Safety Concerns Emerge Along World-Famous Pilgrimage Route

Safety Concerns Emerge Along World-Famous Pilgrimage Route

4:08pm Sep 08, 2015
Hikers on the Camino de Santiago, Spain's most famous pilgrimage path, celebrate their journey's end in the plaza in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Hikers on the Camino de Santiago, Spain's most famous pilgrimage path, celebrate their journey's end in the plaza in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Lauren Frayer / NPR
  • Hikers on the Camino de Santiago, Spain's most famous pilgrimage path, celebrate their journey's end in the plaza in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

    Hikers on the Camino de Santiago, Spain's most famous pilgrimage path, celebrate their journey's end in the plaza in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

    Lauren Frayer / NPR

  • Thiem spent the last night before she disappeared at the San Javier hostal in Astorga, Spain.

    Thiem spent the last night before she disappeared at the San Javier hostal in Astorga, Spain.

    Lauren Frayer / NPR

  • The missing person poster for Denise Thiem, an American woman who vanished while hiking Spain's Camino de Santiago.

    The missing person poster for Denise Thiem, an American woman who vanished while hiking Spain's Camino de Santiago.

    Courtesy of the Thiem Family

When Denise Thiem saw the 2011 Martin Sheen movie The Way, which chronicles an American's journey along Spain's most famous pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, the 41-year-old woman was inspired, friends and family say.

It's a physical and spiritual journey, and Thiem was intrigued.

The path, which stretches some 500 miles across northern Spain, attracts hundreds of thousands of hikers each year. It's long been considered one of the safest routes in the world for solo hikers.

So Thiem quit her job as an IT project manager in Phoenix, her hometown, and took off to travel the world.

"She had learned that the Camino was a very enlightening experience," says Desiree Yao, Thiem's cousin. "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."

The Camino was supposed to cap off Thiem's around-the-world tour, before she headed home to Arizona. But she never made it home.

Thiem was last seen on April 5 — Easter Sunday — in the ancient Roman town of Astorga. She went to Mass at the cathedral, watched an Easter parade, then disappeared. Her backpack was gone too. Her email and bank cards haven't been used since that day.

The Camino footpath out of Astorga is well-traveled. It's not rocky, wooded or steep. A few weeks after her disappearance, police combed the path for any signs of Thiem or her backpack, but turned up nothing.

Thiem spent the last night before she disappeared at the San Javier hostal in Astorga, Spain.

Thiem spent the last night before she disappeared at the San Javier hostal in Astorga, Spain.

Lauren Frayer/NPR

"I feel horrible!" says Concha Alonso, who runs the San Javier hostel, where Denise spent the night. "She left with all the other hikers that morning. Since then the police have been here constantly, searching for clues."

But there are very few of them, and the Thiem family is frustrated. Arizona Sen. John McCain has appealed to the Spanish government to allow the FBI to send teams to Spain to investigate. Spanish police say they're handling it. But no clues nor leads have been made public for five months.

Spanish authorities may have initially been slow to respond to Denise's disappearance because of the nature of the Camino, a place where people come to walk, reflect and disconnect from social media for a while.

"Some people like to leave their devices at home," says Ivar Rekve, a Norwegian who lives in Spain and runs the biggest Camino web forum.

"So many times I get messages from parents at home, worried," Rekve says. "Usually what happens is, after a week, the mom comes back into the forum saying everything is fine. And in the beginning I thought this was a similar situation. But after two weeks, three weeks, we were starting to get a bit worried."

Through his forum, Rekve emailed about 5,000 current and past Camino hikers asking if anyone had seen Thiem. Her brother, Cedric, also posted a message, and the thread of responses reached into the thousands. Some of the replies were alarming, Yao says.

The missing person poster for Denise Thiem, an American woman who vanished while hiking Spain's Camino de Santiago.

The missing person poster for Denise Thiem, an American woman who vanished while hiking Spain's Camino de Santiago.

Courtesy of the Thiem Family

"A lot of the other hikers didn't take it seriously. They said, 'Oh, people sometimes want to take time off,' and 'The Camino is the safest place on Earth,' " Yao says. "But then we started hearing from a lot of other women who have previously been attacked on the Camino. There were even a few occasions of attempted abduction. It's just appalling!"

Many of those attacks were not reported to police until after Thiem went missing. Authorities say they can't tell whether the attacks are linked to one another, or to Thiem's disappearance. But they are sending officers on horseback to patrol an 18-mile section of the path, where some of those attacks were reported.

Family and friends say it's highly unlikely that Thiem wanted to disappear. Her passport and bank cards haven't been used. She wasn't depressed.

"She didn't disappear voluntarily — I'm sure of that," Yao says. "They haven't found any of her body or any of her belongings, so you can pretty much rule out there was an accident. We checked all the hospitals — no cases of amnesia. The only thing I can think of is that she was harmed, and whoever it was, they took her."

The Camino ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, an ancient Celtic city in northwest Spain. Thiem never made it to the soaring cathedral, where some believe Saint James is entombed, but some 300,000 other hikers will do so this year.

In a plaza in front of the cathedral, hikers celebrating the end of their journey on a recent night recalled seeing Thiem's photo on flyers posted along the trail.

"One night I was talking with my mom on the phone, and my mom told me, 'Be careful, be careful! There's a woman who disappeared,' " says Ana Bolivar, a 32-year-old hiker from Granada, in southern Spain. Bolivar hiked with a group of five women, and said she and her companions made sure they never left anyone alone on the trail.

Camino tourism generates millions of dollars for Spain each year, and authorities don't want to scare people away. But Thiem's family wants to publicize her disappearance, especially to fellow hikers, in hopes of finding her and keeping them safe.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

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.

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