Risks and sticks — Safety on the Camino de Santiago

“I’m worried about you going back there,” Steve tells me.

“You are?” This is news to me. “I’ve already been there once, you know.”

“It just doesn’t seem safe for a woman alone,” he explains. Steve is twenty-ish years my senior and former military, so I respect his opinion. His words of concern echo my dad’s worries three years ago, when I was planning my first Camino.

“You know, Steve, I have two walking sticks with pointy tips. I’ve thought of at least eight ways to kill someone with those suckers.”

He cracks a smile, “What if there’s more than eight of them?” I burst out laughing.

Steve’s fears about my solo journey aren’t completely unfounded. Last April, when an American pilgrim Denise Thiem disappeared en route, her frantic family turned to social media to try to locate her. Sadly, this fall we learned she was murdered by a local man–now in jail. However, her disappearance sparked unprecedented sharing online about other accounts of harassment, particularly of penis-exposing and groping by older men.

Then, a few months after Denise disappeared, a local Spanish woman was almost abducted by two men in a car while she was out for a walk outside Astorga. This really spooked me. My response was to spend hours online reading about organized crime, the organ trade, and sex trafficking in Europe. It turns out that eastern Europe is where the really scary stuff happens whereas Spain’s organized crime focuses primarily on trafficking tobacco. In other words, it’s just like everywhere else.

For all the creepy details that have emerged from these events, it’s important to view the information about crimes in perspective: over a hundred thousand pilgrims walk the Camino each year without being killed or accosted. In my opinion, it comes down to odds–and the odds of completing this pilgrimage without incident are very favorable.

That said, travelers would do well to prepare for worst-case scenarios in the unlikely event they do occur. For example if you’re traveling internationally, it’s a good idea to learn how to get in touch with your country’s consulate for aid (not the embassy) and know the region’s emergency response number. For pilgrims, it’s important to take precautions en route; don’t let yourself get too tired, hungry, or distracted, making you less able to respond to danger. I spent time online after the near-abduction report came out learning how to prevent an abduction or escape from one. Necessary? Probably not. Good to know? Definitely.

Not to go all Girl Scout on you, but being prepared is a great way to not get hurt or injured. Be prepared, and you’ll be able to deal with the unexpected.

In terms of odds, the real peril comes from the terrain itself since the chances of falling, injury, or breaking a bone are good. The path is sometimes nothing more than a long, downhill swath of loose cobbles. Be alert. Don’t walk while eating, reading, texting, or anything that takes your eyes off the terrain. Historically, one of the biggest killers of pilgrims is of getting struck by oncoming traffic.

As a naturally high-strung person, I am inclined to hear a comment like Steve’s and join him in the fear. As if I don’t already have my own worries! The truth remains that not going on this journey doesn’t make me safer. I could just as easily be accosted or killed by an intruder in my own home, blinds drawn and doors locked. But what kind of life would that be? I can’t wait in fear of an unlikely worst-case scenario. I want to live, to challenge myself and grow!

So I’ve made peace with this fact: it’s not unsafe to be a solo peregrina, but it’s unsafe to travel unprepared. That’s a big difference. I’ve got a good brain and some pointy hiking sticks–and I know how to use them both.



Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!