I laced up my shoes, put on my pack and let the weight sink into my hips. Am I ready? Am I up for this? I asked the man at the front desk which direction to get to the Camino de Santiago trail in Pamplona. He got out a map and showed me how to get onto the trail; I’m sure he has been asked this many times. I left my bigger pack in the lobby to be picked up by a luggage service, and I walked outside alone.
This was a strange feeling. I just walked out of the hotel and kept going. I didn’t really know where my end destination was for the day, but I just knew I needed to keep following the trail. It felt weird to know I was going to get to my next destination in 15 to 20 miles by simply walking all by myself.
When I took off on my Camino de Santiago solo 5 years ago, I had a lot of doubts. Could I finish? Should I be doing this alone? Do I need a better plan? What if I get lost? Or hurt?
As I walked out of Pamplona alone that morning, I randomly met up with a woman on the trail and we started talking and walking. She had done this pilgrimage before all by herself so I immediately gravitated to her, hoping she would calm my doubts. She certainly did help me realize there was nothing to be afraid of, and most importantly Katherine and I walked together on and off for the next 5 weeks and became forever friends.
Within the first 3 hours of my 500 mile journey, I realized walking the Camino de Santiago solo was nothing to be scared about. In fact, I think it’s one of the best and most personally rewarding solo trips you can take in the world.
What is the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage
El Camino de Santiago, also referred to as “The Way of Saint James,” is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James lie. It is a pilgrimage deeply rooted in Christianity.
However the modern day version of this is basically a 500 mile hike following the ancient Pilgrim’s paths in Northern Spain (the most popular route). In essence it is a long distance thru hike where you stay in hostels/albergues/hotels each night. Some people still do it for religious reasons, but many just do it to take on the challenge and enjoy the benefits of stepping away from the stress of the modern world.
Why Walk the Camino de Santiago Solo
You Are Never Really Alone
You may start alone, but like me meeting Katherine, you typically aren’t alone for long. There were 278,224 pilgrims who reached Santiago in 2016 and received their Compostela pilgrim certificate. With that many people, even if you are walking on the trail alone, you can look ahead, and look behind and normally see 4+ people also hiking within your eyesight. A big city is much more dangerous than the Camino path. Of course you always need to be smart whenever you travel solo, but I never felt worried for my safety. In fact, most of the little villages along the way depend on pilgrim tourism. The villages take a lot of pride in making sure their towns and hotels are safe and people are looked after.
You pretty quickly form a little ‘Camino family’. This family is made up of people who are sort of doing the same pace and mileage as you. You get to know them as you pass by them each day, see them in the albergues, run into them at dinner, or walk with them for an hour or two. I very quickly formed a family and I wasn’t even trying to do so!
Even though you may have shown up solo, with this many people who are like-minded, you are rarely alone. And even though the Camino has had a few incidents, it’s as safe as any place in the world.
You Control Your Solitude
“Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” –Paul Tillich
Even though I had amassed this great new Camino family, I purposefully had days where I walked alone, just to enjoy the solitude. I was able to meet back up with them for lunch breaks, at dinner, or in the albergue. I could be solitary when I wanted to.
It’s Empowering to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
A comfort zone is not a place to live. The Camino is one of the best ways to get out of your comfort zone, and challenge yourself; yet still be in a safe and supportive environment. When you come with someone else you have them as mental support, and likely won’t be pushed as far. When you are on your own, you are able to go more in depth, work through the struggles yourself or with new friends you’ve just made. Doing the camino puts you into a physical, mental, and spiritual challenge. Completing the camino means you see what you are able to achieve on a physical level and your heart and mind opens becoming more loving with yourself. The experience is more enriching and empowering when you are on your own than with someone.
Time on Your Own Allows You to Listen
I talked to Samantha Sacci, who runs Marly Camino, one of the leading Camino de Santiago Tour Companies offering both guided and self-guided options for pilgrims. I asked her about the benefits of traveling the Camino de Santiago solo.
“Life is always talking to us, but we are too busy to listen. Suddenly when you are there your focus in on basic things and it allows us to listen to all of those other things. When all you have to do is eat, sleep and walk you take away all of the other noise of life and you can have some incredible personal growth. It’s a connection with the deepest part of yourself. You are just focusing on walking and the steps,” Samantha explained.
I couldn’t agree with her more, as one of my reasons to go on my solo pilgrimage was to slow down and reflect upon my current situation. I had been going so fast and furious for the past 2 years, I didn’t have a chance to actually consider what I accomplished or where I was going. The walk is long enough to get you out of your normal thoughts and routine, and gives you a fresh reboot without all of the other noise of life going on around you. That’s the key to doing this alone – you remove all other noise. Five weeks of solitary, slow walking time provided me plenty of time to reflect. I finished with a new renewed purpose and direction.
