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El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is the most overrated long distance trail in the world. Millions have walked its path, and most gush about how great it is. It's time to expose El Camino de Santiago's ugly underbelly.
Before ripping into El Camino, let's start by recognizing its many benefits. Next, I'll mention some features that are either good or bad, depending on your values. Then, you'll learn what really sucks about El Camino de Santiago. I'll share a few stories along the way and end with some recommendations.
Today, El Camino de Santiago is a Christian pilgrimage, but Christianity didn't invent the route. In fact, like many of Christianity's holidays and rituals, the Church usurped and repackaged ancient pagan traditions and called them Christian (like it did with Christmas and Easter). El Camino Santiago's is yet another example of this. It's El Camino's dirty little secret.
Long before Jesus was born, pagans were walking across northern Spain in a born-again ritual. They would finish at Fisterra (the end of the world), burn their clothes, and watch the sun fall into the infinite sea next to La Costa de Morta (the Coast of Death). This ritual symbolized a pilgrim's death and rebirth.
Eventually, Christians claimed to have brought the remains of St. James to Santiago de Compostela. They encouraged Christians to follow the well-beaten pilgrimage path that the pagans had created, but this time in the name of Christianity. This long, rich pilgrimage history brings up an obvious question...
Why is there so much road-walking on El Camino de Santiago?
The reason is that although the Camino was incredibly popular during the Middle Ages, it fell out of fashion when the Black Plague, the Protestants, and the Renaissance ruined the pilgrimage party.
However, about 20 years ago, El Camino started becoming more popular, as hiking in general became popular. Once Paulo Coelho's Paulo Coelho's The Pilgrimage book came out in 1987, El Camino soared in popularity and hasn't stopped since.
In fact, there were an unusual number of Asians on El Camino. I rarely see Asians (or Blacks) on long distance trails. As I talked to the Asians, I learned that they're all Korean. Turns out that a Korean wrote a bestseller about her pilgrimage on El Camino, inspiring some 1,500 Koreans to hike the whole route every year.
This explains why Koreans were the first foreigners to buy the rights to translate and sell my book, Hike Your Own Hike. I never understood why thousands of Koreans bought it. Now I know. My book piggybacked on the phenomenon that the Korean El Camino book created.
Despite all this hiking fervor, the bad news is that by 1987 Spain had paved over much of the historic Camino, because the old path took the fastest and flattest way toward Santiago, which is desirable for vehicle traffic.
I asked Luis, a Spaniard who had done the trail four times, why Spain didn't cut a new dirt path toward Santiago and avoid the roads. Given El Camino's immense popularity, surely the Spanish government has enough money (and volunteers) to secure easements and build a primitive, narrow footpath. So why hasn't Spain done it?
Luis answered simply, "This is Spain."
Although his answer explains everything, it's not a very satisfying answer. It's not clear to me what's the main roadblock for making a narrow trail that's far from roads.The answer may be surprisingly simple: most pilgrims may prefer it the way it is. Obviously lots of people like road-walking, otherwise El Camino Santiago wouldn't be the most popular long distance trail in the world.
Just how popular is El Camino de Santiago?
I rarely stayed in the albergues (huts) because I prefer to sleep outside than pay $5 to sleep with a bunch of people who snore and make a racket going to bed late.. However, with just 5 km before Santiago, I celebrated by staying at the albergue. When I signed in, I asked the lady, "Is it a busy night tonight?"
"No, only 30 pilgrims are staying here."
550?! It looked huge from the outside, but since I arrived at night, I couldn't tell just how enormous this albergue was. There's a series of buildings to house pilgrims. Incredibly, during the summer they're overflowing in capacity.
To be fair, most albergues are far smaller, hosting fewer than 100 pilgrims. Still, one hundred is a lot!
When I received my Compostela (the certificate of completion) in Santiago, I asked one of the four volunteers what's the maximum pilgrims the office processed in one day. The answer blew me away: "On one day in August 2009, we processed 1,500 pilgrims."
