The Spanish people as a whole have been suffering from a very weak economy and an unemployment rate that went over 27% earlier this year.  The unemployment rate for those less than 25 years of age was at 56.5% at the end of May 2013.  The people I saw begging in the streets were nearly always people who looked truly destitute.  They wore dirty clothes, their hair unkempt, and their bodies in need of a major washing. Their demeanor was also very humble and passive.  Typically, they were kneeling on the ground with head down and hands out.  Sometimes a sign written in Spanish explained their need and solicitation for help.  Walking into the magnificent Cathedrals in Burgos, León and Santiago de Compostela, there were beggars at the entrance ways.  My sense is that most of these beggars’ plight was sealed well before unemployment dramatically rose in Spain.  There were other beggars that were not as passive and would come to your table at a sidewalk café or in the train showing faded pictures of their children asking for money to help keep them fed.


I spoke to many of the owners who ran the family owned Hostels and Hotels catering to Pilgrims as well as to employees at some of these same establishments complimenting them on how hard they work for so many hours each day.  In nearly every case, they responded very humbly and graciously stating that they were grateful to have work, given how many of their fellow Spaniards were out of work.


I share this with you because as tough as the economy is in Spain and the future not looking very rosy for their youth, violent crime is very low in Spain.  Physical harm towards tourists and especially Pilgrims along the Camino is unheard of.  I’m not saying that it has never happened.  What I’m saying is that it is extremely rare.  I was very surprised to see how many women, of all ages, are walking the Camino – alone.  They may end up partnering with a few other pilgrims along the way, but it is common to see women walking alone on the Camino in the middle of nowhere.  At no time during my entire stay in Spain which includes the Camino, Barcelona and Madrid, did I ever feel unsafe.  Particularly while walking the Camino.  I never felt any danger (from a Dad’s or Husband’s perspective) for my wife or daughter if they walked ahead of me out of sight or I ahead of them.  I also did not hear of a single incident in which a female or male pilgrim felt that they were being threatened by anyone on the Camino.


I also saw countless dogs on the loose along the Camino.  I don’t think they were wild dogs.  They were domestic dogs belonging to someone in the village and were allowed to roam around as they pleased.  Not once did any of these dogs growled at me or acted in a menacing manner.  There were even a few very healthy looking German Shepherds sitting at the entrance to their master’s homes but they too didn’t challenge my presence as I walked along, making no eye contact, or walking toward them or their territory.  I just kept moving!  Maybe there is some common sense that needs to be used regarding any dogs you encounter along the Camino.  I didn’t approach any of them nor did I make eye contact with them.  The only exceptions were a few friendly smaller dogs approaching me wagging their tails and showing no signs of aggression.  Every dog I saw that was barking at the Pilgrims was behind fences or leashed.  Maybe it’s a false sense of security but I felt that my trekking poles would provide me a safe distance from any menacing dog that wanted to get too close to me.  I wouldn’t worry too much about the dogs.


The biggest threat to security while on the Camino would be pickpockets and theft of your backpack.  This is where common sense and awareness of your surroundings really come into play.  Although there is literally a sweet spirit on the Camino and there is little to no danger of being robbed by your fellow pilgrims or the villagers whose livelihood is dependent on the Pilgrims, you will walk through some large cities and towns which will require vigilance.  I would recommend that you be aware of these crimes but to not allow it to dominate your thoughts and dampen your experience of the Camino. 


We kept our money, passport and Credencial del Peregrino (your Pilgrim’s “passport”) in an RFID money belt with the strap around our necks and the money belt in our front underneath our clothes.  This definitely makes it harder for a pickpocket to take your money belt.  The reason I used an RFID money belt is because they have a special liner that helps block unauthorized scanning of the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips inside passports, credit and debit cards.  That has been a security issue in recent years in Europe.


You’ll likely be staying overnight and/or walking through some large cities and towns along the Camino such as Pamplona, Burgos, León, Ponferrada and of course, Santiago de Compostela.  In these larger cities, like any larger city in the world, don’t leave anything valuable lying around.  Don’t ever leave your purse or backpack on the back of a chair or even laying it by your feet.  In tourist areas in any of these places, don’t make it easy for thieves to do a “grab and run.”  My wife and daughter did not bring a purse to Spain and I did not bring my wallet.  The money belts we used contained our passports, cash and credit/debit cards. It was all we needed.  We also had a color copy of our passports in our backpacks so that if our passport was stolen, we could use our copy of our passport at the US Embassy or Consulate to expedite getting a new passport.


