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.
This article first appeared on Medium, where I occasionally publish opinion pieces like this in advance of them appearing on the blog. If you’re a Medium member, feel free to follow my work there.
31 replies on “Why Do Adventure Snobs Hate The Camino De Santiago?”
Wow. For me, there’s a powerful message in here about doing things that excite you, even if others balk at it, look down on it, or say it’s a waste of time. I’ve never done the Camino, though I’ve spoken with some who have, and would like to in the future. It boggles my mind that some people would look at people getting outside, engaging in a physical challenge, and trying something new, only to scoff at them.
If you go out at take your first ever hike and spend thirty minutes and walk half a mile, then I’m excited for you, and I want to encourage you to do more. Everybody starts somewhere.
Couldn’t agree more.
I am writing a short book on my camino hike. Love your commentary, and would like permission to quote about one hundred words at the book’s end. I’ll include your links as well, so more people come your way.
Here’s the summary:
I decide to walk 300km of the camino the night before departing for Madrid. Tracing my adventures and misadventures from Leon, there are unique insights into the camino experience, landscape, culture and its past. My other task is tapping into the creative, producing original short stories and poetica. The reader see how each came into being, and how its meaning is shaped by language. This twin struggle to Santiago and creativity creates joys and crises, reveals all my shortcomings until acceptance and humility are won.
You are more than welcome!
“What’s so unique about the Camino is that it delivers all the dreamlike qualities of a big adventure and simultaneously removes the unknowns.”
I think you answered your own question.
In my opinion Camino is great mainly because there is so many people doing it in the same time. I started cycling it alone but finally met on the way other cyclist so we ended in 10 people reaching together Santiago de Compostela. On the way some of us had problems with gear, condition and we’ve been helping each other. That what is best – to discover people and dealing with your own habits. Sometimes to travel with somebody you have to give up some of your behaviour. That let us to change and open the eyes more. Everybody travelling there is going in the same way and that unites us. To feel connected to others and the world… that is the soul of Camino I would say.
BTW when are you going to do it again? Walking or cycling?
Thanks for your comment! Couldn’t agree more about the social side of it. I don’t yet know when I’ll go back – hopefully later this year, and probably on foot again.
well wrote … I enjoyed it all I will walk the Camino with my son in 2018 / in 2014 I walked with both my daughters we had a great time … after the walk it calls you back …
I have lived most of my life in a lunch box every day the same … on my 50th b-day I walked and lived the adventure … I really don’t care how others rate the Camino .. It moved me deeply … it put me in contact with really nice people … in my world it seems they are few … all racing for the un reachable carrot … it grounded me …reset my life …. it will again …. god willing …. thank you for your insight I couldn’t agree more
You are a special human with a gift and courage to truly adventure. You are also a great teacher paving may I say hope for 65 year old to ride 100 km.I am 50lbs. lighter now and Rome was not built in a day.Some say Tomato and some say tomato….
Great read. I begin my Camino in just 6 short weeks. I thought the poignant statement was “someone told them it was possible and they did it”. There is a myriad of reasons why a traveller choses to follow the way. As in all journeys the worth is not in how others view it, but rather what you invest in it yourself. The Camino may represent something different for each soul who follows it. Those who would scoff at it, obviously are so superficial, they are incapable of investing their spirit because quite frankly they are not deeply invested in life. Another great point is that this is an excellent starter for adventure travelers. In my view the number of people seeking the way speaks volumes to the significance of it. I wouldn’t of missed the pyramids of Giza for the world, does that make me a simple tourist? Most of the planet never leave the comforts of their neighborhood.
“Most of the planet never leave the comforts of their neighborhood…..” you mean : “most of the planet cannot afford to think about taking holidays…”
Remember, this is an occidental luxury..
