Tired feet, blisters, aching shoulders – that desire to simply sit down and call it quits. For many, walking the Camino de Santiago remains a deeply life-altering event, months, even years after the journey has been completed, but it is far from easy.
Whether you walk 100 km or 800km, the act of strapping a bag to your back and plodding along the Camino is accompanied by numerous difficulties. It is very much a mental as well as a physical challenge, and while it may not carry the same kind of dramatic altitude gain you might experience on a hike in the Himalayas, this is a trial that will push you to your limits.
So why do people do it? Why do walkers wrap their tattered feet in Compeed plasters and struggle on long after the mind begins to scream in protest? Why travel to Spain when you can simply open your front door and enjoy a pleasant local ramble before returning to your warm home to enjoy a roaring fire, a warm bath and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon? The answer is always varied. While many might share the same broad reasons for walking the Camino de Santiago, it is a deeply personal experience. The real motive for pushing your body along the dusty road to Santiago de Compostela is often entirely unique.
People have been walking the Camino de Santiago for over a thousand years now and for the vast majority of that time the reason usually came down to religion. While things may have changed in recent decades, the Camino has always been a pilgrimage route undertaken by those of the Catholic faith – and it’s thought that around 25% of those on the Camino today are there for religious purposes.
It has long been seen as a sign of devotion to make the journey to the tomb of St James, and with countless churches and cathedrals along the way, it remains a hugely symbolic route. Holy Years typically see a huge increase in numbers with worshippers able to gain Plenary Indulgence (forgiveness for all sins) from the Church at the end of your Camino.
While religion may have been the founding reason for walking to Santiago, spirituality is now one of the fastest-growing motives and is often much more complex. A person who walks the Camino for spiritual reasons may do so for a wide catalogue of purposes. Perhaps they desire to discover who they really are and pushing themselves along the Camino is often seen as an excellent form of self-discovery.
Often people say that they do it to reconnect with a simpler way of life that has too often become lost in today’s frantic drive for success, recognition and desire. With depression and suicide rates around the world at an all-time high, activities like walking the Camino de Santiago are often seen as a more holistic way of addressing some of our deep-seated problems. It’s not uncommon to hear tragic stories of loss and despair along the Camino, but there is something wonderfully therapeutic about walking slowly all day through beautiful landscapes, completely detached from whatever problem might be at home.
If your thought suicide and depression rates were grim reading, then physical health statistics are arguably even worse. Our modern sedentary lifestyle has created generations who suffer from an awful variety of health problems. Obesity has skyrocketed over the last fifty years, while people now suffer from back and neck issues at higher rates than ever before, often through sitting at a desk for hours on end.
Many people struggle with these issues, but our comfortable routines are often to blame. What better way to shed those unwanted pounds than by embarking on a physical activity of immense proportions? You might not think that by walking 20km every day you’d see a dramatic change, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Thousands walk the Camino de Santiago each year to lose weight and the overwhelming majority are successful. What’s more, because walking is a relatively low impact activity, it’s a great way of protecting your body while still burning a huge amount of calories every day.
Another major problem that modern humans face is the tedious repetitiveness often associated with our lives. We are constantly surrounded by grand stories of adventure to far-flung corners of the world, but for many, these are tales that remain entirely distinct to modern life. As much as we would love to pack a bag and jump on the next plane out of the country, for those with families, a career and a mortgage, it’s often simply impossible.
Walking the Camino de Santiago is an adventure of the highest order. What better way to experience the dramatic thrills and unexpected wonders of the world than walking each day without a care in the world, while passing through an area of spectacular beauty that is always steeped in history and lore. Not knowing the local language and having only a rough plan for the day gives us a sense of daring unpredictability that we rarely have back home. If you are looking to break away from the constraints of modern life – even for a week or two – the Camino provides an adventure few will ever forget.
In many ways, walking the Camino de Santiago to improve your overall well being, might include elements of all of the above. It’s astonishingly rare to meet people who reach Santiago and who have found the experience disappointing. Many report seismic, life-changing Caminos, and even if yours doesn’t get that far, you are highly likely going to return home feeling significantly better than when you left.
Perhaps it is because you’ve lost some weight, or discovered something about yourself that had long been buried. Maybe the journey created a renewed fire for your beliefs, whether they be religious or spiritual, or perhaps you return home with renewed vigour and love of life following your adventure along the Camino de Santiago. Whatever the exact reason, the Camino has a habit of stirring something inside us. We can all agree that if you’re feeling stressed, a pleasant walk in nature for an hour or two can do wonders for mood – now imagine what 7, 14 – or even 40 days will feel like, as you pass through fields of golden corn, across ancient bridges and through mythical forests. Whatever your reasons for walking the Camino de Santiago, if you finish with a broad smile on your face, all those blisters and shoulder strap sores will have been worth it. You may even find yourself dreaming about returning to the start and doing it all over again.