See my Essential Camino de Santiago Packing List
Boots vs. Tennis shoes, rain gear needs (don’t forget your camera protection!), laundry supplies, the best ear plugs, and more. Before you go, make sure you have all of these items on my Camino de Santiago packing list!
Things to Consider When You Do The Camino Solo
How much time do you have?
Do you have time to do the whole 500 miles for 4 or 5 weeks, or do you want to do a section of it for 7 to 14 days? The beauty of the Camino is you can slice it and dice it however you want. You can walk the last 100km and arrive in Santiago to get your compostella, or you can do a middle section of it.
Should You Go Guided vs. Self Guided vs. Independent
Do you want to arrange all of your lodging yourself, do you want your heavier bag moved each day, do you want to do more than simply walk and have time to explore the day to day culture?
All of these questions really come down to how you want to tackle the Camino; a guided tour, self guided, or independent.
Marly Camino offers guided and self guided options that are female friendly. Their guided tours still allow you to have complete solitude, but they also provide a level of support and safety that is really nice. Plus, you won’t have to worry about logistics at all as they book you into all of the lodging for the trip.
Guided Camino Tour
Even if you do a guided trip, it’s still a physical challenge. You have to get from A to B. You still feel the pain and the mental struggle, but you just have a lot more support. All you have to do is focus on the walking.
On the guided trips you actually don’t have a guide walking with you. Instead you have a support vehicle that will be along the route. Depending on the stage, you leave from the accommodation if it’s on the route, or the van will take you to the beginning of the stage. Everyone starts walking on their own at their own pace. You can stop for coffee, stop at a river to write or sketch, your hiking day is yours. There are checkpoints along the way so every few hours you’ll see the Marly Camino van that has fruit and water for refills. Or grab an extra jacket or socks. Or you can ignore it and continue walking. Even though it’s guided, you still have the freedom of walking as solo as you want to. I love this option as it’s sort of the best of all worlds; support when you need it and you can ignore it if you don’t. But every night you have the camaraderie of the group.
Since the Camino is many people’s first time in Spain, this is a way to do more than simply walk. You will also see and learn about different parts of the culture from your guide.
Self Guided Camino
This format gives you a bit more freedom if you want it, but still takes care of the logistics for you. On a self-guided itinerary, you walk to into your accommodations and out the next day since there is no van support. But your accommodations (breakfast included) are booked and you have the peace of mind of knowing where you will sleep every night. And on the self guided options you still have the option of having your heavier luggage transferred each day!
Independent is just how it sounds! I did my Camino independently. You start walking and find a place to sleep each night as you get tired or roll into a town you want to stay in. There really is no plan to follow. This is also a really rewarding way to travel, and it likely gets you out of your comfort zone even further since there is an unknown about logistics. However, if you aren’t comfortable with that much unknown, then one of the other options is probably best for your first Camino.
How to Plan a Solo Camino de Santiago Walk
I did very little prep before I started my Camino, however I don’t really recommend that strategy. If you are taking on the pilgrimage solo, then it will likely ease some butterflies and concerns if you do a little planning and research before you go.
I asked Samantha from Marly Camino what she recommended for preparation. She suggested to join communities online before you arrive. They provide great support and can answer questions as they come up in your preparation. Just do a search online for Camino discussion groups or in Facebook. Some of the groups that are more location focused even do training walks together.
She also suggested if you are doing a Camino tour, you could talk to your tour agency. Your tour company will have all the answers you need to be prepared.
Finally she also suggested you get familiar with the Camino by watching movies, documentaries, and reading books on the Camino. Her favorite documentary was Walking the Camino – Six ways to Santiago.
If you are looking for more inspiration and information – here’s a few more places you can go for great information!
Camino de Santiago Guides that Can Help You Plan or Inspire Your Trip
There are many routes to choose from and you might find it difficult to choose the best one for you. Samantha suggested “They are all great for solo travel. But if it’s your first time then probably the Buen Camino Light along the most popular French route, because the distances are shorter. Plus, we do activities/workshops every afternoon. Another good option is the Portuguese route. It’s longer daily distances, but it still has a cultural aspect to it.”
Now you are all ready to tackle the Camino de Santiago solo! What are you waiting for?
Start planning your Camino de Santiago walk with a little help from Marly Camino
This article was in partnership with Marly Camino. However all opinions expressed here are my own based on my own experiences of hiking the Camino.