When people hear the word camino, most will think of the trail that crosses northern Spain ending in Santiago de Compostela. El Camino de Santiago (the Path of Saint James) has been a popular pilgrim trail for both the faithful and repentant sinners since the 9th Century, so much so that by the 12th Century over two hundred thousand peregrinos (pilgrims) were registered in a single year! Today, the historical path is more prominent than ever, as people travel from all over the world to walk the famous path.
But even The Camino has many incarnations, or many caminos as it were. The most well known include the Camino francés, the Camino del norte, el Camino portuguese, el Primitivo and la Ruta de la Plata. One might say that all roads lead to Santiago de Compostela, since one can start walking almost anywhere in Europe and end up there. There is even a Camino starting in Trondheim in central Norway!
So why are there so many caminos? To find an answer we first have to look at the meaning of the word. Camino in Spanish can mean road, path, track or even highway. The word also has a less geographical and more symbolic signification of the way, in that someone has lost or found their way. With such a wide range of interpretations, a camino can really be anything. In fact there are hundreds of thousands of caminos in Spain, the vast majority of which do not have the same prestige or fame as the Caminos referred to above. But in my view, every camino has its graces.
Andalucía is full of long and short, rural and quasi-urban caminos and we have had the privilege of exploring quite a few. Most will start in a village, leading one through farmland past natural landmarks on the way to another village. Some have been around for centuries, following natural canyons and valleys to ease the passage for its users. Many would have started out as trade routes for arrieros or muleteers, the traditional traveling merchants that went from community to community carrying their wares on the back of donkeys.
Some Andalucian caminos also have religious significance; such as the paths pilgrims took to get to the annual Rocío celebrations, which thousands of people still do today.
Other caminos go back to the time when the Romans ruled the Iberian Peninsula. One such trail, which we often take, actually used to be the main walkway from Ronda to Gibraltar.
Talking about Gibraltar, lets dig further back in history. Since the very first human types to enter Europe came by crossing the Straight of Gibraltar (possibly walk-able during the ice ages?), some of our Andalusian caminos might have been started by Neanderthals or Hominids in Prehistoric times. We are talking more than a hundred thousands years ago…
One clear advantage of choosing a less famous camino is that it will be less crowded. It is certainly better to share the path with fewer trailblazers when it comes to appreciating our natural surroundings. Even those of us who are not real pilgrims can have quite a spiritual experience simply walking a camino, enjoying the peace and quiet. And peaceful it is. On most trails we frequent here in the province of Malaga, we are hard pressed to meet a handful of walkers during a full day of hiking. On some, we do not meet a soul, other than possibly a flock of sheep.
You may wonder about wild and dangerous animals on the more remote Andalusian trails. Toros bravos (the animals used for bull fighting) and mostly, and thankfully, behind fences. There are times when you have to cross a field with cattle, but if you walk quietly along without meeting their gaze and close the gate after you, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Years ago, packs of wolves and roaming wild dogs were a threat to Camino pilgrims, as mentioned in the books on the subject by Paulo Coelho and Shirley MacLaine. But these days wolves on El Camino are things of the past. Most wild animals in Andalucía have sadly been hunted to extinction. The original indigenous Iberian wolves and the Iberian bears are long gone from these regions. Even the wild goats that have been reintroduced into the Andalusian sierra try to stay as far away from humans as possible and offer no threat.
When it comes to wild boars however, these are animals that you do not want to have a close encounter with, as they have been known to attack humans. They are mostly out digging for truffles and roots at night, so meeting them in the wild is quite rare. But if you do, head for the closest tree…
What are the other potential dangers of choosing a more remote camino here in the Spanish south? There is of course the risk of getting lost or hurt, getting a sun-stroke or being caught in a storm, but these are all part of being in nature. Bringing enough water and the right equipment, as well as knowing the landscape or bringing a guide, is a must in the sierra.
Regarding reptiles, Andalucía has only one venomous snake species. I have nearly stepped on snakes sun-tanning on the trail on several occasions, though I do not think they were the poisonous adders. Since the snakes were more shocked than I by our meeting, they were off before I could verify further. Walking at night with headlights, we also see alacranes, or scorpions with their tails lifted in aggressive attack mode. These might not be as deadly as in other countries, but should understandably be avoided. Similarly, one should not dig around too much in stones for the same reason. Finally, insects pose no threat to Andalucian trail walkers, but the flies can be very pesky in the hotter months.
