Walking the Camino: 500 Miles That Will Change Your Life

A new, inspiring documentary follows the journey of six pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago

I’ve always wanted to go to Europe. However, I never imagined that anything could make me want to walk 500 miles — the entire width of northern Spain (as in, the country) — with little more than the clothes on my back. But after seeing Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago, a documentary that followed the experiences of various people who made the journey, I have to say that I am inspired.

Walking the Camino, a film directed and produced by Lydia B. Smith, is an eye-opening experience. Wrapped up in our modern worlds of technology and other complexities, we have grown detached from the simplicity and beauty of the world surrounding us, not to mention the spiritual peace which can at times be difficult to grasp. The documentary follows the travels of six different pilgrims as they make their way along the Camino Francés, one of the many paths of the Camino de Santiago.

The Camino is a pilgrimage route that has been traveled for more than 1,200 years. There are hostels, called albergues, and other centers for hospitality along the path, which offer pilgrims food, beds, medical attention, and anything else that might be needed. The services are not luxurious by any means — hostel bedrooms often have pilgrims sleeping tightly next to one another, so you will probably end up in close quarters with a complete stranger — but that’s all part of the experience.

Being so near, you are forced to interact with people who you would never have met otherwise. For instance, in the film, the pilgrim Misa, a student from Denmark, meets the Canadian William because he is the only other traveler who can match her pace on the road. These two, normally loners, become — to their own surprise — extremely close, spending almost every minute of every day together.

On the Camino, everyone is equal, carrying only what they need, and so they have more freedom to share, not necessarily possessions, but parts of themselves that they rarely would reveal. Without the extraneous façade erected in normal society (the make-up, fancy clothes, nice possessions), people can just be their natural selves and can focus on how to make those selves better. Sam, another pilgrim in the film, tells of how she had lost her job and had been caught in a damaging relationship with an alcoholic friend. She says, “Everything was falling apart.” At a loss for what to do, she decided to go on the Camino, throwing away all the things creating problems for her, even going so far as to cut and dye her hair. She, like many others who make the journey, was determined to start over and remake herself into someone better.

Pilgrims also learn the need for assisting others and for allowing themselves to be assisted. For example, in the film, Annie, the American, is having difficulty walking at one point. She tells of how, unexpectedly, a German man who she had only briefly spoken to the night before took her backpack and carried it for her all the way to the next town. Incredibly touched, she says, “I’ve never done something so nice for anyone in my whole life. I was humbled.”

The kindness of strangers is not the only thing that makes the Camino worthwhile, though. Throughout the documentary, you can see the amazing scenery surrounding the pilgrims. Such grand views, though awesome, bring upon the viewer the reality of how little we pay attention to the world around us in our normal lives. Leaving everything behind to just walk allows one to appreciate nature as one should.

Even entering the villages along the way doesn’t take away from the organic aspect of the journey. As the pilgrims in the film mention, the villages seem as though they’re from the Middle Ages. At one point, a traveler marvels at seeing a couple walk their herd of cows through a village road. The novelty of such truly rural towns is, in itself, an attraction for those of us living in high-tech societies.

Though the origins of the Camino de Santiago and its various landmarks are grounded in the Catholic religion, that doesn’t mean that it’s exclusive to Christians. Thousands of people, of various religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds perform the trip each year. And whatever the reason for going, the journey inevitably changes everyone who takes it, helping each person to grow in their knowledge of themselves and enabling them to be better than they were. Sam, who had been struggling with depression previous to her journey, says, “Just meeting over a hundred people…Now I have more clarity. When you’re able to divert your thoughts and make them positive, the world starts being open. I think this whole experience I will dwell on for many, many years.” As she reaches Santiago de Compostela, she can be seen laughing and smiling with the other pilgrims she meets there — very different from the confused depression she had spoken about being in when she started.

To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, and the experiences of the pilgrims who walk it, check out the new documentary Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. You can read more about it and watch the trailer here. The film is screening in New York City June 6-12 at the Quad Cinema and in other cities around the United States and Canada this summer and fall.