Camino de Santiago

Fear, Safety, and Walking Solo on the Camino de Santiago

May 2, 2015
woman wearing hiking clothes and backpack walking with trekking poles on a paved road through a green valley

Here’s the thing about being a girl
and wanting to play outside.
All the grownups grind it into you from the get go:
girls outside aren’t safe.
The guy in the car? If he rolls down the window and leans his head out, run,
because the best you can hope for is a catcall, and at worst,
you’ll wind up with your face on the side of a milk carton. ~Elizabeth Austen

With the recent disappearance of North American pilgrim, Denise Thiem (whom my thoughts and prayers go out to), from the Francés route of the Camino de Santiago, I have seen an understandable increase in questions on Internet forums about safety for a woman walking alone on the Camino, although questions about safety on the Camino are nothing new; Google, “how many women have walked the camino de santiago?” and the first 10 search results, which seem to have been written in years past, are about women’s safety.

Last year as I prepared for my first pilgrimage, I did not experience any fear for my personal safety, perhaps because when I lived in southern Spain in 1995, I always felt safe or perhaps because so many female pilgrims have shared online about how safe they feel on the Camino. This year, as I prepare to spend 55 days walking various routes of the Camino, all of which are more isolated than the Francés, I have to admit to feeling occasional twinges of anxiety since learning of Denise’s disappearance. Despite this, however, I am not deterred from making my second solo pilgrimage this coming June, July, and August.

“Tell someone you’re going into the woods alone
and they’ll story your head with trailside cougar attacks,
cave dwelling misogynists, lightning strikes, forest fires, flash floods,
and psychopaths with a sixth sense for a woman alone in a tent.”
~Elizabeth Austen

Last year I traveled alone to Spain to walk the Camino Francés from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Although I started “sola” in St. Jean, by the end of the first evening at Orisson, and although I did not realize it at the time, my Camino “family” had been formed. From then on, the decision to walk alone was just that, a decision. (The details of how often I walked alone versus with other people can be read on my post, An Introvert on the Camino).

And although I chose to walk alone many, many times, through fields, forests, and cities, even in the wee hours of the morning before sunrise, 99% of the time, I felt completely safe. In fact, there were only two times in the 33 days I spent on the Camino during which I felt afraid. The first was when I left Najera before sunrise the morning after a local fiesta and groups of drunk young men still wandered the streets. While a few of them shot some muddled comments my direction that I found impossible to interpret, none of them approached or threatened me. Nevertheless, my pulse quickened as I hastened out of the small city to escape their leers. The second was on my next to last day while walking on a dirt road through a forest after Arzua. It was mid-afternoon and, unexpectedly, I had to walk past a man standing alone near a car in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Although we barely acknowledged one another, I felt panicked, perhaps because it had been at least 30 minutes since I had seen another pilgrim, perhaps because some form of intuition had kicked in. As soon as he was out of sight, I even began to run.

What I would like to point out regarding these situations, however, is that they were both completely avoidable. It is a simple thing to wait in the lobby of an albergue and leave with, or just behind, other pilgrims. It would also have been easy for me to wait in Arzua for a group of my friends who had decided to stop for lunch or at the edge of the forest for other pilgrims to walk by.

Generally speaking, however, while on the Camino in June and July, I was always within 100-or-so yards of other pilgrims, often to my frustration when I tried to take landscape photos sans people. Aside from those two incidents, I felt a profound sense of safety and well-being. Looking at the statistics from the pilgrim’s office in Santiago de Compostela, over 100,000 women walked the camino in 2014, and, to the best of my knowledge, did so without falling victim to any foul play.

The girl who goes alone
claims for herself
the madrona    juniper    daybreak.
she claims hemlock    prairie falcon    nightfall.
nurse log    sea star    glacial moraine
huckleberry    trillium    salal
snowmelt    avalanche lily    waterfall
birdsong    limestone    granite    moonlight    schist
cirque    saddle    summit    ocean
she claims the curve of the earth.
~Elizabeth Austen

So although I have these flickers of fear, I am not conflicted. I will return to the Camino. Alone.

There are a number of inspiring women bloggers and authors who write about fear and solo travel for women. One is poet laureate Elizabeth Austen, with her thought-provoking poem, “The Girl Who Goes Alone” (for those of you who prefer text to video, you can read her poem here):

Another is blogger Torre deRoche whose “about” snippet declares, “Once upon a time I thought that adventurers were fearless. Now I know better.” And whose blog post, “A Woman Who Walks Alone” reminds me to remain alert but positive.

