There is a certain snobbery in the adventure travel world about the Camino de Santiago.
I’ll assume you’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t, the Camino — as it’s known for short — is a network of Christian pilgrimage routes that all end in Santiago de Compostela, an ancient city in north-west Spain. Santiago (San Tiago) is the hispanic form of Saint James; hence the Camino is often translated as ‘The Way Of Saint James’.
The snobbery isn’t so much stated outright as hanging above a conversation in the form of a half-smirk, though it does occasionally receive a full dose of vitriol. Arguments vary in pomposity and detail, but usually boil down to this:
What kind of ‘adventure’ is it if two hundred thousand other ‘pilgrims’ — the words are spat out in a globule of sarcasm — are doing exactly the same thing?
Yes. Over 200,000 people were officially recorded as having completed the pilgrimage in 2014. That sure is a popular hiking trail.
The thing is, these pen-wielding paragons tend to be the kind of ‘superior traveller’ who isn’t happy unless they’re getting one over on the ovine hordes. By their token, unless they’re the first Westerner to go somewhere previously unreachable or unknown, or the only one doing something new and exciting, or generally just proving they’re ever-so-slightly better or wiser or more perceptive than every other dumb schmuck— it’s simply not worth getting out of their fully-reclining business class seat for it.
Circular proof of superiority comes in that someone is paying them; not only to break new ground, but to write articles about doing so, generally for people who are as likely to shift from their sofas as the writer is to admit staying at a HI Hostel. Thus; smug, superior travel articles emanate from mainstream newspaper supplements, glossy magazines, and occasionally from travel bloggers who’ve read somewhere that being ‘controversial’ will get them visitors.
I hate this shit — can you tell? Let’s face it: when it comes to exploits worth bragging about, mine would go down a damn sight better than those of any freelancer tacked onto some boutique tour company’s latest offering. But boasting about my own fricken’ awesomeness is not my style. My remit is to travel without expectations, to see what my senses tell me when they’re not obscured by my own ever-so-enlightened personal narrative.
That’s why, last year, this so-called ‘adventurer’ went to Spain to walk El Camino de Santiago, the world’s most popular hiking trail.
And I will happily go on record as saying that it’s the best first big adventure I can imagine.
Because I think what scares people most about grand adventures is the idea that it’s suddenly all up to you. We live in a world of systems and safety nets, and we learn at an early age how to navigate the labyrinth of modern life — leave the house, coin here, card there, please, thank you, timetable, schedule, departure, arrival, home safe, warm bed. The risks we face? Getting caught in traffic, missing a meeting, the corner-shop sold out of milk. And life’s essentials — food, water, shelter, contentment — are mere sideshows to this little merry-go-round.
Most of us easily fall in love with the romantic idea of a big adventure — grab a backpack and hiking boots, launch forth into a magical world of mountains and birdsong and fresh, clean air. Live. Breathe. Get fit like we always meant to. Take photos. Enjoy the simple things. Let modern life drop away.
Except most of us don’t grab anything or launch forth anywhere. It’s too big a leap from the world of grey plastic curves and safety announcements to the one of sweat and strain and decisions and the great unknown. And this is what it boils down to, for we are happy to go for a jog or ride or walk, or even spend a damp weekend under canvas, because we can slot back into the system before anything unexpected happens. The big adventure never materialises because it entails losing the whole fairground, not just the rides we want to avoid.
What’s so unique about the Camino is that it delivers all the dreamlike qualities of a big adventure and simultaneously removes the unknowns.
You get the morphing landscapes, the constant exercise, the tangible sense of progress. You get the satisfaction of planning and executing; of braving the weather and coming out unscathed; of resting your weary legs at the end of a hard day. You get the feeling of immersion in a foreign land.
But it’s not so foreign that you couldn’t learn how to order a cafe con leche on the first morning of your walk. There’s none of the stress of finding a place to sleep, because there is always a place to sleep. There’s no worrying about resupplying with food or fuel, because there is always a meal up ahead. There’s little to fear if you injure yourself because there is always someone who’ll help you just a few steps behind. And there’s no danger you’ll ever get lost because there is always a splash of yellow paint to show you the way.
A big adventure it is indeed, if you spend a month or more walking the full 800km of the Camino Francés. Yet there’s just enough of a system and safety net that your only likely worry will be your ability to keep walking — which, given that it’s something we were all born to do, won’t easily be cast into doubt. You could buy guidebooks and maps and plan each day in advance, or you could show up and start walking tomorrow. The end result will be the same.
Being highly policed and regulated behind the scenes because of the trail’s historical, cultural and religious significance, the cost of food and lodgings on the Camino remain surprisingly affordable, too; surely one of the few globally-known tourists attractions not commandeered and ruined to turn a profit.
There’s something else too, which is the feeling of a shared goal; that at the end of the day, everyone really is doing the same thing, walking the path in the same direction, taking off dusty boots and massaging feet and collapsing into identical beds before getting up at the crack of dawn to do it all over again—a production line, almost, but one that generates riches for its workers, not its shareholders. To be part of this is a surprisingly joyous sensation; one that rarely occurs in normal life.
Many of the people I met on the trail were on their second, third, fourth attempts. Not because they’d failed before — they hadn’t. They kept coming back to walk it again because they loved it. It gave them purpose and meaning. Most weren’t religious. We talked about this and that. Such social encounters are a well-known aspect of walking the Camino; a source of pleasant intrigue, the details of which I don’t particularly need to recount.
And these were people who’d never normally label themselves hikers or (god forbid) adventurers — people of every age, nationality, level of fitness and motivation for being there. To adapt a cliched quote, somebody told them it was possible, so they did it.
Perhaps that’s why superior travellers hate the Camino: it’s a powerful suggestion that there is nothing superior about them after all.
Me? I loved it. Yes, I loved walking the Camino. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to do it again.
For when you’ve completed any 800-kilometre hike, you really are entitled to feel a sense of accomplishment. You’ve put one foot in front of the other until the job is done. And you are ready for a well-earned rest.
And if 200,000 other people did it too? Well—perhaps that’s what fuels the party at the end.