One Day in Santorini, Greece This Happened…
Want to ride a donkey in Santorini? Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
(Intro note from author: This is a narrative account of my experience riding a donkey in Santorini, which I do NOT recommend doing and wished someone had explained to me before I did so many years ago why you should not ride a donkey in Santorini, which I link to a lengthier explanation of at the bottom of this blog post.)
This is it. I am going to die by getting trampled by a donkey.
I momentarily take my eyes off the several donkeys trotting toward me and glance nervously to my right at the ocean and volcano. At least I’ll die with a nice view.
I’m in Santorini, Greece. Trying to ride a donkey to the top of the caldera to Fira.
That was the plan, anyway. It’s not going quite as I thought it would. I look down at the trail and avoid a fresh pile of manure, then look up quickly as two more donkeys descend toward me.
I freeze. “Please don’t hit me. Please don’t hit me,” I mutter and tense up.
They pass me on either side of the narrow path and I breathe a sigh of relief.
The old Greek man – or he could be middle-aged and just spent too much time in the sun and frowning, therefore I’ll start referring to him as Angry Greek Donkey Man – I’m following turns and glares at me, his weathered face looking more angry than it had last time he turned and said something in Greek that I believe meant “hurry up” but could just as well have been “haha, I am leading you to your death, stupid American.”
“Come,” he growls at me as he continues to hold onto the rope of a donkey with a blonde woman being held hostage on it. I’ll get to her in a bit.
Ten minutes earlier, I was innocently waiting in line to ride the donkeys up the steep cliff to Santorini’s main town of Fira. I had no idea what was in store for me.
“You sure you want to do this?” My boyfriend, Tom, had asked while we stood in line.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, giving him a look wondering how he could ask such a silly question.
This was my second time visiting Santorini. The first time I was in Santorini I did not ride a donkey. Since I was lucky enough to be in Santorini for a second time, I was not going to let this pass me by. I knew it was a bit touristy, but come on – When else am I going to ride a donkey? (This thinking was in poor judgement; I was soon to find out why.)
We arrived at the line and it was surprisingly not that long. We took this as a lucky sign. In retrospect, there may have just been more sane people than us in Santorini that day and they opted for the pleasant cable car ride to the top of the cliffs instead of the jostling donkeys.
A friendly looking Greek man collected the five people in front of us, leaving just one other couple ahead of us. I started to feel a little nervous at trusting a donkey to take me up the incredibly steep cliff to the town of Fira. But I stayed in line.
A couple minutes later an older, weathered-looking man with a stocky and sturdy build and deep furrowed scowl lines – AKA Angry Greek Donkey Man – appeared holding a donkey. He counted off four of us, collected our five Euros each, and gestured at us to follow him.
“Come,” he grunted.
Nice! That didn’t take too long. The other couple, Tom, and I followed him around the first bend. There we see the previous people who had been collected getting on their donkeys. Angry Greek Donkey Man grabbed ahold of a donkey standing there patiently and told the husband of the couple with us to get on the donkey. The husband obliged and after he was on, Angry Greek Donkey Man let go of the rope and the donkey began trotting up the path. The husband waved at his wife as he rounded the next bend. Little did they know it would be awhile before they would see each other again.
I looked around and realized I didn’t see any other donkeys right as Angry Greek Donkey Man grunted and gestured at us to follow him. He began walking with purpose up the hill and the three of us scampered after him. I noted that everyone else we passed at this point was on a donkey.
“Where are our donkeys?” I asked Tom as we go around two more turns.
“…And how did we get the only crabby Greek man in all of Greece in charge of us for this?” Up to this point, most Greeks I had met were super friendly and nice. Angry Greek Donkey Man proved to be the exception.
“I have no idea,” he replied with a laugh as we dodged a few donkeys coming down the path. I also laughed, figuring it would all work itself out. This was before I began wondering if I was ever going to make it onto a donkey and began to seriously doubt the validity of all this donkey riding business.
“This makes no sense,” I said as we walk around another turn. The wife next to us agreed, looking quite unhappy. Probably because her husband was already to the top of the caldera and enjoying a gyro without her.
“Excuse me,” she asked Angry Greek Donkey Man when we caught up with him. “Are donkeys coming soon? I’d like to catch up with my husband.”
The old man looked at her as if she didn’t speak and kept walking. “One moment, one moment,” he said. About thirty seconds later, a donkey trotted towards us and Angry Greek Donkey Man grabbed it and pulled it over. “You. On.” He pointed and said to the wife.
She hopped on, looking relieved.
