The Camino de Santiago is an old pilgrims’ route that starts across the Pyrénées in southwestern France, crosses the north of Spain, and ends in Santiago de Compostela, a distance of 780 kilometres. It’s a well-known trail, and roughly 250,000 people hike at least some part of it every year. Yet, it is not the kind of trip you undertake on a whim.

Ildiko near Foncebadon (Camino de Santiago solo)

Ildiko, a marketing professional from Toronto, had the opportunity to do the hike last fall, and she went on her own. I had read about the trail before (even considered doing it) so I was curious to learn about the experience first-hand. Fortunately, Ildiko agreed to an interview, and provided me with plenty of information and impressions.

Go grab a beverage, sit down comfortably, and read on!

(All photos courtesy of Ildiko J. Lorik.)

Hiking the Camino de Santiago solo

Big Travel Nut: Hi Ildiko! What made you decide to hike the Camino?

Ildiko: The inspiration to do the Camino first came in the early 2000’s after reading Shirley MacLaine’s novel “The Camino”. It sounded like a cool thing to do “one day”, but I never actually got around to making it happen. Then last year, after my mother passed away and I negotiated time off work to deal with things (including taking my mom’s ashes back to her homeland in Europe), I wondered what would be the best way to use this valuable time off.

Initially, I just wanted to go to an ocean – it didn’t matter if it was a sunny tourist destination, or a remote, windy, brooding coastline. I was craving the sound of waves and an ocean breeze. However, when my boyfriend reminded me that I’d been talking about the Camino forever, and that it might be a great opportunity to do it, I realized that it would be the perfect way to honour the memory of my mother who had always loved walking and hiking too. And so it came to be.

In the Pyrénées, between France and Spain (Camino de Santiago solo)

In the Pyrénées, between France and Spain

BTN: How did you prepare for this trip? Any special training you undertook, or books you read?

Ildiko: First off, I interviewed two of my friends who had completed the trail a year prior to find out details about accommodation, what to pack, and things to watch out for. One of them even gave me a detailed packing list.

I also read two or three blogs that turned out to be incredibly useful in corroborating my friend’s packing list, recommending the John Brierly guidebook, and linking me to the Canadian Company of Pilgrims from whom I purchased my Camino passport (though I could have gotten a nicer one in Saint-Jean it turns out).

I spent a gazillion hours at Mountain Equipment Coop browsing their wares and figuring out which backpack, sleeping bag, and hiking shoes to bring along, plus a whole slew of other things from rain ponchos, wet bags, soap, etc. I had read that the pack shouldn’t be more than 10% of body weight to walk the Camino comfortably, so I was constantly assessing and re-assessing critical items vs wish-I-could-bring items.

I never was much worried about hiking the distance, as I’m relatively fit. My biggest worry had more to do with “carrying weight” and dealing with blisters (as I’m really prone to them). In the weeks preceding my trip, I started walking the hour to work with a backpack on, to get used to carrying weight that way.

BTN: How long did it take you to hike the whole route?

Ildiko: It would have taken me 33 days to hike the whole distance from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. Unfortunately, I had major blisters starting on Day 4. I plodded ahead, but by Day 14, ended up visiting a doctor who told me to take a few days off.

I ended up taking 5 days off, and had to consider the options of either starting again where I’d left off and not fully completing the trail (as I had to get back to work by a certain date), or skipping ahead in order to get to the end of the trail. I did the latter and embarrassingly enough, did wind up missing 100 kilometres of the trail (in the middle of the plains).

A spectacular morning outside Itero de la Vega (Camino de Santiago solo)

A spectacular morning outside Itero de la Vega

By the way, there are several different Camino trails leading to Santiago de Compostela. I was walking on the classic path that is often called Camino Francés, or St. James Way.

BTN: Where did you stay during the hike? Did you book your accommodation in advance?

Ildiko: The trail is dotted with small cities and towns, and almost every place has some kind of accommodation for pilgrims. This ranges from hostels, to small hotels, to expensive paradors. I believe at one point in history, people opened up their homes to pilgrims, but that is no longer really the case (or wasn’t my experience).

A full listing is given out at the start of the trail, at the Pilgrim’s office in Saint-Jean, where you get your first stamp in your Camino passport. The listing shows all options available for the particular season and year, and includes details about number of beds available, pricing, laundry facilities, etc.

In addition, there are different Camino apps that you can load onto your phone to look up hostel information. I generally stuck to the list we received as well as the Wise Pilgrim Guides app.

