Why the Camino was not for me

When I left St Jean Pied de Port and started following the French Way of the Camino de Santiago, I had every intention of going all the way to Santiago de Compostela (some 780km). I knew it was going to be hard, but I thought I had what it took. As it were, it turned out that the Camino was not for me.

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St Jean Pied de Port

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The road to Santiago

It wasn’t because the road wasn’t beautiful (because it was). It wasn’t because my legs hurt and my feet had blisters (although they did). It also wasn’t because the rooms in the albergues slept up to 100 people in bunk beds, or because the showers were of questionable cleanliness (I shudder at the thought). No, it was because the Camino made me stressed and irritated; two of the main things I was trying to escape. Let me break it down for you:

The history of the Camino de Santiago goes back to the beginning of the 9th century and the discovery of the tomb of the evangelical apostle St James in north-west Spain. By the 12th century, the Camino de Santiago was one of the most important European pilgrimage routes, together with those to Rome and Jerusalem. Over the centuries, the route eventually lost its importance but it had a great revival in modern days with the publishing of The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho in 1987. Since then, the route has once again flourished and today people of all faiths walk the Camino for religious, spiritual and personal reasons.

The Camino is a beautiful road. On the first day, I crossed the Pyrenees in a grueling 7-hour hike that took me from 200m to 1,450m and back down to 900m. It was hard work, and it was a very cold and foggy day. I was a bit sad about missing out on the views, but it was still an amazing experience. When I entered the beech forests on the Spanish side of the crossing, the fog lifted and the world exploded in a translucent green, dotted with flecks of blue, white and yellow created by the spring flowers. As I walked further through Navarra and towards Rioja, the fairytale forests gave way to rolling hills, the grass a darker shade of green and the rapeseed flowers more yellow than the sun. Now and then, the road would pass through a small medieval village, often not bigger than a church and a few houses. Here, I’d buy some fresh fruit or bread and the locals all wished me a “Buen Camino”. Yes, there are sections where you have to walk on paved roads and through industrial areas, but most of the time you are in stunning Spanish countryside.

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Crossing the Pyrenees on a cold and foggy day

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Hot chocolate for weary peregrinos at the top of the pass

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The translucent green of early spring

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The Way

Many people walk the Camino to deal with a difficult period in their life, or to make a life-changing decision. For me, it was a chance to take a time out, and to enjoy hiking, nature and solitude. Perhaps there would be things that I needed to deal with in my mind, perhaps not. I knew that the French Way was the busiest of the roads leading to Santiago. But as a woman walking alone, I didn’t feel comfortable taking the roads less travelled (like the Portuguese, the Norte and the Primitivo). At least here, I knew that there would be albergues all along the route and other peregrinos should I need company (or help). But I figured starting early May would mean I was still far from the height of activity in high season. Boy, was I wrong…

I knew the Camino was going to be hard. Despite the fact that I was in the shape of my life (having run the 56km Ultra Marathon Two Oceans just a month earlier), my legs were aching at the end of each day. I had blisters under the soles of my feet and between my toes (neither of which are spots that can be relieved with a blister plaster) and on the first rainy day I realized that my rain jacket wasn’t waterproof… The albergues slept up to 100 people in a room, in rickety bunkbeds. I have never heard such impressive snoring! Combined with some people not respecting the 10pm lights-out (like the group of Loud Italians that seemed to stalk me) and others waking up at 4am to rustle about with their bright headlamps, there was very little sleep to be had. I had heard horror stories about bedbugs, and I acquired a wart under my foot from one of the not-so-yummy showers. But I was prepared for all of that. What I wasn’t prepared for were the crowds and the stress…

Everybody and their uncle was walking the Camino! There were peregrinos headed for Santiago, one-weekers, day-trippers and even mountain bikers. I was never further than 100m away from other hikers, and more often there were other people less than 20m away. On several occasions, I was almost run over by a bike. The new way of marketing the Camino meant that many people walked with day-packs, and got their luggage delivered to the next albergue. This has increased the number of people on the Camino immensely. Every afternoon, the albergues would be full by mid-afternoon. Even in Estella, where there are at least 300 beds in the various albergues, people were turned away as early as 3pm. So in order to be able to cover a decent distance and be sure of getting a bed, there was no choice but starting before sunrise and walking as fast as you could. Certainly not what I had in mind when I decided to do the Camino…

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Traffic jam on the Camino

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Almost full up

So after 7 days and almost 160km on the Camino, we parted ways. The Camino was not giving me what I had come for and I, quite frankly, couldn’t give the Camino the respect it deserves. I was mostly preoccupied with how far I would be able to walk before I had to ensure I had a bed for the night, and with thinking dark thoughts about cyclists and those walking without a full backpack. But I still think that I learned something from my short Camino adventure. The biggest of it all being that it is ok to quit when it doesn’t feel right. Sure, I could have soldiered on all the way to Santiago and that would have been an awesome achievement. But life really is too short to be spent doing things that aren’t adding any value or happiness.

