16 Sep The World’s Best Travel Pilgrimages
Travel has the power to bring about profound personal transformation. And it happens through the seemingly simple act of leaving home — and all things familiar — and stepping into the adventure of the unknown. Travel sets into motion encounters in new landscapes with new people, new ideas, and new ways of living.
This alchemy is intensified with pilgrimage, perhaps the original form of travel: when the journey focuses on a sacred destination or goal.
Pilgrimage adds the adventure of the quest; it turns the traveler into a seeker, an explorer of both inner and outer landscapes. The pilgrim becomes more aware of the present and of her and his surroundings, and so is more attuned to the magical, uncanny occurrences that deliver unexpected gifts at perfect moments.
This adventure of transformation and magic is probably why humans have been journeying to sacred places from the beginning. Even when we were all nomadic hunter-gatherers, we ventured out to identify certain places and landscapes as sacred. Over time, across the world, these places transformed into humanity’s holiest shrines, temples, tombs, caves, stones, mountains, lakes, coastlines, and rivers. Many can still be visited today.
Here are some of the Earth’s most long-lived, celebrated, transformative, and all-welcoming pilgrimages. They come coupled with recommendations for sustainable and enlightened trips that allow seekers to experience the best trail magic along the path.
As the world’s largest continent, Asia boasts an abundance of the world’s sacred destinations. Many — but not all — are associated with the Buddha. Some have deeper roots in time, with traditional shamanic outlooks from the regions’ earliest settlers going back many millennia (including tying colored ribbons on tree branches).
A road of merchants as much as of mystics, the Silk Road can be an epic pilgrimage that connects Asia’s vast diversity — Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and more — into a focused but complex thread. The road includes sacred sites in China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and ancient Persia.
Few places hold as many sacred shrines and temples in such a compact and concentrated geography as Japan does. Many of these sacred sites are strung together like beads on a silk thread. Between them, ancient pilgrimage paths pass through stunning mountain vistas and ancient forest trails. Among the thread’s best destinations are the Shinto temples of Mikumari and of Shirakawa-go, the imperial city of Kyoto, and the 88 temples on the island of Shikoku.
The entirety of the Himalayan nations of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan are pilgrimage destinations, both in their natural settings and in their ancient human history. Mount Kailash in Tibet, for instance, is considered the residence of the god Shiva and his wife Parvati. The mountain is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, and yet it is an ancient site that precedes these faiths: Prehistoric humans may have made some form of pilgrimage here as long as 15,000 years ago! Then there is the Taktsang Monastery, popularly called the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan: the most sacred site of its nation. Built atop a 9,200-foot-high mountain, the monastery clutches the cliffs and offers unprecedented views of the world beyond.
India is one of the most diverse nations in the world, with a vast array of religions, ethnicities, and languages. A visit here can embrace a pilgrimage at every turn. Some of the country’s most sacred sites and splendors include the Ganges and the sacred city of Varanasi, and the northern cities of Jaipur and Delhi. Further north, the Himalayas offer their sacred pilgrimage sites and yogic retreats and traditions, including the famous city, temple, and ashram of Rishikesh.
At the pivot of Asia and two of its neighboring continents, the Holy Land, as its name implies, holds some of humanity’s holiest sites. Many prophets have walked here over several millennia, and today pilgrims arrive to follow those sacred footsteps. Also at this crossroads of continents are vestiges of humanity’s earliest steps beyond Africa, including those of Neandertals and of early Homo sapiens. Pilgrims today have the wider option to walk or to cycle!
Perhaps no pilgrimage is more potent than a return to the place of our own human origins: Africa, the Earth’s second largest and most culturally diverse continent.
Anywhere we set foot in Africa, we walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, be it in South Africa, East Africa, or North, West, and Central Africa. This is a continent that begs us to linger, perhaps at an East-South crossroads, or amongst the mystical traditions of West Africa.
The Camino de Santiago emerged in the Middle Ages as Europe’s most popular pilgrimage, perhaps because it was safer to journey to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain than it was to go to Rome or Jerusalem. The Camino is one of the world’s longest pilgrimage treks. It spans anywhere from 100 to 2,000 miles, depending on where a pilgrim starts. Even just a taste of the Camino from Melide near Santiago, or at a popular starting point in Basque Country of France and Spain, is enough to evoke the magic of this path.
The pilgrimage to Rome on the Via Francigena is especially popular today in its passage through Tuscany. But the ancient pilgrimage road begins as far north as England at Canterbury, where it is also called the Old Way. Neighboring the UK, in Ireland, is the Craogh Patrick — a 2,500-foot-high mountain in County Mayo. This pilgrimage route follows Saint Patrick’s footsteps to the site where he fasted and prayed in the 5th century. Ireland also offers more ancient pilgrimages in millennia-old Celtic footsteps to sacred stone circles, such as in County Kerry.
In antiquity, seaways were as sacred as footpaths. The whole of the Mediterranean is bespectacled with temples, shrines, and oracular sites dedicated to Greek and Roman (and earlier) divinities of the sea, earth, sky, and underworld. These stretch from the Levant to Turkey, Greece, Malta and Sicily, Italy, France and Spain, and all across North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco.
Among the most continuously inhabited continents by modern humans outside of Africa, Australia is, in itself, an ancient and sacred site. At its center, physically and cosmologically, is one of the region’s most stunning sacred features, that of Uluru (Ayers Rock), a mythic, deep red sandstone mountain rising dramatically from the surrounding plains.
As with Australia, Native North America itself — called Turtle Island by many contemporary Native peoples — is sacred. In its vastness are important destinations in all cardinal directions.
Early human history is intertwined with the sacred landscapes of desert, mountains, and river-carved canyons in the American Southwest. In 1936, American naturalist Aldo Leopold referred to the place as “near to being the cream of creation.” The region encompasses the heartland of the Ancestral Puebloans and important sites such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly.
The American West is rich with many significant pilgrimage sites for Native Americans. The Black Hills of South Dakota, for instance, are sacred among many tribes, especially the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Hidatsa. Today Americans of diverse backgrounds also pay homage to the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore.
North America also features nature’s dramatic pilgrimage site in northern Manitoba, Canada, where seekers can see the goddess of the northern dawn, aurora borealis in all her colorful splendor. (Aurora was the name Romans gave to the goddess of the dawn.) Her northern lights appear most intensively in northernmost Churchill, Canada, which hosts one of the world’s highest concentrations of aurora displays.
Perhaps the most evocative New World pilgrimage landscape — one that inspired ancient peoples as much as modern —are the steep green terraced mountains and deep glens traversed for thousands of years that stretch across the Sacred Valley, including from Cusco to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail.
Other powerful pilgrimages can be found in equally stunning natural settings, such as at the sacred shrines in Mexico, the Maya temples of Central America, and the lesser-known tributaries and bends along the Amazon River, a natural path taken by humans from the beginning of our first migrations into the Americas well over 14,000 years ago.
Pilgrimages need not be constrained to a single continent, as you’ll find if you join other animals on their pilgrimage-like migrations around the globe, such as the flight of monarch butterflies from Canada and North America to Mexico’s highlands.
Our pilgrimage may cross continents, or it may follow a single path. But no matter the length of our journey, the alchemy of transformation awaits us each.
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