My mouth dropped. The line was down the stairs and wound around the streets outside. Pilgrims waited for hours to get their piece of paper.
I told the man, "But 2010 is a Holy Compostellan Year (because July 25 falls on a Sunday). You'll surely break the record then, right?"
"Unless we get more volunteers," he said, "There's no way we can process more than 1,500 per day. We worked overtime to do 1,500. It was crazy!"
It's hard to grasp these numbers, but here's one last attempt. When I yo-yoed the CDT, I didn't find one backpacker during the first 3,000 km of trail. Not one. (I saw just one day hiker, two snowmobilers, and two skiers.) Although I saw a few more backpackers during the last 6,000 km, each year fewer than 100 backpackers finish the CDT. On a summer day on El Camino, it's common that 100 pilgrims finish per hour!
Every year, more than 100,000 pilgrims earn a compostela (which means they walked at least 100 km). They come from over 100 countries. The volume of pilgrims is simply staggering.
Feeling like Spiderman
One old guy who hiked the Appalachian Trail once told me, "What makes a thru-hike great is that a ordinary person can, with much effort, finish it and feel like Superman."
It's true. Few are good enough for the Olympics, but completing a thru-hike makes you feel like an Olympian. However, if doing an American thru-hike makes you feel like Superman, then doing El Camino might make an Appalachian Trail veteran feel like Spiderman.
It's not that the El Camino isn't physically challenging. The frequent pavement and heat causes many to develop feet, joint, and back problems. However, the flat terrain and easy access to creature comforts makes El Camino far easier than any of the Triple Crown trails.
And that's precisely why it's so popular. Most people would rather walk just 20 km on a flat path, eat a warm restaurant meal, and have a shower and bed at the end of every day, than walk 40 km on a steep mountain trail, far from amenities. If the price is more road walking and less engaging scenery, most people are happy with the tradeoff. I'm obviously not. But hike your own hike.
One thing is certain, as much as I'm not fond of El Camino, I celebrate, applaud, and admire anyone who finishes it. In fact, I found finishing El Camino requires more mental toughness than the Triple Crown because El Camino is less rewarding to the wilderness lover than the Triple Crown.
Although I'm criticizing El Camino, that doesn't mean I don't respect or salute those who hike it. My heart would soar whenever I saw anyone over 65 years old walking El Camino. Their stories were always the greatest and most inspiring.
Comparing El Camino de Santiago with America's Triple Crown trails
Some have asked me to compare El Camino with the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown are the three most popular long distance trails in America (AT, PCT, CDT).
Let's compare the distances. The majority of pilgrims start somewhere near the Pyrenees, doing 800-900 km. Pilgrims are impressed when someone comes from Switzerland, Germany or Austria, doing just over 2,000 km. And those who start farther become legends. One guy that many talked about had walked from Jerusalem, about 6,000 km.
Furthermore, consider that the Triple Crown trails go over relatively isolated, steep mountain ranges. Thru-hikers may have to cover up to 300 km between convenient resupply points. On El Camino, you'll never go more than 10 km between resupply points and it's mostly flat terrain everywhere.
Therefore, one can argue that walking 6,000 km from Jerusalem is comparable to thru-hiking the PCT or CDT because it's flatter and has far more resupply points than the PCT and CDT. By that measure, anyone who thru-hikes the PCT or CDT has god-like hiking abilities by El Camino standards.
The point of these comparisons is not to argue that the Triple Crown trails are "better" than El Camino Santiago, but rather to illustrate that they are nearly incomparable! They are totally different experiences. They're so different that if you like one, you'll probably dislike the other. Hence, this explains why I think El Camino Santiago sucks.
Some Camino fans will argue that my way to Santiago had two major flaws. First, the alternate through Los Picos de Europa and Asturias, while scenic, made me miss out on nearly half of El Camino Frances, so my journey wasn't typical. Second, by avoiding albergues, I missed out on the social aspect of El Camino, which, for many pilgrims, is the best part of the journey.
