Solitude, scenery, and seafood: The benefits and downsides of Camino del Norte

Isolated stretch of Camino del Norte trail with a view of the North Atlantic

 

There are numerous Camino routes throughout Europe, including Camino Francés, the most popular walk and the one featured in a favorite movie of ours, The Way.  So why, then, did we choose to walk one of the lesser known routes, Camino del Norte?

We had a particular vision for what we wanted in our Camino experience, and Dale did some serious homework to find the trail that most matched that vision:

  • Fewer crowds and more opportunities for solitude
  • A physically challenging hike
  • Varied, beautiful scenery
  • Mild autumn weather
  • The opportunity to experience Spanish culture on an intimate level

We found all of these things, and much more, on Norte.  We also realized that the route had a few negatives, which I’ll share as well.  Here’s how our experience played out:

A less traveled route

The number of people who walk Camino del Norte continues to grow, but it’s a mere fraction of those who do the Camino.  In 2016, for example, a total of 277,854 peregrinos reached Camino de Santiago and received their Compostelas.  Of those, 63% (over 176,000 people) completed Camino Francés, and Camino Portugués was a distant second, just shy of 50,000.  Camino del Norte, by contrast, had a mere 17,000 peregrinos.

We considered the small number of people doing Norte to be an advantage and found a good balance between solitude and company.  The path wasn’t crowded, but we also weren’t hiking solo.  We might see a few other pilgrims on the trail, but when we arrived at the albergue each night we always had at least a few companions to spend the evening with, and in some places the albergues were almost full.

On Francés, by contrast, we’d read of crowds so large that people had to race one another to get a bed at an albergue, and solitude on the trail was hard to come by.

And at the end of our hike, when all of the peregrinos had converged in the city of Santiago, we had a chance to talk with people who’d just finished Francés.  Several of them complained that many “pilgrims” on the route were actually rowdy kids using the Camino to party cheaply across Spain.  We had no such experience on Norte; in fact, the closest we came to boisterous peregrinos was a group of four Spanish bicyclists in Gontán who, after we’d all gone to bed, talked and farted and then laughed at their farting, over and over, until I politely told them, silencio, por favor.  They apologized and, after a few final chuckles, went to sleep.

But the solitude that we found on Norte also had its disadvantages.  For example, the smaller peregrino population also meant fewer albergues along the trail.  And because we hiked in the off-season (October-November), we faced closed albergues, especially in the Basque Country, and the thought of not finding shelter gave me fits.

Hospiteleros also told us that Norte’s albergues often became overcrowded in the summer.  Most of them had extra mattresses that could be thrown on the floor in the event that all the beds were full, and people were sometimes forced to camp outside.

In addition to fewer albergues, there were also fewer cafes, stores, and other resources along the route.  We did our fair share of peeing in the woods, and our craving for a mid-morning cafe con leche sometimes went unsatisfied because restaurantes didn’t always miraculously pop up when we needed them to.  A few of the stages (Santander to Santillana del Mar, for example) were also extra long because the distance between albergues was vast.  In contrast, albergues can usually be found every 5-10 kilometers on Camino Francés.

That being said, on only a few stages did we find a true dearth of resources.  The walk from Deba to Markina, for example, was perhaps the most isolated stretch on Norte, and we had ample warning in the guidebook that we should take extra food and water.  Despite my neurotic fears, we were never in danger of starving or getting lost in the wilderness of Spain!

Even with the intermittent lack of resources, we were ultimately happy with the balance we found on Norte, but some pilgrims we met felt that the lack of crowds on the route was a disadvantage because they wanted to meet lots of people during their walk, so this should be one of the main factors you consider when choosing a Camino route.

A breathtaking, varied, coastal route

 

Isolated beach, northern Spain

I’m a sucker for the beach, and because Dale’s a good husband and incredibly sweet, he recommended that we do Norte with this in mind.  The route traverses hundreds of kilometers of gorgeous North Atlantic coastline before it turns inland at the city of Ribadeo.

