Is the Camino Dangerous?

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Is the Camino Dangerous?

A few days ago, my friend and former FBI agent and world traveler, Mike, asked my wife, Aurora, and me about the dangers in walking the Camino.  It was an excellent question.

In 2015, my fellow Thunderbird School of Global Management alumna and Camino pilgrim Denise Thiem, was murdered while hiking the Camino alone.  Police suspect the killer, a local resident, altered the yellow Camino signs that mark the pilgrimage route to lure people toward his home. 

I am not going to downplay the simple fact that the world can be a dangerous place but this type of crime on the Camino is extremely rare. 

The Camino Is Safe 

Last year (2018) when we walked the Camino, we were astounded by the number of women who were doing it alone.  This group of women ranged in age from 18 to 70.  For the most part, they were in good shape, determined and aware of their surroundings.  One Irish school teacher in her 60s, Theresa, politely asked my wife and me if she could tag along on the section from Zubiri to Pamplona.  She told us her friend was already in Pamplona waiting for her.  We readily accepted and spent a very pleasant time with her.  I thought her decision to travel with us made good sense.  She was not alone, we encountered a Colombia girl who joined a Venezuelan couple for several days and a Chinese-American woman who tagged along with a pair of British pilgrims.

Because of the sheer volume of pilgrims (240,000 in a year), it is rare for a pilgrim to be out of sight of others on the most popular sections during the spring through early autumn months during the usual walking hours.  If there is a problem, it is likely other pilgrims will be passing by within a short time to assist.  And, criminals often choose to avoid well-traveled paths. 

Our Spanish hosts take great pride in providing a safe walking experience for pilgrims. Many are related to the legendary protectors of the Camino, the Knights Templar, and have more than 1,000 years of tradition of supporting pilgrims on the Camino.  Tourism is a major source of revenue in the towns and villages along the Camino, an incentive to keep the Camino safe.  Criminal activity is bad for public relations and the hosts understand that.

As a former law enforcement officer, I also noticed a subtle police presence along the Camino and found it reassuring.

It is unlikely you will walk alone for long unless you choose to do so.  It is natural to meet other hikers during meals and on the road thus forming a “Camino family.”  

Tips for Walking the Camino Alone 

You should use these safety measures whenever you walk alone.

  • Carry a charged cell phone for emergencies or for calling a taxi.  Cell phone coverage on the Camino is good.
  • Check in regularly with a trusted contact, by phone, text, or the internet (Wi-Fi is widely available on the Camino).
  • Follow the crowd.  Make it a habit to begin the day walking with other pilgrims.
  • Tag along with other pilgrims if you feel uneasy or unsafe at any time. You may wish to wait at a bar or cafe on the trail to join with others there.
  • Carry trekking poles or a walking stick. These are popular for stability, balance and downhill sections but they are also a deterrent. Although I only used them once on the Camino to protect myself from some unruly cows, they can be utilized for self-defense.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  Keep the earphones and headphones to a minimum. Avoid complacency.
  • Listen to your Inner Voice.  If something is telling you a situation, place or person seems odd or creepy, listen to that voice and remove yourself immediately from the situation or person.
  • Report any crimes, suspicious people, or incidents to the police. The police need to know of these incidents in order to stop them. Take photos to share with the police.
  • Be prepared for the real and common dangers of walking the Camino—blisters, dehydration, weather and traffic accidents.  In a cold rain, we were in the fortunate position of being able to come to the aid of a young Chinese woman who was struggling with early signs of hypothermia

There is Safety in Numbers

If you are walking off-season (late fall through early spring), there will be fewer pilgrims walking so you may wish to walk when the route is more populated. There are fewer pilgrims on routes other than the Camino Frances (French Camino).

Check the monthly statistics from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to determine the expected volume of pilgrims from various starting points. If you worry about solo safety, recruit a companion or join a group walking the Camino.  The Ivar Community Forum is a website which advertises traveling companions. 

Honor the Memory of Denise 

We all mourn the loss of Denise Thiem, and you will see memorials for her along the Camino. Honor her memory. Don’t let a rare but horrible tragedy keep you from your pilgrimage of a lifetime.  

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