I recently got into a discussion with a Twitter follower about the Camino de Santiago. He had an interesting perspective on the popular Spanish trekking routes. The chat was in response to an article entitled Cycling Spain's Camino de Santiago with children. The comment section in particular had prompted him to declare the article 'one more reason not to do it'.
If you've never heard of the Camino de Santiago, stop here and read What is the Camino de Santiago? before carrying on.
My Twitter friend's objections to the Camino were that, as he has no spiritual motive to walk the route, he couldn't see what raises the Camino above other magnificent walks in Spain. The country is "full of rewarding and not necessarily so challenging walks". There is a "perceived need to do it all", which in most Camino routes means doing a month's walking and there are many Camino snobs who believe 'if you haven't done it all it's not valid'. (Check out the comments in the article mentioned above to see what he means.) And then there's the fact that the Camino is so busy, like a 'hiker's motorway'.
I think there is an element of truth in all of Graeme's assertions. I don't mean this post as a means to 'win' the argument - I have the advantage of having more than 140 characters to make my points - but as a defense of an excellent activity in Spain that is well worth undertaking.
So why do I think the Camino is so good and an unparalleled experience in Spain or, possibly the whole world? I believe the Camino unique in offering all of the following:
- It's relatively easy
- It is cheap, with accommodation often under 5 euros per night.
- The immense camaraderie of fellow travelers and the strong support system.
- The sense of achievement associated with walking across an entire country, along a route that has been undertaken for thousands of years.
- With a route lasting up to a month (or more if you start outside of Spain), it is an activity that you can really immerse yourself in. Read about A Typical Day on the Camino
- For the spiritually inclined, the Camino has a strong importance in Catholicism. If pagan rituals interest you more, there is the slightly longer walk 'to the end of the world' (Finisterre or Fisterra). Read about the Camino de Fisterra
Many who walk the Camino, including myself at the time, have never walked for more than a couple of hours consecutively in their lives. The Camino encourages you to walk for four or more hours a day for a month. Or less, if you'd prefer. Because while there are the snobs who say you should walk the whole thing or not at all, these people are an irritating minority. See more: How Long Does the Camino de Santiago Take?
I am not spiritual, but I thoroughly enjoyed my Camino experience. There is certainly no obligation to do a whole Camino route in one go, but the achievement of achieving it is very rewarding if you want to and can do it. At the same time, it feels very achievable, with regular cheap accommodation and a strong support network of pharmacies, food stores and fellow walkers. I cannot deny the Camino is busy, like a 'hiker's motorway', but your follow 'pilgrims' are generally respectful of people who want privacy.
The Camino is not for everyone. Experienced walkers, confident of the distances they can walk in a day, those who are not counting their pennies and don't mind paying more to stay in more expensive lodgings, those who want peace and isolation, walkers who have no interest in the spiritual aspect or the achievement of walking 'the whole thing' - these people should probably look elsewhere for their hiking in Spain experiences.
But for the rest of us, the Camino is a very accessible, unique and rewarding experience. It gave me a new confidence to walk long distances. I have since trekked in the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal. I may one day walk the Appalachian Trail or the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan. I have my Camino experience to thank for that.