In some places the coastline is open and windswept; in others, you emerge from the trees to find a deserted, azure cove.  Massive bluffs offer jaw-dropping views of water that stretches into the distance, the horizon eventually blending in with the sky.  Idyllic hillside farms have the ocean as a backdrop.

Green, mountainous countryside in Cantabria, Spain

Even when Norte wasn’t hugging the coastline, the route was still scenic, varied, and rural.  We walked through dense forest and verdant farmland.  And on the last leg of the journey, when we turned inland and hiked through Galicia, we found a lovely region with rolling green hills and villages that looked like they were straight out of the Middle Ages.  And we met lots of delightful animals on the many farms we passed through.  The sight of Basque ponies in particular really pulled me through that rough first week.

Basque pony
Pony!
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Outside of Bilbao

Despite its predominantly rural feel, Norte has numerous vibrant cities to enjoy when you’re ready to return to modern civilization.  San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón, Avilés, and Santiago are all great Spanish cities.  The downside of this was that the route also had some very unattractive industrial stretches, most notably out of Bilbao and Santander and between Gijón and Avilés, but overall, Norte offers a wonderfully varied experience.

A physically challenging route

Climbing yet another hill

Norte is considered to be one of the most difficult Camino routes, and we certainly found it to be challenging.  In the Basque Country, where we started, we immediately faced daily hikes through the coastal mountains that gave us frequent, steep ascents and descents.  Over the first few days of our hike, we encountered daily total elevation gains of around 2000-3000 feet.  By the time we reached Galicia, however, we were tackling the hills, and we ended the Camino with a fitness level that we’d never reached before.

There’s one challenge had underestimated, however—the pavement.  We knew going in that around 50% of Norte traverses pavement, a much higher percentage than on Francés.  It really took a toll on both Dale and I and exacerbated the ailments that plagued us throughout our walk.  This was the biggest negative of our experience.

Pavement. So much pavement…

A route for food lovers

Spain has some of the best food in the world, and the northern coastal cuisine is some of the best in the country.  San Sebastián, one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2016, is a hotspot for food lovers, and we had one of our all-time favorite meals in Bilbao.  We ate fresh seafood all along the coast: squid, clams, prawns, mussels, and fish, as well as seafood soups and our favorite, paella.  I even tried anchovies for the first time, in San Sebastián, on an exquisitely-crafted pintxo, and it was delicious.  Then there were the beverages: sidra (Spanish cider), local wines, and cafe con leche.  Oh my god, can we please go back now?

I have read on the Camino forums that in general Norte is more expensive than Francés, especially when it comes to the food, but we found every region we visited to be affordable.  Of course, we’d been living in Seattle, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., and had also visited both London and Paris before traveling to Spain, so most places seemed cheap in comparison.  Still, we could get a menu del dia and bottle of wine for 10€, a delicious cafe con leche for 1.50€, and pinchos or a large slice of tortilla for 2€.  You do have to watch the touristy spots though.  We had a few expensive meals (by Spain’s standards, anyway), including spendy platos of calamari on Castro Urdiales’ boardwalk and a terrible meal at a beachfront restaurant in Playa de la Arena.

Mild but mercurial weather

Since we would be walking in the fall, we wanted to make sure we didn’t hit any serious weather conditions, and the weather on Spain’s northern coast is milder than that of the interior.  It’s also rainier, however, and we experienced several intense storms and a lot of mud, and in Galicia, the rainiest region in Spain, the weather was downright mercurial, so bring your rain gear!

Final thoughts

Like all of the Camino routes, Norte obviously has its strengths and weaknesses, but it turned out to be almost perfect for us based on the experience we were seeking.  Our goal is to one day walk Francés and Portugués, and I’m certain that we’ll have entirely different but still meaningful Camino journeys!


We’ve written a lot about Camino del Norte!  Read more of our Camino blog posts here.