Why Walking the Camino de Santiago is Not Just a Religious Journey
Though it’s best known as a religious pilgrimage, walking the Camino de Santiago does not need to be a spiritual journey and people from all walks of life can and do take this adventure for different reasons.
Taking a long-distance walking trip like the Camino is an extremely fun way to see the world and it’s also an affordable way to take a one, two or three-week vacation. Walking from one town to the next is exciting and good for the soul, while the cost of living on the Camino is minimal.
In this article, I want to talk about my experience on the Camino Frances, one of eight main pilgrimage routes in Spain known as the Camino de Santiago, and what it might mean for you.
Why Walking the Camino de Santiago Appeals to the Masses
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage tradition in which a pilgrim would walk from their front doorstep all the way to the cathedral in Santiago, where the remains of St. James, who was responsible for bringing Christianity to Spain, is buried. For this reason, thousands of people from all over the world will take this walk each year.
There are many different “Caminos,” which start at various points throughout Spain and finish in Santiago, in the northwest of the country. Camino Frances is the most famous and popular route. It begins in a small town in France called St. Jean-Pied-De-Port.
Not everyone walks the Camino in one go. Most people can’t afford five weeks away from work or to leave commitments back home for that long, which is approximately how long it takes to walk the full route of the Camino Frances, which is almost five hundred miles long.
Walking the Camino de Santiago is Not Just a Religious Journey
For some people, walking the Camino is a kind of therapy and a means through which they can process an internal problem of some kind. Many pilgrims use the Camino to let go of the past and start anew.
I met people with all kinds of stories on the Camino Frances. Mike had quit his high-profile job in Montreal to seek the inspiration he needed to change careers. Lydia from Frankfurt just went through a nasty breakup. Delores from Dublin lost her daughter to cancer some years ago and Mia from Sydney was backpacking around the world but wanted to do something out of the ordinary.
I had no grandiose reason to be walking the Camino. Unlike others, I was not dealing with heartbreak or disillusion of any kind— I’ve been there before. Instead, I wanted to walk through the countryside, enjoy the sunshine in northern Spain and indulge in the occasional glass of red wine.
What is walking the Camino actually like?
A Typical Day on the Camino Frances
Most pilgrims rise with the sun and start walking by 7 am or 8 am. It seems a little early at first, but the cool morning hours are some of the most enjoyable. You will walk through various landscapes, from mountains and barley fields to forests and woodlands.
After every five or ten kilometers, you usually pass a town or village and this is always a good time to stop for coffee or a bite to eat. For most people, twenty kilometers is a good daily target which should allow you to finish walking by lunch-time and avoid the afternoon heat.
In the afternoons, pilgrims often spend time drinking coffee, reading, chatting, tending to blisters or doing laundry. Some people stay up in the evenings to socialize, but many go to bed and have an early night in anticipation of the next morning.
It’s a simple life. Sometimes the sun burns and your feet hurt, but there’s always the option of stopping early. In this sense, walking the Camino is challenging but also suitable for people of all ages and every level of fitness.
My Biggest Concern
I’m not one for crowds. I get social anxiety in group situations and enjoy spending time alone. What’s more, I often go for a walk to escape people and things, and the Camino sounded like the polar opposite. For this reason, I worried that walking the Camino might be too busy and slightly overwhelming.
But I was wrong.
I spent five weeks walking across Spain, during which I met so many weird and wonderful people, which was the absolute highlight of my trip.
Walking the Camino de Santiago is a very social experience. However, you can spend time alone easily and this is especially true when it comes to the actual walking. Whether you drop behind or move ahead of others, nobody minds and everyone seems to understand this common need for alone time. What’s more, it’s not always as busy as you might expect and certainly not overwhelming.
Experiencing the “Spirit” and Interacting with Other Pilgrims
Social anxiety is quite a strange disorder. It comes and goes like the wind. For some people, it’s more extreme than others, but either way, it’s always stressful, though stress is relative for the individual.
I never felt any social anxiety on the Camino de Santiago. In fact, I realized that a certain type of person ends up on this kind of trip and they tend to be friendly, considerate and very rational.
That makes the general vibe of positivity on the Camino have a calming effect. It’s also easy to interact with other pilgrims, for you already have something in common and camaraderie is available at every turn.
An Affordable Adventure for Like-Minded People
As if that’s not enough, walking the Camino Frances is possibly the cheapest trip I have ever taken. Aside from the airfare, getting to the starting point can cost as little as $15 from the airport at Biarritz. With most hostels (Albergues) costing just $5 or $8 a night, accommodation is cheap. Pure drinking water can be obtained at the fountains in every town throughout the route. As for wine, some places charge as little as $1 for a glass of top quality wine. Even though I’m not a drinker, it was nice to indulge on occasion.
Walking the Camino does not need to be a religious journey unless you want it to be. My “reason” to walk the Camino? I just wanted to have fun. The Camino Frances was an adventure and an opportunity for me to meet like-minded people from all over the world.
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Derek Cullen is an adventurer and travel writer from Dublin, Ireland. Having traveled the world in search of new experiences since 2008, Derek now spends most of his time leading adventure tours through Africa.