Two weeks before my 35th birthday, as I sat in the living room of my New Jersey apartment, a wave of panic washed over me. Just a few months prior, I had decided to move to New York but ended up in Jersey to continue what at that point had been a months-long series of interviews with some big name media companies. Now on the verge of the big 3-5, it hit me that none of those interviews had yet to materialize into something concrete, which had me questioning my decision to uproot my entire life from Los Angeles to the east coast.
So I did what any level-headed Dominicana would do — I called my mom. “You should take a trip somewhere to clear your head,” she told me. In that moment, I recalled a conversation I had with her a few years earlier about the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage through Spain that’s done on foot. I also remembered a friend who had done the Camino and raved about how it changed her life. And just like that, as if a switch had flipped, I decided that I was going to go to Spain and do this cross-country hike … alone.
I had never been to Spain, let alone traveled outside of the US on my own, and my flight departed in less than a week. I scrambled to get everything I would need overnighted to me from Amazon: hiking boots, a 40L backpack, merino wool socks — by the time I was on my way to my gate at JFK airport, you would never have guessed that I was anything less than a veteran trekker. And as I boarded, it took everything I had in me to not walk back off the plane as I began worrying that doing a solo hike in a foreign country was a huge mistake.
But as it turned out, walking the Camino de Santiago, and doing it alone, was the best decision I’ve ever made and a challenge that I’d like to see more women take on.
The beauty of ‘el Camino’ is that everyone you meet is looking for something, be it a spiritual connection, an answer to a question or simply adventure. People of all walks of life undertake the journey and it’s the conversations that you have with those complete strangers that have a way of touching you profoundly and opening your eyes to the world around you.
Along the way I met a blind woman from Italy doing the walk with her friend and a 7-year-old autistic boy who was doing the hike while on his family vacation (and who far outpaced us all). I met an elderly German man whose wife had recently passed away and who was completing the journey in her honor. And I connected with three other solo travelers who would end up becoming great friends.
There is still stigma and paranoia around women solo travelers but as long as you exercise caution and common sense, el Camino is a perfectly safe place. In fact, I would recommend that anyone who decides to do the Camino go at it alone. Doing a journey like this alone gives you time to reflect on yourself and your thoughts, it gives you the opportunity to appreciate the environment around you, and with so many others also doing the pilgrimage solo, you are bound to meet people and make new life-long friends.
On the day of my 35th birthday, I sat in a plaza in the town of Santiago de Compostela surrounded by a half dozen people that just days prior I didn’t even know existed. My feet were swollen and painful, my hair a hot mess, and as they sang the birthday song I realized that my life was forever changed.
Since finishing the Camino, I’ve shifted my focus on the things I can control. I decided to put my energy into getting more freelance clients, launched a website and now spend my days traveling and writing. And those friends that I made on the Camino? So far, I’ve reunited with them in Málaga, Lisbon and London.
The Camino de Santiago is more than a travel destination, it’s a journey into yourself. And the best way to get to know yourself is to be by yourself. Buen Camino.