Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Camino de Santiago: who should go?

I had a little spare time this fall, so I took off on a whim to hike the Camino de Santiago.  I hiked 300+ kilometres of the Camino Francis from Leon to Santiago over the course of 14 days.

My 330 km trek far from makes me the most experienced peregrino out there - most pilgrims hike for 800+ kilometres walking the entire way across Spain.  Regardless, here are a few thoughts for those considering embarking on the trip.

If you haven't heard of the Camino de Santiago, here is a brief rundown

  • The Camino is a pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  Technically you can walk there from anywhere, but there as several marked routes.  The most common route, by a long shot, is the Camino Francis.  This route originates in the French Pyrenees and crosses straight across Northern Spain.
  • The Camino is popular...and has been for 1000 years.  It was one of the most important pilgrimage sites during the middle ages and started to see a resurgance in the 1960s.  Thanks in part to several books, movies, and documentaries traffic has been increasing year over year.  In 2013, 215,000 people completed the Camino.
  • While this is technically a Catholic pilgrimage most pilgrims these days come out for other reasons.  Adventure, fitness, and spiritual growth are probably the most common reasons you'll hear from people taking the journey today.
  • You can walk, bike, or ride the trail on horseback.  Most people walk.
So brief isn't exactly my strong point.   Anyway.  Moving on.

Who should do the Camino de Santiago:
  • People who are multilingual will have the richest experience because they can connect with a larger variety of people along the way.  Spanish, French, German, and Italian are the most useful languages other than English.  (I'm assuming if you are reading this you speak English!)  That said, it's not essential - I'm super lame and don't speak any other languages and I got by just fine.  
  • People looking for an active vacation that also gives them an opportunity to experience a new culture, see some sights, and meet lots of friendly people.  The social atmosphere is great.  Since you are traveling primarily in small towns pretty much everyone out there is a pilgrim and your are never much more than a "hola" away from starting a conversation with someone new.
  • People who want to have an active adventure but would also like the luxuries of a bed, shower, and hot meal every day.
  • People looking for a thrifty vacation in Europe.  Daily on trip costs were about 5-10 Euros per night on accommodation, 15-30 Euros per day on food and very little else.   Travel costs to get out there are a whole different ball game of course.
  • People who are religious or spiritual and who gain value from the religious significance of this historic pilgrimage.
  • People with a decent amount of time available.  Most people hike from St John in the French Pyrenees all the way to Santiago or Finisterre in western Spain which takes approximately five weeks.  You can do a shorter trip, but for those coming from outside of Europe you'll likely want to dedicate a minimum of two weeks given the travel time you'll have to dedicate to get to Spain.
  • Solo travellers who want to do something that's fun and safe to do without a travel buddy.  I chose this trip since I was traveling on my own (poor Mountain Man had to work) and it was a great fit for a lone travel.  Not only was it nice to set my own pace and distance per day, but social opportunities were prevalent so you are never lonely.  Well, at least this is true of the Camino Francis (also known as the French route) which attracts the vast majority of pilgrims.
If you are thinking about doing the Camino one of my favourite sources to get started on planning - such as choosing which of the many routes you'll walk - is this website.

Who shouldn't do the Camino de Santiago:

There is an article that you are likely to come across when searching for info about the Camino called 10 Reason Why the Camino de Santiago Sucks.  While I think the general tone of this article is completely melodramatic (hello click bait title!) it has some points worth considering and does point out that this is not the be-all-end-all perfect trip for every individual.
  • People looking for solitude.  At the very least, don't do the Francis if what you want is solitude and alone time.  Other routes, such as the Primitivo or the del Norte may be a better fit.  Or better yet, head to the mountains.
  • People wanting to get away from civilization.  On the Camino you will pass through a city every few days and a small village or town every few hours.  Most people consider this a  luxury (warm showers, lighter pack, etc).  However, this also means you often walk on or near roads and highways and don't get any serious wilderness time. 
  • People looking for mind blowing natural vistas.  While much of the Camino is very beautiful, it doesn't compare to the spectacular views you can get way up in the mountains.
  • People with serious dog phobias.  Maybe this is a weird one?  Here's the deal: You walk though small farming villages regularly and practically have to step over their big scary looking (but seemly always tired and disinterested) german shepherds and other assorted large dogs.
  • Light sleepers.  Staying in albergues (hostels for pilgrims) means sharing your room with 3-50 other people, a certain percentage of whom will snore, get up in the night, toss and turn, and cough.  If this makes you insane, you will lose your mind.  Ear plugs and a relaxed attitude are your best friend.  Of course, you can always stay in hotels rather than albergues, but it will add significant cost (30-80 euros per night rather than 5-10) and detracts from the social experience.
Have you done the Camino?  Thinking about doing it?  I had a great experience and my only regret is that I couldn't go for longer!

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