Why camino sucks? My reply.

Why camino sucks? My reply.

It caught my attention, I must say. Reading a post on the camino which try to convince a reader why it sucks was really interesting. Until I walked The Way of St. James myself. After I walked it and experience how it really is the author of the post I’m talking about lost his credibility. And here is why.

Francis

His post starts as follows:

“Camino (…) is the most overrated long distance trail in the world. Millions have walked its path, and most gush about how great it is. It’s time to expose El Camino de Santiago’s ugly underbelly.”

Source: Francis Tapon Blog.

I think that the author’s main disappointment is due to his lack of knowledge before he decided to walk The Way. Or perhaps it is due to his selectivity in thinking about The Way. On the one hand he was aware of the particular heritage of a Christian pilgrimage, and on the other he expected a wild and off the beaten track trails in the middle of nowhere. Well, you can’t have both. Even the first phrase on UNESCO site about this trail says about its popularity the has started in the Middle Ages. More than a million of pilgrims walked the camino every year in the past which comparing with over 200,000 today sounds really busy to me.

Camino de Santiago, Spain

Camino de Santiago, Spain

Why anyone would expect a solitude along such path?

But leaving the general reflection let’s focus on the details and 10 points which Francis found most frustrating.

My reply in 10 points

Francis prepared a list of 10 most annoying things

1 and 2. Only about 1% of El Camino is a narrow (1-meter wide) dirt trail. About half the time you’re on a paved road or on a dirt path right next to a paved road.

NOT TRUE. I would say that the last 311 km is fifty-fifty. Yes, there are some long sections on paved road but it surely is not the major part of the camino.

Camino de Santiago, Spain

Camino de Santiago, Spain

3. Because you’re on a paved road so often, by the end of the day your feet may feel like they’ve been put through a meat tenderizer.

Well, I’m not sure about a meat tenderizer but I definitely felt pain of my feet. In my case, however, it was due to highly uncomfortable shoes. Enough to say I had to complete the camino in sandals because it was more comfortable than the shoes I had (psst! never ever buy the Berghaus trekking shoes for a camino).

4. About 95% of the time, car traffic is within earshot.

NOT TRUE. While some of the sections lead through city centers and noisy streets it is not 95%. I experienced numerous moments of total silence, I’ve heard birds singing and rain drops hitting the trees. There are many sites of extreme beauty and peace along the camino. Also, if some of the sections are walked in very early morning (6:00 – 8:00 a.m.) you will experience an extreme comfort regarding lack of noise.

Camino de Santiago, Spain

Camino de Santiago, Spain

5. Amenities distract from any spiritual mission you may have.

NOT TRUE. This is the most unfair point Francis made. The amenities available along The Way makes it comfortable and careless. Thanks to the commercial activity along the camino you can be sure you will find a place to sleep and eat. Spiritual mission is up to you. If you chose to focus on your interior and spiritual needs you can do it EVERYWHERE. Even in the middle of the crowd. You can pray, say the rosary, meditate, whatever suits you. But YOU need to decide to do it. And blaming the crowd for a noise is unfair.

If someone knows that he or she needs a total silence for spiritual exercises I would recommend the one run by the JesuitsExercitia spiritualia by Ignatius of Loyola is just perfect for them! 

6. The scenery is monotonous.

NOT TRUE. In fact: far from it. Last 311 km I walked were full of small towns, fields, hills, mountains, cities, villages, forests (including eucalyptus which I found pretty exotic), small streams, well pretty much everything. Doing the same thing everyday (walking) might be monotonous but the scenery is not.

7. It’s a skin cancer magnet.

PERHAPS it is but not more than elsewhere. Giving the example of New Zealand where after 1 hour of biking in the sun I got my skin burnt Spain looks rather friendly. True: I walked the camino in september/october which was wise if you checked the climate and temperatures in advance. I would never do it in the middle of the summer, though.

8. Unfriendly commercialism.

NOT TRUE. Many of the albergue (accommodation for pilgrims) owners were friendly, cooperative and caring (including phone calls to get my luggage transported once, or giving some advices re the route). There were also less talkative people, who were not interested in my wellbeing at all. But this is just like everywhere else.

Camino de Santiago, Spain

Camino de Santiago, Spain

The problem I found frustrating was the lack of English language skills. Fortunately speaking Italian was good enough to communicate. But I agree that spanish people should make an effort to learn some English.

9. It’s a cacophony of sounds.

PARTIALLY TRUE. I would say that the worst noise was in the night in common dormitories. Snoring is the plague of the camino. It can be partially solved with earplugs but from time to time I was staying in smaller = more expensive rooms to avoid the noise, just to make sure I will sleep well.

10. It’s hard to take a piss.

EMBARRASSING I find it so embarrassing that Francis visited a foreign country where – as he admitted – there was plenty of bars, cafes and hotels and he couldn’t wait until the next bathroom to use it. This is a real disgrace. I really find it hard to believe that anyone would make such thing an accusation for any one else but himself.

Summary

Surprisingly: I would agree with Francis. If you limited the camino to a long distance trekking trail, despite its particularity, you will probably be disappointed. And I think this is the beauty of it! Its spiritual character is a challenge itself and if you don’t take care for it this walk will be an ordinary walk. I think Francis failed this challenge. Walking about 45km a day so practically running along The Way of St. James did not make any good for him.

