When planning a pilgrimage, travelers, besides deciding what route to take and what to pack, are often faced with a choice of going for it alone or as a part of a group.
The forums are swirling with questions such as “I want to do the Camino, but I have nobody to go with, should I go alone?”, “I couldn’t agree on dates with my friends, but I still want to go, is it OK?”, “Is it better to travel via an agency if I go alone?”, etc. Bottom line, everyone wants to know what is the better option.
I walked the Camino Frances from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Finisterre and, truth be told, I never doubted for a minute I wanted to do the whole journey alone. Was it better or worse than a group, I can’t really tell, but I can definitely offer a few pointers.
Traveling with a Partner or in a Group
On my way, I had the pleasure to meet a lot of couples, friends or families who have decided to walk together. In fact, there were a few solo travelers who paired up from the start. Rather than talking about that experience as better or worse, it is more accurate to call it simply different.
- You are not all alone in a foreign country, and that can be quite a calming thought for many, especially if this is your first trip abroad.
- It’s more practical regarding packing as you do not need to necessarily carry all the things you need yourself but instead distribute it evenly among the people with whom you are traveling.
- Camino, no matter how long or short a route you decide to walk, is unlike any other trip you have ever taken. You are likely to get into deeper conversations and experience profound moments, which is an excellent way to cement friendships and relationships.
- When you go back home, you have someone to remind you it was real and reminisce with you when missing those long days of walking and nights full of deep conversations and red wine.
What to Watch Out For?
Camino to Compostela is not really a holiday. It has nothing to do with carelessly lying on the beach, drinking margaritas. Firstly, the Camino (usually) lasts longer. That means not every day you will wake up happy and eager to walk. There will be days full of pain (blisters, knees, muscles, sunburn, etc.), days when you are just plain tired, even miserable days of rain or unforgivable sun…
- Everybody has their own rhythm. Don’t make the mistake of forcing others to adjust to your pace and do not feel bad if you cannot keep up. Just because you are traveling together, does not mean you need to be together at all times.
- Be ready to compromise. Along the way, you might discover that your partner likes to wake up late while you want to get on the road before the sun goes up. You might have different preferences about albergues and so on. Camino can’t only strengthen but also test relationships. Your way is not the only way.
- Don’t be worried to split up for certain stages if you feel like it. It’s a good way of getting a taste of how it would be to travel alone while keeping your ‘safety net.’
- Even if you travel with your best friend or the love of your life you can come across a few surprises. In your everyday life, you rarely spend 24/7 together, so it is totally natural you will get annoyed or angry with each other. Don’t sweat it.
- Don’t shut yourself in your own bubble. One of the most amazing aspects of the Camino is the serendipity of encounters and the richness of other people’s stories. Get out of your comfort zone and reach out. You will miss out if you only keep to the people you know. There is no other place on earth where it’s so easy to get to know people deeply in such a short period.
Should You Consider Agency?
It depends on what who you are and what you are looking for. If you have limited time and need your accommodation booked ahead it can be worthwhile. And, it is not such a bad choice when leading a large group (e.g. church group) as taking care of too many people can suck out all the fun out of the trip for the leader. It’s too much responsibility with too many variables.
As I mentioned before, for me there was never any other way but going solo. It was all I ever wanted. A few friends even told me they were thinking of going, too, one day and implied coming along with me. Very politely, I refused.
To me traveling alone is not a burden but an opportunity. When you are with your friends or family, you tend to focus on them and leave the rest of the world on the periphery. Being alone forces you out of your comfort zone. It forces you to pay attention to people, environments and, most importantly, yourself.
- Freedom. You have the freedom to set your pace and pretty much write your own story. How often do you get this kind of liberty in your daily life?
- Time for yourself. You will have plenty of time to reflect on your life and what you want from it as well as many opportunities to be exposed to different worldviews and life stories which can give you a new perspective.
- It’s a real adventure.
- On the Camino, there is an uncommon sense of camaraderie among pilgrims, so although you are alone, you are part of something bigger. Being alone and being lonely are two very different things and I don’t think you have to be afraid of the latter even when going alone. In fact, people tend to be more open, friendly and trusting on the pilgrimage, so it is likely you will feel more connected and understood than ever.
- Doing it alone and succeeding will make you stronger and more confident.
What to Watch Out For?
- Be sure to express yourself. Do not be polite at the cost of your preferences. I met a few pilgrims who “got stuck” with a group or with a partner they met on the Camino and did not know how to get out of it. All I can say is that this is a Camino, people come here for different reasons, and nobody will blame you for changing your opinion. I have done it, and I have seen others done it. Simply say: ‘Guys, that was fun, but I think I will split tomorrow. I need some time on my own.’
- Don’t be shy to approach people. Pilgrims expect it. I met a couple of great friends simply by chatting them up on the road in the middle of nowhere.
- Even if you are going into it by yourself and you seek solitude, do not push others away at all costs. Remember the wise quote from Into the Wild: “Happiness is only real when shared.”
There is no better or worse way to do the Camino; there is only you and your quest. If you want to make the right decision, ask yourself what it is you expect to gain from this journey. Is it insight into your own life? Just an adventure? Spiritual journey? Just a different kind of hiking trip? Answering these questions will give you the answer you seek.