Donkey Tales from Santorini


We decided to get off the beaten path … I mean way off. In fact I think we were trespassing (if that fence we climbed over meant anything). We’d been hiking the Santorini Cliff Trail between Fira and Imerovigli, marveling at every sight, but it was time to do the backstreets.

We’ve learned that you see the coolest stuff if you go where the local Tourist Board doesn’t want you to go. Over the years we’ve mastered this technique and usually managed to stay out of trouble. The key: follow the local folks … and then go a little farther.

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
~Katherine Hepburn

So we tagged along behind a boy with a fresh loaf of bread tucked under his arm to a row of simple homes – laundry neatly hung outside, kid’s toys scattered about, and delicious cooking smells wafted through the window. Yep, this was the place. When he ducked into one of the doors, we carried on up the footpath, reaching a sagging fence surrounding an overgrown, rocky, hillside clearing.

We stood there with our heads cocked, trying to understand what we were seeing. Then it dawned on us. We’d found them – some of the famous Santorini Cave Houses! Definitely pre-renovation. They had been built … and abandoned long ago. It was like a Nancy Drew mystery – way too tempting to not go exploring. So we climbed the fence.

As I was studying the exterior, James cautiously stepped inside and disappeared down a passageway. The next thing I knew there was a commotion inside the house, sudden movement … and two enormous brown eyes appeared. It was a donkey – a big donkey! We stared at each other dumbfounded, she quickly sized me up, then trotted headlong straight for me.

We’d obviously invaded her turf, so I wasn’t sure what to expect (having grown up around farm animals). But as it turned out, she just wanted some love! She nuzzled and pushed, seemingly starved for attention. When James emerged he couldn’t believe his eyes. I’m not sure who was more surprised – us or the donkey!

We parted company with the donkey and continued our hike, climbing up the hillside along a paved walkway. It crested the ridge and ended abruptly at the front doors of three upscale houses – definitely not traditional tourist territory. We realized we would have to backtrack. James turned around and said, “You’re not gonna believe this!” I turned around and there was the donkey coming up the path. She’d followed us. Unbelievable!


She greeted us like old friends. After a few neck pats and ear scratches she headed on up and went to the front door of one of the elegant houses! Oops! Time for us to exit.

We scooted back down the trail, and as we looked back over our shoulders, we saw a guy in a red sweater come out. We thought that he was yelling, “Hey, is this your donkey?”

As I said, we usually manage to stay out of trouble.



We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

54 thoughts

  1. We all like to bring a little something back from our holidays – but I don’t think a donkey would fit into your valise. He would have been interesting as a house pet though. What a fabulous memory of a great trip. Virginia

  2. How sweet, I love this story. The photos are amazing. Santorini. What an enchanting little donkey. Perhaps he was just lost! 🙂 I laugh when I imagine you trying to “lose” the donkey. haha

  3. I rode up a steep slope on one of those donkeys. When I got to the top, there was no-one to help me dismount, and I was scared it would turn around and gallop back down again, but thankfully it didn’t, and I managed to jump down. 🙂

    1. Hi Sylvia, You are so brave! I took one look at those donkeys winding their way up the side of the hill and said, “I’ll walk, thanks!” Did you see the donkeys they use to haul all the construction materials? Amazing! ~Terri

      1. Yes I did. When I started out, hubby and son were walking next to me, and so was the donkey handler, but as we got up the hill, the guy seemed to disappear into thin air, and my family were walking much faster than the donkey, and forgot about me. I did wrench my shoulder getting off, because I forgot to let go of the reins. 😦 I was NOT amused.

  4. Love this donkey story. Santorini is a place a really want to visit andd now I know I need to take a few carrots with me!

  5. My wife loves donkeys and every time she finds some walking through the streets of Chennai, she stops by and talk to them. She really wants to bring one home … I know that 🙂

  6. What a sweet story with lovely photos. It made me want to hug that donkey! She looked very determined in that last photo. She was going to get more loving no matter what!