Tweet: So here is my advice: think twice before you walk the camino.

If this is purely trekking activity then pick up an alternative place. This world is full of beautiful and wild sites you can enjoy solitude and silence. And if camino is your spiritual exercise or your effort to search for it then prepare yourself for all difficulties imaginable. A pilgrimage is something very different from an ordinary trekking: it’s all about stretching your spiritual muscles which is sometimes more demanding than the usual ones.

Thank you Francis for making me think about all of this. I deeply appreciate your opinion and I am also very glad I walked The Way myself to get a totally different view on it.

 

Camino – The Way of St. James from Null & Full on Vimeo.

About the author

I get easily fascinated with people and places. I am passionately curious. I get often seduced with the beauty of nature. Blue sky, pure water, white snow and endless horizon seams to be enough to make me happy.

View all articles by Agata Mleczko
  • Agata, thanks for taking the time to write a thoughtful rebuttal to my article. Here’s my feedback on your feedback :)

    I agree and admit that I knew little about the trail before I started. However, it’s not true that I “expected a wild and off the beaten track trails in the middle of nowhere.” I didn’t “expect solitude.” The truth is that I didn’t know what to expect. I came with an open mind. Perhaps I HOPED for solitude and wilderness, but I didn’t expect it.

    Now I’ll go through the 10 points:

    1. Since you’re a European, I would expect you would know what “1-meter wide” means. The photo you show is of a dirt road, which is far more than one-meter wide. That’s a poor example of a narrow trail. Search through all your photos and see how many show a 1-meter wide trail, like these that I took on the Pacific Crest Trail:

    http://francistapon.com/images/travels/pct/Barefoot.JPG
    http://francistapon.com/images/travels/pct/Sonora.jpg
    http://francistapon.com/images/travels/pct/3FingerJack.JPG

    I suspect that once you understand my definition of a “narrow trail” you’ll agree that less than 5% of El Camino is “narrow.”

    4. “Within earshot” means that if a car goes by, you can hear it. It does not mean that there are always cars going by. As I explain in my article: sometimes you think you’re far from a road since there’s total silence (as you describe); however, suddenly there’s a car that passes that breaks the silence and the illusion that you’re far from a road.

    I’ll admit that the nearby paved roads have light traffic – so it’s easy to believe that you’re out of earshot from the cars. I agree that hiking before 8am is a good way to have some peace and quiet, and that simply proves my point that a road is usually within earshot.

    5. I find that solitude and wilderness is a better setting than a civilized trail with many amenities if you seek spiritual contemplation. Yes, some can find such spiritual connection in a NYC subway, but I can’t.

    8. I agree that many albergue hosts are quite nice. I didn’t want to imply that all were unfriendly.

    10. When I hike, I drink so much water that I pee 10-25 times per day. Although bathrooms are around, they don’t come that often. It’s remarkable that you would say that someone peeing on El Camino is a “disgrace.” I suspect most pilgrims have done it many times.

    I agree to “think twice before hiking” it. That’s exactly the point of my article too. :)

    • Hi Francis! Thank you so much for taking time to reply my comments. I wish that all people read both stories before they go so they will have a full picture and more data to based their decision on. Are you going to walk the camino again or do you feel like once is enough?

      • I am open to hiking a different Camino again (like El Norte), but realistically, given all my upcoming travel plans for the next decade, it’s unlikely that I’ll return, unfortunately. Maybe in 20+ years, I’ll revisit it. :) It’s not that I hate it, it’s just that I have other trails to do. I adore the PCT, but I just have other trails I want to hike, so I doubt I’ll re-hike it.

        Finally, I agree 100% that people should read both articles (and many other articles) to get a more accurate picture of the trail. The main reason I wrote my article is that I felt too many pilgrims were painting a rosy, wonderful picture of the trail. I wanted to post the contrarian perspective. I wanted to write to people who adore mountain/wilderness trails. That was my target audience, since their voice/opinion was not being captured.

        • Sure! I’ve heard a lot of good things about Camino Del Norte in terms of views and lack of crowds. The most wild is probably Primitivo (the one walked by St. Francis), and most challenging de La Plata. So, plenty to chose from ;-) Good luck with all other trails Francis!

  • Interesting article. One thing I’ve learnt from doing long distance walks is that they’re all different from one another and it’s a good idea to find out what to expect and to choose carefully before setting out.

    • Thank you Karen! I totally agree with you: the more you know before you go the better!

  • @hikerciser

    Very thoughtful response Agata. I think the Camino is a special walk, made special by the personal and individual commitment made by the walker. Sure, there are more spectactular hikes but any hike is what you make it, and also includes the people you meet along the way as well as fascinating vistas.

    • Thank you Jenny! You are right: any hike is what you make it!

  • I’m not walking the Camino anytime soon but this was a great read and interesting perspectives from both you and Francis. I’ve always admired people who have completed such a challenging task. The pictures here look so inviting though.

    • Thank you Mary. I think it is important to know both sides before you decided to go. Obviously, for each of us the camino means something different but if you never try you will never know. Preparations and mindset in this case are crucial, though.

  • Roberta Kravette

    Thank you so much for this article. My dad, a life-long traveler, told me once that no matter where you go you always pack yourself first. Sounds like Francis was having problems with his luggage – not the Camino itself. I can’t wait to go!