Finally, Anina Anyway, a Spanish blogger, encourages us to walk the Camino de Santiago solo and says, “Live your life, not your fears!”

And that’s exactly what I plan to do in the upcoming months…

Buen Camino!

———————-

Featured photo credit José Antonio Gil Martínez, license.

Poem, “The Girl Who Goes Alone”, used with permission from the author.

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12 Comments

  • Reply UmCaminhoParaTodos May 4, 2015 at 14:37

    Hello!
    Nice post, couldn’t agree more!
    Last year did the Via de la Plata from Sevilla, alone and didn’t have any problem. In some parts, when felt more insecure, asked to join to other pilgrims. It’s true that when we are alone we get more cautious and alert, but it makes part of it and it is a security for us.
    Loved the experience and look forward to do it again one day!
    Buen camino this summer!
    luisa

  • Reply Emilene May 5, 2015 at 01:40

    Hi Luisa! I walked the Camino Frances on my own in 2012 and last year I walked from Seville to Santiago. I was fine every time, but just like you, I experienced one or two moments along the way where I felt uneasy. I trusted my instincts and allowed myself to be guided by what I was feeling. The Via de la Plata is a solitary route by definition, so I certainly questioned how safe it would be for me to walk it as a woman on my own. Now that I’ve done both alone, I am so glad I didn’t allow those concerns to rob me from having the most incredible experiences of my life! My advice to women wanting to walk alone – prepare mentally, research your route, have airtime and relevant contact numbers on your phone and above all, trust your instincts and act accordingly. I look forward to following your next walk! Burn Camino!

  • Reply Emilene May 5, 2015 at 01:44

    Of course I meant to say Elissa but hallo to Luisa as well!

    • Reply Sometimes She Travels May 5, 2015 at 21:54

      Hi Emilene! Thank you for your comment and for sharing your experiences on the Camino. I can’t wait to read about your journey on the Via de la Plata!

  • Reply Tracey May 6, 2015 at 03:38

    Agree wholeheartedly…..after last summer’s walk
    along the Norte from Santander, across the Primitivo & a lonely backtrack to the Invierno…all walking sola, I can honestly say I was “rattled” just the one time by an opportunistic delivery driver…but fellow Pilgrims were ahead & behind, just ducked into a local business to rest a while & joined the next group to pass by…
    I will always follow my instinct, take good precautionary measures & after all, hope for the best…true with all my travels….
    My heart goes out to Denise’s family & prayers for her safe return utmost on my mind

    • Reply Sometimes She Travels May 6, 2015 at 11:18

      My instinct has never let me down. Thanks for the reminder and sharing your experience.

  • Reply billie greene May 7, 2015 at 11:40

    As usual, you have “hit the nail on the head”, reminding us that several ingredients to the recipe for a successful solo journey!

  • Reply SOL June 28, 2015 at 02:04

    Holaaaa Elisa
    Con mi pequeña añoranza de haberte dejado en “ese nuestro camino” te voy leyendo, tranquilamente, jejejej es que has escrito mucho.
    Bueno, te aporto yo también mi experiencia, yo también sentí momentos de un cierto miedo, pero mi miedo era mas perderme y no saber salir de esos bosques, lesionarme e ir sola y los perros que me pudieses atacar, sabes que normalmente iba sola y a bastante distancia, pero siempre pensé que podía parar y esperar a otro peregrino, pero yo sentí en algunos momentos la mas absoluta soledad y saberme muy lejos de otros peregrinos.

  • Reply Savar Pandey July 3, 2015 at 05:13

    Hi Elissa
    You are truly a daring woman and one who is a motivation for all other woman to travel alone and enjoy the pleasures…the saying ‘Live your life and not your fears’ has really given me a lot of motivation to set forth on my next trip alone and enjoy a trip truly alone in the literal sense of the word !

    • Reply Sometimes She Travels July 11, 2015 at 08:21

      Hi Savar. Thank you so much for your kind words! This year’s journey on the Camino has definitely ended up testing my courage, in a variety of ways. I can only hope that my blog can inspire and motivate a few women here and there to follow their hearts and walk a path that is right for them. I wish you all the best in creating the trip alone that you are seeking!

    What are your thoughts?

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