(Arguably) The World's Greatest and Most Accessible Adventure!
With leisure and adventure an ever increasing focus and distraction from our stress-filled lives, so many of us are writing a 'Bucket List', considering a gap year, or just looking for a really cool, Instagram-worthy trip to go on. Backpacking in Thailand stopped being exclusive years ago, and who wants to hang-out with millenials wearing yoga pants and tie-die vests anyway? Climbing Mt Everest isn't realistic, and even hike-able mountains like Kilimanjaro or Aconcagua run a risk of altitude sickness, so the expensive and mandatory tour groups can't guarantee a successful summit, no matter how much you spend.
So, let me introduce what is arguably, the World's Greatest and Most Accessible Adventure: The Camino de Santiago!
What is it?
The Camino de Santiago paths are UNESCO listed pilgrimage routes that run through Spain ending in the historical city of Santiago de Compostella, where the apostle St James is said to be buried. These paths, which are numerous, have been walked by pilgrims since the late Middle Ages. These days it isn't just religion, people walk these paths for spiritual reasons, for adventure or challenge, and the Camino has featured in the Emilio Estevez / Martin Sheen movie, 'The Way', as well as in numerous books and TV shows.
What makes it an accessible adventure?
Adventure? These paths are long! The most popular route, the Camino Frances, crosses the Pyrenees mountains of France before winding West for almost 800km through Spain. The Northern route is a little longer, hugging the coastline as it passes through cities such as Bilbao, Gijon and Santander. A slightly shorter option is the Portuguese route, starting in Lisbon, before passing Porto and continuing for around 620km total.
Accessible? It's just walking. That doesn't make it easy of course, when was the last time you walked a path of several hundred kilometers? But, there isn't any special equipment needed. No tour guide or group required. All you need to do is join a path, and start walking. And the vast majority of people do this on their own, meeting new friends and like-minded people on the way.
How do I know where to go, and where am I going to stay?
This is also why it's such an accessible adventure. Albergues, or pilgrim hostels, are plentiful and affordable pilgrim-only accommodation operated by churches, volunteers, local government or private individuals with beds in dorm-style rooms available from as little as 5 Euros a night. And it's hard to get lost, friends of the Camino and local government signpost 'The Way' very well, so it's incredibly easy to walk the whole route just following the waymarking.
How long does it take, and how much does it cost?
I took 32 days to walk the 785km Camino Frances, the Portuguese is generally a week shorter, and the Camino del Norte is more typically completed in 35 days or more. As an adventure it's a big one, not just for the huge distance you need to walk, but the time you need to devote to it as well.
And it's affordable. When walking the Camino this summer in 2019, my average daily spend was around 35$ a day. This included my bed, all food, and far too much Spanish vino and cerbeza! And some of the younger pilgrims I met had a budget closer to 20$ per day.
30 days, walking 800+km across Europe, for around 1000$, excluding flight costs. I honestly don't believe there is a better, bigger, bucket list trip out there. Even if you have to fly from the US or Canada, this is still an epic yet affordable adventure.
Seeking a fairly large adventure in 2015, I walked the Camino Frances alone. I enjoyed the experience so much I went back and walked the Portugese route in 2018. Having spent so much time telling friends and family how great it was, I managed to get 6 of them to join me for a very short birthday trip in April 2019, where I celebrated my 50th birthday in Santiago, following a short 100+km walk to the Spanish coast.
And even that wasn't enough. Following my 50th birthday, and in a theme of '50 at Fifty', I went back yet again to spend 50 days walking a Northern route for a total in excess of 1000kms. And to add to the theme, I wrote a book of Haiku poetry, illustrated with some amazing photos, that you can buy here: https://www.blurb.com/books/9554868-camino-de-norte-hiking-with-haiku