As of 2016 I have walked both the Camino Francés (French Way) and the Camino Portugués (Portuguese Way). I have updated this post to reflect both routes.
Three kilos. I lost three kilos in 30 days while I walked the Camino Francés, from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. When I walked the Camino Portugués I lost another 1.5kg. Now, for some that could be great news – shedding some unwanted weight while taking in the sights of an ancient trek across Spain could definitely be a plus. For me, who has no kilos to spare, it wasn't the best of news.
As a vegan on a budget, The Camino offered a few dietary challenges that took some planning and flexibility to overcome. Spain is a country with a well-established food culture and such places are usually slow to adapt to culinary change. Fortunately, change IS in the air and a lot of restaurants and stores are beginning to offer veg products and options. In the meantime, if you are a vegan or vegetarian who plans on walking The Way then you will need to take some things into consideration.
Most restaurants along the route will offer something called a "Pilgrim Menu." It is generally a 3 course meal that offers a few choices for a set price. Early on they range from €7-10 but they settle around €10 the closer you get to Santiago. All this doesn't matter, because you will be avoiding them. Not only will they destroy your travel budget, they are generally not veg-friendly. A few times along The Way Christine and I asked if they could adjust their menu to accommodate our diets. Some did, but the quality wasn't great and the portions were smaller because options that were not veg-friendly were just left out, not replaced. Skip the Pilgrim Menu. Save your money.
Cooking For Yourself
Since you wont be indulging in the Pilgrim Menu, you will have to rely on cooking for yourself. This means you will need to aim for albergues (pilgrim hostels) that have cooking facilities. Plan your hikes so you always end up in towns with an albergue that has a kitchen, and you will be golden.
Along the way you can easily find things like pasta, vegetables, fruit, bread, and a few snacks. Stock up on these when you can so you can cook each night. The limited food options may be a bit repetitive, but it will save you money and provide you enough dietary fuel for your trek. I would suggest buying larger bags of pasta (or a similar staple) so that you can use it for a few days, as opposed to just buying enough food for one day. Some villages wont have grocery stores, and you never want to run out of dinner. Buying larger bags means you always have a potential dinner on hand, and buying in bulk is cheaper in the long run.
On top of cooking for yourself, I would even suggest bringing a plastic container for your leftovers. You can eat them the next day for breakfast/lunch, saving you the cost of a meal or snack. Besides, NO ONE ever knows how much pasta to cook and you will likely make way more than you can eat. I brought a container for my second Camino (the Portuguese Way) and it was a life saver!
*Remember: Most grocery stores are closed on Sunday, so shop accordingly!*
You can never go wrong with emergency snacks. As a vegan I never dive headlong into a new destination without some back-up snacks. Until you are familiar with the food of a country, and until you find out where you can locate suitable grub you should keep some extra snacks on hand. On The Camino you will inevitably get (briefly) lost or end up in a town that only sells, say, shrimp paella. Seriously, it can happen. Cue emergency snacks. Chances are you have likely planned your daily food regimen and are carrying snacks for the following days in your bag. ON TOP of those, carry snacks (nuts, energy bars, etc.) that you ONLY eat when you run out of things and are wicked hungry. There were a few times when we arrived at albergues with kitchens only to find they didn't actually work, or didn't have pots/pans to cook with. A couple granola bars for dinner isn't my ideal meal, but when push came to shove it was better than nothing. I ended up eating around 80 granola bars in my month on the French Way. So much for nutrients.
Now, I went above and beyond with my back-up snacks and brought 1kg of Clif Bars with me. Did it suck carrying an extra kilo on my back? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely. Along the Portuguese Way in particular there were not so many places to buy vegan food, so having some back-up snacks can really come in handy.
Vegan Restaurant Highlights
There are a few places along The Way where a vegan can indulge their palate and throw off the shackles of budget pasta for some legit vegan food. Such indulgences may take a bite out of your budget, but they are few and far between. Dig in when you can!
Burgos was the first place we encountered a vegan restaurant. They had a vegan Pilgrim Menu for €10 which was epically delicious. The restaurant, called Gaia, was a cozy little place just a stone throw from the massive cathedral. We ended up just walking a half day to accommodate our stop in Burgos, stuffing our faces with ravioli, panzerotti, curry, salads, and yes, dessert. Totally worth it.
L'Union is a vegetarian restaurant in the next big city past Burgos: León. We had planned to once again indulge, aiming for a nice dinner at L'Union during our disappointing stay at the Parador San Marcos. Unfortunately, we were in Leon on a Sunday...and nothing is really open in Spain on Sundays, so we missed our chance. We made up for it by ordering pizza, so L'Union will have to wait until our next visit :(
Murias de Rechivaldo
Just past Astorga is the cozy little village of Murias de Rechivaldo. We had no intention of stopping here, but we were waylaid in the most friendly of ways. The owner of Meson El Llar encouraged us to take a quick look into her cafe as we passed, but we hesitantly declined (we don't like being pressured to do things) using our diet as a defence. As soon as I mentioned I was vegan she brightened up. She was vegan, too – one of 700 in the area, she claimed. Serendipity, I suppose. She plied us with fresh juices and giant sandwiches and told us of all the vegan happenings in the area, including their desire to start a vegan political party. Pretty rad. After an hour or so of chatting we left, thoroughly stuffed and satisfied. This was truly a unique little cafe, owned by an incredibly lovely woman. Worth a visit, regardless of your diet.
Santiago de compostela
Arriving in Santiago you'll find a whole ton of restaurants that can cook something up for you, though there is one place in particular you should definitely check out: Entre Pedras. They have a cheap, delicious menu and their staff are wonderful. They usually don't start serving dinner until after 7pm, which isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it's worth the wait, I assure you!
You will also be able to find a few health food stores that have plenty of vegan and veg options in Santiago, as well. Seiva de Abril is one of those such shops, and it's conveniently located along the Camino itself as you enter the city (if you are coming along the Camino Francés)
The Camino Portugués: Porto
For anyone starting their Camino in Portugal, there is a great alternative restaurant in Porto that is worth checking out: Black Mamba. Their menu is simple and affordable, and their staff is wonderfully awesome. It may not be for everyone, as it is something of a political space that doubles as a record store. If you want a polished place to eat, go somewhere else. If you want a quirky, alternative space that offers some great burgers, delicious desserts, and plays wicked music then be sure to check out Black Mamba in Porto.
Being a vegan or vegetarian on The Camino is by no means impossible. It will require some planning, some stubbornness, and an acceptance that you wont be eating the best of foods if you are on a budget. The Camino is not a foodie trip for those of us that don't eat meat, so don't get your dietary hopes up. Eat what you can, when you can...and make sure you always have your back-up snacks. You may drop a few pounds, but I promise it will be a trip to remember!
For more Camino stories and advice, check out our Camino section!