Since the 1990s, the medieval pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago has seen a resurgence in popularity, seeing over 300,000 pilgrims a year. It’s not surprising why this pilgrimage has become so popular. It’s easily accessible with diverse route options, luggage transportation services, and various accommodation types, from hostels to elegant inns.
However, over-tourism is becoming a problem on the more popular routes. Over three-quarters of pilgrims hike the French and Portuguese routes, pathways which certainly have their appeal. Yet fewer than six percent of pilgrims walk the Del Norte route. Besides fewer crowds, the Camino Del Norte traverses some of the beautiful and interesting regions of Spain. Here’s why people should give the Camino del Norte a second look.
What you need to know
If you’re looking for a challenge, choose Del Norte. Although it runs along the northern coast of Spain, it’s not just a walk on the beach. You’ll have a much more physically intense hike as you go up and down mountains, rolling hills, and cover extensive forests. Sometimes you’ll be climbing along steep cliffs on the coast itself.
Besides the geography, the weather is also more temperate, given the closeness to the coast, so expect more rainy days. The precipitation averages around eight or nine days from June to August, and the average temperature is around 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of the year sees at least two or three added days of rain — so if you’re hoping for less rain, go from June to August.
The 512-mile journey of the Camino del Norte passes through four autonomous regions — similar to states or provinces — of Spain. It takes most pilgrims at least 30 days to complete the journey, so take your time and enjoy each region, each of which has unique characteristics and scenery.
You won’t need a sleeping bag for the hostels you stay in although a sleeping bag liner or a blanket can be useful. Most pilgrim hostels like albergues or monasteries won’t require advance notice for staying the night; however, they operate on a first-come, first-served basis. If you hike later into the day, you might experience some strike-outs. If you decide to stay in a hotel, it’s wise to book at least a couple of days in advance. You can do a same-day booking, but hotels can fill up fast, especially in the summer.
The first autonomous region is the Basque Country. The Camino del Norte starts in Irun, a small town about 15 miles east of San Sebastian, but many pilgrims start in San Sebastian itself. You’ll be doing a lot of up and down hiking through the mountainous region of Basque Country. You’ll climb 1,300 to 1,600 feet on an average day, so start conditioning.
There are also dense forests consisting of evergreen fir and eucalyptus trees. During rainy seasons, the trails can get a little muddy, so get some foldable walking poles. (Walking poles also take the stress off knees on downhill sections and can also be helpful if you have blisters, as you can put more weight on them and relieve your feet.) The trail typically goes back and forth between the coast and the mountains, although sometimes you’ll hike on some steep cliffs that graze the coast. On sunny days, the ocean and sky match a brilliant blue.
Stop and take an extra day in Bilbao, which marks the end of Basque Country. It’s a big city and can take the whole day to hike through, so check out the Guggenheim Museum, a modern art museum that’s famous for its architecture and is one of the biggest museums in Spain. Visit the Neo-Gothic Santiago Cathedral of Bilbao, which dates back to the 14th century. You can also relax in plazas, where there are street performers, small markets, and food vendors.
After walking through Bilbao, you’ll enter Cantabria. It will get a lot less rugged in this part of the region. You’ll be walking along roads and sidewalks and through many towns. You’ll occasionally walk along highways, but because the Camino is such a big part of Spanish culture, cars will keep a safe distance from you. The towns aren’t too large, so you’ll still walk through rolling hills and valleys.
It’s not all asphalt, as there are some eucalyptus forests with dirt roads. You’ll walk by small farms, hear farmers herding their sheep, and have chances to feed adorable miniature ponies along the road. In this region, you’ll pass through Santillana del Mar, a medieval town that was built between the 14th and 15th centuries. The streets are almost entirely made out of cobblestones, and the religious buildings are as old as the village.
The highlight of this region is an albergue in Güemes. It’s hosted by Father Ernesto, an 80-year-old priest who has been hosting for over 20 years. He grew up in the albergue he now hosts, although he has remodeled and built many additions since then. He can host up to 100 pilgrims, and every night he tells his story of how the albergue came to be. After he tells his story, pilgrims eat a large dinner of salad, paella, oysters, and wine.