Iconic view near Valtuille de Arriba (Camino de Santiago solo)

Iconic view near Valtuille de Arriba

I had heard stories about being “stranded” along the Camino and not being able to get a place to sleep, but that must be during the summer peak season, as I had no trouble and didn’t call ahead or make any reservations until the very end for Santiago. To save money, I stayed in a hostel dorm room every night except for my second night in Burgos, and the 5 days where I departed from the trail.

As an aside, one can stay only one night at a hostel in any given town. If you want to stay a second night in the same town, you need to move to a hotel, or wait until every new pilgrim has accommodation, before asking permission to get into a different hostel for the second night.

BTN: How much stuff were you carrying?

Ildiko: Initially, I carried about 14 lbs on my back. Because I really dread carrying anything at all (I tend to suffer from major back pain), I had tried to whittle things down to a bare minimum without actually giving up things such as the backpack itself, sleeping bag, a change of clothes, etc.

During my five days off, I realized that the backpack had caused me to change my gait, which in turn, was likely the cause for my blisters. When I returned to the trail, I shipped a couple of pounds of stuff direct to Santiago (including tearing my guidebook in half and keeping only the latter half). I also started fast-forwarding the bulk of my pack to the next overnight point.

I had to buy a smaller daypack to keep some essentials on me, but the load was much lighter at only 3-5 lbs. These changes freed me up so that I could focus on my walking form and avoid further blisters and back pain. The only problem was that I had to “guesstimate” how many kilometres I would be able to walk on any given day, in order to decide to which hostel I should send my backpack.

Ildiko on the way to Triacastela (Camino de Santiago solo)

Ildiko on the way to Triacastela

BTN: Where (and what) did you eat while walking the trail?

Ildiko: I initially misinterpreted someone’s online blog of 30/day expenses to mean Canadian dollars, when in fact it was Euros, so the trip ended up costing a lot more than I bargained for! Thus, I had to cut back on food a bit.

I usually had toast and coffee for breakfast, either at a café near my hostel, or in the next town.

For lunch in the first few weeks, I would buy baguettes, sandwich meats or cheeses, yogurt, and fruit at grocery stores to make my own sandwiches for two or three days at a time. For the later weeks, I skipped most lunches to economize.

For dinner, I ate Pilgrims’ Meals that were offered by the hostels, or I would go into town. Because of the large numbers of pilgrims coming through northern Spain, most towns have restaurants offering Pilgrim menus, meaning you can get a balanced meal with some kind of meat, potatoes or rice, and veggies for about 10 Euros. Wine was extra, and was cheaper than water!

BTN: What were the people like on the trail? Any trends regarding gender, age, country of origin?

Ildiko: While there was the odd family hiking the trail, most people were either single or in pairs.

I saw people ranging in age from early 20s (university students) to late 80s, but the majority of people I hung out with were in their 30s to 60s. It seemed to be a fairly even gender split.

There were an astonishing number of Koreans on the trail, but apparently there is a very popular TV show in Korea that has inspired them to go on the Camino. Talking to other people, the impression was that 40% of travellers were Korean, 40% European (many from Germany), 10-15% North and South Americans, and the rest other Asian, African, and Australian.

In Santiago, beside the youngest person I saw on the Camino (Camino de Santiago solo)

The youngest person I saw on the Camino: a 10-year old Korean boy who was walking with his dad 

BTN: People hike the Camino for different reasons. Did you meet any pilgrims that stick out in your mind?

Ildiko: Everyone I met had an interesting story, but there were some unique characters.

A German senior citizen in his 80s hikes the Camino every year from somewhere in Germany right through to Santiago without carrying any money or gear apart from what he wears on his back. Apparently, he is so well known on the Camino that people offer him free accommodation and food!

Angela was a transvestite who wore a wide-brimmed floppy hat and carried a huge stuffed toy Tigger. She was from England, and was doing the Camino for her second time. Although in her 60s, she had only discovered her gender identity about five years prior. Walking the Camino was an incredibly brave thing for her to do.

I also saw a very old pilgrim who walked in old-fashioned pilgrim garb with staff, tugging at an old rolling cart with his belongings, and his dog by his side. He looked like an anachronism, a time warp thing, coming straight out of the 15th or 16th century. I never got to talk to him, as he waved everyone away. He had already walked to Santiago and was now doing the stretch in reverse.

BTN: What were some favourite moments on your trip?

Ildiko: There were dozens, but here are my top five.

#1: A butterfly landed on my shirt while taking a picture of the France-Spain border. The butterfly ended up sitting there for 20 minutes, but disappeared when someone else tried to take a picture. I felt it was a sign from my mother.

#2: Hiking with Uffe and Georg (two guys I met on Day 1) for 3.5 days, then having a beer with them at our hostel in Cizur Menor. I felt like I “belonged”.

