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10 Incredible Pilgrimages Around The World

Despite their religious underpinnings and overtones, you don’t have to be a believer to enjoy these 10 spiritual journeys – the only requirement is an adventurous soul.

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Machu Picchu, Peru

It’s effectively a holy site for tourists today, but there’s evidence that in the 15th century, Machu Picchu was also a destination for Inca pilgrims. The ancient Inca site has been variously described as a virgin-occupied temple, the birthplace of the Incas and even a prison. Many archaeologists now agree that it was a royal estate, but even so, there is much evidence that pilgrims followed the Inca trail to leave offerings at religious shrines on the mountain. Today, thousands of tourists follow the footprints of the ancient Inca people, and arrive at the atmospheric site in droves every year.

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Photo: Thinkstock

Mount Kailash, Tibet

In the remote Himalayan mountain ranges of Tibet, pilgrims from four different religions flock to the holy Mount Kailash to perform one of the shortest but most difficult pilgrimages in the world. A 52-kilometre walk around the base of the mountain is said to bring good luck to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpos if completed in a single day. The more devout perform full-body prostrations, lying flat on the ground and inching their way around the mountain over the course of weeks. This is tough enough, but given the remote, harsh conditions, altitude sickness and few if any amenities, it’s an arduous journey on a whole new level.

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Photo: Thinkstock

Pilgrims’ Way, England

For hundreds of years, the Pilgrims’ Way in England has taken pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Canterbury Cathedral. But the history of the Pilgrims’ Way goes much further back than 1220, when Becket’s shrine was installed. The Way follows ancient roads that cut through the south of England, which were originally used to access erstwhile religious sites like Stonehenge in the Stone Age. Sections of the pilgrimage route, which unfurls through rolling English countryside, are now popularly used for “rambling” and cycling.

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88 Temples, Japan

When pilgrims visit the 88 temples dotted around the island of Shikoku in Japan, they are following a symbolic path toward enlightenment. Dressed in white shirts, conical hats and wielding a walking stick, pilgrims follow a 1,200-kilometre route around the island, tracing a path along steep-sided cliffs, through forests and along urban and rural roads. On the way, they receive o-settai, or offerings, from locals, who believe that any one of the travelers might be a reincarnation of Kobo Daishi, the Buddhist saint with whom the pilgrimage is associated. Once the blisters have subsided, walkers can achieve a state of meditative relaxation, though you can cycle or drive if you don’t have the time.

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Bodh Gaya, India

According to Buddhist tradition, some 2,600 years ago Gautama Buddha sat beneath a bodhi tree in what is now Bodh Gaya, India and attained enlightenment. No easy feat. And that is why Buddhists around the world flock to this famous site, where a bodhi tree still stands (not the original, but which is said to have been grown from a cutting). Saffron-robed monks from Thailand, Bhutan, and numerous other countries peregrinate around the city in groups, visiting the main Mahabodhi temple and other shrines to the Buddha. Pilgrimage routes to the city often passed through another famous pilgrimage site, Varanasi, on the road to the “Navel of the Earth”.

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Varanasi Parikrama, India

As the most sacred site in Hinduism, the city of Varanasi is already a destination for religious pilgrims of all Hindu denominations. The routes to Varanasi are highly varied, however. In the city itself, another type of pilgrimage is a popular tradition. Parikramas are Hindu pilgrimages that circle around a sacred site, like a temple or holy landmark. And in a place like Varanasi, there is no shortage of sacred sites. Most of the parikramas in Varanasi trace a path along the city’s famous ghats, where many cremations take place alongside the holy Ganges River at sundown.

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Camino de Santiago, Spain

Otherwise known as the “”Way of St. James”, the Camino de Santiago is one of the most famous Christian pilgrimages. Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists trace one of the many paths from trailheads throughout Western Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, following routes that date back to the Middle Ages. The pilgrimage takes anywhere from weeks to months to complete, ultimately cutting through rural northern Spain. Pilgrims follow the famous scallop shell symbol on signposts along well-marked routes. For Christians and nonbelievers alike, the Camino is extremely popular: almost 300,000 pilgrims were issued a certificate of completion (a compostela) in 2010.

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Photo: Thinkstock

St. Olav’s Way, Norway

If you’re pressed for time when following St. Olav’s Way, you can always take the train. But the 640-kilometer route is best walked with plenty of time in hand in order to enjoy Norway’s natural and often secluded natural scenery. Tracing the route of medieval European pilgrims to the tomb of St. Olav in Trondheim, the trail is more difficult than the popular Camino de Santiago in Spain, but often more rewarding. The Nidaros Cathedral, the endpoint of the journey, is worth the effort in itself, though the difficulty often inspires a spiritual sense of accomplishment, too.

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Via Francigena, France & Italy

The Vatican in Italy has long been a beacon for Christian pilgrims, and its star has hardly dimmed in recent years. Naturally, Rome is far more easily accessible these days as compared with the Middle Ages. But back then, it wasn’t as difficult as you might think. The Romans were famous for their roads, and the Via Francigena (“the road that comes from France”) was a well-traveled, well-maintained route. Pilgrims would come to see the Holy See and its various treasures, but the journey was impressive in equal measure. Today, you can hike the entire route, which officially begins in the English town of Canterbury, just like the pilgrims of yore.

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Mormon Pioneer Trail, USA

In the mid-1800s, members of Joseph Smith’s Mormon church were forced to head into the wild west to find a new home. Mormons followed a 1,300-kilometre trail through five states on their way to a new home in modern-day Salt Lake City. The going was tough, and pioneers passed through difficult but stunning terrain, including Bear River and Devil’s Gate, a massive gorge cut into surrounding cliffs by the Sweetwater River. These days, some spots on the trail make for popular religious pilgrimages. However, many sections of the trail are eminently hikeable and bikeable and are frequented by adventure enthusiasts who enjoy a bit of religious and cultural history alongside natural beauty.