Don’t get me wrong though. There were parts of the experience that I loved, and I know the Camino is a life-changing experience for many. I’d recommend it to anyone that is looking for a physical and mental challenge, and to those that want to meet like-minded people (as long as they are aware of what to expect, and what not to). It just wasn’t what I was looking for, at least not at this point in time. So I left the Camino and my stress behind, and kept only my pleasant memories of a few days walking along an ancient road.

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23 responses to “Why the Camino was not for me

  1. Dear peregrina,
    I can relate to your honesty but in this case there was a way to minimise your stress which seems to have been caused by the race for beds in pilgrim shelters and an irritation with pilgrims who choose not to carry backpacks. Both of these experiences resulted from misinformation.
    1) It is a modern myth that to be a ‘real’ pilgrim (WTMB) you have to stay in pilgrim hostels and carry everything on your back. You will never find a photograph, painting, sculpture or statue of a medieval pilgrim with a backpack. (They might have found it a bit ostentatious and downright foolish, to carry so many possessions on one’s back).
    2) Medieval pilgrims stayed wherever they could find accommodation and many, like the 16th C Italian priest Domenico Laffi, avoided pilgrim shelters at all costs.
    The minutes of the 1989 AMIGOS conference in Jaca, which was the foundation of the resurrection of ‘The Camino’, show that they did not say that pilgrims should only stay in pilgrim albergues. On the contrary, Don Elias Valina Sampedero was at pains to assure the established hospitality and tourism industry present at the meeting, that they would not compete with them and that they would continue to promote local pensiones, hostales, fondas, hotels etc., Pilgrim shelters would only be established in smaller villages where there were only a few beds, and only one shelter in larger towns to cater for poorer pilgrims who might not be able to afford hotels etc. It was decided that as most of the shelters would be ‘donativo’ only pilgrims with backpacks should be given beds in the newly established pilgrim refugios and not tourists with back-up vehicles.
    Tips for a stress-free Camino:
    So, for others reading this blog, please be assured that you do not have to join the race for beds by trying to sleep in overcrowded albergues and you do not have to carry a large backpack to prove that you are a pilgrim. If you have a room booked ahead, whether it is in a private albergue or a small pension, you will still meet and eat with many other pilgrims. By staying in booked accommodation you can send the bulk of you stuff ahead and carry just a light daypack for essentials.
    [I have walked to Santiago 9 times – 5 times carrying a pack and staying in albergues. I earned my stripes. Now I book rooms (leaving the beds in albergues for the ‘real’ pilgrims) and send a small bag ahead each day leaving me free to carry a daypack.

    • Thanks for taking time to write this elaborate response. In particular, I think it may be of reassurance to future peregrinos.

      I don’t think that you need to carry your own pack to be a “real pilgrim”. I believe that being a pilgrim is about your reasons for being on the Camino. There are probably almost as many reasons as there are pilgrims. However, during the short time I spent on the Camino I encountered many people that behaved as if they were on a charter holiday to Spain. Exceptionally loud conversations on the path, walking 4 people wide (taking up the whole path), littering, staying up late, drinking a bit too much and generally not respecting the culture of the Camino. In my experience, these were almost always the “day-trippers”, hence my dark thoughts about people not carrying packs.

      I agree with you that booking ahead will take the stress out of the situation, and having been there I would highly recommend it. But for me, that also removes the flexibility that I had dreamt of; to walk until I was tired and then find a bed for the night. Most albergues would also release the booking by 4pm, meaning that I couldn’t walk much further anyway. Private rooms were unfortunately not within my budget…

      But, like I said, I am completely convinced that just because this was not for me (at least not the French Way) it will be the most amazing experience for someone else. I just felt that it could be helpful to future peregrinos to also hear abut the not-so-great experiences.