This region has colorful fishing villages and beaches, but the Camino also takes you through green fuzzy mountains with the occasional sheep herd passing through. The Cantabrian mountain range goes through both Cantabria and Asturias and presents some enjoyable challenges on the Camino. The ascents and descents are far more gradual than in Basque Country. However, you will want to be prepared with water and food as the distance between towns is much greater.
The mountains can become thick with fog, and the trails might get a little ill-defined, or even overgrown with grass, so keep a map with you and watch out for the yellow painted arrows and scallop shells. The yellow arrows can be found on the sidewalk, the street, city walls, on tiles as part of buildings, and even on rocks on trails. There are also stone posts that feature the scallop shells, which is especially useful in more rural parts.
The road diverges in this region. You can stay on the Camino del Norte, or you have an option to hop on the Primitivo route, which was the original Camino route to Santiago de Compostela. King Alfonso II first hiked it in the ninth century. On the Primitivo route, you can expect a lot more trekking through mountains, valleys, and rivers. If you’re hoping to have an isolated experience, take the Primitivo. It’s not as popular as the other routes and can have some muddy trails. If you’d like to take it a bit easier, stick with Del Norte.
This is the end stretch of the Camino and goes inland. Take advantage of the opportunity to stay the night at the Sobrado Abbey. It was originally founded in 952 and is over a thousand years old. It went through different periods of use and decay, but now most of the buildings have been rebuilt and restored. The parts of the monastery that haven’t been restored yet have some collapsed roofs, an overgrowth of ivy, and a green tint to the old stone walls, altars, and pillars. The monastery closes its doors at 7:00 PM, but you can use that time to explore the ancient structure.
Monasteries can get very cold, so if you plan on staying in a monastery at least once, bring a blanket or sleep in layers. The Sobrado Abbey supplies a blanket as well. You’ll need to bring and prepare your own food, but Sobrado has a couple of small markets nearby where you can get your supplies. The monastery has a kitchen available, complete with an electric stove, kettle, pots and pans, and utensils. You’ll share with other pilgrims, but the kitchen also holds washing machines and dryers and enough room for 25 people.
The Cistercian monks hold an evening service, where they sing prayers similar to the style of Gregorian chants. The service is held inside a small refurbished chapel upstairs in the abbey. It has stained glass windows and is the warmest part of the whole building. The sun sets around the same time as the evening prayers and shines through the stained-glass windows, giving a cool, colorful effect in the overall dark chapel. The chanting is accompanied by a few notes of an organ, and the room is carpeted, so nothing echoes. It’s very soothing to listen to the chanting — so try not to fall asleep, no matter how exhausted you are.
The charm of the Camino is still present
Albergues are one of the defining characteristics of the Camino. Most of them operate based on donations from pilgrims, so you can give whatever you’re comfortable with spending. Some people also pay for their stay by purchasing a pilgrim’s meal, which usually consists of a salad, slices of pork, and fries.
Some albergues function solely as a place for you to sleep. Other albergues have hosts who make your stay a memorable experience. You take off your shoes when you go inside the building, do some laundry, set up your bed, take a nap, and then the host feeds everyone around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Everyone gets a chance to share why they’re hiking the Camino, and you get to meet people from many parts of the world.
After you’ve reached your destination for the night, head to the local plaza. Plazas are prominent gathering places in many Spanish cities. You’ll see parents and their small children, teenagers playing soccer with friends, and older adults with their elderly parents. Little kids will try to talk to you; learn some Spanish. You can get by without being fluent in Spanish, but the locals will appreciate it if you know a little bit of the language and try to converse with them.
It’s more environmentally friendly
Major Spanish cities like Barcelona have experienced some ill-effects of over-tourism, including rising housing costs related to an explosion of Airbnb properties and pollution from cruise ships. The French and Portuguese routes can also suffer from crowds, which can lead to rising costs in accommodations and litter along the way.
The constant influx of people can also distract you from potential introspective moments. It’s okay to be a tourist — we all are — but part of sustainable travel means giving the popular places some breathing room by either going in the off-season or taking alternate paths.
The Camino del Norte is a worthwhile alternative path. You’ll see a different side of Spain that many people don’t. You’ll have moments of quiet hiking through thick forests and along the coast, but you’ll also meet people to hike with for a couple of days and develop lasting friendships. It’s the perfect chance to walk yourself into a different frame of mind.