Four Women, One Camino de Santiago, Four Experiences

Xandra, Cat, Hayley and Tamasine share their Camino stories, including walking with Rhodesian Ridgebacks and creating a new business with a fellow traveller as they walked the Way of St. James!


Firstly, some background on the walkers:

Xandra Rowat: I originally moved to Spain in April 1980 and chose Calahonda as there were virtually no apartments!  We arrived in Spain as it rained the day we were passing through St. Tropez!  I had been travelled to South Africa for 6 months with a view to may be living there but my then partner decided to move from UK to Spain and asked me to join him.


Catherine Gaa: My mother studied abroad in Italy on a whim and demanded I spend at least a summer abroad while in university. Since I excelled at Spanish, I decided on perfecting my language skills in Valladolid. As university was drawing to a close, I applied to several teaching programs before deciding to participate in the Auxiliares Norteamercanos initiative.  I came to Spain on a student visa to teach English on a teaching program, landing outside of Seville in a public high school when I really wanted to be in Granada. I’ve come to really love Seville, though, and dread the day my boyfriend gets transferred away!  I finished a degree in Journalism and International Studies at the University of Iowa (USA) just a few months before coming to Spain. In the end, it came down to accepting the graveyard shift at a news station in my hometown of Chicago, or coming to Spain for a year to teach.


Hayley Anne Salvo: I first came to Spain as an Auxiliar de Conversación in the fall of 2007. I was first sent to El Puerto de Santa María in Cádiz by the Ministry of Education. After two years there I moved to Olvera for a year, a “pueblo blanco” in the Sierra de Cádiz with my partner.  I then followed my partner to Antequera, and have been living there for the last three years. I’ve never really been able to choose where I live in Spain as it’s always hinged on someone else, but this fall I’m finally making a move based on my own preference, to Sevilla! Before moving to Spain I was working at National Public Radio in the United States as a general assignment reporter and producer of a daily variety talk show.


Tamasine Smith : The move to Spain came primarily because we wanted to be closer to our aging families but things had also drawn to a logical conclusion in RSA (Republic of South Africa) where we were living.  The time was right for a return to Europe and as we have always had a love of Spain (and I have always wanted to learn the language) it seemed a logical choice.   This, and the fact that the weather we were used to in the Cape is similar to that of the Mediterranean, the south of the Spain seemed the obvious choice for relocation.

Initially we house-sat in the village of Chella, Valencia because we could have up to two years rent free living while we decided which area suited us best.  I think Alhama really chose us as my husband, who works with solar hot water, made a connection with someone who worked with the same systems he had sold in RSA.  When my husband came to explore houses near the coast but with more rolling hills, few pines and a higher altitude (all conducive to the dog work I do) I lined up 9 different houses for him to look at.  None of them were really quite what we wanted, but two days before he was due to return to Chella, he heard of the farm where we now live.  It was perfect and ticked pretty much every box on our list!  We moved within 4 weeks of finding it.


How did you first hear about The Way of St James?

Xandra: Really from my Spanish friend whom I met earlier this year out at Cap Cana, but who lived just down the road at Cadiz 

Cat: while doing a summer Spanish course at the University of Valladolid. Our Profesora just drew a long line across the top of Spain, and we spent the morning talking about the experiences she had doing it years earlier. Since then, it’s been at the back of my head to do, and this summer was the time.

Hayley: I really can’t remember the first time I heard about the Camino. It feels like something that’s such an important part of Spanish culture that after a few years of living in Spain it’s simply just impossible not to know about it.

Tamasine: I don’t know exactly how I became aware of the Camino.  It had always been somewhere in my awareness but just as Alhama seemed to choose us, the Camino seemed to choose me too.  We were already due to come to Spain and often went to our little local art cinema in Franschhoek.  We wanted attend the movies here one last time before leaving RSA and I had read the local leaflet mentioning a movie about a father walking in the footsteps of his son who had died in the Pyrenees.  Maybe my subconscious had put two and two together but as we sat in the moments before the movie started to play I said that now we were going to live in Spain, maybe I could walk El Camino de Santiago.  I can’t say I even know where that thought came from, but as the film started and the plot was revealed, it seemed that something within had already decided that this is what I was to do.  The movie of course was “The Way” with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.  Although a work of fiction, it depicts well some of the many reasons that pilgrims choose to undertake walking El Camino.  At a farewell surprise dinner some friends had organised for me a few days later two of the members of the group started talking about the Camino and how they planned one day to walk it… the “intent” had been set.     


