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May 28, 2024
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Pilgrimages aren’t just spiritual anymore. They’re a workout.

Pilgrimages are no longer just for monks. These epic routes that wind their way through medieval villages and across rural landscapes have attracted a new set of fans.

Well-known trails have recently seen record footfalls, while new routes have launched in the United States, Ireland, Bhutanand Sri Lanka. In 2023, nearly half a million people walked the Santiago’s road in Spainone of the most well-known pilgrimages. Yet, the Camino de Santiago’s Bureau of Registration data revealed that only 40 percent of walkers hitting the trails were walking for purely religious reasons.

As walking classes have grown in gyms and streaming platforms, and #softhiking and #hotgirlwalk lit up TikTok, it’s no surprise that these lengthy strolls in nature have caught people’s attention. Race platform Spacebib launched a World Pilgrimage Trails collection of moisture-wicking tees. The virtual challenge platform Conquerer has started a Camino de Santiago virtual challenge that allows you to track updates on your smartwatch. The power of the pilgrimage has grown so much that the Global Wellness Summit named pilgrimages as one of its wellness trends for 2024.

While pilgrimages are becoming increasingly popular among fitness enthusiasts, they remain a timeless practice that intersects with physical activity, spirituality, and personal growth.

Meditative travel

A pilgrimage is a journey that can be taken on foot, horseback, or bicycle to a sacred place. Found in many religions, these lengthy journeys help people show their devotion.

(Here’s how to plan your pilgrimage to Montenegro’s sacred spaces.)

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There are hundreds of pilgrimage trails throughout the world. Modern pilgrims can still visit ancient trails such as the ninth-century Camino de Santiago and its sister trail, Kumano Kodoa 10th-century path in Japan, which are both UNESCO World Heritage sites. But a slew of new pilgrimage routes have opened to help a new wave of walkers test their minds, bodies, and souls.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, Kumano Kodo takes visitors past several Shinto shrines, including the Kamikura-Jinja Shrine seen here.

Photograph by Gonzalo Azumendi, laif/Redux

In 2022, Bhutan restored the Trans Bhutan Traila 16th-century highway with 12 mountain passes, and was once used by Buddhist devotees to traverse the country and visit its most sacred sites. Sri Lanka opened the Pekoe Trail in 2023, a 185-mile stretch between cities Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. It features an ancient rock temple, caves, and waterfalls. In 2024, Ireland and Wales will complete the Wexford-Pembrokeshire Pilgrim Wayan 86-mile trail that starts in Wexford, Ireland, and ends in St. Davids, Wales. It takes in cliff-top walks, holy pools, and isolated coves frequented by seals. In California, walkers can attempt the new Sonoma Traila 75-mile trek from the mission in Sonoma to the Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross.

Mind and body workout

The reason to pull on your walking shoes is two-fold, says U.K.-based personal trainer Marc Massadas it not only aids physical wellness but fosters mental resilience.

“Walking boosts cardiovascular health, promotes weight loss, improves balance and coordination, and enhances muscle endurance with minimal joint strain,” says Massad. “Walking also has profound mental health benefits. It’s a natural stress reliever releasing endorphins that can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

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(Our writer wore these shoes while walking Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.)

Nicole Hu, 27, from Chicago, walked 75 miles of Camino de Santiago in July 2023, from the Portuguese border to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. “I wanted to walk, be in nature, and have time for myself to think,” Hu says.

Hu, who has spent vacations scuba diving in Egypt and trekking in Peru, liked the clear rules of this medieval challenge. Each walker needed to complete at least 62 miles, collect stamps each day, and finish at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela.

While Hu didn’t find the terrain particularly grueling, walking up to 15 miles daily in 100 degrees Fahrenheit heat proved its own challenge. “It was exhausting but very rewarding,” Hu says. “It’s hard on the body, but it is a really good discipline. I think I’d do it again, but for longer, just because I think you would get more out of it.”

Power in pilgrimages

Paul Christie, CEO of Walk Japanwhich runs off-the-beaten-track walking tours in Japan, says he’s seen a boost in travelers taking guided pilgrimage tours. “Our experience suggests that the interest in pilgrimage is a natural progression from the growing demand in general for walking across a broad range of ages and nationalities,” says Christie.

But Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trustwhich promotes inclusive pilgrimages, says that not everyone accepts a more secular outlook. “There are obviously hardcore people who believe there is only one way of doing a pilgrimage, and it has to be highly devotional,” says Hayward. “But what I would hope is that they realize pilgrimages can become a sort of side door for people to encounter deeper aspects of themselves.”

Marathon runner Kimberly Davies, 35, from Toronto, decided to walk the 480-mile-long Camino Frances from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port through the French Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

(Done the Camino? Try tackling Japan’s 88-temple Shikoku Trail.)

“You genuinely live in the moment,” Davies says. “It’s this bubble of peace. No obligations, no planning, no looking for hotels or restaurants, and I loved being outside for six weeks, which I think is really healthy.”

While some may be new to pilgrimages, Rick Walsh, 63, from San Francisco, has often hit the trails in Japan. He recently followed the six-day Shikoku Wayfarer tour, part of the island nation’s 88-temple pilgrimage. Walking through the mountainous countryside to the Pacific Ocean coast, he says that the power of the pilgrimage wasn’t lost on him. “You can exercise anyplace, but it’s very special to do it in a place as unique as Japan while participating in a curated cultural journey.”

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