The Vía de la Plata, like many other Camino de Santiago routes, is inhabited by a number of different types of signs and arrows that aim wandering pilgrims in the direction of Santiago de Compostela.
Overall, both the main Vía de la Plata and the Camino Sanabrés variant are well way marked, although sometimes it may be necessary to pay serious attention, consult a map, or ask for help (it’s useful to speak Spanish in these cases).
The majority of the way marks are painted yellow arrows. These are easy to identify by the fact that they are obviously painted, obviously yellow, and obviously arrows. They can be found throughout the route, from Andalucía to Galicia.
They are usually painted quite clearly,
but they may also be drippy
They’re usually just plain yellow, but in the area after Mérida, they tend to be outlined in red (and may be accompanied by a Saint James cross),
and occasionally the yellow tends toward fluorescence.
Yellow arrows can be found on trees,
or fence posts,
or back of signs,
little bridges over ditches,
and occasionally even on fountains,
and random posts.
They usually indicate the Camino de Santiago route, but may also point to albergues.
They may also show where a route divides. If you’re lucky, a sign will explain the division.
If there’s no accompanying sign, a guidebook can come in handy.
The most difficult part of using a yellow arrow can be to find it. Sometimes they’re everywhere, but other times they can be quite hard to locate. For one thing, they prefer highways and countryside to cities, where they can be more difficult to find or even disappear altogether.
Once you find a yellow arrow, the procedure is generally simple: you walk (or cycle) in the direction indicated. However, there can be difficulties. In the case of ambiguous arrows, which might point straight ahead but kind of sort of aim to the side, the safest thing to do is ask someone if they’re around, and otherwise to continue straight ahead.
Please note that some arrows appear to point straight up in the air. You should not take this literally.
Stone markers come in many different shapes and sizes, but they’re easily recognized by their generally stony nature. Unlike the yellow arrows, stone markers stick to their own climactic zone. Different species are found in different places.
Some types include the Parque National Sierra Norte markers (after Castilblanco de los Arroyos),
Camino de Santiago rectangular markers (which I believe are native to Andalucía, although they may edge a bit into Extremadura),
cubes with a sketch of the Arch of Cáparra on their top (these inhabit Extremadura),
short white stones with a yellow shell and arrow (which seem to be found only in the province of Zamora),
pillars with “Vía de la Plata” in English and Arabic with a metal pilgrim staff and gourd (which appear for a while beginning in Baños de Montemayor),
pillars that say “Vía de la Plata” and have a yellow shell (found in the province of Zamora),
large stones with the name of the town and advice and well-wishes for pilgrims (I believe these are native to the province of Zamora as well),
artsy arrows and sometimes stylized pilgrims (found only in Galicia),
and short posts with embedded shell tiles (also found in Galicia; they occasionally have plaques with the distance to Santiago, but these generally seem to have been stolen).
The stone way marks work in different ways. If they have arrows on them, you can follow them in the same manner you would follow painted yellow arrows. If there are no arrows, you can take them as a sign that you’re going the right way.
The main exception is the Extremaduran cube marker. These have a dashed yellow line running through a picture of the Arch of Cáparra on the top, which indicates the direction of the route. Be sure to follow the ones with the yellow squares (or green and yellow). I believe the green ones indicate the precise route of the old Roman road; in any case, they tend to take you off paths when not combined with yellow.
Another possible exception is any marker with a shell, although these can be tricky. Sometimes they point toward Santiago. In Galicia, on the official stone markers, I believe the “rays” of the shell always point to Santiago. However, you can’t rely on this for non-official markers, or with shells on other parts of the route.
Signs are found scattered across the Vía de la Plata. Apart from metal signs, they tend to be far more endangered than their stone counterparts. Different types are frequently found alone, or in very small clusters. They may be wooden, metal, cardboard, or made of some other material.
The two non-road signs that are found throughout the route (with minor variations) are a small blue one with a yellow shell and an arrow,
and a sign with a stylized pilgrim.
Some examples of non-road signs that come in small clusters include signs with a photograph of the famous Santiago statue at the Santa Marta de Tera (found in the neighbourhood of that town),
signs with “Camino de Santiago,” a shell, and occasionally other words (found on a small portion of the Camino Sanabrés),
and occasional “Vía da Prata” (Galician for “Vía de la Plata) signs (in Galicia).
There are also some signs that seem to be the sole remaining member of their species.
A common road sign warns drivers that pilgrims may be passing, but is also helpful for walkers, since it suggests they are headed in the right direction.
Another popular sign warns pilgrims they’re about to share a route with a highway.
Occasionally, there may be impostor signs, such as construction signs with yellow arrows.
Detour signs can also create problems.
In this case, I tried following the more permanent way mark, which led me to a sign that warned of potential explosions ahead. I backtracked, decided that “desvio” meant “detour,” and successfully followed more temporary signs until I was back on the normal route.
Way Mark Habits
Way marks generally live alone. When pilgrims are lucky, they stay fairly close together. Sometimes, especially in cities and on straight roads, they’re few and far between.
But occasionally, they congregate in great numbers, leaving passing pilgrims with no doubt whatsoever of the route.
So in conclusion …
As they say at the Dead Dog Café, stay calm, be brave … wait for the signs.