Zapatones: a symbol of the Camino de Santiago

In today’s article, we want to dedicate to one of the most emblematic pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Juan Carlos Lema Balsas, popularly known as Zapatones. In other publications of our blog we have told you some incredible stories that have happened on the Camino de Santiago, however, today’s story talks about a legend of a very real pilgrim.

Zapatones, symbol of the Camino de Santiago

We cannot say that in Santiago Ways, we were fortunate to share a lot of time with Zapatones because this emblematic pilgrim of the Camino de Santiago passed away in 2015. But it is true that when in Santiago Ways we were starting our way as a specialised travel agency, everyone was still talking about his passing.

We consider that knowing the history of the Camino de Santiago and the origin of its different routes, as well who St James the Apostle was, is essential to enjoy the pilgrimage experience even more. But the Camino de Santiago is also its people: everyday people who with their actions become key symbols of the pilgrimage.

Do you want to complete a pilgrimage too and be part of the symbols of the Camino? If you want to do the Camino de Santiago from Sarria, tell us more details about your travel plan, who you want to go with, let us organize everything to make it perfect.

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    For this reason, we always like to dedicate some lines to those pilgrims who, in one way or another, make the Camino de Santiago a unique place. Today is the turn of Zapatones, a professional pilgrim. We will tell you who Juan Carlos Lema Balsas (Zapatones) was and why he was so important on the Camino de Santiago.

    Who was Zapatones?

    Zapatones was the emblematic pilgrim, with a good-natured face, reddish cheeks and a long grey beard, and he allowed himself to be photographed in the Plaza del Obradoiro. In fact, Juan Carlos
    Lema Balsas is probably the most photographed person of all the Camino de Santiago.

    There are many homes in the world that have a picture of this emblematic character of the Camino de Santiago. Along with the other rituals associated with finishing the pilgrimage, taking a picture with Zapatones the pilgrim became a great tradition.

    The pilgrim’s cape and the King

    His presence in front of the Cathedral of Santiago was so representative that people as relevant as Julio Iglesias or King Juan Carlos himself were photographed with him. In fact, it is said that the last cape that Zapatones wore was a gift from the monarch, after noticing on his previous visit to Santiago de Compostela, that his cloak was very ragged.

    That day the King and Zapatones ate together. At the event, the famouspilgrim of the Plaza del Obradoiro did not give anything away when he was asked how the meal had gone, he just answered that he had eaten well.

    Zapatones: a 20th-century minstrel

    Besides being photographed with tourists, pilgrims and celebrities, Zapatones offered his services as a tour guide. This pilgrim by profession offered two routes, the monumental route, where he let his clients choose which places they wanted to visit, and the bar route.

    His company was an attraction among the visitors to the Plaza del Obradoiro. As if he were a minstrel from the Middle Ages, Zapatones fascinated all the pilgrims who approached him with stories of the Camino de Santiago and his own life.

    The history of the eternal pilgrim

    The life of Zapatones was never easy. This eternal pilgrim was abandoned by his parents when he was only a baby, so he grew up in a children’s home in La Coruña. For a long time, he didn’t even know his last names.

    Of his life little is known, beyond what he himself explained. Depending on the day, he gave one version or another, but he never said that he was the son of Joseph and Mary, like Jesus Christ himself.

    Throughout his life, he discovered that he had a brother in Ponte do Porto (Camariñas), also called Joseph. For a long time, however, he refused to accept that it was true.

    After the children’s home, he went to the Salesian school, but since he was never a good student, he soon began to work in the vineyards of Cambados, in the province of Pontevedra. Several robberies and prison for desertion in the military service made Juan Carlos Lema Balsas end up in prison.

    In fact, he was a great friend of the governors of the five prisons in Galicia. They say that he once showed up at a tavern in the Rúa do Vilar with all five of them. Some of them used to invite Zapatones to spend Christmas at home because although this eternal pilgrim was very popular in the Plaza del Obradoiro, his life was always marked by solitude.

    The transformation

    One day Juan Carlos Lema Balsas made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela from Cambados. He didn’t pick up the Compostela because the distance he travelled was less than 100 kilometres, in fact, he only took one day to reach the tomb of the Apostle.

