Camino “Agencies” are bad, and here’s why…

In theory, it’s your Camino and you should be able to do it in whatever way you’d like to. What if you want to hand the day-to-day operations of your walk, the booking, the luggage services, and some other things, to a third party? Won’t this make your Camino easier and better? Why are they bad?

1. They kill one of the core things about the Camino — the Community

Pre-determined stops are one, if not the, reason agencies aren’t a good idea. Imagine meeting some pilgrims you really jibe with. Paul and Mary will be walking to Molinaseca today, a small town at the foot of a steep decline down from the Cruz de Ferro. They’ll be starting from Foncebadón, a hippie town a little before the Cruz in the very early morning hours to see the sunrise over the highest point of the Camino.

You, on the other hand, have been booked into Manjarín, a beautiful town for sure, a little further down the road. And you’ll be stopping in El Acebo, halfway down the hill. You’ll not only miss Paul and Mary and miss spending one of the more amazing moments on the Camino with them, you’ll also probably not see them again, as your stages are now asynchronous.

Albergues are a wonderful part of your experience. We’ll get to all the scare tactics about snoring, loud pilgrims, and more in a second, but few if any of the agencies will ever book you reliably into one. Sitting around in the evening, playing a card game, telling tall tales of the stages that lie behind, listening to the veterans tell stories and give tips about coming ones, sipping a beer and being among friends, that’s the Camino.

The spontaneity of being able to join others for a bit or for longer, the laissez-faire of being free to choose when and where to stop, makes one of the most compelling arguments for the Camino as your vacation walking project.

2. Your fitness won’t be the same every day.

This also feeds into the second argument. Some days your backpack is light as a feather, some days it feels as if it contains solid lead bars. Great company aside, your day-to-day fitness also changes, and being free to call it a day a little sooner or add another 5 clicks to your itinerary because your stride is flowing today, is the best thing ever.

Even worse, one of my hiking companions a few years back had booked her accommodations with an agency. While I was able to synchronize with her for a while, the unexpected part was, that she developed terrible period cramps for a week, making her walks a truly unenjoyable exercise. While the agency was willing to switch some days around, it would have meant walking 34 kilometers one and 35 kilometers the next day to resynchronize herself with all the bookings in Galicia. Instead, she toughed it out, lost a good week of enjoyment, and relied heavily on me and my little bag of prescription level medications (and my medical ID allowing me to buy more).

3. You’ll be spending money, much money, on the easiest part of the Camino.

Sending your backpack ahead is painfully easy. Just pick up one of the envelopes that are lying around at every albergue, stick a 5€ note into it, write your next albergue on the outside, and WhatsApp message the courier. In many cases, your friendly hospitalero/hospitalera will do this for you.

Getting a bed in an albergue or a single room somewhere is equally simple. Booking dot com, WhatsApp, or free apps like Camino Ninja are easy ways to book your stays same day. You get to choose what kind of bed and company you want, and often pay a fraction of the price charged by agencies.

All in all, for the above and some mediocre app (if that), you pay dearly. 600€ for a seven day trip? At 15€ per night, €20 in a single, plus food and 5€ for backpack transfer, you can have all that for around 200€. That’s 400 bucks you could donate to a good cause, 400 bucks you could spend on your Camino, or 400 bucks you could save for the next one.

The “assistance” offered by Camino Agencies is “a phone call away.” Well…: over a decade of walking Caminos, I have experienced lots of helpfulness and assistance that was even closer: other pilgrims, the hospitaleros and hospitaleras, church staff, priests, locals, bar owners, you name it. If fact, this helpfulness, the miracles that happen when a community comes together, is what makes the Camino Magic, the spirit of the Camino, and leads to the saying that “The Camino Provides.”

4. You’ll support a destructive and misinformative movement.

Be it the aforementioned Camino Ninja app, helpful websites on the Internet, great forums discussing everything Camino, or understanding its challenges and rewards, you wouldn’t know any of this if you’d looked on Google.

Selling Camino Services is a multi-million dollar business with extremely high margins of profit. It is also a much fought-over niche. So much of those extra income streams from selling expensive rooms and tacking on an additional fee just because, are reinvested in Search Engine presence and forum moles.

In 2001, my first Camino, the Internet had little to offer about the Way. In 2006, a scant five years later, it did. Forums, websites, blogs detailing people’s walks, and more. It was a great time to be walking, as many resources had sprung up and every question you could possibly ask was answered.

2017, with the meteoric rise of Camino Agencies, this changed. Now, a simple Google Search for “Stages of the Camino” led to four pages of agencies before the first free resource was shown. Indeed, the free Camino Ninja app can do almost everything an agency can, at your leisure, in your back pocket. If you’re looking for it, it’s on page six of your search results.

A friend of mine, a long time Camino Hiker, was approached multiple times by multiple agencies to help them “push off” other resources from the first few pages of a Google Search by placing hidden links on his site. My own site, camino.mikka.md, gets those emails weekly.

But worse, adding injury to this insult, the agencies not only compete, they also work together to create a climate of doubt.

The Camino, the physical part of it, is relatively easy. It’s mostly suburban streets and paths, leading from one bar, café, albergue, supermarket, hostel, and city or town center to the next. If you’re free to chose your stages, you’ll always be within five kilometers, an hours’ walk of your next bed, never further than a quick walk away from a bathroom, coffee, snack, or dinner.

If the Agencies had their way, you’d never know this. To this end, many employ active misinformation campaigns, making the Way look much scarier than it is. “Plants” on many forums ask loaded questions and answer them from another account. Facebook’s big Camino groups positively swarm with those. As long as pilgrims are worried they won’t get a bed (you always will, worst case use one of the free apps to find an albergue, click the “book this” button, and you’re set), worried about getting lost (no, you won’t), and worried about food, agencies make money.

5. Any positives?

Yes. Non-Europeans sometimes struggle to satisfy Spain’s entry requirements of having booked accommodations and showing fund to spend and return home. While this is not hurdle that can not be scaled, it’s again the agencies obscuring this wildly.

Every border agent in Spain and France knows the Camino. Flying into Bayonne or Paris from the US or Australia, a simple “I am on a pilgrimage, walking to Santiago” is sufficient to be admitted. In fact, Spanish border control even wished me a Buen Camino last time I entered from the US and gave me a few tips as to how to get my big luggage to Santiago.

Oh, on that topic: no, there’s no agency required. Just walk into any Spanish post office, tell them you want your luggage waiting for you in Santiago, and they’ll make it happen for a minimal fee, as opposed to the massive costs associated when doing this with an agency.

If you’re walking with a pilgrim requiring dialysis or walking with someone who needs frequent medical or other services, agencies can help. But for anyone else, from 16 to 80, agencies make no sense and contribute only negatively to the image, spirit, and experience of the Camino.