I was directed to this article via a Camino forum. I am about to commence my fourth Camino de Santiago, each time a different route. There is something that draws people back to the Camino time and again. I had never hiked, or even walked for pleasure before my daughter invited me to join her on the Camino Frances in 2014 and since then I have walked 3,000 Camino kilometres and am about to walk 1,000 more. I have blogged live from the trail every day and it never ceases to amaze me that I receive views from all over the world and have such interesting interaction from so many enthusiastic people. The Camino has changed my life and I am very grateful to it.
Buen Camino for your next adventure.
Tom, that’s a great article, I love it and am sharing it with my friends who, like me, are great fans of the Camino de Santiago. But please, change the typeface, because it’s so ugly and difficult to read.
Glad you enjoyed the article. I’ve had no other complaints about the typeface, though!
I don’t think the majority of peregrinos walk to be called “adventurers.” Who cares what the “elite” adventurers think?
Second that, Deborah. I am not proud of the manner I completed my Camino Frances (SJPP to SdC) – slow and somewhat painful, but I completed it (and out of ignorance didn’t use a taxi or bus anywhere and didn’t realize until a couple of years later that such a ‘deprivation’ was an accomplishment in itself) and maybe 2/3 the way thru something changed in me that has lasted.
The Camino is special. It is not camping out. It is not in the wilderness, although many times I looked around and did not see anyone for what seemed miles. It is not necessarily a pilgrimage although it is a pilgrimage for many. I found it to be a long walk with my wife of 40 years whereupon we met many, many wonderful people. We heard of the challenge and investigated it and studied it. We thought we could do it and tried it and walked the whole 500 miles. We might not do another Camino but we have investigated other walks that are interesting. The difference this time is that we know we can do it. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail is not what we want to do or are able to do. A long walk with supporting infrastructure is great for older folks.
Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter what you do, but how you do it.
The Camino guarantees nothing but finding one’s inner strength …if one is willing to find it. The Camino can be walked in a’modern’ way, with occasional taxi or bus ride, or it can be done in the purist WAY with just stubborn determination and the will power o get up and out every morning and do IT again – that threshold can come on the second day from the classic start at the French border (St Jean PP) , and if you survive the first day mountain climb. About 5% of Pilgrims complete the Camino France’s this way,but there is where the adventures are richest – how about running out of water, at altitude and it’s hot, and realizing that you have 6 hours left before you get to the next village but then miraculously stumbling across the fabled mountain spring of THE Knight Roland, from high school and English 101… In the very historical place where Roland heroically fell in battle that had no outcome but his falling…but he did it anyway…so why should you complain but here you are thirsty and water-deprived beyond imagination .(you feel) but now rewarded with endless mountain spring water that is maybe the purist water in the world. Hmmm, gives a chill even at altitude and 90 degrees. And that is only the first or second day…and there is 500 miles to go with many more confrontations with ‘self’ and one’s inner Roland or St Joan d’Arc. That is the WAY!
Firstly Tom thanks for a great blog(s) which I have been reading for a few years now and has been a source of inspiration to me. I walked my first Camino, the Camino Frances in 2012 and wasn’t even sure if I would make it all the way to Santiago but due to the many wonderful people met along the way I persevered and after 800 kilometers arrived in Santiago. There is something about the Camino that grows on you. Since then I have walked the Via de la Plata, Seville to Santiago route, which is a 1000 kilometer long and much, much quieter than the Camino Frances. Last year I walked the Camino del Norte from Bayonne in France to Cabo Fisterra and having finished that went on to walk the Camino de Levante from Valencia to Santiago which was a 1200 kilometer route and very challenging as there was very little infrastructure for pilgrims. Between Valencia and Zamora a distance of about 800 kilometers I can’t have encountered more than half a dozen other pilgrims. I slept in bull rings, monasteries, convents, gymnasiums, accommodation provided by policia municipal, camped out and even stayed a few nights in very infrequent albergues. The Camino can definitely be an adventure! The Camino Frances is the one most people think of but there are many other very rewarding routes in Spain worth looking at.
