When Sylvia Bailey and her daughter Catherine approached us to take on the full Camino Frances and told us that Sylvia is a wheelchair user living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), we admit that we were a little bit wary. This is a long challenge for able-bodied people, but when your mobility is restricted and you plan to cover 780km in 41 days, this is a serious challenge. However, we were quickly won over by their wisdom and willingness to try and so we jumped on board and did what we could to support them. When they were on the camino, we followed their Instagram posts with utter glee, seeing Sylvia cranking her chair with gusto and Catherine pushing and pulling her for other stages. After they’d recovered, they took time to chat with us and answer some of our questions about taking on the camino in a wheelchair. We think you will be won over too.
“I saw a video about this man who wanted to do it and he had no use of his arms at all. He was a quadriplegic, and so he had a lot more help. I figured, if he can do it, I can do it.”
Have you been planning to do the Camino for a long time?
Catherine: We had visited Barcelona the previous year for Mom’s birthday and then she said, oh, I’d really like to do the Camino. And so we planned it out in January, with a view to doing it in June-July.
Sylvia: It has been on the back burner for years, but we never did anything formal about it. But then I saw a video about this man who wanted to do it and he had no use of his arms at all. He was a quadriplegic, and so he had a lot more help. I figured, if he can do it, I can do it.
Did you plan on bringing more people to support?
Sylvia: We originally hoped that other people would join us but it’s tricky because we knew not everybody could take that much time off to do the whole thing. I haven’t worked since the pandemic so I’m fine and Catherine is a teacher so she had the summer break. Anyway, we ended up having help the very first week, with my nephew, Kay, but then after that, it was just us and people that we met along the way.
Were you surprised by this idea of your mum’s, Catherine?
I was but I was game. She has a lot of crazy ideas and I just say yes. So like, this past year, she has been more of a yes person. When she wanted to do a marathon on her hand cycle, I was like, okay, yeah, we could do that. Or in the past, when we went to Puerto Rico, she wanted to go ziplining, and I’m like yeah, we could do that too!
Which route did you choose for your Camino de Compostela?
Sylvia: The Camino Frances, the most popular one. It was the right choice for us. We went from June into July.
Was it busy on the camino?
Catherine: It was busy but not crowded. The only time it got crowded was when we went to Sarria, which is the start of the last 100km.
Sylvia: That was also when we met a team from the Spanish Royal Guard! They took it upon themselves to help me throughout the entire day.
Catherine: It was a team building activity for them over five days, but they turned it into a relay to help us instead.
Sylvia: And at first I didn’t know it was the Royal Guard. They looked like military people but I heard them calling the one in charge ‘Father’ so I asked if he was a priest. He said yes, and told me he was the chaplain for the Royal Guard, providing services to the king, his residents and foreign dignitaries. Anyway, then he told me that he was going to help me, whistled for one of his men to come over and told him to help for a few kilometres. Then he’d whistle again and another one would step in. These guys were walking military style, so we got through that day really, really quick! It was a problem for Catherine keeping up actually.
But you are super fit Catherine. We were in awe seeing your strength in those videos.
I have a weightlifting and crossfit background, so I felt confident in my fitness. But when we train here with the chair, it’s flat, so I didn’t know what it was going to feel like really. I will say it was challenging though. But because I have that background and fitness, it wasn’t really a heart rate or lung capacity issue. My legs are really short though. I’m only four feet ten inches [1.52m]. So, it just took me longer, but I felt capable the entire time. But when a man came to help push, it was definitely easier!
You pulled the chair for many stretches, Catherine. Can you talk us through this amazing pulling mechanism?
I bought a variety of things to try out before we left, and then ended up using my favourite. This was a strap that goes around my waist, with other straps to attach to a carabiner on the chair. It’s a sled pulling belt really. And then I used my walking poles to help me move forwards too.
How was the accommodation along the way?
Catherine: We knew that it wouldn’t be easy, but we just asked you to book accommodation that was as accessible as possible. Your team went above and beyond in terms of doing that. But of course there were a few places along the way where that was impossible, but you had been careful to highlight that in advance. There was one very early on that had stairs and my cousin was there so he just carried mom up the stairs. And at another bed and breakfast, there was a husband and wife there who carried her up the stairs.
What about bathroom access?
Catherine: The bathrooms were the hardest part in terms of accessibility, but I would say that The Natural Adventure organised it really well. I mean, we were staying in a different place for 39 days. Out of all of those, we only had three that I can think of that were inaccessible, and that’s amazing. They weren’t adapted, but they were accessible, as they were big enough and the doors were wide enough.
