguese Camino walking routes, and is brand new to RAW Travel. We’ve answered the most frequently asked questions about this route to help you decide if it’s right for you. 

What is the Spiritual Variant?

The Spiritual Variant Camino is historically purported to follow the route that the Apostle St James took (well, his body anyway) on the way to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally it includes a boat trip from Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecesures, along the Rio Ulla, which was how St James’ remains were transported between these points. This last section can also be walked, but the boat trip is considered a real highlight, and from all reports that part of the walk is not a particularly attractive route with a lot of road walking.

How is the Spiritual Variant different to other Portuguese Caminos?

First, a brief synopsis of the Portuguese Camino. The full Portuguese Camino route begins in Lisbon and all routes follow the same path up until Porto, which is a bit over half of the way to Santiago. From Porto, the routes then split into two main routes: the Central Way and the Coastal Way. The latter also includes the Litoral Way (or seashore path), which interweaves and sometimes mingles with the Coastal Way. 

All these routes eventually converge at Pontevedra, and it is from Pontevedra that the Spiritual Variant starts. Instead of walking from Pontevedra to Caldas de Rei and on to Padron as per the regular routes, the Spiritual Variant diverges towards the coast and goes through the towns of Combarro, Armenteira and Vilanova de Arousa, before a boat trip takes pilgrims to Pontecesures to re-join with the other routes.

Our new Spiritual Variant itinerary starts from Vigo and continues to Santiago de Compostela. On request, the Spiritual Variant can also be included as a part of our full length Portuguese Camino walk from Lisbon, or incorporated into our Porto to Santiago or Baiona to Santiago itineraries.

How challenging is the Spiritual Variant route?

There are some challenging sections to this route. The uphill hike out of Combarro is straight up along a road for about 4km until it levels off somewhat. The first 3-4 kilometres out of Armenteira is a steep downhill walk along a stream with lots of large stepping stones, possibly moss covered, that can be hard on the knees from all the jarring.

On request, the first day can be broken down into 2 short days. The second day from Armenteria to Vilanova de Arousa (25km) cannot be split. If you wanted to walk the last day from Vilanova de Arousa to Padron it’s nearly 37km with lots of road walking, which is tough in anyone’s language. But very few people walk this section.

This is not the ‘usual’ Camino route that the majority of other people will walk, so at times the signage may not be as frequent as on the main Camino route (our navigation app will help you to find your way and ensure you don’t get lost!) There will likely be fewer other walkers around, and less facilities and services. Generally a greater level of independence, flexibility and sense of adventure is required when undertaking a ‘variant’ in comparison to a standard route.

What are the highlights of the Spiritual Variant?

Some stretches of this variant are on roads, but there is a lot more wilderness walking than the rest of the Portuguese Camino. The climb out of Combarro on the first day is challenging, but hikers will be well rewarded with some spectacular views followed by delightful mountain paths.

The day out of Armenteira is truly spectacular! The first half of this day follows a stream and then a river, with lovely country paths running alongside. The first 4–5 kilometres is just breathtaking, following a tree-canopied stream with moss covered stones and continuous waterfalls. It gives an otherworldly and ethereal feel and is some of the loveliest Camino walking I have experienced. 

What if the boat from Villanova de Arousa isn’t operating?

This is a possibility as unfortunately there are no guarantees of it operating, no matter what the season. Factors such as tidal levels, weather and insufficient passenger numbers can all conspire to mean that the boat may not be operating on the day you want. Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing in advance if this might be the case. It’s only upon arrival into Vilanova de Arousa and then enquiring at the boat company that you can know. It might even be a case of having to turn up on the day to see if it’s operational that day.

If the boat is not operating on the day you need it, and you don’t fancy the 37km slog to Padron by foot, you can catch a train from Vilagarcia de Arousa, which is about 9km north of Vilanova de Arousa. Unfortunately there’s no public transport between the two towns so you’ll need to catch a taxi to get there. The train stops in both Pontecesures as well as Padron (about 2km apart). The other alternative is to taxi the entire way to Padron.

Can I still get my Compostela certificate in Santiago?

In a word, no. Well, not if you take the boat, train or taxi. The stipulations for obtaining a Compostela is that you either walk the last 100 kms or cycle the last 200 kms. By taking public transport of any description in the last 100 kms you technically forfeit your right to a Compostela. Of course, you could still try for one and hope the person at the Pilgrims Office doesn’t check your pilgrim’s passport too closely! 

Is it Spiritual?

This may just be a coincidence, but when I walked my Portuguese Camino this was the section where I had my epiphany moments. This was my third Camino and I always have these moments, but it was specifically this section where I experienced them on this walk. So for me personally, I would have to say yes – it is spiritual. Various factors may have contributed to this including the long stretches of wilderness walking (not common on the Portuguese Camino) and the lack of fellow pilgrims, which creates a sense of solitude. The ethereal beauty and peacefulness of this trail, especially at the start of the day out of Armenteira, creates a spiritually enriching journey. 

Is it worth walking the Spiritual Variant?

Yes! The longer stretches of wilderness walking, the delightful towns that you pass through and the relative solitude all combine to make this variant something special. You may not be able to receive your certificate in Santiago, but if that’s not your main motivation for walking a Camino then this walk could well be for you. 


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