Although I understand these criticisms, I hiked with enough pilgrims and stayed at enough albergues to get a good idea about the social side of El Camino. It's true: the social opportunities are precious and unique. Unlike America's Triple Crown, El Camino attracts a truly international crowd. However, I want more than cool international people on a trail. I can get a multicultural experience on the New York City Subway. A trail, for me, should take me away from civilization and deep into nature. On that metric, El Camino fails miserably.
Going to the very end: Fisterra
About 5% of the pilgrims don't finish in Santiago, but rather continue walking another 88 km to the end of the world: Fisterra. The Spanish call the place Finisterra, but the local Gallegos, who have their own language in the Galician region of Spain, call the place Fisterra. The Romans gave its name because they believe it was the end of the earth.
As brilliant as the Romans were, they didn't have GPS. As a result, Fisterra is a big hoax. Although it may feel like you're standing on the edge of the world when you're in Fisterra, it's not the westernmost part of Europe. That point is hundreds of kilometers further south near Lisbon, Portugal.
What's even more galling is that Fisterra is not even the westernmost point in Spain! The actual westernmost point is a few kilometers to the north. What a ripoff!
Once you get there, however, you can see why the Romans thought this was the ultimate land's end. It really feels like you're standing on the edge of the planet.
You'll never believe who did El Camino de Santiago in reverse
As I stood at Fisterra, I thought about a man who also stood there, and would later become the President of the United States. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, this man was desperate: his ship was leaking and would soon sink. Fisterra was the first piece of ground available to him, so he landed there. However, his desperation didn't stop. The future of the United States depended on him. If he failed on his mission, the United States might collapse.
He crossed all of Spain, often on El Camino Santiago, went over the Pyrenees, through southern France, and all the way to Paris! All of it over land and at a ferocious pace. Once in Paris, he went to hurried to straight to the highest office in the land. His mission? To beg.
He begged the French for money and weapons to kill the British. The French hesitated. They weren't pleased that the American diplomat didn't speak French ( biensur!). Nevertheless, the French agreed to help this rebellious America terrorist.
It was June 1779, three years into the American Revolutionary War. Without French assistance, America may not have turned into the nation it is today. This partly explains why Americans returned the favor when they helped to liberate France from the Nazis 165 years later.
This man, who traveled much of El Camino de Santiago in reverse, from Fisterra to Paris, to save our nation, returned a hero and became America's first Vice President, serving under George Washington. Later, American elected this man to become the second President of the United States. His name was John Adams.
Beware of the bitch at the end of the world
Although I usually avoided albergues, I wanted to stay at the one in Fisterra to celebrate the end with other pilgrims and get a much needed shower. Although I arrived right when the albergue opened (3 p.m.) there was already a line out the door of other pilgrims trying to secure a spot. After 30 minutes of waiting, I sat down to register with the woman who runs the albergue. After handing her my credential (Pilgrim's Passport), she said, "You can't stay here."
"Why not?" I asked in my fluent Spanish.
"Santiago is only 88 km away. It doesn't have to take three days. I took just 48 hours to do that distance. Besides, I never stay in albergues, I sleep outside. Do you want me to bring all the pilgrims here who saw me walking as witnesses that I really walked here? Or do you want me to show you the photos of the last 88 km?"
"No. You should have gotten your stamps even if you don't stay at the albergues."
"But sometimes the albergues are 100 meters off El Camino. Do I have to go out of my way for a stamp?"
"Yes, you should."
"What about the fact that at one of the albergues, there was a sign saying that the woman with the stamp wouldn't return until 5 p.m.? I was there at 2 p.m. Should I have waited three hours for her just to get a stamp?"
The woman shrugged and said, "Those are the rules. Without stamps to prove where you were, it's possible that you took a bus all the way here."
