What Are You Looking for on the Camino?

Pilgrims arrive at the  Catedral de Santiago

Pilgrims arrive at the Catedral de Santiago

One of the first questions that comes up between pilgrims on the Camino happens to be one of the most important, and sometimes the hardest to answer. “So, why are you doing this?” It can be asked in many forms – “What brings you here?” “What are you looking for?” and so on – but the meaning is always the same. We each have our own experience of the difficulty of walking day after day and being away from home, so we expect of ourselves and others that there is a reason to endure the hard parts of the Camino, something good to get out of it.

The reason this question is so intriguing to me is that it is so universal, and yet I have heard dozens of different answers to it each time I have walked the Camino. Of all the answers I have heard, the one that has stuck with me the longest is that of an American I met close to the end of my first time. We met in Sarría, which is just over 100k from Santiago, and therefore a popular starting point since it is a good place to start but still be eligible for a Compostela, the certificate the cathedral in Santiago gives to all pilgrims who walk the final 100k of the Camino.

This man had started in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, the beginning of the Camino Francés, so he had walked the 400 hundred miles I had to Sarría, and yet when I asked him the question over dinner he became a little sad. “I started the Camino hoping that something would happen,” he answered, and I could tell he meant something spiritual, “but nothing did. So now this is just a personal weight loss trip.” He smiled at his joke and we continued the conversation, but it was obvious that he was disillusioned by the fact that the Camino had not met his expectations.

Since then I’ve met a lot of pilgrims who, close to or at the end of their pilgrimage, begin to feel that they didn’t get what they wanted out of the trip, or don’t really know how to end it. Emilio Estevez’s movie, The Way, captures this quite well with the way Tom and his companions arrive at the cathedral in Santiago, are amazed by it, but then decide to continue on to the chapel at Muxia.

I wish I could offer "Three Tips for Having the Perfect Camino Experience"—for achieving your goals of making friends, or having a spiritual awakening, or finding answers, or what have you. The truth of the matter is that when you arrive on the Camino you will have dozens of voices telling you what to do – some hospitalero will tell you that you need to focus inward, on yourself, while a fellow pilgrim will tell you the key to a good pilgrimage is focusing outward on the people you meet. One young woman might tell you it’s all about finding good energies in special places along the way, while an old priest at a village chapel on the way may tell you the Camino is about focusing on God.

There are no absolute answers I can offer you without knowing why you want to walk the Camino in the first place, but I would like to give some suggestions for your consideration. First, for those of you who are looking for a spiritual experience, be ready to have a very physical experience as well. You will go through a lot of physical challenges, both on rural paths and in passing through noisy cities. These struggles are just as much a part of the Camino as any spiritual insight you might gain. Embrace them, and accept what comes your way on the Camino.

Second, for those of you who want a physical challenge to conquer, be ready to wrestle in your mind and spirit. If you take seriously my recent blog about unplugging, you will undergo a lot more thinking than you are used to doing. Allow yourself to deal with memories and feelings that come up; don’t hide behind the physical challenge or use fellow pilgrims to distract yourself.

Third, for those of you looking to meet some amazing and profound people, be ready to meet some jerks as well. When you do come across someone who’s rude, or who snores or turns on the lights in the dormitory at 4:30 in the morning, don’t just write them off. Some folks you meet may be struggling with a lot more than you are at that particular moment. You don’t have to become best friends, but give them grace and understanding; you may be crabby when you get a blister or two as well. Encountering people you don’t like is just as much a part of the Camino experience as interacting with those you do like. Embrace it. Learn from it.

Your reasons for wanting to hike the Camino de Santiago are your own, and you’ll hear just about every possible answer to the question “Why are you walking the Camino?” In summary, expect and hope without demanding, be willing to accept and embrace what comes, look for answers in your high points and low points on the Way.

I'd like to hear why you walked the Camino. If you want to tell your story, contact me. hunter@CaminoProvisions.com


Hunter Van Wagenen’s Camino experiences began in 2007, and he enjoys sharing the humorous and the miraculous stories, in addition to practical advice he has lived and collected. His dream is to live in Spain helping pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. He currently lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife Stephie, who will walk her first Camino this summer with Hunter. 

Contact Hunter at hunter@CaminoProvisions.com