Pontevedra to Armenteira: Spiritual Variant Day 1
This post is part of a series of guides about the Portuguese Coastal Camino. If you're looking for the full rundown on that route, have a look here: What do you REALLY need to know about the Portuguese Coastal Camino?
We’re veering from the main route onto the Spiritual Variant, which is what we did. If you want a guide to the main route, I like Pilgrimage Traveler, if you’re looking for a comprehensive turn by turn, or Stingy Nomads if you’re looking for more barebones logistics.
Rejoin me at Padrón if you decide against the Spiritual Variant.
What you need to know about the Spiritual Variant
Before we get started, here are a few important details about the Spiritual Variant - a side route on the Portuguese Camino that turns off at a well-signposted turn about 3 km after Pontevedra.
It typically takes three days to complete - or to put it another way, it is usually a four day trip from the start of the Spiritual Variant to Santiago. The first three days are on the Variant. The last day is back on the main Portuguese Camino, which you rejoin at Padrón.
This might be a little misleading because for most people the Variant is really a 2 day walk plus a 2 hour boat ride to Padrón. If you get off the boat in the morning, you can fit in a days walk on the same day as the boat ride, making it possible to get from the start of the Variant to Santiago in three days.
The total distances are 46km/28.5 miles of walking and 27.4 km/17 miles on the boat. When you get off the boat, it's 24 km/15 miles to Santiago.
To confuse you even more, you can walk the boat section if you prefer - it mostly follows a road that parallels the route that the boat follows.
If you want to take the boat, you need to arrange it at least the day before, because it often leaves early in the morning and the departure time fluctuates with the tide, so it's a moving target. Most people go on the large Barca del Peregrino. There are a few small operators that do the trip as well. In the off season it's a good idea to call ahead to be sure that the boat will be running when you want to take it, because it is dependent on demand.
The story goes that this route is the origin of all Caminos, because it follows the water route that St. James' bones were said to have traveled when they were brought by his Apostles to Santiago. It’s an old story, but a new walking route that’s been developed and promoted intentionally, rather than a major traditional pilgrim route like the Coastal or Central Caminos. Don’t let that bother you though - it really is a nice option, and it is cool to think that you’re right there where the legends were said to have happened. This whole section makes for a very nice last few days into Santiago, and it would stand on its own as a great little Camino.
It’s much less trafficked than the main routes. It still has plenty of infrastructure, but dividing it up can be a little bit tricky - mainly because the most obvious stopping point - Armentiera - has limited accommodation and doesn’t really cover needs during the high season. Many people use taxis from Armenteira to accommodation options slightly off route.
We walked to Armenteira and taxi’d back to Combarro for the night (about a 15 minute drive), then taxi’d back up the next morning. It’s not a big deal, but it is a cost, and a little bit more of a logistical hassle than other places along the way.
If you’re fit, another option is to stay at Combarro and then have a big day up the hill and over. There are some hotel options along the way, or you could walk all the way to the pilgrim hostels in Vilanova de Arousa, which is about 33 km. This would include the biggest climb of the route (not that it’s really that big) so only try it if you’re fit. No sense risking injuries this close to Santiago. It all depends on how you want to set up your schedule, and how much you want to pay for accommodation.
The Spiritual Variant is well-marked, but we did used our Wise Pilgrim App for navigation a few times if I remember correctly. Food and water were no issues as there are a lot of cafes and bars along the way.
Distance: Pontevedra to Armenteira
20.5 km/12.75 Miles
The walk between Pontevedra and Combarro is pleasant, on rural roads primarily, with a little bit of climbing. The section between Combarro and Armenteira is renowned for being the hardest climb of the Coastal Camino. Personally, I didn't think it was bad, and felt like the hills out of Vigo were more of a grunt than this. It's about 400 meters/1300 feet of climbing. Not nothing, but it's a long gradual climb across 9 km/5.5 miles. If you've made it this far, you're going to be okay. Try to hit it in the morning if you can, because there is a lot of sun exposure along the way.
The route turns off at a well-signposted left about 3 km after leaving Pontevedra.
It passes through some small towns and a cafe here and there.
The first notable stop is the San Xoán de Poio Monastery (at Poio, if that wasn't obvious), about 8 km into the day. It's a really impressive structure with roots tracing back to the 7th century, and it houses a cool, striking Camino de Santiago mosaic. You can stay here as an option and it’s supposed to be fantastic. You're not going to get albergue prices, and you'll need to plan ahead with booking, but seems like it would be worth it.
A few km's later, you come to the seaside town of Combarro. Controversial opinion, but Combarro was my favorite part of the Spiritual Variant. It's just a beautiful little place. We stayed here and were so glad. We took a mussel and wine cruise from the port (and accidentally crashed a Portuguese seniors group tour in the process). We saw dolphins jumping. We had dinner as the sun set before wandering the old town in the dark. It was really just a perfect Camino night. The old town is done up for tourists and was a bit busy on the weekend, but it really is picturesque.
There are a lot of good restaurants serving local seafood on the estuary, and you can’t miss the old Crucieros and Horreos here - those stone crosses and raised granaries that you’ve likely been wondering about along the way. The Camino only skirts the edges of Combarro, but even if you aren't staying, it really is worth it to wander a km or two off track to see the town.
From Combarro to Armenteira is a bit of a trudge. People talk about it as the most difficult climb of the Portuguese Camino from Porto, but it's nothing particularly daunting. On the French Camino it would barely rate. It's true, it's uphill most of the 10 km or so, but it's gradual though, not steep. It could be that it seems longer because it's also not a highlight in terms of scenery. There is some pretty rural walking but also some nondescript logging roads. Maybe you'll be questioning the Spiritual Variant along this section, but it’s really just half a day. It’s not bad. Just meh.
Armenteira though really is cool. This isn’t a town. It’s just a monastery and a couple of bars. There is an albergue, but it’s not huge and it sells out quickly, so book ahead, or be prepared with a back up plan during the high season. There’s a Hospedaria as well but it only operates for part of the year (and not during high season), and it can’t be reserved ahead. It’ll give you the full monastery experience if you want it.
The Monastery itself is gorgeous. Founded in 12th century, it's still home to an active community of Cistercian monks. One of them will stamp your passport in the gift shop if you’re lucky enough to find it open. Lots of people come here for a visit so it has a bit of a touristed feel during the day. At night I’m sure it’s lovely but we didn’t stay. As far as town services, there are two cafe/restaurants and a nearby taxi stand - if you need a ride to external accomodation, you can call from there or the bar will help if you if you don't speak Spanish.