The Hard-Working Donkeys of Santorini

Oia Windmill

Our series on thoroughbred horses is galloping toward the finish line, which is the perfect spot to see how hard these horses work. American Pharaoh, living in luxurious stables and spending his days making whoopee is the equine dream, but the reality for most thoroughbreds is day after day of hard work.

Seeing these thoroughbreds training and racing inspired a conversation about animals that actually work for a living. And the hardest working animals that we’ve seen were the genetic cousins of Kentucky’s racehorses; the donkeys who labor day-to-day on the island of Santorini in Greece.

Up the Steps

Santorini’s two main tourist villages, Thira and Oia, are perched on the precipitous edge of a huge collapsed volcanic caldera (and a still-active volcano). The backsides of both of these villages are on the steep slope leading up to the caldera, but many of the cities’ buildings are clinging to the cliffs on the nearly vertical drop to the sea.

This incredibly scenic combination of topography and architecture has drawn tourists for decades, and while it’s breathtaking to see, it presents certain challenges when it comes to day-to-day living.

We visited Santorini in late November, which is their tourist low season. And because the island is so dependent on income from tourism, this is the time of year when much of the building repair and renovation takes place.

Panoramic_view_of_Oia,_Santorini_island_(Thira),_Greece 2

Modern, paved roads only go so far up the backside of the caldera hill, and then the steep, narrow, cobbled stairs and paths begin snaking their way down into the caldera. So if you’re renovating a small home on the escarpment, how are construction debris and building materials moved without vehicles? This is where the incredibly hard-working donkeys take over.

Oia Donkeys 1

Time and again on our walks, we had to duck off the path to give way to a mini-caravan of overloaded donkeys clip-clopping up the hill. Normally their driver was in the rear shouting orders, and the obedient donkeys (which understand more Greek than I do) wind their way through the maze of paths loaded with sand, rocks, and construction debris.

Working Donkeys

For the farm-raised folks out there, this may not seem unusual at all, but for folks who are accustomed to gas-powered vehicles, it’s unusual to see domestic animals truly work for a living. We slogged up these same paths, and it’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be doing it on a daily basis and loaded with hefty bags of concrete.

It’s easy to judge, but ultimately, it’s hard to argue with a system that has worked effectively for decades. The drivers aren’t cruel, and the donkeys are well fed and cared for. Essentially, they’re an old-fashioned solution to a modern problem.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Oia Donkeys 2

Photo Credits:
3. Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons
5. The Santorini Experience


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

63 thoughts

  1. We too saw the donkeys in Santorini and marveled not only on their power but their sure footedness. I always thought one might declare a strike and they would gallop like wildfire back toward the sea. It never happened and the donkeys plodded along as they have done for decades as you say. The photos make me sigh and yearn for another visit.

    1. Sue, I should have mentioned the donkeys’ sure footedness, because in addition to their strength, it’s the other characteristic that makes them the perfect animal for this task. Like us, I’m sure that you and Dave hiked up and down these pathways, and found that it was no easy task. Imagine doing it carrying bags filled with concrete. ~James

  2. Love your photos of Santorini, T & J! I’ve not yet been, but hope to get there one day… As for donkeys: it can be hard to watch them weighed down. but I can vouch for their ability to carry heavy loads; they hauled backpacks, bags of food and more during the first week of my Camino 😉

    1. Amit, Santorini is a bit like Bali, in that, even with its tourist hordes, everyone should see it at least once. But the good thing about Santorini is that it has definite low, high, and shoulder seasons, so a well-timed trip can be lots of fun. We visited in late November, and even though it was cool, the crowds were minimal. ~James

    1. Peggy, I’m no donkey expert, but I do know that when we lived in Sudan we saw some of the hardest-working bag-of-bones donkeys imaginable. How they survived, I do not know. The Santorini donkeys were chubby in comparison, but carrying these heavy loads they’d have to be. ~James

  3. I loved Santorini and your beautiful photos took me back there. These strong and hard working donkeys are amazing, but I did feel sorry for them and in particular seeing them carrying some heavy tourists up the steep path to Thira and Oia.