The routes they walked were:

Xandra walked Sarria to Santiago in 5 days


Cat and Hayley: Walked 326km (200 miles) together on the Ruta del Norte, which was once traversed by nobility and clerics when the Moors controlled most of the rest of the peninsula. They did 14 days total, starting in Avilés (Asturias) and averaging about 20-25km per day.


Tamasine: is still walking her Camino as she chose the Levante route and always takes one of her Rhodesian Ridgebacks, alternating them each walk.  This is 1205km (the most famous route the Frances is approximately 791 km or 490 miles). Her current distance is 488 km and she is just north of Toldeo.  She hopes to add another 280 or so km to the journey in October and plans to do the final part over 4 weeks next year. 


What were the challenges I asked?

Xandra: Honestly after training a bit before hand by walking around 10 kms a day I found it relatively easy.  The hardest day was the hottest day when I walked up hill and really did not have enough water on me to drink, I did get a bit dehydrated. 

Cat: There were big and little challenges every single day – from dealing with blisters and sore joints that made walking a slow, arduous process, to trying to hold it while looking for the next bar to stop and use the facilities! My partner and I got into a good rhythm, so we knew how far and how fast we could go, and when we’d need to stop, too. Another funny challenge was dealing with people you didn’t want to walk with, finding a way to get your clothes as clean as possible, coping with inns that had no room in them.  As a matter of fact, it was a nice change to just wake up and worry about walking to the next destination and nothing else. Now that I’m back home, I’m trying to catch up on sleep, nurse my feet and eat more vegetables!

Hayley: I think the biggest challenge was getting ready for the trip. I probably stressed way too much over things like breathable shirts and comfortable pants, or how many changes of socks or underwear to pack. I was definitely prepared when we set out but I could just have easily stressed less and figured out things along the way. 

Tamasine: The research said that Levante at worst was “not possible” and at best “not wise” to walk with dogs. I am not one for “not possible” and I wanted to prove that someone, with the right training, preparation and right dogs, could walk the Camino with them.  The Levante would require some logistical planning and as I wanted to share the walk with the dogs and see what this experience brought to me and wanted to keep their welfare in mind, I had to organise my walk carefully and include a back up vehicle for the dogs.  If you were with a fellow human, you might have a grumble or a laugh and you could choose to cut a day short and camp out or find a different hostel, or you put up with the extra kilometres, but when you are with a dog, they rely on you and you are responsible for their water, their welfare and any extra distance they have to walk.  Rhodesian Ridgebacks do not like rain!  So far, on only one occasion have I needed to get the dogs picked up at an unscheduled stop and that was on a particularly wet and windy day leaving La Font de la Figuera.  I continued alone and bedraggled and it was on this occasion I realised how much company the dogs gave me and how they actually stay joyful and in the moment no matter what.  They bring joy in the darkest moments and I keep going because of them – more so I believe than if I was with a fellow human. 


What experiences could they share which particularly stuck out? 

Xandra: There were so many experiences from the walk.  The most profound was the night we stayed in a beautiful Casa Rural and spent a couple of hours before dinner talking with 2 old simple living farmers, Hilda and Manolo, she told hilarious stories of how she killed pigs and made her own sausages and shared with us her most wonderful home made liquor whilst she regaled stories of her family and past. No topic was taboo with her, what a character! 

Cat: There were heaps of moments on the Camino that stick out, but actually arriving to the finish line and running into the people we’d met along the Way was really special. After sharing moments of frustration and desperation, being able to laugh it all off and have a beer was fun! 