    Santorini is definitely on my list of places to go…

    1. Catherine, she really was a sweetheart … and determined to get some attention! We loved Santorini in the off-season. Without the crowds we could really appreciate its beauty. ~Terri

  7. I’ve been to Santorini. The place is thick with donkeys! I suppose they were imported for use hauling tourists up from the cruise ships. I used to raise donkeys. If one got out of the fence, all I had to do was scold her a bit, then she would follow me home. No lead required.

      1. Thanks for replying , Terri. The tag sale continues today. Louise has written a post about it, which I will put up in a few minutes.

  8. My husband and I met a donkey while exploring off the beaten trail in Puerto Vallarta. Climbing the hill above the city, the streets diminished into foot trails between tiny dwellings in the early stages of construction. We came upon a donkey packing a load of bricks. His master looked flabbergasted. Guess even in a tourist mecca, very few get off the main run.

    Thanks for the like on my Donkey post and for the idea that I have a better donkey photo in my scrapbook than the stock one I used.

    1. Hi Stephanie, that’s so interesting because they were also using donkeys to haul construction materials on Santorini (next Sunday’s post). Most of them seemed pretty cooperative, but there was always one troublemaker! And BTW, I really like the donkey photo you used! ~Terri

  9. Oh those donkeys! I’m with Sylvia. I did manage the summit but l was unbelievably relieved to get off. Will have to time my tales from Greece so that we don’t bump into each other on a Sunday- sorry!

    1. So you rode a donkey too! That is so cool. I can appreciate that you were glad to get off – that path is pretty steep! I think it’s great we both posted about Greece – that just makes it more fun to see everyone’s adventures. ~Terri

  10. Knowing me, I would have started asking my husband if there was a way to take him home with us. I’m a sucker . . . just ask my four cats.

  11. Excellent story and reminds me of my trip to Santorini. Although, my encounter with a stampede of donkeys was not so pleasant. I got shoved into a side wall while walking up back up those 500+ zig-zagging stairs in Fira Oi! What a bruise that was.

    1. Ouch! That’s interesting Scarlet because we had a similar experience when we went to Oia where they were using the donkeys to haul construction materials on narrow pathways – we nearly got knocked over the side. Yikes! ~Terri

  12. I like the last one most, because it’s so “unreal”. The donekey walking up the beautiful street, where one usually expects to see well dressed people.

  13. I’m always afraid to go off the beaten path in an area where I don’t speak the language… but it seems like you can have a lot more adventures if you just overcome that uneasiness. I’ll have to keep that in mind on future trips 🙂

    1. Jen, we’ve gotten really good at sign language, acting things out, and trying to see if we have any languages in common – sometimes a smattering of Spanish, French or Arabic will strike a chord. If not – then Pictionary! ~Terri

  14. James and Terri: where everyone just sees the blue and white little cute houses, you two always discovers more ! I like particularly the last pix. It is really like a painting with blue and white background and a lovely donkey walking towards the artist! Tell me is it real?

    1. Many thanks Denise. The donkey photo is truly real – and what a back drop she had! She was like a really big rambunctious puppy when she followed us up the trail to the houses. We couldn’t believe it. If she could have jumped in our laps I think she would have tried. 🙂 ~Terri

  15. Very cute, the donkey follower. I did ride a donkey in Santorini up a cliff path. I was not happy since I’m afraid of heights. Good thing we were going up not down towards the sea.

    1. Thanks Jean – the donkey was really a sweetheart – who thought she was a dog! 🙂 I can’t believe you rode one up the cliff path. I would have been terrified. ~Terri

  16. This heart-warming story and amazingly cute donkey did make me smile, James. And, of course, the fact that you went off the beaten path. Thanks for recommending the read and photos to me. Too cute! I guess some donkeys crave love, attention and pets, just like dogs. If only you could have taken her home. 🙂

    1. Liesbet, we rented an apartment and spent a week in Santorini in Late November. It was deserted, and we’d go for long walks and not see a single tourist, which is very rare in Santorini. It was wonderful. On another off-the-path walk we met the ugliest, friendliest dog in Christendom, and he followed us for half an hour. He was also a fun, love-starved character. I hadn’t thought of him until I re-read this post. 🙂 ~James

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