    1. Gilda, I felt the same way about the over-fed tourists being carted up the steep path. I suspect the cruise ship brochure painted a rustic and romantic picture of the ride to the top, but given the steepness of the path and the jostling around a donkey’s back was more a hang-on-for-dear-life sort of trip. At least I hope it was. ~James

    1. Laura, given the steep, twisting, cobblestone pathways, I know of no mechanical device that could do this work. The caldera and its near vertical drop to the sea is a huge part of Santorini’s charm, but living on the cliff face comes at a price. ~James

  4. So glad you posted this. I had no idea how they got supplies up that steep precipice. But now that I see this, it all makes sense. Santorini is another place we haven’t visited, but pictures on the web are so colorful, so enticing.

    1. Rusha, Santorini is one of those places that everyone should see, even with its crowds. The setting and views are as amazing as they seem, and it’s fabulous to walk these steep paths to see the homes of locals and how they deal with living on such a steep slope. It’s truly one of a kind. ~James

  5. First of all, beautiful photos! They make me miss that gorgeous place! Being Greek, I have been lucky enough to visit Santorini a few times. The first time, as a teenager, I rode the donkey up (laziness of youth) and hated it. Even though they are so sure-footed, I felt like I would topple off. As an adult, I chose to walk both ways and, although it was hard, I felt more secure.

    Funny you should mention hardworking animals … in my current series about my trip to Mongolia, I plan to write about the nomadic families living in ger tents and how they move their whole lives four times a year – on the backs of another beast of burden: the camel. It’s hard to see an animal with bedroom dressers, tables, chairs, and tent poles piled on it!

    Finally, for those who feel bad about these animals carrying such heavy loads (which includes me, even though I know they are built for it), I would mention the poor humans who make their living this way. I feel much worse seeing the porters on the Inca Trail or the Sherpas in Nepal with their backbreaking loads!

    1. Lexie, since you’ve been to Santorini, you know that it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo there. Terri and I visited in late November, and even though many places were closed for the season, there were almost no tourists. We could go for long walks along the caldera paths and not run into a soul. It was truly a magical time for us.

      And you’re so right about camels. In our Sudan years, we had lots of experience with these ill-tempered, kings of the desert. I particularly remember seeing lots of them out in the desert boondocks loaded with a passenger, all his possessions, and his AK 47. There’s nothing like traveling light. BTW, I’ll keep an eye out for your Mongolians on the move post. ~James

  6. We stayed in a beautiful villa in Oia, when in Santorini. Your photos make me want to return to this beautiful spot.

    The donkeys sure do get a workout, don’t they? It is no easy task climbing those steps in the heat!

    1. We stayed in Thira, but managed to get over to Oia a few times. If there is a more picturesque village, I haven’t seen it. When we visited, there was lots of renovation going on, so the donkeys and their drivers were busy. I felt pretty guilty sitting in a cafe drinking a beer when a caravan would go by. ~James

      1. When I travel with my girlfriends, we usually do one splurge for accommodation. Oia was definitely our splurge that trip. The view was spectacular! Hopefully those donkeys sipped an a nice cool bucket of water at the end of their day!

    1. Joyce, I know that both you and Dascal have lots of first hand experience with animals that have to work for a living. And even though these donkeys work in a beautiful place, its still work. Love, JH

  7. It always amazes me how animals can work so hard. Coming from a farm, I saw it every day, although we didn´t have donkeys. Dad´s horses were there for work, not pleasure. When the city cousins came to visit, everyone got to have a horse ride. I imagine the horse thought that was work too! Those donkeys are quite something. Great pictures!!

