The Variante Espiritual on the Camino Portugués ~

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The Variante Espiritual is part of the larger Camino de Santiago and a longer variant from the Central Route of the Camino Portugués. Technically starting in Pontevedra along the Central Route, after three kilometers it splits toward the west and is 45.1 kilometers of overland walking to Vilanova de Arousa. It ends with a 26.5 kilometer boat ride, along the only Maritime Way of the Cross, from Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecesures via the Río Ulla.

As the Spiritual Variant grows more enormous in popularity, it carries with it a lot of hype! I hadn't heard a single negative thing about this route from the moment my interest in it first arose. The question that I asked myself before embarking on this pilgrimage is this: Does the Variante Espiritual live up to its hype? 

I can answer with a resounding "Yes!" Any lengthy walking pilgrimage can be a transformative adventure, promising self-discovery, a physical challenge and even more "Camino Magic" as we can call it. This route truly offers it all.

For me, this route was the most enchanting of any part of any Camino de Santiago that I have walked. That's a lot of hype, isn't it? 

"To be enchanted is to be comfortable with the fact that not everything can be explained; to tolerate, even welcome, the presence of mystery. It is to be challenged, to be awakened, to be gripped and shaken to the core by the extraordinary which lies at the heart of the ordinary. " ~ The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday by Sharon Blackie.

The Variante Espiritual Unique WaymarksThe Variante Espiritual Unique Waymarks

Maps and Stats

Most people take two days to easily walk the 45.1 kilometers of the overland portion of this route from Pontevedra to Vilanova de Arousa. Vilanova de Arousa is where most pilgrims end the walking segment. However, if you are coming from the longer Central Route and find yourself staying overnight in a town before Pontevedra, as we did, you may wish to do it in three. 

Here is our map of the entire route from Pontevedra, for you to preview, plan and prepare for the Variante Espiritual of the Camino Portugués.

On the map, I have included the route of the boat ride in a lighter shade of blue to distinguish it from the walking pilgrimage. The boat ride lasts about two hours, arriving in Pontecures which is only three kilometers from Padrón. 

Vilanova de Arousa is where most pilgrims end their overland journey. However, if you prefer to walk the 32 kilometers from Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecesures, the alternative walking route is shown in red.

The GPS tracks for this entire route can be downloaded here. The download will be automatic, and you must unzip the file before you can use it, by clicking on it and extracting the file! 

The "Spiritual" Part of the Variante Espiritual, Camino Portugués

Much of the enchantment of the Camino Portugués along the Variante Espiritual is the unique boat ride that not only offers a refreshing break from walking but also serves a significant historic purpose. 

The boat ride mimics the legendary maritime journey, called the Traslatio de Santiago (or transfer of St James). According to tradition, this transfer of the body of St. James was undertaken by the apostles in 44 CE, by boat. His body was intentionally taken from the Holy Land, brought up the River Ulla, and into Padrón where it was laid on a rock altar or sarcophagus (known as a Padrón in Spanish and hence the name of the town), prior to his final overland journey to Santiago de Compostela. 

This altar has actually been shown to be of Roman origin, with inscriptions referring to the god, Neptune. Regardless of its origin the altar has been revered for centuries, giving it an ethereal quality. It is now on display under the main altar in the Igrexa de Santiago Apóstolo de Padrón. You may wish to visit this spiritual site when you go to Padrón. To read more about the legends of Padrón click here for one resource.

Some legends say this same "rock" altar was the mooring stone where his boat was tied. Some state the boat which carried Santiago was made of stone, therefore naming the town! The legends regarding the Traslatio abound and all have a bit of a different twist! 

What is significant is that the Variante Espiritual attempts to connect pilgrims with the route’s rich religious history, thereby making it a Spiritual Variant. With the legend in mind, it is easy to see how the Variante Espiritual on the Camino Portugués got its name! 

Boarding the Boat to Pontecesures Before DawnBoarding the Boat to Pontecesures Before Dawn

There are 17 crosses along this river, the "Maritime Way of the Cross," and it is the only maritime way of the cross in the world. Of the 17 crosses, only 12 are visible along the shoreline where the boat travels. 

Here are three of the most famous crosses, called the Calvario, commemorating St. James and his two favorite disciples Anastasio and Teodoro, who were responsible for organizing and leading the maritime journey of the Traslatio. 

