Xurxo Lobato/Getty Images

The Euros and Prayers of Camino de Santiago

by andrew l. yarrow

andrew yarrow, a former New York Times reporter, is author of the recent book LOOK: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-20th-Century America.

Published September 6, 2022


I recently returned from walking the Camino de Santiago — the medieval pilgrimage route that winds through southwestern France and northwestern Spain. And I was dumbfounded by the number of people I’ve since met whose eyes lit up at the mention and proclaimed some variant of “I just walked it in April” or “I’m planning to go this fall” or “It’s on my bucket list.” I was further struck by how many excited questions I got about this network of paths that annually deposits about 350,000 pilgrims/hikers in the beautiful town of Santiago de Compostela in far-western Spain: “Was it strenuous?” “Was it spiritual?” “How much did it cost?”

Not too (question one); it depends (question two). As for the third question: About 900 euros/dollars, plus air and train fare, plus a little something for the certificates proving that I had walked the route and for the symbolic Camino “passport” that had to be stamped at least twice a day. Then a bit more for a few nightly Estrallas to soothe aching thighs, plus a Camino-insignia rain hat (it was rather damp on several days).

Vast fields of grain, patches of forest sprinkled with wildflowers, and tiny hamlets with medieval churches and stone houses line the 500 miles from the Basque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, through Pamplona, Burgos and León westward through Galicia. In addition to this “French route,” there is a northern route and yet another going north from Portugal (among others), as well as the 55-mile add-on from Santiago to Finisterre, the dramatic terminus on the rocky cliffs of the Atlantic.

The Mammon Part

The Camino began some 1,200 years ago as a trail for pilgrims heading for the final resting place of the Apostle James — Camino de Santiago means the Way of St. James in Spanish. It’s hard to think of many other phenomena from the 9th century that contribute significantly to a country’s contemporary income.

Of course, many budget-conscious hikers stay in 6 to 15 euros per night dorm-style hostels and eat three-course meals (including wine) for similar sums. Yet, when one sees the hordes of people taking selfies in the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which houses the Apostle’s reliquary, even a back-of-the-envelope calculation tells you a lot of money is being spent … and made.

OK, we’re six paragraphs into what is nominally a business story and no aggregate dollar figures have appeared. Why?

“It’s difficult to calculate the economic impact,” acknowledges Alberto Bosque Coello of the Division of Strategic Planning and Marketing in the Century Foundation for Tourism and the Arts of Castille and Leon. “It’s also difficult to say how many people actually walk the Camino. The only official statistics are for the numbers who took the Compostela credential [proving they’d walked the walk] in Santiago.”

As Coello confirms, “the smaller the village, the more important the Camino is for the economy.” And this manna from heaven has helped reverse decades of rural depopulation in a chronically depressed region of Spain.

But while the figures are squishy, there’s no doubt that the growth in traffic and spending has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 1984, only 423 received this credential in the Oficina de Acogida del Peregrino, a few blocks from the cathedral. The number of pilgrims shot up to 215,880 in 2013, the year German Chancellor Angela Merkel walked a stretch of the Camino with her Spanish counterpart, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. And the 200,000-plus figure grew to 300,000-plus within six years.

Tourism experts say that “slow tourism,” like walking the Camino, results in more benefits for local economies than, say, taking a cruise or staying at a resort hotel. As Coello confirms, “the smaller the village, the more important the Camino is for the economy.” And this manna from heaven has helped reverse decades of rural depopulation in a chronically depressed region of Spain.

Indeed, every tiny village — if one can call a settlement of a half-dozen houses a village — seems to have a café where hikers, bikers and the spiritually inclined can pause for an espresso or a two-euro beer, or buy trinkets like the Camino’s signature white scallop shells with red crosses to tie to their backpacks. Many of the public hostels, as well as some of the private ones and slightly classier pensions, are also found close to the Camino. Bigger towns, of course, have hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and tourist shops. And then there is a business unique to the Camino: an armada of vans standing by to transport hikers’ luggage from town to town.

Booking.com lists more than 400 hotels in Santiago itself, including the luxurious, $400-a-night Parador de Santiago fashioned out of four 15th-century cloisters. Nearly three million passengers passed through the city’s airport in 2019 on more than 22,000 flights. And some 2.6 million travelers used the train station in 2018 — pretty heavy traffic for a town of 100,000. One analysis of the economic impact of the Camino found that, all told, it boosted the income and employment of small villages along the way by about one-fifth.

At risk of repeating myself: these numbers are sketchy. Yet, it’s plain that the impact is significant. Hikers come from virtually every country in the world, although about three in seven who get their Compostela certificate are from Spain. In 2019, another 8 percent were from Italy and Germany respectively, 6 percent from the United States, 5 percent from Portugal, and just under 3 percent each from France and Britain. Some 18 percent were students, 19 percent were over 60 years old, and a surprising 89 percent claimed to be walking for religious or partly religious reasons.

Whatever their reasons — nationality or age or gender — pilgrims are a friendly bunch. One hears the salutation buen camino hundreds of times a day as one walks 12 to 20 miles from early morning to mid-afternoon. Coello confirmed that “while the itinerary is not the most beautiful landscape in the world, the people you meet makes it unique.”

Amen to that. On my route, there was the Kurdish man and his older Colombian girlfriend, the Dutch woman who kept popping up every few miles, the intense young Catholic missionary from North Carolina and the ever-cheerful Lithuanian women who were just out of college. Nonetheless, many conversations reveal sadness or reflection, particularly among solo travelers. There was the California woman whose husband had recently been institutionalized with dementia, the Israeli woman who was ill herself and the German man who seemed to be escaping something.

“My purpose in walking the Camino was to afford myself some time to consider the transition from a 42-year working career to retirement,” explained John Nardozzi, an environmental engineer from suburban Chicago who was nearing the end of his four-week pilgrimage. “I felt called to undertake the Camino as a way of opening myself up to new adventure … the beauty of the land and the closeness that I felt with God through all of it.”

Hollywood Beckons

The idea that walking the Camino is a way to find oneself has been reinforced in popular culture. The 2010 Emilio Estevez film, The Way, stars Martin Sheen as an American who becomes a pilgrim after he arrives to recover the body of his estranged son, dead from an accident on the Camino. In his 1987 book, The Pilgrimage, Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho wrote: “I wept because I was re-experiencing the enthusiasm of my childhood; I was once again a child, and nothing in the world could cause me harm.”

No fewer than 350 hardcover titles about the Camino turned up in a recent Amazon.com search, ranging from diaries, self-help books, novels and travelogues to religious, food, historical and even business management books. Shirley MacLaine’s 2001 book, The Camino, has been among the most popular, undoubtedly luring countless seekers/adventurers with lines like: “Everyone had told me that the Camino offered those who walked it a love affair.”

With encomia such as these, it’s not surprising that the Way of St. James is on a lot of bucket lists — or that mention of it brings smiles to the faces of economic development planners back in Madrid.

main topic: Culture