Why walking the El Camino solo is the best gift I’ve ever given myself
I’ve just come back from walking the Camino de Santiago, one of the must-do outdoor activities in Europe, pinned upon bucket lists of people around the world, from all walks of life. I planned the trip since the day I realized I was turning 30, and last month I was finally able to make my 945km way from St. Jean Pied de Port (France) to Finisterre (tip of the world, Spain). I spent 26 days walking through serene forests and fields, cozy towns (some not so cozy), snow-covered mountains, and dead-sleepy villages, and can safely say that, although it was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, it was a trip to remember.
Before I elaborate on my experience, you need to know a little (yes, little) bit of history. The Camino (AKA “the way”) is a 1000-year-old pilgrimage to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral where the remains of St James are said to be held. For centuries and centuries pilgrims have walked the journey for religious reasons, and some people still do, but in recent years people take on the challenge to enjoy the benefits of stepping away from the stress of the modern world.
Was it perfect? Of course not, but the imperfect moments where you’re hot, sweaty and lost in the middle of nowhere are way more memorable than the “perfect” ones. The best way for me to describe this trip is “Life in 4 weeks” ... It has its ups, downs, pros and cons. It has people you will stay friends with forever, and some that you won’t ever see again (by choice). There were days when I felt like the little Spanish towns had legs that were walking away from me. I had back, shoulders, knees, ankle and other pains, but I refused to quit. “The way” will throw every challenge it can at you, and if you can just keep walking through the good, bad and ugly you will be humbled more than you could ever imagine.
If you start in St Jean Pied de Port, you will need around 30-34 days of walking. Many people resign from their 9-5 jobs to be able to complete the trip. Time is literally the only luxury you need. I am lucky enough to have the best bosses in the world who agreed to approve my 4 weeks of leave. So, I laced up my shoes, put on my pack, and let the weight sink into my hips. Suddenly it all became so real, thinking I had 2 pairs of pants, 2 shirts, a sleeping bag and a windbreaker to last me an entire month. As I arrived in St Jean Pied de Port after 2 days of traveling from South Africa, I asked the one of the h’ospitalares (volunteers) at the desk for a map and how to get onto the trail. I stepped outside the building and she showed me how to get to my first yellow arrow (the sign that steers you from ending up in Alaska), and just like that I was on the trail. It was a strange feeling. I just walked outside and kept going. I had loads of doubts: The fears of being alone, my planning (or lack thereof), my sense of direction, and a whole bunch of other insecurities that crept into my mind. I didn’t have any plan of where the day was going to end, but I just knew I had to trust I was going to be ok.
Within the first 3 hours of my 945-kilometer journey, I realized walking the Camino was nothing to fear. In fact, I think it’s one of the most personally rewarding solo trips you can make in the world. With each step, I could feel the outside world fade away, I started to thoroughly immerge into my reflective journey, and could feel the worries of finding WI-FI become more and more distant.
Due to my 4-week time limitation. I pushed hard to finish quicker than the recommended time, but the truth is, there is no need to rush. All I knew is that I had to be in Santiago 4 weeks later, whether I got there in 26 days or 28 days was irrelevant. It took me a couple days, but eventually the idea of “Living in the present” finally caught on, and I was happy to make the most of every experience. Also, regardless of how “in control” of time and distance I thought I was, the Camino got the better of me... I ended up with massive Achilles problems and blisters, which could easily have been avoided if I had just listened to my body.
One downside I found during the trip was the last 100kms. 50% of all people walking only walk the final 100km, from Sarria to Santiago. This is because to earn your Compostela, a certificate proving you did the hike, you must walk at least the final 100km. Unfortunately, this has led to the final 100km being rather touristy. Albergues (hostels) and food prices rise almost overnight, and the convenient availability of grocery stores fades while the number of restaurants increase. Touristy shops multiply and reach something of a trashy crescendo in Santiago, where they are littered everywhere throughout the charming city. The change happens overnight, and after hiking the first 700km it can be rather shocking. It is for partly this reason that many pilgrims (including myself) continue past Santiago and walk to the quieter coastal town of Muxia, or to Finisterre, a place once thought to be the physical end of the world by the Celts and Romans.
Regardless of that, for the first 700kms, my favorite moments were encounters, meetings with complete strangers on the Camino. There is something about walking next to someone on “the way” that makes people disclose their deepest thoughts to people who are complete strangers. I think it is partly the physical setting, but also the fact that you are not looking directly at each other or making eye contact, but rather looking straight ahead. In a sense, I was releasing thoughts to the universe, and simply thinking out loud. I made sure to ask questions that were relevant to me. I imagined that every person I met knew something I didn’t, so until I learned something from the person, I carried on walking with them. Sometimes I knew within 5 minutes that our time was short-lived, and sometimes it took 9 hours.