Sylvia: Of course we had to also find bathrooms when we were out on the camino. So that’s one tip. Go before you have to go, so you don’t have to go, on the go!
What was your motivation to do the Camino?
Sylvia: It was spiritual, but also a certain degree of challenge. Either to prove to myself or encourage others by showing them that it is possible that it can be done. I believe that you’re only limited by yourself. I know that there’s certain things that I would not be able to do. But yeah, if you can do it, then just try.
“The best thing was that some of the pilgrims we met along the way stayed on in Santiago for an entire week, just to watch us come in! “
How long did it take you? Longer than people without mobility or access issues?
Catherine: It took us 39 days. And we found that most of the pilgrims were finishing in a month. But many people took rest days in Leon or Burgos. Which we didn’t. We walked every single day.
Sylvia: In hindsight we should have maybe built in a couple of rest days. The cool thing was that when people had rest days, we got to catch up with them. The very best thing though, was that some of the pilgrims we met along the way stayed on in Santiago for an entire week, just to watch us come in! And they went to mass that evening with us as well. If you look at the video when you get to see us watching the giant incense burner swinging, there’s a whole bunch of them there, just sitting around us.
We thought they only swing the cathedral’s iconic giant incense holder or Botafumeiro, on certain days?
One of the pilgrims told us that they had been talking with people at the cathedral and that if you make a donation, they will swing it. They checked which day we were going to arrive, and we told them the 17 July and they said ‘good because that’s the day we’re hoping to do it. Catherine kept in touch with him along the way and, when we got there, he told us, “It’s all set up. It’s happening tonight’, and so we went with all our new friends. And it was amazing.
How was the weather, given that you went in June and July?
Catherine: There were a couple of days that were hot, in the nineties, if Fahrenheit makes sense to you. And that was in the Meseta so it was really exposed. But we’re from Florida and she’s originally from Puerto Rico, so we managed. We liked how the camino had fountains along the way, not only to fill our water bottles, but I’d also grab some water and put it all over her and that kept her cool. Other than that, we started our days off cold every day, like in the 50s which is cold for us, but then on average it was in the seventies, which was really nice.
Sylvia: So with me having MS, I have to be really careful of the heat. So I brought moisture wicking shirts, a hat and scarf and we kept getting that wet to keep my temperature down. We also just got a couple of days of rain, which pulled us off track a bit, but it was fine.
How was the food?
Sylvia: Delicious and very affordable too because a lot of the restaurants had the pilgrim menu and it was a set price. So it was between €12 to €18 for three courses with water, beer or wine. It was really good.
Catherine: I ate steak a lot – more than I normally do!
Where was your favourite place to wake up to?
Sylvia: It was in Hospital de Órbigo. We woke up in that medieval town on day 26, just before we started our walk to Astorga. We got up and looked out the window at this mediaeval bridge, right outside our windows.
Catherine: We also really loved staying in Monasterio San Zoilo in Carrión de los Condes, which is an actual monastery. I couldn’t share footage of it because the nuns asked us to respectfully not, but we sang with the nuns there that day too. So that was really special. Every day there was something special that happened really.
Was there anyone in particular whom you met along the way who inspired you?
Sylvia: There was one woman who stopped to chat with us because she had two kids who were both in wheelchairs. And both of them had passed on. She has written a book about it, and she has done the camino a couple of different times too, in honour of them. She was also there to meet us at the end, for the mass. So yeah, she was special.
What are your top tips to a person who uses a wheelchair who may be contemplating such a trip?
Sylvia: To make accommodation arrangements ahead of time, because not every hotel is going to be adapted or accessible.
Catherine: I would say, bring at least one friend, or one caretaker. At least one! And make friends. In terms of the specific parts, just do your homework, as there are some tough parts. Out of 30 days, there were only sections on three days that we needed to take a taxi. When it was just too rocky and steep, or one when there was a long downhill, and she was on her brakes for a long time, and I was running on the road alongside. So it just became unsafe. Sometimes people would tell us that a certain section ahead wasn’t safe, and so we would just take a taxi to bypass that.
“Your representative on the ground, Miguel, was on speed dial for me and ready to help at any moment. He would have got us anything, anywhere, anytime for sure.”
So what was the toughest moment for you both? And how did you overcome them?
