Reasons Why El Camino Santiago Sucks
Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) 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.
ripping into El Camino, let's start by recognizing
its many benefits. Next, I'll mention some features
that are either good or bad, depending on your values.
Then, you'll learn what really sucks about El Camino
de Santiago. I'll share a few stories along the
way and end with some recommendations.
benefits of El Camino de Santiago
1. You can take a shower and sleep in a bed everyday
for just $5/day.
2. You don't need to carry any food, because you'll
have access to cooked restaurant meals every few
3. You don't even need to carry water! You cross
a piped water about every 45 minutes. You won't
need to purify it either.
4. No need to carry your trash with you for days
since you'll pass a trash can about every 10 minutes.
5. As a result of all this, your backpack could
be as light as 1 kg (2.2 pounds). To compare, my
ultralight backpack on the CDT weighed 3 kg. However,
many pilgrims prefer to lug around all sorts of
luxuries and end up with heavy backpacks of 10 kg
(22 pounds) or more.
6. You don't need a map or navigation skills, because
the route is well marked.
7. The wide path lets you walk side-by-side with
your companion(s), making for easy conversation.
8. You'll never have to bushwhack.
9. You'll never have to hitchhike to resupply.
10. It's flat, easy hiking nearly everywhere, with
occasional gentle climbs/descents. It is graded
for cars/bikes (which is even easier than equestrian
good or bad traits, depending on your perspective
1. It's extremely social. There are lots of interesting
people from all over the world to meet and talk
with. (Those who prefer solitude will be frustrated.)
2. Anyone can do the whole trail on a mountain bike.
(Some hikers don't like sharing a path with bikers.)
3. You'll walk through 5-20 rustic villages per
day. (Those who prefer wilderness will be disappointed.)
4. Most Spaniards don't speak English well. Many
non-Spanish speaking pilgrims were stunned and frustrated
that despite attracting pilgrims from all over the
world, the locals have made hardly any effort to
learn the international language: English. (You,
however, may cherish the opportunity to practice
reasons why El Camino de Santiago sucks
1. Only about 1% of El Camino is a narrow dirt trail;
99% is a road (either dirt, 2-track, paved with
little traffic, or a busy highway).
2. About half the time you're on a paved road or
on a dirt path right next to the busy paved road.
Some of the paved roads have little traffic, but
others are quite busy.
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. Although I've hiked
over 65 km in one day in steep mountains, I found
it harder to do 65 km in one day on the flat Camino.
My feet just ached too much from the frequent paved
4. About 95% of the time, car traffic is within
earshot. El Camino often gives you the illusion
that cars aren't near because you sometimes can't
see the nearby paved road which may have infrequent
traffic. However, it takes just one car to remind
you that there is indeed a road nearby.
5. Amenities distract from any spiritual mission
you may have. With endless bars, restaurants, hotels,
vending machines, tour groups, you're hardly removed
from the "real world." This defeats much
of the purpose of living primitively in a search
for a deeper meaning or understanding of life. On
the other hand, it's nice to have easy access to
6. The scenery is monotonous. It's endless pastoral
farmland everywhere you look. Far in the horizon,
you might glimpse some real mountains. The most
photogenic places are the towns and villages; since
you can drive (or bike) to all of them, there's
no practical need to walk between them.
7. It's a skin cancer magnet. Infrequent trees means
that a brutal sun is hammering you most of the day.
In the summer, it's hard to tolerate.
8. Unfriendly commercialism. El Camino has become
a big business, where the locals are sometimes unfriendly
and seem to just care about getting your money.
9. It's a cacophony of sounds. Rumbling 18-wheel
trucks, ear-splitting motorcycles, angry barking
dogs, blaring music from cafes, honking horns, and
ringing cell phones. El Camino assaults your ear
drums. At least there were no jack-hammers. Oh wait.
I walked by one of those too.
It's hard to take a piss. There's little privacy.
Cars and pilgrims are constantly passing you by.
After 3 p.m. most pilgrims retire to their albergues
(huts) and you'll get more privacy to do your business.
Nevertheless, at 7 p.m. one jogger still managed
to catch me with my pants down.
Camino de Santiago's dirty little secret
Today, El Camino de Santiago is a Christian pilgrimage,
but Christianity didn't invent the route. In fact,
like many of Christianity's holidays and rituals,
the Church usurped and repackaged ancient pagan
traditions and called them Christian (like it did
with Christmas and Easter). El Camino Santiago's
is yet another example of this. It's El Camino's
dirty little secret.
Long before Jesus was born, pagans were walking
across northern Spain in a born-again ritual. They
would finish at Fisterra (the end of the world),
burn their clothes, and watch the sun fall into
the infinite sea next to La Costa de Morta (the
Coast of Death). This ritual symbolized a pilgrim's
death and rebirth.