My lesson about people is that not every relationship is supposed to become something beautiful and long-lasting. Sometimes people come into your life to show you what is right, what is wrong, to show you what you can be, to make you feel better for a little while, or just be someone who you can walk with and spill your whole life to. Not everyone is going to stay forever, but each time, we need to love, learn and thank them for what they have given to us and make sure it betters us in some shape or form
My comfort zone is people, so being out on the trail and finding people to walk and talk with was easy, and comfortable. However, getting out of my comfort zone was why I had ventured on the El Camino alone... to slow down and reflect upon my current situation(s). I have been going so fast and furious for the past 2 years, I haven’t had a chance to actually consider what I accomplish or where I am going. The walk is long enough to get you out of your normal thoughts and routine and gives you a fresh reboot without all the other noise of life going on around you. That’s the key to doing this alone – you remove all other noise. Four weeks of solitary, slow walking time provided me plenty of time to reflect. I finished with a new renewed purpose and direction.
Overall advice on gear, planning and the likes
My biggest piece of advice to anyone considering the Camino would be to wear shoes that are worn in (extremely worn in) to save yourself pain and money. I remember having the conversation about which shoes to take with my housemates before I left (to the point that they begged me to find a new topic) ... and at the end of the day, instead of the brand new, suggested boots I had read all about, I took trail running shoes that I have owned for 2 years!! They were old, and possibly slightly too worn, but man, were they comfy!!! The biggest reason that people quit the Camino is because of bad footwear (blisters, cuts, bruises and all that). All other gear can be purchased along the way if you have problems, but good footwear is the one that can make or break your trip.
Around routes, some people prefer to plan their route to the tee (especially when some of the hostels close for the winter so that they were never caught in a dangerous situation), but, in search of pure adventure, I consciously tried to not plan my routes and went with no expectations. The guidebooks tell you how far you should walk each day, but I wanted to experience the roads less travelled, and experience things I could talk about for years to come, and boy ... Did I get them! I experienced age old traditions performed by wizards, received meals from pilgrims who are 100% self-sustained (they even made ginger cake from their veggie garden), had to knock on doors in search of somewhere warm during a snowstorm to avoid hypothermia, was pulled into a Spanish dancing mob and forced to perform, ate 3 course meals at the finest restaurants for the equivalent of 5-Rand, slept in a monastery when I couldn’t find a hostel, and so much more!
The scenery/ landscapes really make it a unique experience. It isn’t all picturesque (like walking into the large towns of Burgos and Leon as they seem like jungles of cement). But walking through the Pyrenees mountains, or hiking to O’Cebreiro was mind-blowing. In the end, I was lucky enough to see things not many people will ever experience. That is why travelling on 2 feet is so enlightening. It also means I could eat all the bread I wanted, all the wine I could find (including the free wine from wine fountains placed along the way) and not feel even slightly guilty, because I was burning calories quicker than a man after hearing the results of an unplanned pregnancy test 😊
I was also not prepared at all for the weather (which was the worst Spain has seen in 7 years). I went through 8 days of hiking through the ice-cold snow, to walking through the pouring rain, to windstorms, sunburn and anything else you can imagine. If I had to go back and re-pack my backpack, I would say prep for all seasons!! Take an extra warm jacket, and a skimpy crop top. Take a pair of thermal tights, and hot pants. Just make sure you are prepped, because hypothermia is REAL!!
My “way” forward
So, I’m back to reality, sitting here in my home with many electronic toys around me, a phone that seems to follow me around like a shadow, cars and pollution that I haven’t seen in a while, and although these seem like negatives, I realize how much I love my life in our incredibly diverse, beautiful country. I have incredible friends and love the people I surround myself with. Yes, the El Camino has changed me, and allowed me time to grow and develop as a good human, but I just need to apply the lessons I’ve learnt to the life I already have and wait for the magic to happen.
Looking back at it all, the biggest lesson I have learnt is that life is way too short to spend it at war with yourself. I’ve learnt to accept day by day that I am my biggest challenge and that if I can get out of my own way, the world is my oyster. I want to see the positive in the world rather than the negative. I want to be the person who makes everyone I come across feel perfectly ok with who they are. I want to bring light to bad situations by smiling rather than frowning. I want to live life to the fullest and take people along for the ride. I want to remain young, wild and free with no place to go but EVERYWHERE!!
Happy to chat through the trip with anyone looking to do the Camino, just buy me a coffee and my advice is all yours 😊