    According to him, that experience, though short, was enough time to get hooked on the Camino de Santiago forever. When Juan Carlos Lema Balsas had not yet reached 40 years of age, and after leaving military prison, he radically changed his life.

    What lessons from the Camino del Santiago made him take that decision, we will never know, perhaps one day he explained it all in the Plaza del Obradoiro, but we have no record of it. What we do know is that Juan Carlos Lema Balsas decided to become a professional pilgrim.

    Why Zapatones?

    One day, when passing in front of a shop window, Juan Carlos Lema Balsas saw a mannequin dressed as a pilgrim, dressed with a cape, a hat and the traditional staff. As he later told, he went into the shop and asked the owner for the suit.

    It was said that it was the daughter-in-law of the shop owner who saw him dressed in the pilgrim clothes, and nicknamed him Zapatones. He liked the name and decided to keep it.

    The charm of the Camino de Santiago

    Zapatones, like the Camino de Santiago, experienced a revival in the Jacobean year of 1993. He himself declared that since he was transformed, he felt that society, at last, opened the doors.

    Pilgrims, Santiago Cathedral

    His profession as a pilgrim was consolidating as the Camino de Santiago was recovering as a pilgrimage route. The presence of Zapatones in the Jacobean year of 1993 was so appreciated, that the Xunta de Galicia congratulated him for the work that he was doing.

    The profession of being a pilgrim

    For two decades, Zapatones lived off the tips that tourists and pilgrims paid him for photographing with him or for his guide services. He said that, in high season, he could even raise 100 euros a day. To that, we have to add all the payments that he received in rounds of drinks.

    His last, hard years

    Although life treated him better after his transformation, as he himself said, the last years of his life were not easy either. His landlord, in the district of Sar, evicted him in 2011, and Zapatones entered a detox centre, to fight his alcohol addiction.

    In 2013, the beloved character of the Obradoiro Square was run over on the Camino Frances, 55 kilometres from Compostela, when he was going to Melide to accompany some pilgrims. Zapatones fractured, in the accident, both legs, suffered various injuries and other minor injuries.

    His recovery kept him in hospital for a while. But the pilgrim who returned was never the same. He became a much more withdrawn person and, over time, his character grew sourer and sourer.

    zapatones pilgrim, Jacobeo year

    After leaving hospital, he lived for a while in a residence for the elderly in Puentevea. But Zapatones complained that no-one left from there alive, so one day he showed up at Chef Rivera’s house in Padrón, and asked for accommodation. He lived there for a year.

    It was that locality that saw him wearing his pilgrim´s outfit for the last time, they say. One day he just left the house of Chef Rivera. He himself explained that at that time the pilgrim no longer ate anything, nor was drinking. He only smoked.

    The death of Zapatones

    His last weeks were spent in A Ponte do Porto, along with his brother José. On May 15, 2015, Zapatones passed away, at the age of 61 years. The Eternal Pilgrim, the Lucky Charm of the Camino de Santiago, disappeared, forever, from the Plaza del Obradoiro.

    There are many who claim that Zapatones must be in heaven because he had already faced hell in life. Much of the media echoed the news, especially the Galician press.

    Most of them made reference in their headlines to the popularity of the beloved pilgrim. We especially liked the way in which La Voz de Galicia broke the news. The newspaper communicated in this original way his passing:

    Zapatones is making a toast to the Apostle


    Did you know the story of Zapatones? Did you get to know him? If yes, we would love for you to share stories of your meeting or some of their photos or stories with us. It would be a nice way to pay homage to this eternal Pilgrim.

    If you are one of those who never had the opportunity to meet him, but for some reason, you have come here and you liked the article we have dedicated to him, do not hesitate to share them with your friends on Facebook. Together we will keep his memory alive.

    To say goodbye, we invite you to read another fascinating story about pilgrims from the Camino de Santiago. That of a pilgrim who went through Hornillos del Camino and forever transformed the network of accommodation on the Camino Frances. We hope you find it interesting too!

    Buen Camino!