Three Crosses, the Calvario of Punto Patiño, Along the Río UllaThree Crosses, the Calvario of Punto Patiño, Along the Río Ulla

And picured next is the ruined West Towers of the Torres do Oeste, also along the river. Look out for these towers with a small ruined chapel inside, as you are nearing a viaduct overhead. It is almost right under it.

Torres do Oeste, Along the Río UllaThe Ruined Torres do Oeste, Along the Río Ulla

You may wish to book your boat trip several days ahead, especially if you are traveling in the high season summer m0nths. See day four for more information on your choices of boats and how to book.

To complete your exploration of the Variante Espiritual, you may also wish to climb the Santiaguiño do Monte in Padrón where Santiago was said to have preached. This site is also a spiritual site that existed long before St. James arrived. You can read more about it in my narrative of day twenty-four

While any lengthy walking journey offers the pilgrimage traveler the chance for a transformative, inner journey, the Variante Espiritual seems more conducive to the possibility!

The incredibly peaceful monasteries of Poio and Armenteira offer the pilgrim a respite from daily life and worries. 

Mosteiro de Santa María da ArmenteiraMosteiro de Santa María da Armenteira

And finally the sublimely shady and mossy forest walk on the Ruta da Pedra e da Auga is unparalleled in its charm. This trail system that begins after Armentaira and continues for a full 8.2 kilometers along the Rego da Armenteira (a river channel), passing by historic flour mills called muiños and waterfalls, will transport you to another place and time. 

Muiño da PonteMuiño da Ponte
Moss Covered, Ruined Muiño with Grist MillstoneMoss-Covered, Ruined Muiño with Grist Millstone

The Ruta da Pedra e da Auga, the Route of Stone and Water is serene walking at its finest. The easy downhill along the river is like no other river path I have been on. We slowed down very intentionally, savoring every moment. 

This peaceful path is just calling your name loudly, to slow down, breathe, and bathe in the lush forest trees and the flowing water. Never is there a calling stronger, inviting you to move internally to a place of Love and Peace. While the monasteries call strongly to one's soul as well, for me, the call from the Cathedral of Nature is even more wondrous and enchanting. 

As Sharon Blackie says in the quote above, it is to be awakened by the extraordinary which lies at the heart of the ordinary. Yet, this is no ordinary place...

The Verdant Walk Along the Rego da ArmenteiraThe Verdant Walk Along the Rego da Armenteira

Staging the Variante Espiritual, Camino Portugués

Here are the classic, most commonly walked stages:

Day One: Pontevedra to Armenteira, 21 kilometers
Day Two: Armenteira to Vilanova de Arousa, 24.2 kilometers
Day Three: 2 Hour Boat Ride, Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecesures, 26.5 Kilometers

However, since we walked in the morning from Arcade to Pontevedra, which is only 13 kilometers, we decided to keep on going to Combarro for a respectable 24.3 kilometer day.

This was our itinerary:

Day One: Pontevedra to Combarro, 11.3 Kilometers
Day Two: Combarro to Barrantes, 16.3 Kilometers
Day Three: Barrantes to Vilanova de Arousa, 17.5 Kilometers
Day Four: 2 Hour Boat ride, Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecesures, 26.5 Kilometers

Because the boat ride was only two hours and left at dawn, we disembarked at 10 a.m., easily walking another 20 kilometers to Milladouro to complete our day. I do not even count the boat ride day as a "day," because of this. Unless, of course, you want to explore the town of Padrón and stay overnight there.

The advantage of a longer 2.5 - 3 day walk, if you have the extra time, is five fold:

First, you can enjoy more time at the Mosteiro de San Xoán de Poio, 8.6 kilometers from Pontevedra in the town of Poio, an inviting monastery to heighten the spiritual aspect of your journey. Some quiet, contemplative time here will reward you with Peace, Presence and maybe even some insight. You never know until you open yourself to the possibility. 

This monastery in my opinion is more beautiful than the one in Armenteira which gets all the praise for some reason. I suppose it's all about the herd mentality, so dare to go your own road and spend some time here. I wish we had spent more time here and planned better for its opening hours.  

Mosteiro de San Xoán de PoioMosteiro de San Xoán de Poio

Second, you can enjoy a long afternoon and evening in the extraordinary historic fishing port of Combarro and its distinctive hórreos (traditional grain stores) right along the seacoast.