    1. My parents and grandparents grew up on farms, and like you, their animals were not pets: cows for milking, mules for plowing, and chickens for eggs. As a city kid, it was all a bit intimidating for me, but as I grew older, it seemed totally natural. ~James

    1. Thanks Pam. These hard-working donkeys are just a part of Santorini’s uniqueness, and I’m sure that the locals would be amused that I’m making such a big deal of it. ~James

  8. Those donkeys remind me of the yaks in the Himalayas. The locals use them to help climbers and sherpas carry tents, stoves, and everything else they can’t take on their back. Truly amazing how some animals adapt to harsh environments and do tasks deemed to difficult for humans. Btw did you stay on the island? I read somewhere that during low season most hotels in Santorini are closed.

    1. Bama, we visited at the end of November, which is definitely low season, but with so few tourists, it was bliss. Not all hotels close, but many do. So it really is a matter of finding the ones that are open and booking accordingly. The positive thing is that the hotel owners are very glad to have your business, so you get lots of attention and personal care. ~James

  9. James (and Terri) – do you remember the smell? The photos are so pristine, I always like to remember what the photos leave off 🙂 And, of course, the bells that rang as the donkeys walked. Completely charming. I had no idea that the donkeys carried more than tourists – it’s a nice tidbit of added knowledge. Thanks.

    1. You’ve obviously experienced this Susan, so you know that when there are working animals, there are working animal smells. But, when we visited, it seemed that there was always a fresh seabreeze, and the weather was perfect – just warm enough in the daytime, and just cool enough at night to inspire a bit of snuggling. ~James

  10. When we were in Rhodos we took a side trip to Lindos and they used the donkeys there as well. Fantastic country and it’s visually intoxicating.

    1. Leslie, we haven’t explored the Greek Islands very much, but if the others are anything close to Santorini, they are worth the effort. And visually intoxicating is the perfect description. Visitors can go to any cafe, bar, or restaurant on the caldera and be treated to world-class views. ~James

      1. James it would be almost impossible to see them all. There are thousands of Greek Islands. We spent some time in Rhodos and then we went on to Crete. Both Islands were amazing not only for their beauty but for their historical value as well.

  11. I’ve never been to Santorini, but this is a detail (ie moving heavy construction materials ) that most people – including me – wouldn’t consider. I can’t help but think ‘poor donkeys’. I’m pretty sure the lead donkey in the second last photo is trying to play the sympathy card with me 😉
    Beautiful photos. Is it possible to take a bad photo of Santorini? It looks perfect 🙂

  12. I love these photos — most of the Santorini images posted on the web; whitewashed villages, cliff side abodes, sapphire water, posing newlyweds, bikini-clad tourist, and stunning sunsets, so few show the hard working donkeys! – Ginette

    1. Ginette, if it weren’t for these hard-working donkeys, there wouldn’t be so many whitewashed villages and cliff side abodes. Over the years, we’ve learned to take notice of things that others might have overlooked. And donkeys make such good post fodder. ~James

    1. That’s very cool Kelly. There may be other places as romantic as Santorini (Bali comes to mind), but none more so. I can see you and your future husband sitting in a cafe, wine in hand, overlooking the sea. Sweet. ~James

  13. It’s interesting because we saw donkeys working hard for their living in Marrakesh, Morocco. Many were thin or clearly injured and we witnessed first hand abuse. I got so upset that I shouted at the abusers and went to buy carrots at the nearby market stall to feed to them. Awful!

    I have only been in Greece at tge age of 10 and look forward to returning there someday. Looks beautiful. Despite the overworked donkeys.


    1. Peta, we lived in Sudan for a couple of years, and the donkeys there are not only overworked and overloaded, they are underfed and most of them are probably one step from death. I’m not sure, but it must be a cultural thing because all the donkeys were treated this way. In fact, we came away from our time there with the opinion that in the entire world, the worst animal to be was a Sudanese donkey. Very sad but true. ~James

    1. Alison, it’s as beautiful as the photos. As you can imagine, Santorini is a tourist hot spot and is on the cruise ship route, so plan accordingly. We went in low season (in fact, very low season) and it was wonderful. But even with the crowds, it deserves to be on your list. ~James

  14. When I see animals loaded down like that, it makes me feel a bit sad, but who knows how difficult it really is for the animals. And if they are well fed and taken care of, all the better. Your photos are beautiful. Greece is high on our bucket list.

