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Why Do People Walk The Camino de Santiago?

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The Camino de Santiago is a network of Pilgrim trails that span across Europe and meet in Santiago de Compostela in Spain at Saint James the Great’s shrine.

Many people from all over the world travel to Europe to walk the Camino de Santiago each year. While it was traditionally used by pilgrims, anyone can do it nowadays, no matter their religion or motivation.

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Historical Purposes of the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santigo is also known as the Way of St James and was an important Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. Pilgrims walked the route in order to reduce the punishment of their sins.

The scallop shell has long been the symbol for the Camino de Santiago. The shells are often discovered on the shores in Galicia. There are several meanings, or origin stories, behind the scallop shell’s significance as the route’s symbol and its connection to Saint James. One version follows the story of how Saint James’ body was being transported and got lost at seas during a storm. It later washed up on the shores intact and covered in scallop.

Another version depicts the story of the ship carry St James’ body approaching the shore where a young couple was getting married. The groom’s horse was spooked by the ship and galloped into the see with the groom still on its back. Both later emerged unharmed and covered in shells.

The scallop shell then came to represent the Camino and the pilgrimage. It can be seen marking the route on most of the trails to help guide pilgrims in the right direction. It is also often seen on pilgrims themselves as it is a way for them to show others that they are traveling along the Camino de Santiago.

Scallop shells also had more practical uses for pilgrims as they were a good size for gathering drinking water or using as a bowl for food.

The Camino was also used as a pilgrimage for penance as the Church thought it a suitable way for people to atone for their sins.

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Why Walk the Camino de Santiago Today?

Nowadays, people walk the Camino for several purposes. Camino Ways conducted a survey that showed 28.2% of walkers were simply looking for a new challenge, 28% were walking for a religious or spiritual purpose, 17.8% wanted to walk it in order to get away from the business of their everyday lives and connect with nature, 4.6% wanted to learn more about the local cultures and 8.8% had other reasons for walking the Camino.

Looking for a new challenge

Many people who walk the Camino de Santiago are just looking for a new challenge. While you are walking on mostly flat ground for most of the route, it is no walk in the park. People generally walk between 25 and 30 kilometers every day for about a month (depending on the route).

Walking for so long every day can be very difficult. You’ll get blisters on your feet (make sure you wear a good quality pair of hiking boots) and your backpack could weight you down if you don’t pack light. Apart from the physical toll it takes, it can also be mentally exhausting to just walk for days on end with the end no where in sight. Then when you reach the end, you might not know what to do with yourself because you’ve just had one purpose for so long.

Religious reasons

Many people still walk the Camino de Santiago for religious or spiritual reasons. During ‘Holy Years’ where the feast day of Sanit James falls on a Sunday, all pilgrims waking the Camino can earn a plenary indulgence (a way to reduce one’s punishment for sins).

Taking a break from everyday life

A lot of people decide to walk the Camino in order to take a time out from the hustle and bustle of every day life. Juggling work, family, friends and hobbies can get stressful no matter who you are. Most of us have experienced times where we just need to get away from everything. Some people opt to take a break and walk the Camino where you take very few belongings and simply live day by day. No TV, no advertising, no social media and no emails to reply to.

Walking for a month and getting away from it all can truly change one’s outlook on life. Most people return and want to change the way they live or find that their values have shifted and they can focus on the more important things in life.

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If you’re interested in walking the Camino de Santiago or learning more about it, check out our guide here.

About the Author Adie Marais

Adie is a nature and wildlife lover living in Cape Town, South Africa. Growing up, she had many opportunities to explore the outdoors by hiking, going on safaris and venturing into the karoo with her family. This led to her love of animals, the environment and discovering new places to explore.

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