#3: Climbing the hill in Monjardin that was off the main path. My blisters were killing me, and I had decided to hike only 10 kms that day to allow my feet some recovery time. However, I started getting restless, so once I dumped my stuff at the hostel, I put on my crocs (with no backs) and wound up walking up the hill to a castle and a phenomenal view of the Camino and surrounding countryside. I spent at least an hour just roaming around. It was breathtaking!

Near Villamayor de Monjardin (Camino de Santiago solo)

Near Villamayor de Monjardin

#4: Hearing the most lovely live guitar music at the doorway of tiny Ecco Homo church in Valdeviejas.

#5: My evening in Linares, when fellow hiker Karime and I underestimated the size of the town and related meal options. It turned out that there were only three or four buildings of which one was a hostel, and another was a hotel with a restaurant, but they didn’t serve outsiders. Fortunately, they had a convenience store so we were able to buy some bread, canned fish, cheese, and wine and had the most fun and impromptu-style dinner.

BTN: What did you find the most challenging on this adventure?

Ildiko: For me, the most challenging thing was coming to grips with the crowds, rather than the physical aspect of the hike. I was travelling in shoulder season, and thought that people would be more spaced out and that I would have time for quiet reflection. I had been worried about being on the trail alone too much and the possibility of having to handle weird encounters. It turned out to be the reverse. At any given time, there would be at least a couple dozen people around me.

When you pass another pilgrim, it’s tradition to say “buen camino”. I started getting tired of it within a few days because I’d be repeating it hundreds of times, and ended up just nodding. I’m not anti-social, but my expectation had been to walk alone during the day, and then socialize over dinner at night.

It wasn’t until I took the few days off to care for my blisters, that I finally was able to come to terms with all of it, relax, and then begin fully embracing the Camino experience.

BTN: What was it like finally arriving in Santiago de Compostela after hiking nearly 800 kms?

Ildiko: I had mixed feelings.

Pilgrims' mass in Santiago de Compostela (Camino de Santiago solo)

Pilgrims’ mass in Santiago de Compostela

On one hand, I was absolutely excited to complete the trail and meet up with Uffe and Georg. I had tried to contact them after losing track of them, but didn’t actually connect by email until towards the end. They were planning to arrive in Santiago on October 22 or 23, and I was trying to figure out how to meet up without actually starting up the blisters again. As luck would have it, they waited for me, so there were lots of hugs going around when I arrived on the 24th. I think I cried during the whole mass out of pure joy and seeing so many of the faces that I had met along the way.

On the other hand, I was sad to see this chapter end. I got to a point where I was really enjoying the simplicity of life that you get on the trail. Your only goal is to move forward (and get enough nourishment to do so), but most other things fall away. If you can’t get accommodation in one place, you just try for the next. Have no change of clothes? Don’t worry – neither does anyone else. No make-up?  Who cares!

BTN: Do you have any tips for travellers who want to hike the Camino?

Ildiko: Really research your backpack and your hiking shoes well, your two most important possessions. They need to be perfect! Don’t just take a sales rep’s word for it. Research the pack thoroughly online, then buy and try it out for multi-hour walks, several days in a row, to see how it fits and works with your movement.

Discarded shoes along the Camino de Santiago (Camino de Santiago solo)

Discarded shoes along the Camino de Santiago

With shoes, determine what suits your needs best. There are two schools of thought: hiking boots that are stiffer and heavier, but that help absorb shock from walking on rocks, or trail/running shoes that are lighter, possibly dry faster, and let you speed ahead, but that make your legs extremely tired after a certain point, because you’re feeling the ground through the soles.

Relax and BE IN THE MOMENT. People talk about the “Camino way (of living)” to the point that I got frustrated with them, as it almost became a scapegoat for everything. But it is true that if you relax and calm down, it’s easier to deal with things as they arise. There is little use for past or future on the Camino; it’s all about the moment, which is so refreshing!

Try to avoid bringing/using electronics on the trail to truly focus on the walking and have a more authentic Camino experience. I did bring my iPhone to use as a camera, but kept texts to a minimum. I sent messages only once a day, at the end of the day, and no email.

Despite some reports to the contrary, the Camino is one of the safest places to travel solo, even as a woman. It is so well travelled that there is almost always someone in sight who can help out. Because of the common hike experience, there is always someone to share and chat with. But it’s still important to keep your wits, as you would with any other trip. Keep your wallet/ID tight on hand, don’t get too drunk (leaving yourself vulnerable), and don’t get lured off the path.

BTN: Thank you so much Ildiko! I’d say this is a very good introduction for anyone who’s considering hiking the Camino de Santiago solo, or otherwise.

If you’ve done the hike and would like to add some tips, please comment below.

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