The ancient Camino de Santiago is the world’s busiest pilgrimage and may very well be one of the most integrated cultural travel experiences on the planet. It’s a journey for body and soul and as unique as the pilgrims you meet along the way.
A few years ago I decided to take it on solo. After extensive research, I was assured that it’s safe to walk alone (especially during the busy summer months – 200 000 people walk the Camino every year). I opted for the French Way – the most populated of the many Camino routes – and walked for 13 days from León in north Spain to Finisterre in northwest Spain. On average I covered 20-30km per day, carried my own backpack and stayed in municipal backpackers found all along the way. Those who walk the Camino say that the journey is a microcosm of life. Like in life, the trail has many ups and downs and people come along who leave either fleeting or lasting impressions. Here is a roundup of some of the typical characters you may find along the way:
1. The 20-something Hippie: These are the walkers who have come to find themselves. They often walk solo or in small packs during the day, but at night they indulge in red wine and deep and meaningful conversations. They may have bead-embellished dreadlocks or banjos strapped to their backpacks. Besides seeking life’s big answers, they often also find romance along the way.
2. The Religious Devotee: The Camino de Santiago is after all the world’s oldest Christian pilgrimage, dating back over 2000 years. Today people walk it for all sorts of reasons, ranging from adventure to wanderlust, but there are thousands of pilgrims who still walk it for religious purposes. The final reward, after 900km on foot, is approaching the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
3. The Family Member: The Camino is a favourite among families. Husbands and wives walk it with their children; grandparents walk it with grandchildren and siblings walk side by side. These walkers are for the most part social types who like to interact with other hikers too.
4. The Party Animal: This type of pilgrim (often Irish) tends to walk only a section of the way. They arrive in groups and feel obliged to treat themselves to a pint at every village passed. At night you can find them in the local bar. They’re markedly friendly and approachable, but perhaps not ideal roommates…
5. The Local: Thousands of Spaniards walk the Camino every year. During school holidays, you’ll find school groups, families and friends, and church groups walking stretches of the Camino. The Camino is a rite of passage for most Spaniards.
6. The Middle-Aged Walker: Plenty of solo walkers in their 50’s and 60’s can be found along the way. These pilgrims come with a wide variety of stories. Some have come for the adventure, whilst others have gone through a difficult transition in life. Whether they’re after solo reflection or meeting new people, these are some of the most insightful walkers you’ll meet along the way.