When I sat at a café, train or bus station, I sat down with the straps to my backpack through my leg so that if someone were to try a grab and run, they’d have to take me with them!  When we were at Alberques in which there are no private showers, I kept my wife and daughter’s money belts while they bathed, then they kept my money belt when I bathed.  You don’t have to worry about the “real” pilgrims along the Camino.  However, there are thieves who masquerade as pilgrims.  This is especially true the closer you get to Santiago.  These thieves look like Pilgrims and hike along the Camino.  When they check into an Alberque they then prey on the trusting pilgrims in the Alberque.  This happened to a South Korean pilgrim.  She checked into a large Alberque in the village of O’ Cebreiro just a few kilometers into Galicia from the Castile y León border.  When she went to take her shower, a thief walked off with her unattended money belt.  That individual walked away with this young woman’s passport, credit card and €2,500!  That leads me to the next observation – don’t carry around that much money!  There are plenty of ATM’s along the way.  Although most of the businesses along the Camino operate on a cash only basis, you don’t ever need to carry around that much money.  I traveled with my wife and daughter; therefore, I was paying three times as much for everything.  However, I never had more than €400 in my money belt at any given time.  If I was traveling alone along the Camino, €100 to €150 would have been more than enough at any given time.  If she had no Camino friends she could have trusted with her money belt (unlikely by the time you reach O’ Cebreiro but possible) she could have spoken to the people running the Alberque to secure her money belt while bathing.  If you’re on the Camino with your spouse, significant other, family member or friend, just watch each other’s back.


Remain cognizant of your surroundings when using an ATM, don’t flash big wads of Euros in the café, hotel, restaurant, train or subway station.  Ladies, I wouldn’t bring any valuable jewelry on the Camino, including your wedding band.  Do you really need jewelry on the Camino?


Common sense goes a long way regarding security on the Camino and touring Spain in general.  Being reasonably cognizant of your valuables and your surroundings should mitigate the risk of losing your valuables.


I’ll close with a full disclosure statement.  Nancy, Andrea and I were in Spain for 5 weeks.  We flew into Madrid, took the train from Madrid to Burgos, walked the Camino from Burgos to Santiago (with a small use of taxi, bus, and train mentioned in previous blogs), took the train from Santiago to Barcelona, then a train from Barcelona to Madrid.  We did major sightseeing in Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada, Santiago de Compostela, Barcelona and Madrid.  I carried valuables such as my camera and iPad Mini (used for making posts onto this website), while my daughter carried her expensive camera and iPhone.  Thirty six days in Spain.  We did not lose a single item – until the late afternoon of day thirty five.  We were enjoying an afternoon meal at a really nice sidewalk café on the scenic Plaza de Neptuno in Madrid.  Two “beggars” broke our tranquil setting of Sangria fueled easy conversations regarding our wonderful experiences on the Camino, Barcelona and Madrid.  A laminated sheet of paper with a solicitation for money written in Spanish was slammed on our table by a handsome, athletic and well-dressed man.  He was looking at Andrea asking for money.  His sidekick who looked like him standing to the side was looking at Nancy and me. Their approach was sudden and out of nowhere.  They didn’t fit the demeanor of all the previous beggars I saw in Spain.  Something was askew and I didn’t like it.  I told him in Spanish that we are sorry but that we did not have money for him.  He looked at me with no remorse or humility and indignantly asked me for money.  I said “no!”  His sidekick started cursing at me in Spanish and they were gone as quickly as they came.  Nancy, Andrea and I looked at each other with astonished faces asking what had just happened.  We left just a few minutes after that.  It was then that Andrea noticed that her iPhone was gone.


In retrospect, and as the three of us tried to make sense how she “lost” her iPhone, is that these two “beggars” slammed the laminated sheet of paper on the table distracting us for that instant while he picked up the iPhone with his fingers under the paper.  With the two of them looking at us we were looking at them and not the paper and his hands.  Their ruse was clever and professional.  Andrea and I reported the theft to the Police.  I spoke to the Maitre’D afterwards and he said that there are very good pickpockets and thieves who lift items on tables.  As careful as we were for 5 weeks in Spain, it only took one time to leave an item of value on the table, in this case my daughter’s iPhone, to lose it. This could have happened anywhere.  It’s not just Spain.  Will we return to Madrid, Barcelona or Spain?  Yes!!  Will we do the Camino again?  Nancy and Andrea say “NO!!!”  Joe says, “Yes! but only if I can go back in a few years and attempt the Camino from France – alone.”


Buen Camino!