Though the majority of trails here are quite well marked, you can loose your way, or your camino. The most well signed and best kept trail in the territory is la Gran Senda de Málaga (the Great Malaga Path or GR 249 for those who like looking at maps). This pioneering project is like an Andalucian alternative to The Camino, just without the pilgrims. The 660 km, 35-stage triangular trail passes through 51 mostly rural municipalities, 4 nature parks and 2 nature reserves along the coast and the inland of Malaga province. We have done several of these stages, usually covering a couple of sections in a one-day hike, and would fully recommend it.
The Gran Senda connects to what is called the Camino Mozárabe de Málaga, which ultimately leads to, you guessed, El Camino de Santiago. In addition, the Gran Senda also forms part of the European Grand Tour trail network, which crosses the Mediterranean region and ends up in Greece. In other words, there is no end to caminos for those of us who like trotting about.
Let me be perfectly clear though. The Andalusian caminos do not have the same perks that the official El Camino does, nor will you encounter the same infrastructures. There are some organized walking tours, although I expect there won’t be the option of having your backpacks brought from stop to stop. While most Andalusian villages will have some sort of Casa Rural where one can spend the night, these might or might not be open or have beds available, so book ahead. You will hardly ever find the multi bunk bed Albergues or Hostales you can stay in along El Camino, nor can you expect to pay less than 10 euros per night. However, you should be able to find some kind of reasonable accommodation. Besides, there is something to be said for having your own room and private bathroom at the end of a day’s walk…
Each Andalucian village offers some services and amenities, but not every pueblo will have food stores open on holidays, nor special pilgrims’ menus or restaurants that serve breakfast for road-weary wanderers at the crack of dawn. There are usually several bars in every little town, but the menu might be more liquid than solid. Likewise, there is no certificate or pilgrim passport to be stamped in every town. Nor are there any prizes at the end of the journey, other than the joy of having completed a good days walk. But that is a prize in itself.
My husband and I plan to walk ‘the real thing’ again one day, but in the meantime we keep exploring the village-to-village caminos on our southern soil. Our last camino was a two-day trek from Ronda to Estación de Cortes de la Frontera and back. To us, this is a perfect kind of walk. You have decent sized villages appearing every 10-15 kilometres for refuelling. If we leave Ronda at sunrise, we are in Estación de Benaoján in time for a late breakfast or a second java injection. Then we continue on to Estacíon de Jimera de Líbar, where we can put our feet in the fresh river that runs through town. After watering ourselves inside and out and enjoying lunch in a local eatery (there are only a couple) we proceed to our destination.
An additional benefit on this particular route is the train going along the same valley, so should we happen to indulge too much at lunch, we can always use it for the last section. I know. Resorting to public transport is not the way of real peregrinos, but in my view, life has to be a balance of effort and pleasure, or pleasure and penance for the devout.
On this particular day and this particular hike, it was a good thing that we had lunch in Estación de Jimera de Líbar, as when we arrived to Estación de Cortes, there was not a soul on the streets. Ultimately, it is a rural village. After wandering through town, we managed to find a single store open to buy some fruit and cheese. Later on, our host for the night lent us plates and threw in a bottle of organic tinto on the house, which we enjoyed while watching the sunset. That is Andalusian hospitality to you, though our hosts were in fact French and Irish…
The next morning we were ready to hit the road or camino before sunrise. We had seen a sign indicating the trail back to Jimera de Líbar the night before, so we didn’t think of inquiring further (Hindsight is 20/20). Once we could no longer find the road markings and had taken half a dozen unnecessary detours, meeting dead ends and locked gates, we were lucky to run into a gentleman on a horse. He told us he was going the same way and pointed us in the right direction. Not completely unexpectedly, he turned out to be one of only three travellers we met on the camino that day.
Following the horseman’s directions and sometimes the hoof prints in the sand (feeling very native path-finder-ish, I must admit), crossing a creek and later an up-to-our-waist river, we did finally come to the trail that lead to our first village, only to discover that the two restaurants were closed so there was no breakfast to be had. Thankfully we had picked some blackberries on the trail on the day prior, so we survived until we got to Estación de Benaoján where we had a double breakfast and combined lunch to make up for our food deficit.
We love every one of our Andalucian caminos – the ones that take off from our doorstep in the barrio and meander along the valley, the ones that cross the sierra on steep and narrow paths with jaw-dropping views, caminos through private farmland where gates have to be closed so as not to let the farm stock out, and paths with or without end.
Maybe our Andalusian caminos are a bit more off-piste than The Camino, but what would a walk be without the unpredictability getting a little lost and the joy of re-discovering the trail and finding ones camino once again.