Hi Kieran, would like to contact – ‘jon harrison’ on facebk.
Most people do the camino because it is the cheapest place in the world where you can combine in a holiday (or a trip), sports, touristic and historical activities, nature and social meetings….
Perhaps some people think it is, and perhaps this motivates some of them to do it. It’s not actually true, though.
Nobody has mentioned that the purpose of the walk was a pilgrimage (for religious reasons) nor the fact that the pilgrims walked both ways. The modern version of walking the Camino is to “prove” that one can do a long hike (big deal).
Lovely article. I was directed to this from a camino forum. On that forum fellow pilgrims are always talking about packing lists and other features of the camino. No matter how big their pack there is always one thing missing from a pilgrim’s backpack and that is an ego. We have all travelled it without asking other pilgrims what they do, how they live, what they earn etc. There is just a sense of brotherhood that other “big adventures” lack.
Well – its not reeeeely an adventure trail as such, is it? Its an adventure. Its mostly on a trail but where a long trek like the AT (or Pacific Crest) avoids villages, the Camino was established to lead pilgrims from one fortified, safe village to the next. Where the AT is a ‘nature’ trail, the Camino is like hiking through an open air museum of well preserved medieval monuments and soaring cathedrals. You can have one, or the other, but you can’t compare the one with the other. (I’ve walked to Santiago 9 times and plan on walking many more times.)
Just finished walking the Camino and I honestly have no desire to walk it again. I highly congratulate those who embark it and respect all who were touched by it, but I found it to be a pretentious walk full of people who had superiority issues due to the fact they thought they were being “purist pilgrims”. No such thing. We’re all modern day pilgrims. You could say I’m an “adventure snob” because I simply love to explore and discover things on my own; really be surprised by the the unexpected and meet people who love to experience travel the way I do. I found the Camino highly egotistical and artificial. I wanted to be touched by it and there were awesome sights, don’t get me wrong, and there were a few humble and lovely people too, but I cannot describe how eager I was to get the hell out of Santiago.
I’m always surprised at the amount of discourse that is invested in defending or criticizing. If you want to do something that doesn’t harm another do it and to hell with what others might disagree. My wife loves the Camino while I prefer hiking the Appalachian Trail. So what?!?! We want different things!
Great article! I walked the Camino in June 2019 and found it to be incredible. I believe the adventure snobs go in with the wrong mindset. If all you seek is some great accomplishment, it may not happen for you. The Camino is a different experience for each person. I met lovely people for who the Camino was a religious pilgrimage, others it was to experience the food and culture. Many wanted to challenge themselves while spending time in solitude walking through beautiful countryside. Each reason was unique and one of the my favorite pilgrim conversations was about the “why”.
One night, one of our fellow pilgrims was staying at our same lodgings and joined us in our end of day relaxation and started the “why” conversation. Why are you on the camino? It was a fascinating discussion and an incredible experience which continued through dinner with the rest of his party. My party of three joined his party of four (as we were the only pilgrims in this gorgeous farm house) and has an incredible evening of food, wine, friendship, and connection.
This is an experience that happened almost daily with various pilgrims from all over the world and it was nothing short of beautiful. Why couldn’t everyday be like the Camino? A day where everyone greets you with a “Buen Camino”? Sure, the Camino had days of physical accomplishment ending with sweat, dirt, and exhaustion. But after the day’s grime is washed off, it’s time to eat, drink a toast with new friends, and end the day a better person than when you started. Well maybe not always better, but at least cleaner and you could start again tomorrow!
Hi Tom, my neighbour George completed this walk last year and when he returned home, I had to look twice…he’d lost so much weight. I know there’s a lot of adventure snobbery out there, but if we all enjoyed the same sort of challenge it would be a very boring world. Personally, it’s not my thing…I like solitary camping at the end of a hike, not hostels, but it’s each to their own. The actual walk looks fun and very challenging though, well done!