Hayley: On our shortest day, just 15km, we had to rush from Baamonde to Miraz to get one of the 26 coveted beds at the popular Cofraternity of St. James’ Albergue. We left around 5:30am and walked in the dark and rain, arriving around 9am. Because we had to wait until 4 in the afternoon for the albergue to open we spent the rest of the day in the local bar drinking beers and chatting with other pilgrims. It was not at all what I expected from the Camino, but it was a nice way to spend a rainy day. 

Tamasine: The Levante route is a much more solitary route than some of the other caminos and certainly more so than the Frances.  So far in 488km there has been one other pilgrim and he was seen ahead of me by my husband. There are many experiences that I could talk of and many of course include the wonders of a sunrise, searching for arrows or shell markers by torchlight, freezing in the dark and early morning at -7C on the plains of La Mancha or lying with my aching feet up in the air, performing physio stretches right in the middle of the pathway praying for the day to end but with a dog nose cheerfully stuck into my eye so that I could not feel down for long. 


And advice to new walkers?

Xandra: Make sure you take a camel water bag, prepare a bit beforehand but most of all stay in nice places and take your time to enjoy the walk.

Cat: I would advise everyone to go without expectations, and to take the challenges as they come. We were sponsored by Caser Expat, and I also walked for charity, so I had some of the more hard-core pilgrims wrinkle their noses when we told them about the sponsorship. I learned to keep walking in my own way, and to respect the way that people chose to walk theirs (or, in several cases, take public transportation in theirs). No two experiences on the Way could ever be the same, so just walking at your own pace and with your own conditions is the only way to do it.

Hayley: My only advice is if you’re thinking of doing it, do it! 

Tamasine: Do your research and choose the route for you.  Each offers it’s own unique experience.  If you are someone who likes to be alone or who wants a more solitary experience, choose a lesser known route, if you would like to meet other pilgrims, choose one of the northern routes.  If you want to walk with someone – make sure that you are able to go at a similar pace or that if you need to separate, that one or other of you won’t get offended!  The Camino brings up all sorts of emotions and thoughts and it can put a strain on friendships and relationships.  Of course, it can bring people closer together.  If you are someone who likes to talk a lot, don’t walk with someone who wants to walk in silence!  Wear the right shoes and make sure they are already comfortable to your feet. 


The Camino is known as a life changing experience – I asked has the experience changed yours and if so in what way?

Xandra: Not really, even though I am very enthusiastic about my experience.

Cat: I didn’t expect a moment of clarity or a profound experience, and I didn’t get one in the end. If anything, it helped me to understand my partner better. We made one another our first priority, and had hours to talk about anything and everything. What’s more, I’ve come to realize that I’m the sort of person who won’t take the easy route – completing the walk was our goal, and we were proud to do it walking the whole way with our packs on the whole time. I’ve always considered myself strong physically, and now I realize I’ve got a lot of mental grit, too.

Hayley: I did not experience any grand epiphany as a result of my pilgrimage, but I definitely learned that I am stronger than I thought, and capable of achieving great. It may not have changed my life, but it certainly affirmed it

Tamasine: I think I am still discovering this.  For me the change and my journey along the Camino actually started in South Africa when I gave up everything that I knew as a way of life with horses.  I had to rehome all my loved horses and walking the Camino has been a way of coming to terms with this “loss”.  As they say, every journey starts with one step and the Camino was the end of one part of the journey through my life and the start of another.  As one walks it, it really does become a metaphor for one’s own life. 


Would you walk the Camino again?

Xandra: I am hoping to walk some other parts, my friends are suggesting we walk from the Portuguese side next summer, I hear its very beautiful. Gradually over years I would like to do the whole walk.

Cat: Most definitely – there is talk in our group of walkers of a 2014 reunion on the Camino Francés!

Hayley: Absolutely. I think once you walk one Camino you’re hooked for life. Cat and I loved our experience on the Northern Route and are already talking about trying the more popular French Route in the future.

Tamasine: Yes, undoubtedly.  I already plan to do another route, maybe the Via de la Plata in a different way but still with dogs in order to raise funds for a local dog rescue charity and in order to raise awareness over dog health and nutrition.  I hope to encourage others to join me on sections and to raise sponsorship for their section and to join in whatever way they can.  It is addictive and I can see myself always aiming for the next Camino!    