    1. LuAnn, I suspect that you’ve perfectly summarized how most people feel about these donkeys. Animals have worked for human benefit for millennia and it’s a relatively recent change that they don’t have to. The most important thing is that they are well cared for, and these donkeys are. BTW, go to Greece. ~James

      1. We are heading to France and Italy in a couple of weeks. We will be close but probably won’t get there this time. Greece is definitely on our radar. 🙂

  15. Peggy and I couldn’t believe the loads the donkeys (mules?) could carry. I quickly learned that you stay out of their way. 🙂 They are all business! Fun photos James and Terri. We were there in November as well. It was wonderfully free of crowds. –Curt

    1. Curt, I got a kick out of the drivers at the rear whistling and yelling directions to the pony phalanx. I assume that the lead donkey is the best order taker. But you’re right, they were all business and paid us no mind as they clopped through. As I said, when we visited there was lots of renovation going on, and I couldn’t believe the huge loads of stuff they carried. ~James

  16. Wonderful photos of Santorini. Oh my, your donkey photos brought back memories of my ride up on one of them. I was fine until I got to the top and there was no-one to help me alight from the donkey. I was panicked, as I felt sure it would in a moment turn around and gallop back down for the next passenger, so I jumped off, forgetting to let go of the reins and wrenched my shoulder in the process. Not a happy outcome.

    1. Sylvia, I took one look at the steep, zig-zag trail, and another look at the donkeys, and knew that the ride up wouldn’t be easy. And these are not small animals, so I can understand your panic at the top. I’m sorry to hear about the wrenched shoulder as well. It just doesn’t seem fair to come back from a vacation with an injury. I hope that all your other Santorini memories are better. ~James

  17. I guess they don’t have many options for carrying materials up and down these steep paved walkways. In Chinese villages without roads in the mountains, such as at Ping’An in the Longji Rice Terraces, I saw donkeys used in the same way as in Santorini. It’s either donkeys or manpower, and I guess the donkeys can carry more and can’t complain as much. So I guess the donkeys lose out.

    1. Humans domesticated animals thousands of years ago, so it seems to be a part of the natural order. But for me, it really all comes down to how the animals are treated. Beasts of burden that are well cared for are OK for me. But animals should never be used and abused. But having said all that, I wouldn’t want to be a donkey. ~James

  18. When I landed in Santorini, also during winter with few tourists and very low rent, I came by boat, and decided to walk to the top with my bag on my back. This was years ago, and I could do it easily. But I remember the donkeys doing their thing, and realized if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I don’t want to come back as a donkey on Santorini. Did you guys visit the Minoan village Akrotiri?

    1. BF, I think the donkeys carrying tourists up the hill have it worse than the construction donkeys. At least the construction materials aren’t squirming around on their backs. No, we didn’t make it to Akrotiri, but we did see lots of the artifacts from the site in the archeological museum in Santorini. Did you make it there? ~James

      1. James, yes, I rented a motorbike and rode it down there. I have to say, it was very cool. Even back in those days, they understood how to build houses to compensate for the rumblings of earthquakes…with wood beams built into the stone walls for flexibility. I wonder if they had donkeys way back then…of course, there would be no caldera cliff to climb.

  19. That sure is a tough gig!

    I think the hardest working (and possibly poorly treated) ones we’ve seen are the horses which haul the Cidomos around on Gili Trawangan (as well as Gili Air & Meno).

    Unfortunately if what I’ve read is correct, they get worked to death, with an average lifespan of 1-3 years… a good example of how tourism has not helped them!

    1. Chris, as you know from your travels, poor treatment of animals is so engrained in some cultures that there’s no way it will ever change. At least in Santorini, the donkeys are well cared for. But still, it’s hard to witness. But I try to remind myself that in the west, our treatment of animals raised for meat, milk, and eggs is anything but humane. The only difference is that most of us don’t see the process on a daily basis. ~James

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