There’s something about the Camino. Any pilgrim who has walked it will tell you that. If you are looking into walking the scenic path, here are 10 motivations to walk the Camino, straight from the mouth of pilgrim Jacobie Serfontein.
“But I would walk five hundred miles
And I would walk five hundred more….”
How many times had I flippantly sung or shouted along to the lyrics of the famous song by the Proclaimers (giving away my age here…), not for one second thinking that I will actually be doing exactly that during my sabbatical year in 2015.
Unlike the man in the song though, I did not walk 800km to fall down at some significant other’s door, but instead to reach the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain, which is where the ancient pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, ends.
In 2015 I embarked on this journey, walking just over 800km from St. Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrenees in France, all the way across Spain to the west coast. To put this into perspective, I pretty much walked from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, and about a 100kms more for fun.
The Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James in English, is an ancient pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago where it is believed that the remains of St James the Great are buried. There are over a dozen different routes to Santiago, with some pilgrims even starting the journey at their homes. The most popular route is known as the Camino Frances, and starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France.
Traditionally, a pilgrim is someone on a journey to a holy place, and to this day, hikers, bikers and those on horseback along the Camino are referred to as pilgrims.
Many pilgrims still do the Camino for religious reasons, but many others walk the route for reasons such as a physical challenge, a retreat from day to day life, a spiritual experience or simply a hiking adventure in another country.
Why I Walked?
A fair question, and one I was asked daily before, during, and after my walk was: “Why?”
A few years ago my parents completed the Camino. I joined them for a weekend in the middle, and it was then that the Camino bug bit me. I vowed to myself that I would one day do the whole thing.
One day arrived about seven years later when I found myself at a junction in my life where I really wanted to reconsider my chosen career, and reevaluate what was really important to me. Call me a late bloomer, call it a mid-life crisis, call it what you want really, but this walk turned out to be the most significant thing I have ever done, and was life-changing in so many ways. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who is on a gap year and wants to do something different and amazing with their time.
However, I do appreciate that walking 800kms for fun does sound nothing short of stark raving mad. Let me therefore give you my top 10 motivations why you really should just get out there and do it.
It’s a workout like no other!
On day one you cross the Pyrenees. This is tough, exhilarating, breathtaking, up, up, up and then a little more up before you go all the way back down. The sense of accomplishment at the end is worth all the effort though and you proudly pat yourself on the back that you have made it through this baptism of fire. I mean how hard can the rest be? Honest answer? Pretty hard!
That’s the thing about the Camino: you get up at the crack of dawn every morning – and walk. Across mountains, through valleys, through cities, through mud, through rain, through sweltering heat, through long stretches of nothing. You walk serious distances every single day, all the while carrying everything you need on your back – prepare for calves of steel!
You will learn that you simply don’t need that much stuff
Given that you have to carry everything you need for your journey on your back, it is imperative that you travel light. Most pilgrims discover this too late despite their best intentions when packing, and the postal service in Spain does a roaring trade with sending “unnecessary” items ahead to Santiago.
The thing is, on the Camino, as in life, we really need so much less than we think we do. It is a lesson I learnt the hard way, but the freedom that comes as a result of this mental and physical decluttering is worth so much more than the ridiculous amount of material possessions we hang on to for in case.
Friends for life
If you don’t make at least one friend for life on the Camino, you are most probably doing it wrong. People from all walks of life (pun totally intended!) come together on this journey. They laugh together, cry together, discuss the state of their feet together, endure sleepless nights listening to the phenomenon that is snoring-on-the-Camino together, drink copious amounts of red wine together and of course they walk together. In this mix, I promise you, you will find your tribe and you will be bound for life.
I mentioned the daily drinking of red wine (as fortification after the day’s walking, of course). What I didn’t mention is that this wine is not only delicious, but it is also ridiculously cheap, even with the old ZAR’s recent underperformance taken into account. Where else would you find a glass of Coca Cola to be twice the price of a glass of Spain’s finest vino tinto? If this does not convince you to go, nothing will, and you might as well stop reading now.
It’s not exactly ugly
Northern Spain is simply beautiful. The variety in nature is spectacular and varies from the green mountains and valleys of the Pyrenees, the rolling vineyards of the Rioja district, the infamous dry flat stretch of the Meseta, to the shaded beauty of Galicia. To top it all off, there are the white sandy beaches welcoming you at Finisterre and Muxia. You will be hard-pressed to find such variety in any one trip.
Lose those inhibitions!
There really are only so many hang-ups you can entertain when sharing accommodation, meals, showers and space with up to 200 others a night. Nowhere do cultural differences become more apparent than in the albergues (hostel type accommodation for pilgrims), and it is a sure fire way to free yourself of some of the little rituals and things you deemed so very important to your daily comfort – how liberating! I, for one, realized early on how to sleep through the snoring serenade that goes on each night. And through the noise of the oh-so-keen 5am early risers frantically packing their backpacks when you are still enjoying a precious few minutes of shut-eye.
Pain – the great equaliser
It might seem strange to list pain as a motivation to do the Camino. The reality, however, is that at some point, in some way shape or form, you will be in pain. For some it is a few days at the start, for some it is a few blisters along the way, for others it is pain every step of the way. But I have come to learn that pain is the great equalizer. Whether you’re a CEO, a student, a celebrity or simply a serial backpacker – you’re not immune to pain, and the camaraderie that you experience with others in pain is a life lesson in itself.
Toughen those mental muscles
When you’re stuck on an ancient Roman road with nothing ahead but 17km of cobbled stone, there really is no other option but to plough on through. There is nowhere to look but in front of you for every step of the way due to the uneven surface, and there most certainly aren’t any Uber taxi’s lurking nearby waiting to drop you at your next destination. A few of these situations proved to me that mental strength is as important, if not more so, than your physical ability, and where better to exercise this positive mental attitude than on the Camino.
When all you really have to worry about on a daily basis is to get up and walk, you tend to get a lot of time to think. This constant luxury of the time and the quietness is something I have not yet found anywhere else in the world. It is such a gift to be able to think about your future, your goals and your ambitions surrounded by such beauty.
“The Camino Provides”
This is a well-known expression about the Camino, and I now know it to be true. Whatever it is that you set out to find on this journey, you’ll be amazed at the amount of answers you’ll get to questions you didn’t even know you had. Around every corner you’ll have experiences that will blow your mind, from the random acts of kindness by strangers, to the incredible people you meet, to the sheer joy experienced in the simple act of walking.
So there you have it: my top ten motivations for walking the Camino de Santiago. It’s a journey like no other, and for me personally the most precious thing I’ve ever done. You’ll be changed for doing it!
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you – it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your hear, and on your body. You take something with you… Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
– Anthony Bourdain
The Camino is a very special and personal experience for many who walk it, and in most cases, pilgrims return to walk it again and again. If you enjoyed this article, check out Jacobie’s blog for more information about the Camino and her other adventures around the world.