Something about the walk which changed your conceptions of what to expect.

Xandra: I was surprised by the comradrie, the totally international mixture of people, and just how much fun it was.  On the Camino I think the laughter we shared the night we stayed at the hostel, went out for dinner and found upon our return a room full of Snorers, only 11.00 pm and my bed taken by a young man.  We got a fit of giggles and couldn’t try to re-enter the room until well after midnight!

Cat: Since we chose to the coastal route, I’d say that our experience was a bit different than doing the popular French route. We ran into the same, small group of people every day along the trail and at the albergues, rather than the huge masse of people who we saw when the Norte ran into the Francés. We found that the Coastal route had more highway walking and far less amenities, but perhaps the changed expectations helped us to keep our morale high, even through rain and racing for beds. I knew the Camino would be tough physically, but I was also surprised about how my body adapted after a few days. I felt stronger and able to walk further after a week, and given the time, I would have liked to walk to Finisterre and back.

Hayley: The downside of our pilgrimage was competing with other pilgrims to stay at the Municipal Albergues. Rather than fostering friendships along the road it turned some day’s walk into a competition.

Tamasine: there came a realisation about how much “stuff” we drag around with us – mental, emotional and physical baggage.  For me, it has made me want to be rid of some of the material things that I cart around and I keep looking at how it might be possible to have a more simple life yet still fulfil my responsibilities.


Your table of 8, who would you choose to have a meal with during the Camino with you and why?

Xandra: The historical figures. I recall one pilgrim from Japan I met along the way who reminded me how different the ancient times would have been.  Particularly the backpacks, some really carry a lot but in the old days people would have had very little in their worldly goods

Cat: I would love to have another meal with my peregrino friends – Hayley, Iván, Manuela and Guido, Sandrine and Claude, and Valerie and Guy. We ran into them often, and even with the language issues, our meals are wonderful memories.

Hayley: Well, St. James should probably be there as he’s the star of the show. I’ll take Cat too as she’s my camino compatriot. I’d love to have some of my favourite friends at the table as well that we met along the way: Peter from Germany and Isa from France. The Italian couple, Guido and Manuela. And as there’s still room I’d invite my parents and brother.

Tamasine: Although he has been in the news a lot recently, I have been following the history of Richard 111 for years and was for a long time a member of the Richard 111 society, studying the history of that period.  He would have to be an honoured guest at my table!  

Buck Brannaman, probably the best horsemanship trainer alive today, with his dry humour and gentle nature has been one of the greatest inspirations of my journey into animal behaviour and initially my work with horses. 

Andy Hamilton from Radio 4’s News Quiz would be a must as he never fails to make me laugh and his witty comments on current events fit with my own views of them. 

The singer Pink would have to be at the table – strong, powerful, dynamic, highly individual and with something relevant to say. 

Cesar Millan better known as “The Dog Whisperer” as he has a passion for the plight of dogs including those in Spain, has a great following here and promotes his philosophies of “rescue, rehabilitate and rehome” and the power of walking with dogs – both with which I heartily agree.

JK Rowling would be there as friends said that one great way to learn a foreign language is to read a translation of the Harry Potter books.  I have JK Rowling to thank for my improving Spanish!

Rick Stein has such passion for good local ingredients and this combined with his own love of travel fits with some of my own great interests. 

Last but not least – if all these people were coming, my husband Michael would have to be there because without him this Camino would not have been possible.    


Next thing on your bucket list! 

Xandra: Live on board a yacht, travelling and learning more about this life

Cat: After the Tomatina later this month, my Camino partner and I are launching a business! We took the time to hash out more details on the daily walks and dream up our business plan.

Hayley: I’m working on traveling to 30 countries before I turn 30 and I’ve got a year and a half and three countries to go. Greece? Thailand? The Czech Republic? Who knows?!

Tamasine: The next Camino!!


To find out more about Cat’s walk and more information

I have a number of Camino-related resources on my personal blog, Sunshine and Siestas:

I’m also on twitter and instagram at @sunshinesiestas, and on Facebook at


And to find out more about Tamasine’s ongoing walk or via the website and check out the blog page link – and