“I can’t describe how happy I am to be here. It took me six weeks of walking from France!” Mathieu looks exhausted but his eyes are gleaming with joy. He has just arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Europe’s unofficial hiking capital. What motivated him to go on a solo hiking expedition? “I recently became a father, which was a wake-up call. I realised that I needed to get my priorities straight and decided that hiking would help me sort my thoughts.” The break from the hectic daily life and the long hours of hiking had their desired effect. “I am now determined to focus on a simpler life, work less and spend more time with my family.” Walking the Camino de Santiago has changed Mathieu’s perspective on life.
What does this mean when it comes to sustainability? Are his experiences and revelations indications that hiking can contribute to creating a sustainable society?
Physical Challenge with Spiritual Roots
The famous St. James’s Way, as the Camino de Santiago is internationally known, attracts hundreds of thousands of people each year, making it the most popular hiking route in Europe. According to legend, the remains of the Biblical apostle St. James are buried in the impressive cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. During the Middle Ages, millions of Christians undertook the pilgrimage to his burial site for religious reasons. Some were forced to hike, as a form of punishment.
As Christianity lost influence, the Camino became less frequented. Yet since the 1980s, the Camino has seen a remarkable popularity revival. We are in Santiago to find out what motivates people to undertake this long and arduous journey nowadays. We visit the cathedral’s lavishly decorated altar, but don’t find any hikers among the many tourists there. Instead, groups of hikers gather in the square in front of the cathedral. Bottles of wine pass from one to the other as each new arriving hiker gets a celebratory cheer from the growing group. They hug, dance, even cry.
We ask why they walked the trail. Like Mathieu, many hikers use the Camino for a reflective break. Someone describes the desire to reconnect with nature and other people as his most important reason to hike. Another hiker mentions the physical challenge and the benefits of a healthy condition. And for someone else the main motivation is to go “back to basics”. These types of answers also came out of a survey about the Camino. While the religious motivations from the past have been replaced by more personal and worldly concerns, we nevertheless distil both a spiritual and physical drive. A closer look at these aspects of hiking reveal their benefits when it comes to creating a sustainable society.
Reconnecting with Nature and Others
Hikers are surrounded by nature all day. From being in nature it is a small step to appreciating nature and recognising its complexity and vulnerability. Moving slowly can lead to a new perspective on the environment. One notices more details such as individual trees, plants, and birds, but also signs of destruction and pollution. Hikers are therefore likely to identify as or with conservationists and actively help to protect the environment. This may take all forms or shapes, an easy one being to pick up trash along the way.
The limited speed of walking also leaves ample time for reflection and conversation. Existential questions may come up during long hikes. What is our place on this planet? How is humanity treating nature and each other? What is my personal contribution? It leads some hikers to make more conscious and sustainable life choices. The Camino, some hikers told us, is a turning point in their lives, giving them a reason to do things differently. More in tune with nature and respectful of others.
Along the Camino, hikers meet and connect with hikers from all over the world. Their political convictions, religions, ethnicities differ, but their common endeavour unites them. It creates a bond and perhaps even an opening for appreciating each other’s point of view on anything from politics, religion, careers and lifestyle choices. One’s perspective on other people is likely to change when one leaves the comfort of one’s home and hikes in a foreign land together with strangers.
We, too, have experienced the effect hiking has had on our perspective of nature and other people. Before we left for our sailing trip around the world in search of sustainable solutions, we regularly went hiking with friends. Every six weeks we walked around 40 kilometres. One of us would prepare a route somewhere in the Netherlands. That’s how we discovered many places that were previously unknown to us, like nature reserves, islands and small towns. We would meet locals, who told us stories about their towns and what concerns them. With knowledge about these places and their inhabitants came appreciation. And the realisation that much of our surroundings are fragile and in need of protection.
Hiking as a Healthy Means of Transport
Some decide to hike the Camino because they set themselves a physical challenge. We can relate, as we still feel the benefits of our regular long hikes with friends. We didn’t stop hiking when we stepped onto the boat to sail around the world, on the contrary. Since the start, hiking has been our preferred way to get around on land. We hike to explore new surroundings, but also to take care of some basic household needs like grocery shopping, waste disposal and laundry. We’re not always close to a town, so we sometimes spend hours on foot to get some fresh ingredients. Hiking keeps us in shape and is cheap. And we seldom think of a hike as being long. As a result, we walk more instead of waiting for public transport. Looking at it this way, hiking as a hobby smoothly segues into being a transportation alternative. A CO2 neutral one that is!
Back to Basics
While the CO2 neutrality of hiking is an obvious sustainability aspect, hiking has another, perhaps surprising, benefit. Most hikers are keen to keep the load on their backs to a bare minimum. Every kilo that you don’t put in your backpack, you don’t have to carry. And what you do put in, you want to be durable, of good quality. Refillable bottles, reusable containers, multifunctioning tools, rather than single-use throw-away items. Looking at it this way, hikers could be seen as minimalists “avant la lettre”. By reducing waste and relying on products that last longer, they contribute to a smarter and more sustainable use of resources.
Hiking to the End of the World
When we sail to Cape Finisterre in the very northwest of Galicia, we gaze at its lighthouse in awe. The Cape is a historical landmark, with the name dating back to Roman times. They thought that the world stopped here, and therefore called it the “end of the land”. It marks the transition from the north coast to the west coast of Spain and is notorious among seafarers. Strong winds and high waves can make the passage a nightmare. We are lucky to pass it in calm weather. After rounding the Cape we anchor in the lee of it and prepare for an exploration.
Once on shore we put on our hiking shoes. We make our way through the village of Finisterre and head for the lighthouse standing 183m above sea level at the end of the Cape. Strategically positioned, a lighthouse on this spot has been visible for seafarers to this area for centuries. On our way we make a surprising discovery. We encounter milestone 0.00 with a distinctive yellow shell on a blue background. The official end point of the Camino de Santiago is not in Santiago de Compostela. It is here on Cape Finisterre, where according to legend St. James landed by boat. The symbol of the route, the St. James scallop shell, symbolises the different routes that all lead to the same end point.
It turns out we also hiked a part of the Camino, albeit only for a few kilometres. Soon we find ourselves surrounded by proper Camino hikers from all over the globe. Despite the signs declaring that it is forbidden to burn anything, remains of burnt textile are a testament that the ancient tradition of burnings one’s clothes upon arrival is still alive. Well, we prefer recycling for that matter.
More Hiking Rewards
The Islas Cíes are three Atlantic islands just off the coast of Galicia. When we drop the anchor there it feels like we are in a tropical paradise. Crystal clear blue water, long white sandy beaches, pine forests and steep mountains surround us. Is this Europe? We paddle to the beach to explore these bounty islands. We follow the hiking trails and reach the main lighthouse “Faro Cíes”. From here the view is magnificent, divine almost. Even Cape Finisterre is visible in the distance. Lucipara2 is the only boat surrounded by all this. The physical challenge to hike all the way up here is well worth the spiritual reward: moments of pure happiness.
Hooked on Hiking!
Hiking has become second nature for us. It’s easy, flexible, healthy and free of charge. It’s one of the ways we try to keep fit. And the reward is always there. In the form of new discoveries that make us feel more connected to nature. Or in the form of fresh and locally sourced groceries, magnificent views or unique encounters. And a big environmental bonus: zero emissions! So whatever your motivation is – more spiritual like Mathieu, or more physical like us – we invite you to get hooked on hiking too!