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Camino de Santiago: The world’s most famous walk is seeing a new boom in spiritual tourism

Simon Calder’s Travel

Rachael Sanborn found herself in a bad relationship and dreaming of an escape to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a pilgrimage her father had undertaken that had profoundly changed his life.

Sanborn, a rebel and adventurer by nature (she dropped out of college to meditate in India for a year), quit her job, gave up health insurance and pooled her savings to take two months to walk the Camino. By the third day of her walk, she promised herself she’d return every year. Nine months later, she was back, guiding her first group of eight pilgrims.

A decade later, now 45 and residing in the Bay Area, she leads grief walks and walking meditations on the Camino with the travel company she founded, Red Monkey Walking Travel. The red monkey is a nod to Hanuman, the Hindu god of joyful service. Raised Tibetan Buddhist, Christian and Jewish, Sanborn considers herself all three. She believes everyone can find a way for the Camino to work for their religion.

“We have had everyone from devout Catholics to atheist Chinese nationals,” said Sanborn. “The Camino for the last 1,000 years was always open to everyone from all religions. Some of my first Camino friends walked from Iran. Iran! And stopped in or outside every locked church and read Rumi poems.”

Sanborn represents a growing trend of non-Catholic — even non-Christian — pilgrims venturing on the Camino. In 2023, nearly half a million people walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. About 40 percent of those walked for purely religious reasons, according to statistics released by the pilgrims’ office. While it’s traditionally a Catholic pilgrimage, ending at the shrine of the apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, secular pilgrims today embark on the Camino for all kinds of motivations beyond religion: health, grief, transition, cultural exploration, history and adventure.

A pilgrim walks during a stage of ‘Camino de Santiago’ or St. James Way near to Santo Domingo de La Calzada
A pilgrim walks during a stage of ‘Camino de Santiago’ or St. James Way near to Santo Domingo de La Calzada (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Sharon Hewitt of St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, walked part of the Camino in the fall of 2016 with two friends. Her motivation was to spend time with friends and take a “purposeful” vacation. Hewitt doesn’t consider herself religious but recognized a type of devotion in the rituals and challenges of the eight days…

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