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Whether you’re searching for spirituality or just a fantastic way to cleanse the soul and escape the hectic demands of modern life and all of those high tech distractions, these amazing pilgrimage routes across the globe are especially worthy of making the effort – and, the long walk might just change your life.
Glastonbury Tor, United Kingdom
Taking this half-day journey to the summit of Glastonbury Tor, a hill atop the roofless St. Michaels Tower, is said to be a journey of rebirth, and one which you’ll return from completely transformed. Rich in legend and mythological associations, it is one of the world’s top spiritual journeys around the world. It may have been a place of ancient ritual, though it was well-known as a place of pilgrimage for Catholics during medieval times. It’s a popular destination for Grail theorists as well as those who just want to make the climb to take in the panoramic vista of the Somerset countryside.
Here, Pagan traditions abound with The Tor also within easy distance to Stonehenge, which was built sometime between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. It remains one of the most compelling mysteries of ancient times – despite every type of modern scientific technology used to attempt to unlock the secrets of this gargantuan structure, nobody has yet to ascertain its origins. For many, traveling to this ancient site is a bucket list item, with thousands gathering around the mystical site every year for the summer and winter solstice.
Mount Kailash Pilgrimage, Tibet
A popular pilgrimage destination for over 15,000 years, the 32.3-mile trek around Mount Kailash reportedly can “erase the sins of a lifetime.’ Mount Kailash is one of the most sacred spots on earth, a holy pilgrimage site for people of the Hindu, Jain, Bon and Buddhist faiths. It takes about three days to complete – starting at 15,000 feet, and it includes an 18,372-foot pass. According to Buddhist teachings, if you manage to keep going for 108 rounds, you’ll reach Nirvana, though climbing the mountain is forbidden. If you plan on going, your best bet is to contact a tour company that can help you with the logistics of getting into Tibet as well as driving to the base of Mount Kailash.
St. Olav's Way, Norway
You’ll need lots of time in order to walk the nearly 400-mile St. Olav’s Way. Not only is it rather lengthy and challenging, but you’ll want to enjoy the country’s especially spectacular, and often secluded, natural scenery that traces the route of medieval European pilgrims to the tomb of St. Olav in Trondheim, though the reward is well-worth the effort. If you can’t fathom the distance, you could take the train instead. Nidaros Cathedral, located at the end of the trek, is worth the effort in itself, though the difficulty of the journey is likely to inspire not only a physical sense of accomplishment, but a spiritual one too.
Kumano Ancient Trail, Japan
Made popular by emperors more than 10 centuries ago, the Kumano Ancient Trail was located in the Kii Mountains south of Osaka, and leads to three sacred shrines, multiple protector shrines and tea houses, with especially stunning views along the way. The trek itself was an integral part of the pilgrimage process, as emperors and aristocrats undertook rigorous religious rites of worship and purification. It offers an incredible, awe-inspiring experience of the unique cultural landscape of the region’s spiritual countryside. Plus, you can look forward to soothing your aches and pains at the end of each day with hot spring hotels never far away.
Inca Trail - Machu Picchu, Peru
This life-affirming journey on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is talked about so often it’s almost become a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making. The unforgettable adventure is extremely inspirational, with the groundwork for the Andes-hugging, high-altitude trek laid more than 500 years ago. Experts believe the Incas built the trail as a holy pilgrimage to prepare visitors to enter Machu Picchu, the lost city that explorer Hiram Bingham discovered a century ago. A top thing to do when visiting Peru, the 26.7-mile walk can be challenging, partly because of the rough terrain and altitude, the reward for your effort is the opportunity to gaze upon the legendary Lost City of the Incas and feel transformed by doing so. You’ll pass through the Sun Gate (Intipunku) at sunrise, after following in the footsteps of the Incas, which were believed to have built the trail as a holy pilgrimage.
Madonna del Ghisallo - Lombardy, Italy
If you prefer pedaling to walking, this pilgrimage is ideal. The 17th-century Madonna del Ghisallo chapel in Lombardy, Italy is known as the mecca of the bicycling world. The ride is dedicated to Del Ghisallo, the patron of cyclists, with the chapel walls displaying glass-framed jerseys from some of the world’s best riders on every inch of the interior. The chapel holds an amazing collection of memorabilia and also burns an eternal flame for cyclists who’ve lost their lives competing in the sport. The classic ride to the chapel runs around the picturesque shores of Lake Como, climbing 1811 feet and is roughly 6.5 miles in length.
The Way of St James, France
The Way of St James, also known as Camino de Santiago, is one of Europe’s most famous pilgrimage routes. More than 100,000 people undertake the journey to Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of St James, every year. The most popular route begins in the southern town of Saint-Jean-Pied-De-Port in France, winding across the Pyrenees through Lower Navarre, and proceeds through northern Spain to the iconic cathedral where the apostle St. James is said to be buried. The very long, 450-mile stretch makes its way between charming towns and vast cornfields. Walkers spend the night in basic, family-run hostels that are dotted along the route which takes about three weeks to complete.
Croagh Patrick - County Mayo, Ireland
If you can make the steep ascent up this 2,509-foot-high mountain, you’ll enjoy especially impressive views along the west coast of Ireland. This is where St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, is said to have spent 40 days and nights praying, fasting and banishing snakes from the country. Over a million people from across the globe make the journey every year to follow in his footsteps – and, many do it barefoot. The climb is challenging but takes just two hours or so to reach the top where you can attend mass in a chapel, or just take in the impressive views before heading back down for a pint or two of Guinness in the pub.
Sanctuary of Atotonilco, Mexico
About 30 weeks a year, 5,000 to 10,000 pilgrims converge on the Sanctuary of Atotonilco from all parts of Mexico, with the usually deserted and dusty main street of the village filled with worshippers. A tradition that dates from the early 19th-century, the annual midnight pilgrimage starts from the sanctuary and covers the seven miles to San Miguel de Allende in a walk that takes about 6.5 hours to complete. The sanctuary is a church complex that is a rather intense blend of beauty and brutality, with the chapel’s magnificent ceiling that took artist Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre more than 30 years to complete, depicting images of Jesus Christ being tortured and beaten in rather gruesome detail – consequently leading the pilgrimage site to be popular for those who practice religious penance.
Char Dham, India
Char Dham refers to four pilgrimage sites that are particularly important to Hindus, most of whom aim to visit at least once in their lifetime. Located in the Uttaranchal state at the foot of the Himalayas, they also offer an excellent journey for the non-religious who want to learn more about Indian culture and tradition, as well as to experience the natural beauty of the region. Over a quarter-million visitors from around the world make this trip annually. Most start their journey in the temple town of Haridwar, though some leave from Rishikesh or Dehra Duhn, the capital of Uttaranchal. Tradition generally dictates that one visit sites from the east to west, starting at Yamunotri and ending with Badrinath. This pilgrimage can usually be accomplished in about two weeks, or, you can also visit just one of the four sites over a few days.
The Lagoons of the Huaringas, Peru
The Lagoons of the Huaringas are made up of 14 ponds and lakes and are a popular place of pilgrimage for those who are seeking spiritual healing from witch doctors or the sacred Shaman who lives in the area. They perform ceremonies for those who are suffering from all types of ills, typically using a hallucinogenic beverage known as Ayahuasca, which has claimed to cure everything from the common cold to heroin addiction and depression. Those who make the journey to visit the Shaman are inducted with special ceremonies, first visiting the lakes to bathe in the chilly waters which are said to absorb disease and restore positive energy. That is followed by an intimate ceremony that takes place in the home of the “teacher” at midnight when the Shaman uses his powers of healing to cure participants of what ails them.
Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka
There are a multitude of legends that center around the curious depression at the summit of this mountain in Sri Lanka, known as the Sacred Footprint. The original Buddhist story claims that this is the footprint of the Buddha himself. Though there are many other claims, such as Hindu’s tradition which says the footprint belongs to Shiva, Adam’s Peak remains an essentially Buddhist place of worship, with the mountain an object of pilgrimage for more than a thousand years. Whoever it belongs to, the spectacular summit is usually climbed during the cool night hours, with breaks taken from the steep ascent at one of many tea shops along the 4.3-mile journey. By timing it right, you can watch a glorious sunrise over Sri Lanka before determining for yourself who the mysterious footprint belongs to.
Bodh Gaya, India
According to Buddhist tradition, roughly 2,600 years ago Gautama Buddha sat beneath a bodhi tree in what is now Bodh Gaya, India, and attained enlightenment, which is certainly no easy feat. That’s why many Buddhists from around the world flock to this legendary site, where a bodhi tree still stands. While it’s not the original, it is said to have been grown from a cutting. Saffron-robed monks from Thailand, Bhutan, and many other nations wander from place to place around the city in groups, visiting the main Mahabodhi temple and other shrines to the Buddha. Routes to Bodh Gaya often passed through another famous pilgrimage site, Varanasi, on the road to the “Navel of the Earth.”