Unlike her husband, though, Angry Greek Donkey Man didn’t let go of the rope once she got on. Instead, he lead her and the donkey plus Tom and me up a few more turns.
And now here I am: tired, frustrated, and dodging donkeys running along both sides of me.
After yelling at me to hurry up again, Angry Greek Donkey Man suddenly stops and ties the wife to the side of the trail and walks off a few feet.
“Ummm…excuse me,” she calls after him. “My husband is up there. Can I go?” He waves away her question, gestures at Tom and me to stay put, and turns back around. I was fine with staying put. At this point, I estimated we’d walked up about a quarter of the trail and I was getting tired. This was a bit more exercise than I had been counting on.
The wife shakes her head and looks down at us. “You should get your money back,” she says.
I told her at this point I didn’t care about the money. I just wanted to get to the top of the caldera without being trampled! “I don’t get why he won’t let you go up, though,” I say as I press closer to the wall and grab Tom’s arm as a new herd of donkeys come running down the path as well as a few running up the path – with people on their back of course. Literally, no one else is walking this path besides us.
The wife shakes her head again in response to my comment. “I have no idea,” she says. “Everyone else seems to be heading up on donkeys no problem.”
Once the two converging donkey herds pass us, we notice Angry Greek Donkey Man standing before us holding a donkey. Tom, knowing I am freaked out about getting trampled by the many donkeys making their journey up and down the mountain, pushes me forward. “Go ahead, hon,” he says chivalrously.
I take a step closer to the new donkey and Angry Greek Donkey Man shakes his head angrily. “No!” he shouts. “You!” He points at Tom.
Tom gives me an apologetic shrug and mounts the donkey. The man ties him to the side, too. Why was the husband the only one allowed to go to the top? This is getting so strange.
Particularly more so because up to this point we had seen no one else tied to the side of the trail being held a prisoner on a donkey.
“Excuse me,” the wife tries again, tentatively. “My husband…” she points helplessly up the trail.
He shouts something angrily in Greek and makes some gestures, indicating we were to wait here for an unspecified amount of time. I look at the wife sympathetically. Tom shoots me an amused smile in an attempt to calm my nerves and I try not to laugh out loud nervously at the absurdity of it all – I don’t want to make a certain someone any angrier.
A few donkey stragglers pass us by and then a new herd of them round the bend ahead of us all at once.
Angry Greek Donkey Man immediately goes into the thick of them, apparently not at all worried about being trampled, and grabs two of them and brings them over.
He instructs me to get on one. I carefully grab ahold of the seat horn and swing my leg over, thankful I have ridden a horse at least a few times in my life which helped prepare me for this.
I assume the other donkey is for him, but don’t have time to verify this since he lets go of the reigns and my donkey is off.
Much faster than anticipated.
“Aaahhhhhhh!” I shriek as I bob up and down and hang onto the donkey for dear life.
“You’re ok, hon!” Tom calls from right behind me. Angry Greek Donkey Man had released him as well.
Tom is suddenly next to me.
Our donkeys are neck and neck.
My donkey does not seem pleased by this and he speeds up. He veers closer to the wall and barrels through two other donkeys coming down.
Great, I got stuck with the racehorse donkey. Most of the other donkeys going up the hill are plodding along at a much slower pace. I note this because we are shooting past most of them. Tom’s donkey is obviously not one to be left behind either as I can hear him close behind me.
I am clutching the reins and screaming and gasping in terror. My donkey veers close to the edge again and I wonder how often donkeys fall over the edge of the cliff with people on their back. Hopefully never. And hopefully not today.
I grip the reigns even tighter as we race around a few more bends. We finally reach the top. Tom expertly dismounts. “You can get off now,” he calls over to me.
My legs are literally shaking and I’m not sure they’ll support me getting off the donkey. “I’m not sure I can,” I say.
Suddenly, Angry Greek Donkey Man reappears and grabs me around the waist with one hulking arm. “Off!” he says as if I have a choice as he swings me off the donkey and onto the ground.
I mumble a thanks and scurry over to the top of the trail, away from the prancing donkeys.
I’m alive. I did not get trampled by a donkey and my donkey did not fall off the cliff.
And that’s my account of riding a donkey in Santorini. If this story doesn’t convince you that you probably don’t want to ride a donkey in Santorini, maybe this will: after returning home, I learned that the donkey ride wasn’t just scary and unpleasant for me — it likely was for the donkey, too. Unfortunately, I was not aware before my trip that many donkeys used for this trail are overworked and often abused. This article on mygreecetravelblog.com goes into detail about why you ethically should not ride a donkey in Santorini — as much for their sake as your own.