This tends to be a recurrent question amongst El Camino de Santiago´s prospective pilgrims. I can assure you that I have lived first hand different experiences and situations and there is no way to know in advance which of the two options will bring you greater joy, or which one will give you more headaches, you will find out in situ.
Some people do not feel confident enough to go solo, because they feel the routes are technically dangerous, they might be scared of getting lost or they might not like solitude. I would like to reassure this people that they should not worry about any of these. El Camino is a totally safe route and it is very well signposted, but you can also read my post about safety on El Camino for some tips on the subject, and download our application to use as a guide stage by stage.
It is true that every year there are news about disoriented pilgrims that get out of their way, or some accidents that can even be serious, but behind most of these cases there is a good chance of recklessness. You can also rest assured that if you decide to go solo you will find lots of different people along the way and you will meet people from many different places and cultures that will surprise and inspire you with their stories and will enrich your own experience of it.
It is good practice to take advantage of the breaks at the end of your stage to get immersed in the local culture and speak with local people. Usually in these towns the locals are used to the transit of pilgrims (in fact many locals live off this trade) and they like chatting with pilgrims and sharing their stories. It is specially interesting to talk with the elder inhabitants because they can tell you how El Camino has evolved along the years.
When I try to explain to people the experience of El Camino and the bond that you create with other lone walkers and like comparing it with a small nomadic community. Every day you get up and go to sleep in a different bed, you eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner in a new place, the landscapes and the people change everyday, but curiously the people sharing the same route, your “companions” tend to be the same. You can bump into each other several times in a day, overtake them, or be overtaken by them, you might not see them all day and then end up sleeping in the same bunk bed. Little by little, all this small encounters start creating affinities and a bond of fellowship that sometimes end up in a true friendship. It is also curious that when one or several days go without seeing someone you got used to and suddenly you come across them again, you get overcome by the happiness of seeing a friend you lost long time ago.
So, for those that are not doing El Camino because you are afraid to go solo, please do not hesitate and jump to it to enjoy all the benefits and pleasures of being on your own, savour the wonderful sensation of walking in silence through dream landscapes, get lost and found in yourselves and take your own decisions without consulting anyone, making your stage longer or shorter at pleasure and open up to meet new people, and also yourselves. You will rejoice in it.
If you are gregarious and you already have a group of friends, family or acquaintances with whom you have decided to do El Camino, I advise you to store plenty of patience for your trip.
We are all aware of how difficult is to organise a group trip. Everyone has their own taste, preference and opinion, if you add on top of these that there will be tiredness, some pain and the coexistence in situations very different from the ones from which we are accustomed with the people with are sharing our trip, all of this put together can be a formula for a ticking bomb. By this I do not mean that the Jacobean routes are not suitable for doing them in a group of family or friends, but at times your bonds will get stronger and at times it will be a real challenge to them. I have personally experienced both of them.
I walked my first Camino with four close relatives and it was a beautiful experience in which lived difficult moments because of the physical challenge and the dreaded blisters, but we overcame it as a team and all the bad moments were greatly outnumbered by the good and unforgettable ones. What helped us is, undoubtedly, that we had gone for some short treks in the mountain together months in advance in preparation for our new adventure, this kind of previous training is highly advisable. It is good to prepare not only physically, but also to prepare the mind and get to know your pain threshold and that of your travel companions when you are planning this as a group project. This same advice I am giving you I did not follow in another of my “caminos” and it cost me the friendship of one of my childhood friends. As I referred to in another of my posts, the motivations that each of us have for making El Camino are different and it is in the difficult moments when we really get to know the person.
I hope I have not put you off because although I have seen people split ways mid route, I have also witnessed who people help each other, communicate, understand and love each other like they would have never done outside El Camino. So, either going solo or as a group, do not hesitate and go for it, start walking.
Photography 1: José Antonio Larrasoaña – Flickr
Photohraphy 2: Carlos Magariños – Flickr