I smiled. Her logic was funny, especially since she might be able to smell that I hadn't taken a shower in a couple of days. She might have noticed my disheveled clothes that I've been wearing for the past 18 months of travel.
I should have put my shoes on her table to show that they had no more soles and had holes in them because they were the same shoes that had walked to the top of a volcano in Nicaragua, ran a half marathon in Estonia, traversed a Bulgarian mountain range, climbed the tallest mountain of Ukraine and Western Europe, visited over 35 European countries, and crossed the Pyrenees and the Camino Santiago. I show off the shoes in the video below...
Instead of telling the evil gatekeeper all that, I looked at her silently, wondering if reason would enter her skull.
She glanced at my American passport, "Given the country you're from, you should know better. Your country has all sorts of strict rules for entry, so you should be able to handle what we ask you to do."
I sighed, stood up, and left.
She registered the next pilgrim (who looked so clean and carried a tiny day pack that might make you think that he had just walked off a bus, but was registered because he had the right number of stamps).
While she was busy with him, I sneaked into the albergue. The tyrant didn't catch me. I giggled like a child as I took a hot shower.
I dried off, said farewell to all the pilgrims I had met along the way, and left the albergue smiling at the bitchy guard woman. I should have flipped her off, but my wet hair clued her in that I was having the last laugh.
It had taken me 25 days to traverse the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. It also took exactly 25 days to walk El Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Fisterra. In sum, It took me 50 days to walk across Spain twice, once south to north, and once east to west.
The ending of all the long distance trails that I have done has always been bitter-sweet. With El Camino, however, it was only sweet. I had no sadness that the journey had come to an end. With the Pyrenees, I was happy to have done it and sad that it was over. With El Camino, I was happy I had done it, and I was happy it was over.
Video of El Camino de Santiago
Skip the first two minutes of the video below (which shows the end of my trek across the Pyrenees), so you'll see photos from El Camino de Santiago, including the part where I deviated from El Camino Frances to go into Los Picos de Europa.
Many have romantic visions of El Camino that aren't realistic. The media doesn't help: one brochure about El Camino with 50 photos showed photos of civilization (e.g., towns, churches, bridges) about 80% of the time! Only 10 of the photos showed El Camino itself, and none showed El Camino on a paved road. Photos on websites also emphasize the man-made structures and not nature, hiding most of the everyday reality of El Camino.
Let's hope you learned about the side of El Camino de Santiago that few talk about. If you do decide to do El Camino de Santiago, at least you will know what you're getting into. Below is useful map to follow the various routes I was talking about through El Camino. Happy trials! Er, I mean, trails!
This article prompted La Vanguardia (the leading newspaper in Catalonia, Spain) to write an article about my experience on El Camino. If you can read Spanish, read the La Vanguardia article.
To comment on this article, scroll down below or visit the WanderLearn Forum.
Some critics in the Comments section below have tried in one way or another to put me down for being an American. I hold three passports (USA, France, and Chile). I'm a world citizen. So go ahead and criticize the article, but don't think I'm an idiot because I'm an American. I'm an idiot because my dad was French, my mom is Chilean, and I was born in the United States.
And for those who think that I don't think that hiking is transformative, watch my TEDx Talk:
View The Way of Saint James in a larger map
After El Camino, I:
In short, I fell in love with Spain, but not El Camino.
Read my other articles about hiking in Spain
Rick Steves video on El Camino de Santiago
Rick Steves is a far more politically correct traveler than I. He's too wise to dare to criticize a foreign culture. He filled a nice video that shows scenes from the trail. Let's end on a positive note from Rick.
El Camino de Santiago Guidebooks
Some think that I'm trying to discourage everyone from hiking El Camino de Santiago. Wrong. If, after reading this article, you still believe El Camino is for you, then it probably is! Go for it! Pick up one or more of these helpful guidebooks:
Learn about my Kickstarter project which ends June 25, 2014
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