Eventually, Christians claimed to have brought the
remains of St. James to Santiago de Compostela.
They encouraged Christians to follow the well-beaten
pilgrimage path that the pagans had created, but
this time in the name of Christianity. This long,
rich pilgrimage history brings up an obvious question...
is there so much road-walking on El Camino de Santiago?
Even though the trail has existed for thousands
of years, it's mostly covered by asphalt now. Why
weren't the Spaniards able to preserve the original,
The reason is that although the Camino was incredibly
popular during the Middle Ages, it fell out of fashion
when the Black Plague, the Protestants, and the
Renaissance ruined the pilgrimage party.
When the Spaniards paved roads in the 20th century,
they enlarged and paved over most of the dirt roads
of El Camino Santiago. Few complained since few
did the pilgrimage during the mid-20th century.
However, about 20 years ago, El Camino started becoming
more popular, as hiking in general became popular.
Once Paulo Coelho's The Pilgrimage book came out
in 1987, El Camino soared in popularity and hasn't
In fact, there were an unusual number of Asians
on El Camino. I rarely see Asians (or Blacks) on
long distance trails. As I talked to the Asians,
I learned that they're all Korean. Turns out that
a Korean wrote a bestseller about her pilgrimage
on El Camino, inspiring some 1,500 Koreans to hike
the whole route every year.
This explains why Koreans were the first foreigners
to buy the rights to translate and sell my book,
Hike Your Own Hike. I never understood why thousands
of Koreans bought it. Now I know. My book piggybacked
on the phenomenon that the Korean El Camino book
Despite all this hiking fervor, the bad news is
that by 1987 Spain had paved over much of the historic
Camino, because the old path took the fastest and
flattest way toward Santiago, which is desirable
for vehicle traffic.
I asked Luis, a Spaniard who had done the trail
four times, why Spain didn't cut a new dirt path
toward Santiago and avoid the roads. Given El Camino's
immense popularity, surely the Spanish government
has enough money (and volunteers) to secure easements
and build a primitive, narrow footpath. So why hasn't
Spain done it? Luis answered simply, "This
Although his answer explains everything, it's not
a very satisfying answer. It's not clear to me what's
the main roadblock for making a narrow trail that's
far from roads.The answer may be surprisingly simple:
most pilgrims may prefer it the way it is. Obviously
lots of people like road-walking, otherwise El Camino
Santiago wouldn't be the most popular long distance
trail in the world.
how popular is El Camino de Santiago?
I rarely stayed in the albergues (huts) because
I prefer to sleep outside than pay $5 to sleep with
a bunch of people who snore and make a racket going
to bed late.. However, with just 5 km before Santiago,
I celebrated by staying at the albergue. When I
signed in, I asked the lady, "Is it a busy
only 30 pilgrims are staying here." - "What's
the maximum capacity?" - "550." -
550?! It looked huge from the outside, but since
I arrived at night, I couldn't tell just how enormous
this albergue was. There's a series of buildings
to house pilgrims. Incredibly, during the summer
they're overflowing in capacity. To be fair, most
albergues are far smaller, hosting fewer than 100
pilgrims. Still, one hundred is a lot!
When I received my Compostela (the certificate of
completion) in Santiago, I asked one of the four
volunteers what's the maximum pilgrims the office
processed in one day. The answer blew me away: "On
one day in August 2009, we processed 1,500 pilgrims."
- My mouth dropped. The line was down the stairs
and wound around the streets outside. Pilgrims waited
for hours to get their piece of paper. - I
told the man, "But 2010 is a Holy Compostellan
Year (because July 25 falls on a Sunday). You'll
surely break the record then, right?" - "Unless
we get more volunteers," he said, "There's
no way we can process more than 1,500 per day. We
worked overtime to do 1,500. It was crazy!"
It's hard to grasp these numbers, but here's one
last attempt. When I yo-yoed the CDT, I didn't find
one backpacker during the first 3,000 km of trail.
Not one. (I saw just one day hiker, two snowmobilers,
and two skiers.) Although I saw a few more backpackers
during the last 6,000 km, each year fewer than 100
backpackers finish the CDT. On a summer day on El
Camino, it's common that 100 pilgrims finish per
Every year, more than 100,000 pilgrims earn a compostela
(which means they walked at least 100 km). They
come from over 100 countries. The volume of pilgrims
is simply staggering.
One old guy who hiked the Appalachian Trail once
told me, "What makes a thru-hike great is that
a ordinary person can, with much effort, finish
it and feel like Superman."
It's true. Few are good enough for the Olympics,
but completing a thru-hike makes you feel like an
Olympian. However, if doing an American thru-hike
makes you feel like Superman, then doing El Camino
might make an Appalachian Trail veteran feel like
It's not that the El Camino isn't physically challenging.
