Personal safety on the Camino de Santiago following the tragic death of pilgrim Denise Thiem on the Camino Frances.

Please note, this post was first published on the disappearance of Denise. As a result of all that has happened since I have taken steps to remove the past tense and create what I hope is a more fitting post for the future safety of Pilgrims and indeed anyone who takes on outdoor pursuits alone. The loss of Denise is still very raw and hopefully will remain an isolated case.

Hopefully you cannot escape the sense of family amongst pilgrims. Once back home you’ll always keep your ear to the ground for a new blog from someone mid-travels or scour the forums or facebook groups in order to help where you can with the odd snippet of advice. It can help those who have dreamed of adventure for so long to step beyond themselves and everyone has a story to tell. But I feel that in staying connected with the Camino in such a way I am almost there again, feeling that kind of connection feeds the motivation to experience the simplicity and comradery once more.

So to hear of the disappearance of a pilgrim is not good. It thrusts the reality back into the dream, that this part of our adventure is not without worry and apprehension and for many, a long way from home.

Denise Thiem was last documented as having stayed at the Albergue San Javier in Astorga, the French route, on the 4th April 2015 and her body was found five months later on a remote farm in the area, believed to have been tricked from the path by the painting of false yellow camino arrows.

It seems that throughout the various forums on the Camino the question of personal safety has come to the forefront. For those stepping out of their comfort zones to walk the way this is a very real consideration. For those walking solo I can only imagine the kind of re-assurances that will put your mind at ease before stepping out of your front door to start this journey.

Lets face it, we are all adults and we tend to have an in-built trouble radar. The kind that forewarns us when something just doesn’t feel right. But, take yourself into another country, another culture and we tend to doubt ourselves in advance. One thing is sure of the Camino though, Many are feeling the same way and you travel at a similar pace whilst walking. I learnt from a New York guide once when I insisted on getting off the tour bus halfway through to “take a walk” he told me to treat each street as you get to it. If it feels different, turn and walk back. I recall on the Camino as we climbed from Villafranca we encountered a few villages, the bars were closing for the evening and young backpackers were spilling out. We were conducting a map check and they told us that they were very late to be looking for lodgings and hoped the next Albergue had beds. With this in mind when we passed the next Albergue we just carried on cycling giving them more chance to find a bed. I remember thinking though, this was a situation they needn’t have put themselves in.

Here’s my input on taking little step towards increasing safety:

  • Be wary of people who offer unsolicited help. It happens, but have the confidence to decline firmly if the alarm bells ring.
  • Know your current location, by road name or local landmark. This is especially helpful if your language skills aren’t brilliant. A phone call to the authorities with good location details can be deciphered and the nature of the call if sounding distressed can be treated with urgency getting help to where you need it faster. I always have my gps and a map and make mental notes as I travel. Telephone numbers: Civil Guard: 062 or the Nation Police: 091 (handy numbers for any pilgrim to have)
  • Carry money divided into separate places about your person. Enough to buy yourself out of trouble but not leave you vulnerable and skint. Make a note of your passport/cash card numbers and emergency telephone numbers and keep this information in a separate place.
  • Make Friends. you’ll make links and learn about the places you’ll be travelling through. You may still be wanting to walk alone but you’ll benefit from the questions they thought to ask and you didn’t.
  • Avoid using headphones when this compromises your ability to remain alert to your surroundings.
  • Stay within sight. If you are solo but unsure of your surroundings, keeping another group within view may mean altering your pace but will automatically add to your numbers and introduce witnesses.
  • Become really nosey. I have a habit when I cycle at night of noting which houses have signs of the occupants being awake. If I need to bang on a door really quickly I know which one I’ll most likely choose at that point. this only means taking note of your surroundings, but if you need to change direction quickly you’ll be able to rely on what you’ve already seen more than what you’ve blindly wandered through.
  • Consider a personal alarm, one that doesn’t shut up once you’ve pulled the cord. whistles can be silenced and I once attempted to shout and nothing came out, the situation took my voice. plus these things will spook an attacking dog and wrapped the right way around your pack become a good anti-theft alarm. Worth considering.

The Camino still remains a very safe place to be. We have to absorb the information but don’t let it rule our decisions. It’s only the nature of the Camino community which helps news like this travel fast and so far afield. That it happens so little is a sign of how rare it is.

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