Sylvia: It was one of the days that it rained, and we were going up right alongside the river. It was right before Pamplona and it was on a mountainside and the path was very narrow. At some point my wheelchair was wider than the path, with a ditch on one side and a drop on the other. So that was the scariest part.
Catherine: But we kept going, because my cousin carried her to a wider part of the path and I wheelbarrowed the chair on the front, third wheel. But to be honest, your representative on the ground, Miguel, was on speed dial for me and ready to help at any moment. He would have got us anything, anywhere, anytime for sure.
“I highly recommend hiking sticks and hiking sandals. Oh and Compede – that’s a must.”
What are your top tips for packing for the camino? What did you not pack that you should have?
Catherine: I wish that I had packed more cute clothes. All I brought was leggings, T-shirts and sports bras and that was it. And everybody around town was just so cute, with different clothes for the evenings. I highly recommend hiking sticks and hiking sandals. Oh and Compede – that’s a must. I also found that everything that we needed, we were able to get easily in the next town. You know what they say – the camino provides.
Sylvia: I wish I hadn’t brought books. We brought those for leisure time, but of course there was no leisure time and also we just wanted to meet people and talk at the end of the day.
What would you recommend to other pilgrims who meet a person with a disability en route? How can they best support them?
Sylvia: It’s nice when people ask you, do you need any help? Sometimes they would take it upon themselves to help and that’s a little bit aggressive. I would say to always ask, in what way can I help you or is there anything I can help you with? There was one time that we came to a creek, and there was no way I could cross. There was this group that came along and they just came in, picked me up and took me across the creek. Catherine was taking her shoes off to get in the water and, before she knew it, I was on the other side wheeling me and she was shouting ‘Wait for me!’. So, it’s always good to just ask first.
Catherine: Yeah, a lot of people asked and wanted to be involved. I did have two situations where someone would want to push me out of the way to grab her, and I didn’t care for that. But I would handle it and generally I felt comfortable with anybody who was pushing her. There was only one time when this guy was pushing her and he was a little all over the place. And so I just said, ‘thank you so much, I’ve got it from here!’
How was your recovery?
Catherine: I was really tired. Yeah, I was utterly exhausted by the end. And then, when we got back here, I had to hit the ground running, as I’m a teacher so I was straight back to work. So, even to this day, I don’t think I’m quite myself yet.
Sylvia: I mean, it took a little bit of time. It was physically challenging because I was cranking for a long time, over distances that I wouldn’t normally cover. There were also challenges in getting up early every morning, because it takes a while for me to get ready because, you know, being in the wheelchair and stuff like that. So there was a lot of physical demand in that aspect. And so I guess my body is still recovering too. But I’m fortunate enough that I can slowly recover. I didn’t have to go back to work right away like Catherine did. But it is certainly a physical challenge and it takes a toll on your body.
“You know that part of the idea of the camino is that you rid yourself of your burdens. You carry around this rock for a while, and then you find a place to let go of it.”
Have you also had time to process what you did emotionally?
Catherine: Oh yes. There’s nothing like walking 20km on a daily basis, or 500 miles in total to get you reflecting. Part of the idea of the camino is that you rid yourself of your burdens. You carry around this rock for a while, and then you find a place to let go of it. Which was strange, because I kind of liked mine. I thought I might miss it. But that’s what releasing burdens is all about.
Sylvia: I think with both of us, we lived for about six weeks out of a suitcase and everything we needed was there. So since we got back, we’ve been little by little tackling our material possessions and trying to purge a little because, well, we’re not going to take it with us.
Catherine: When I got back, I brought tonnes of stuff to Goodwill. That’s been a huge change for me, realising that we don’t need as much as what we have. And it feels good to let go. You can also think about that spiritually, of course, about what else you are carrying around with you that you need to let go.
Do you have another adventure planned, after you’re fully recovered?
Sylvia: Well, I was in Scotland 40 years ago, and it was wonderful. I may want to do that again, so we’ll be contacting you!
We hope that this blog has also given other adventurers out there to reflect, and perhaps consider taking on one of the Camino de Santiago routes themselves, or even a section of one of them to try it out. We have plenty more blogs out there to help guide you along the right path, such as How to choose from the Camino de Santiago routes, Best time to do the Camino de Santiago, Camino de Santiago packing list and Alternatives to the Camino de Santiago, for those of you who may have already done it and want to take on a new challenge. Also, if you like to travel with a therapy dog or just as a faithful companion, check out this blog on Dog-friendly holidays.