The frequent pavement and heat causes many to develop
feet, joint, and back problems. However, the flat
terrain and easy access to creature comforts makes
El Camino far easier than any of the Triple Crown
And that's precisely why it's so popular. Most people
would rather walk just 20 km on a flat path, eat
a warm restaurant meal, and have a shower and bed
at the end of every day, than walk 40 km on a steep
mountain trail, far from amenities. If the price
is more road walking and less engaging scenery,
most people are happy with the tradeoff. I'm obviously
not. But hike your own hike.
One thing is certain, as much as I'm not fond of
El Camino, I celebrate, applaud, and admire anyone
who finishes it. In fact, I found finishing El Camino
requires more mental toughness than the Triple Crown
because El Camino is less rewarding to the wilderness
lover than the Triple Crown.
Although I'm criticizing El Camino, that doesn't
mean I don't respect or salute those who hike it.
My heart would soar whenever I saw anyone over 65
years old walking El Camino. Their stories were
always the greatest and most inspiring.
El Camino de Santiago with America's Triple Crown
Some have asked me to compare El Camino with the
Triple Crown. The Triple Crown are the three most
popular long distance trails in America (AT, PCT,
Let's compare the distances. The majority of pilgrims
start somewhere near the Pyrenees, doing 800-900
km. Pilgrims are impressed when someone comes from
Switzerland, Germany or Austria, doing just over
2,000 km. And those who start farther become legends.
One guy that many talked about had walked from Jerusalem,
about 6,000 km.
Now compare these distances with the Appalachian
Trail (3,000 km), the Pacific Crest Trail (4,250
km), or the Continental Divide Trail (4,500 km).
Anyone who does the AT walks 50% more than even
the "elite" pilgrims that come from Austria.
Furthermore, consider that the Triple Crown trails
go over relatively isolated, steep mountain ranges.
Thru-hikers may have to cover up to 300 km between
convenient resupply points. On El Camino, you'll
never go more than 10 km between resupply points
and it's mostly flat terrain everywhere.
Therefore, one can argue that walking 6,000 km from
Jerusalem is comparable to thru-hiking the PCT or
CDT because it's flatter and has far more resupply
points than the PCT and CDT. By that measure, anyone
who thru-hikes the PCT or CDT has god-like hiking
abilities by El Camino standards.
The point of these comparisons is not to argue that
the Triple Crown trails are "better" than
El Camino Santiago, but rather to illustrate that
they are nearly incomparable! They are totally different
experiences. They're so different that if you like
one, you'll probably dislike the other. Hence, this
explains why I think El Camino Santiago sucks.
Some Camino fans will argue that my way to Santiago
had two major flaws. First, the alternate through
Los Picos de Europa and Asturias, while scenic,
made me miss out on nearly half of El Camino Frances,
so my journey wasn't typical. Second, by avoiding
albergues, I missed out on the social aspect of
El Camino, which, for many pilgrims, is the best
part of the journey.
Although I understand these criticisms, I hiked
with enough pilgrims and stayed at enough albergues
to get a good idea about the social side of El Camino.
It's true: the social opportunities are precious
and unique. Unlike America's Triple Crown, El Camino
attracts a truly international crowd. However, I
want more than cool international people on a trail.
I can get a multicultural experience on the New
York City Subway. A trail, for me, should take me
away from civilization and deep into nature. On
that metric, El Camino fails miserably.
to the very end: Fisterra
About 5% of the pilgrims don't finish in Santiago,
but rather continue walking another 88 km to the
end of the world: Fisterra. The Spanish call the
place Finisterra, but the local Gallegos, who have
their own language in the Galician region of Spain,
call the place Fisterra. The Romans gave its name
because they believe it was the end of the earth.
As brilliant as the Romans were, they didn't have
GPS. As a result, Fisterra is a big hoax. Although
it may feel like you're standing on the edge of
the world when you're in Fisterra, it's not the
westernmost part of Europe. That point is hundreds
of kilometers further south near Lisbon, Portugal.
What's even more galling is that Fisterra is not
even the westernmost point in Spain! The actual
westernmost point is a few kilometers to the north.
What a ripoff!
Fortunately, I knew all this as I walked there,
so at least I knew that I was being an idiot.
Once you get there, however, you can see why the
Romans thought this was the ultimate land's end.
It really feels like you're standing on the edge
of the planet.
never believe who did El Camino de Santiago in reverse
As I stood at Fisterra, I thought about a man who
also stood there, and would later become the President
of the United States. After crossing the Atlantic
Ocean, this man was desperate: his ship was leaking
and would soon sink. Fisterra was the first piece
of ground available to him, so he landed there.
However, his desperation didn't stop. The future
of the United States depended on him. If he failed
on his mission, the United States might collapse.
