Hey, let’s ride the Camino de Santiago!
Dressed up in silly costumes!
Because... it might make people laugh! Think of all those pilgrims walking, all day every day. Suddenly they see something approaching in the opposite direction… a bike, with something strange on it… a fish, a… shark? Surely a recipe for joy!
Because… the Camino is so popular—too popular!—so why not spice it up by going in reverse, in costume? (Perhaps any overpopulated attraction is better done in reverse, in costume!)
Because… why not? Let’s use our bodies! Let’s stay childlike! Let’s take chances! Let’s live before we die!
A flurry of emails recruits two friends to my cause, and the three of us congregate in Santiago: Jack from New York, Ksenia from Lisbon, Blake from Buenos Aires. In a airy cafe we sketch our plan on a napkin—to ride from Santiago to Pamplona with no obligations except joy and mutual respect—and 30 minutes later we push our pedals out of the city, too timid to wear our costumes, content to simply follow The Way, which is not so simple in reverse, without an army of yellow arrows to guide our every turn. But we have navigation apps and positive ‘tudes and thighs and layers and snacks, and what more does one need to bike through Spain?
The morning brings sun and shark costumes and all the delight we expected from the peregrinos we pass: smirks, smiles, laughs, greetings. Children are the easiest to please, solo older men the hardest nuts to crack. We find subtle pleasure in going in reverse, seeing the faces of those we pass (rather than their butts), an endless stream of gratifying microinteractions—a few moments of eye contact, a few words exchanged—then poof, they’re gone forever. Our mission is already complete.
Jack’s lungs (recently smashed by Covid) hate the uphills, so we bus around 200 kilometers of steep mountains, landing in the luscious flatlands of Astorga where we glide eastward like the shark pack we were meant to be. Hot weather keeps us uncostumed in the midday and afternoons, and Ksenia convinces us to strip down fully in the farmlands to join her budding photography collection of naked men on bicycles. We run into Sina, a 22-year-old German cyclist on the road for 4 months (with whom I previously rode in Portugal), and all sleep in an albergue with a kindly-but-overly-serious owner who flips on the lights at 7am, gently-not-so-gently commanding everyone to get on their Way.
Ksenia dreams of lingering and socializing; Jack and Sina and I dream of logging a reliable number of kilometers each day; so Ksenia peels off and heads back Portugal, a grown-ass woman who doesn’t need no damn hombres to have a swell adventure. We wish her well and press on, two sharks and an engineer, forever east, east, east.
Cruising the plains of central Spain (each at our own speed, reconvening in 20km intervals) I scratch my bedbug bites for good luck (an unhappy gift from the first hostel, revenge taken with a Google review) and find quiet nooks for afternoon beers and morning coffees (every bar is a café, every café a bar) and translate Spanish for Jack (his favorite line: si si!) and break fast with pan con tomate (tomato pulp and olive oil on toasted baguette, €1.50) and smile at little peaceful scenes (the trampoline in the back of the restaurant to delight bored children) and lunch on ruby-red strips of jamon serrano (with bricks of queso de oveja and 40-cent peras) and debate environmental policy with Sina (who thinks maybe everyone should only fly once a year) and battle cold headwinds with a leaky rear tire as I limp into Burgos (which I pronounce with a ridiculous American accent) and take two glorious rest days to avoid rain and drink cider and patch my tire and challenge a 5-year-old to foosball in a punk bar.
By now we’ve recruited one more rider-in-reverse to our badass biker crew: Kamila, 26, from Sao Paulo, a traveling tattoo (and tattooed) artist with an ink gun in her front bag, wild-haired, proudly queer, riding the Camino as “vacation” before her guest appointments in Paris and Amsterdam and Berlin, on a SINGLE SPEED BIKE like a lunatic, pushing it up every hill, forever positive, smiling, jesting in near-perfect English. She joins us for a parkside lunch, I interview her for my secret travel podcast, we split a room with Jack for the night, and now we’re bonded: we’ll spend the next 9 days joking, bullshitting, co-working, and tapas-hunting.
A virtuous triangle we are, Jack-Blake-Kami, forever nudging each other to hurry up and ride faster, chill out and ride slower, eat more chocolate, go to bed earlier, and laugh at ridiculousness like the framed Confederate pistols on the hostel wall and how every Spanish town feels zombie-post-apocalyptic during the afternoon siesta. It’s a first-order travel partnership of the spontaneous variety, the kind of magic that risks prompting a full vagabond conversion should proper precautions not be taken.
Sina gets itchy feet and departs for the Basque Country, dropping our crew to three. But the next day, at a cheese-and-mandarin stop, I meet Georgia: a 25-year-old Australian on a year-long voyage, laden with cameras and camping gear, fresh off the boat from the United Kingdom. She cracks jokes, invites cost-conscious Kami to join for a night of Warmshowers, and makes the genius suggestion that we discard all inhibition in the form of tapas and vino in Logroño. Boom, interview complete. Georgia, you’re in the crew.
Jack and I talk summer camp, and I find inspiration for my next teen program.
Jack and Kami keep each other company as I push 100km to Pamplona, indulging my own itchy feet.
Kami and I partner dance in Pamplona’s central square to a holiday swing band, me in shark costume.
Kami and Georgia and Jack and I convene for another round of high-level tapas negotiations.
Kami rides to San Sebastian, Jack returns his bike to the rental company.
Then, all of the sudden, it’s over.
Georgia stays in Pamplona,
Kami’s off to Paris,
Ksenia’s in Portugal,
Sina is god-knows-how-far away,
and it’s time for Jack to get back.
It’s just me, and the Pyrenees, and four long days to Toulouse. Five hundred kilometers of Camino under the belt, countless calories burned, countless more gained. (Gracias pan, gracias gelato, gracias chocolate.)
But who needs metrics beyond laughs inspired,
There are good people out there.
There are adventures waiting to be had.
A bike and a smile and modest pocketful of Euros can still buy joy.
And a shark costume doesn’t hurt.
Super awesome, Blake. I'm living vicariously through you, and getting ideas!