      K

  2. Thank you for this. I walked the Camino in 2010 and quit 13 days in due to similar issues. I plan on walking it with my granddaughter next summer (she’ll turn 13 a few weeks before we go), and I am hoping for a different experience.

    • Buen Camino! I’m sure it will be an amazing experience to walk with your granddaughter. I saw a mother a teenage girl walk together, and during hard stretches they were holding hands. Very moving!
      K

  3. I read this post with great interest. I’ve been dreaming of walking a pilgrimage route … away from the clatter of the world … and the more I read about The Way of St James, the more I think I may pursue other pilgrimage routes that are less popular (or known) … perhaps I should just pull a Forrest Gump and walk America … your insights touched a chord in me. Thank you. I hope you find your pilgrimage route and that it fills that spot in your soul that has a yearning.

    • I think you are right Susan. If getting away from it all, the French Way is no longer the place to go. I dream of walking America! One day I hope I will! I think our pilgrimage is inside us, but a peaceful place will help to bring it alive!
      Go well
      K

    • Try the Camino Portuguese in Mid September, beautiful weather, no trouble finding a place to stay and lots of other pilgrims . I walked the French way in April may 2014 and had no problems finding a place to stay. I just called ahead in the morning or used booking.com…. I think this year is extra busy…

  4. I don’t think the Camino is a place to go to be alone. The whole thing is about meeting pilgrims from around the world. There are so many places to find a bed in the countryside that your need to hurry did not sell with me, and I am short and hence a “slow” walker.

  5. I don’t think the Camino is a place to go hiking to be alone. The whole idea is to meet pilgrims from around the world. There are so many places to sleep along the way that one does not need to hurry, and I can speak as I am a dawdler. Just plan shorter distances between your goals for the day.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I just finished and am in Santiago anxiously awaiting my prearranged flight home. I felt just as you did but had a companion and ended up spending a fortune for crappy double rooms so I could prebook a stay and avoid the loud people or the young people who partied all night. We stayed in hostels when we could but it was extra stressful.

    While walking and getting rained on, I too stressed about a room, strangers, when to stop, whether to do laundry or rest, etc etc.

    The question I found myself asking today as I sat in a coffee shop and watched pilgrims in droves walking into town is what are we all seeking and why so many of us? I can hike anywhere beautiful so why this trip?

    Not sure I have discovered why the Camino called me here yet either.

    • Unfortunately, I think the Camino (at least the French Way) has become too commercialised… It is well marketed, and for many it has become a “must-do”. Like you said, there are so many beautiful places to hike so why do we feel that this is the only place where we can seek what it is we are looking for? I did a 6-hour hike through the forests and fields of my hometown in West Sweden yesterday, and felt so much more at peace.
      K

  7. ..but you learned something about yourself…that’s great…everyone walks their own Camino.

  8. I tremendously respect and appreciate your honesty!!! I think sometimes it is hard to admit something is not ‘right’ for us – but you were able to and state it so eloquently.

  9. The Cult of the Camino. I’m so over it. From the shoes to the backpacks. I did part of the Norte, female and solo. My encounters were with those who lived where I was walking. There was a mutual respect. They let me share their lovely world for a brief time and I valued them for that.

  10. I went with a touring company which carried the luggage and we stayed in hotels every night. Because of time constraints I could only walk the last 120K but we did it all, the van dropping us back at wherever they picked us up the afternoon before. This was in 2010 which was also a Holy Year so megaturnout even in September. At least the weather was superb. I walked with the people in my tour, who were wonderful and of course we talked to other pilgrims on the road. The tour guides who were with us were amazing, so we got a wonderful historical perspective while walking. Would I like to walk all 500K some day? Sure but not being a fan of communal living I’ll save my money and my time so I can experience the Camino the way I want to.

  11. Thanks for sharing honestly. I, too, found the first week of the Camino Frances, starting in early May, to be overwhelming. There were so many people! (In my experience, they started to spread out after Pamplona, and things seemed less crowded/frantic, but that may be situational.) If you ever again are looking for an experience like this, I recommend the Chemin du Puy, the Camino path from Le Puy, France to SJPP. There are a fraction of the number of people, so I could find solitude walking in the day, and still enjoy a community of fellow travelers around the dinner table each night. Smaller, more private accommodations as well (sharing a room with 1-5 other people, not 100), and the trails are all well marked. Plus, French food! 🙂

  12. Pingback: July; it’s a wrap |·

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