With no ship, he did something incredible: he followed
El Camino de Santiago in reverse! He hurried as
fast as he could, eager to cover as much ground
as possible. He was in such a hurry that he didn't
even have time to see Santiago de Compostela, something
he would later deeply regret. But at that moment,
it didn't matter – he had to save his nation, and
time was running out.
He crossed all of Spain, often on El Camino Santiago,
went over the Pyrenees, through southern France,
and all the way to Paris! All of it over land and
at a ferocious pace. Once in Paris, he went to hurried
to straight to the highest office in the land. His
mission? To beg.
He begged the French for money and weapons to kill
the British. The French hesitated. They weren't
pleased that the American diplomat didn't speak
French (biensur!). Nevertheless, the French agreed
to help this rebellious America terrorist.
It was June 1779, three years into the American
Revolutionary War. Without French assistance, America
may not have turned into the nation it is today.
This partly explains why Americans returned the
favor when they helped to liberate France from the
Nazis 165 years later.
This man, who traveled much of El Camino de Santiago
in reverse, from Fisterra to Paris, to save our
nation, returned a hero and became America's first
Vice President, serving under George Washington.
Later, American elected this man to become the second
President of the United States. His name was John
Don't go in summer. First, it's the most crowded
period. Albergues are usually full and people can
get cranky. Second, summer in Spain is brutally
hot. Go during any other season, even winter, which
sees little snow on most of El Camino.
Unless you love road walking, bike El Camino de
Santiago. Mountain bikers can travel the exact same
path the walkers use. Most say that you only go
twice as fast on a bike, because the muddy parts,
climbs, and irregular surface slow you down. However,
a descent mountain biker should be able to go three
times faster than a walker. Typical bikers cover
40-80 km per day (most walkers cover 20-40 km).
A good mountain biker could do 100 km a day, allowing
you to go from France to Santiago de Compostela
in less than 10 days.
It's also possible to use a road bike the whole
way because there is almost always a paved road
parallel to El Camino. Fast road bikers can cover
150 km per day, allowing you to do the whole Camino
in less than a week. However, I don't recommend
this because biking on narrow paved roads with car
traffic is dangerous. Instead, take a mountain bike
and stay on El Camino.
Hike a similar route that I took. Start in Hendaye,
France. Follow El Camino del Norte until you're
north of Los Picos de Europe, and then climb up
(south) into that national park. Once you're in
the middle of Los Picos de Europa, head west crossing
the Asturias region, connecting many of the existing
paths. Continue until you cross El Camino Primitivo
(yet another designated path to Santiago), or until
you get to Ponferrara or Lugo, at which point you'll
rejoin El Camino Frances. From there, join the herd
to Santiago. This is best backpacking route one
can take because it focuses on scenery, solitude,
wilderness, and mountains. It's certainly the hardest
route way to Santiago, but it's worth it.
Consider hiking El Camino del Norte. As I've mentioned
before, El Camino Frances is just one path to Santiago.
The northern route runs near the coast, offering
ocean and mountain views, which are nicer than the
views on El Camino Frances. You'll have more up
and down terrain, but it's worth it for the views
and varied geography. Also, the Northern Route is
less popular than the Camino Frances, so you'll
enjoy less competition for the facilities. However,
there are not that many albergues, so in the summer
they can fill up quite quickly, so be prepared to
camp if you go during the summer. Although it's
not as well marked as El Camino Frances, it's fairly
well marked, so you won't have to invent some route
through Asturias like I did. It has roughly the
same amount of road walking as the Camino Frances.
For those who want a less crowded Camino, yet still
want to taste the experience, this may be the best
way to go.
Hike the Pyrenees instead. Forget El Camino. Do
the Pyrenees. It's far more challenging, but far
more rewarding. I adored the Pyrenees. The best
trail is the HRP (High Route Pyrenees), next is
the GR 11 (goes on the Spanish side), and the least
amazing (but still great) is the GR 10 (on the French
side). There are still plenty of comforts in the
Pyrenees thanks to all the refugios (where you can
get a shower for $3, a meal for $10, and a bed for
$25). The scenery and adventure is as great as the
John Muir Trail. See books below.
Many have romantic visions of El Camino that aren't
realistic. The media doesn't help: one brochure
about El Camino with 50 photos showed photos of
civilization (e.g., towns, churches, bridges) about
80% of the time! Only 10 of the photos showed El
Camino itself, and none showed El Camino on a paved
road. Photos on websites also emphasize the man-made
structures and not nature, hiding most of the everyday
reality of El Camino.
Let's hope you learned about the side of El Camino
de Santiago that few talk about. If you do decide
to do El Camino de Santiago, at least you will know
what you're getting into. Below is useful map to
follow the various routes I was talking about through
El Camino. Happy trials! Er, I mean, trails!
à Q.Pratique Généralités