Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Beginner's Guide

Hikers around the world are rediscovering Spain's Camino de Santiago, Medieval Europe's version of the thru-hike. A veteran of the pilgrimage shares his tips for getting your boots on the path.

    Photo: Fresco Tours/Flickr

A smoking silver thurible swooped through the gothic arches overhead, richly scented incense pouring from its sides. Eight priests in heavy robes acted as the counterweight, controlling a rope as thick as my forearm. I shuddered to think what might happen if the cord snapped, spilling 175 pounds of heated metal and 90 pounds of coal onto the crowd below

The hundred year-old ritual taking place before me, and the month-long walk I had taken to get there, seemed like something out of a George R.R. Martin book. But this was the real-life ending to my trip down the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage that was Medieval Europe's answer to the Appalachian Trail.

Today, believers make up a small proportion of people walking the Camino de Santiago. The vast majority of pilgrims are on their own quests, either recreational or spiritual. For me, a month-long hike sounded like an amazing challenge, but an achievable one too.

Being away from friends and family, work commitments and an Internet connection gave me the time I needed to decompress and follow my thoughts to wherever they wanted to go; there's a kind of spirituality in that, too. Like any other long-distance walk, there's a physical and mental commitment to the task, a simple rhythm of daily needs to meet.

This modern take on pilgrimage is only getting more popular: The number of people walking the Camino Francés has jumped from under 10,000 in 1992, to over 190,000 in 2012. Ready to join them? Start with our guide.

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