Seaside Hórreos of Combarro at DaybreakSeaside Hórreos of Combarro at Daybreak

The medieval architecture in this town speaks volumes about its past glory and the local Galician people's resilience. And the food? It's an unforgettable blend of the abundant local seafood and traditional Spanish cuisine. If you can't stay for the evening, by all means try to have lunch at the waterfront! And make your lunch even richer by washing it down with the local Albariño wine!

Quaintly Preserved Medieval Street of CombarroQuaintly Preserved Medieval Street of Combarro

I most highly recommend the pilgrimage traveler spend some time here! Be mindful, however, that this is a tourist town, but it was very sedate for us in September. The river beach, while nice, is not that lovely, so I would be surprised if the summer crowds here are similar to other Spanish beach towns.

Here is a photo of the cross called the Cruceiro Praia do Padrón, and an hórreo and other medieval buildings on the beachfront in Combarro at daybreak.

Cruceiro Praia do Padrón, Hórreo and Medieval Buildings on the Beachfront in CombarroCruceiro Praia do Padrón, Hórreo and Medieval Buildings on the Beachfront in Combarro

Third: You are totally fresh on the 2nd day for the unrelenting, 6.8 kilometer and 420 meter (1378 feet) climb from Combarro towards Armenteira. This part of the Variante Espiritual on the Camino Portugués is not to be underestimated, especially at the end of the pilgrimage day. Here is the fantastic view of the Ría de Pontevedra that you will see as you climb up and out of Combarro.

Harbor View Over CombarroHarbor View Over Combarro

Fourth: The Monastery in Armenteira no longer takes pilgrims for accommodation, so if you want the albergue experience, you will be competing for a bed in the 32-bed private Albergue de Armenteira there, the only albergue in town.

Nothing is worse, in my view than to race on this loveliest of routes to an albergue bed! If you plan to stay at the privately run albergue you MUST pre-book in order to secure your place at +34 619 53 40 87 (via call or WhatsApp). Fortunately, however, more and more accommodations are springing up as the demand is outpacing the supply. See my day two for more of them. 

Fifth: The Variante Espiritual of the Camino Portugués is absolutely a route to be savored like a fine wine! It is not to be rushed, but relished each and every moment. You can feel your enthusiasm for this pilgrimage rise as you hopefully converge with a more quiet introspective approach that will set the tone for the rest of your journey!

Playa del Terron, Vilanova de Arousa, Variante Espiritual Camino PortuguésPlaya del Terron, Vilanova de Arousa, Variante Espiritual, Camino Portugués


May you seriously consider walking this short Camino in its own right, the Variante Espiritual of the Camino Portugués! I hope my introduction has convinced you to add it to your itinerary!

The Variante Espiritual is not merely a pilgrimage route. It’s a metaphysical terrestial map guiding the pilgrimage traveler towards self-awareness, personal reflections, and if desired, towards spiritual growth.

So, whether you're an experienced or novice pilgrim, or someone seeking a deeper understanding of life, prepare to embark on an enchanting journey that the Variante Espiritual pilgrimage promises.

Vineyards and Variante Espiritual Waymark Along the Rego da ArmenteiraVineyards and Variante Espiritual Waymark Along the Rego da Armenteira

And may you be "comfortable with the fact that not everything can be explained." And may you "tolerate, even welcome, the presence of mystery" when you walk the Camino Portugués, Variante Epiritual. Ultreia!

Downloadable Camino Portugués eBooks in PDF Format ~ Get Your Copy Today!  Don't carry a hard copy guide book to increase your pack weight. Use our digital guides on your next Camino instead. 

The Variante Espiritual is Brand-New, Hot off my writing desk!

The Lisbon to Porto eBook is now updated to include the brand new boardwalk route along the river on the first day out of Lisbon!

And the Journey Continues:

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Need suggestions on what to pack for your next pilgrimage? Click Here or on the photo below!

Carbon Trekking Poles

Carbon fiber construction ( not aluminum) in a trekking pole makes them ultra lightweight. We like the Z-Pole style from Black Diamond so we can hide  our poles in our pack from potential thievesbefore getting to our albergue! There are many to choose from!  ( See more of our gear recommendations! )

Gregory BackPack - My Favorite Brand

An ultralight backpack should serve you well for years, like my Gregory has - six Caminos in all! My 28L Women's pack gets a 5-star on Amazon (Ones for Guys too)!

Microfiber Towel Set

Do not forget your quick-dry microfiber towel!

My absolute favorite book on how to be a pilgrim: