Safety Concerns Emerge Along World-Famous Pilgrimage Route
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
An ancient pilgrimage path, the Camino del Santiago, stretches some 500 miles across northern Spain. The path attracts hundreds of thousands of walkers each year. It's long been considered one of the safest routes in the world for solo hikers. But Lauren Frayer reports that after an American woman went missing along the trail, that view has changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WAY")
MARTIN SHEEN: (As Thomas Avery) We're going to walk the Camino de Santiago.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The 2011 Martin Sheen movie, "The Way," is about an American who walks Spain's famous pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago. The film inspired thousands of Americans to do the same, including Denise Thiem. At 41, she quit her IT job in Phoenix last year and took off to travel the world. Desiree Yao is her cousin.
DESIREE YAO: She had learned that the Camino was a very enlightening experience. She was traveling for a couple months around the world, so the Camino was her last stop and then afterwards she was supposed to fly back home.
FRAYER: Instead she disappeared last April along the trail after spending the night in an ancient Roman town called Astorga.
YAO: She was last seen in Astorga. It was Easter Sunday. She went to mass. And nobody has seen her since then.
FRAYER: Her backpack was gone. Her email and bank cards haven't been used since that day. I traveled to Astorga to meet of the last people to see Denise Thiem - the woman who runs the San Javier hostel, Concha Alonso.
CONCHA ALONSO: (Speaking Spanish).
FRAYER: "I feel horrible," she says. "She left with all the other hikers that morning. And since then, police have been here constantly."
But in five months, there's been no announcement from the police about any clues or leads. The family is increasingly frustrated.
The Camino footpath out of Astorga is well-traveled. It's not rocky, wooded or steep. Spanish authorities may have been slow to start the search because Camino walkers often want to get away from it all, says Ivar Rekve, who runs the biggest Camino web forum.
IVAR REKVE: So many times, I get messages from parents at home, worried. Usually what happens is that after week, the mom comes back into the forum saying everything's fine. And in the beginning, of course, I thought it was a similar situation. But after two weeks, three weeks - and we were starting to get a bit worried.
FRAYER: Rekve emailed 5,000 current and past Camino hikers, asking if anyone saw Denise Thiem. And the replies were shocking, says her cousin.
YAO: We actually have been approached by a lot of, you know, other women who have previously been attacked on the Camino. There were even a few occasions of attempted abduction. It's just appalling. And then when you talk to the authorities, they would tell us that, you know, that is unheard of.
FRAYER: Many of those victims hadn't talked to the police until now. Authorities say they can't tell whether the attacks are linked, but they are sending officers on horseback to patrol an 18-mile section of the path where some of those attacks were reported.
The Camino ends at the cathedral in the ancient Celtic city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Three-hundred-thousand hikers are expected to arrive here this year. Among them was Ana Bolivar.
ANA BOLIVAR: One night, I was talking with my mom in the phone, and my mom told me, be careful, be careful, there are a woman who have disappeared - I didn't know. So - and I asked people in the Camino and I have read something in the newspaper, but people don't know, I think.
FRAYER: Camino tourism generates millions of dollars for Spain each year, and authorities don't want to scare people away. But the family of Denise Thiem want to publicize her disappearance, especially to fellow hikers, in hopes of finding her and keeping them safe. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.