Midway through day seven of Camino del Norte, we came upon a small farm tucked into the ridges and valleys of Spain’s northern coast. A lady tending to her garden near our path uttered, “Deben darse prisa para tomar la barquita ¡Aun te quedan 15 km!” Somewhere in the depths of my brain, the wheels of my rudimentary Spanish knowledge started turning, and I realized she was warning us to hurry up to make the ferry to Santoña, the next town where we could stay. After quick mental math (15 km is approximately 9 miles, right?) I was able to come up with “Podemos caminar eso en tres horas, ¡Gracias amiga!”
The trek to the ferry was worth it – Santoña is known as “the anchovy capital of the world,” and commercial fishing is a staple of the local economy. My partner, Mae, and I enjoyed a great seafood dinner that evening, washed down with perfectly-paired Spanish wine. Most of the 508 miles of Camino del Norte ended up being like this day- long miles by day, delicious food, and wine by night.
Camino del Norte (in English, the Northern Way) was my third Camino; in the past, I have walked the Camino Frances and the Camino Portuguese. Already an accomplished long-distance backpacker, Mae (who joined me on the Oregon Coast Trail a couple of years ago) was eager to give the Northern Way a try. With our combined road and trail running experience, we were ready to take on anything this trail would throw at us.
The Camino del Norte is a part of the Camino de Santiago/Way of St. James network of routes throughout Europe. Most of the routes in this network are on the Iberian Peninsula, and all lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain. Originally a catholic pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago, these days, the Camino routes are enjoyed by a wide variety of people, including secular endurance enthusiasts such as ourselves.
Camino del Norte traces Spain’s northern coast along the Bay of Biscay. The route starts on the border with France, in the city of Irun in Basque Country, then moves through the autonomies of Cantabria and Asturias, into Galicia, and finally dips south to join the Camino Frances for the last 15 miles into Santiago. Much like the French and Portuguese routes, Camino del Norte has albergues (hostels) offering pilgrims (hikers) accommodations along the way. Usually, accommodations are bunk beds in a room with many international pilgrims, which really captures the spirit of the Camino – affordability, sensible expenditures, and joyful coexistence with others. Hotels are also available, which came in quite handy on our trek. Unlike the other Camino routes I have traveled, accommodations can get quite scarce in the summer in Northern Spain. While this route may be less populated by pilgrims, less known, and less traveled, the coast is crawling with other people eager for a good time: surfers, tourists, youths executing their best stab at a gap year, and others.
One of the ways pilgrims can differentiate themselves from other tourists is the credencial del peregrino (a.k.a. “credecial”). Pilgrims carry this stamp book to get a seal stamped at hostels, cafes, restaurants, and other stops along the way and serve as proof of completing the entire route when receiving a Compostela, a certificate of completion that’s distributed at the end of the trail in Santiago. The competition for a place to stay got so intense sometimes that our credencial failed to help us – the hostels were all booked! Usually, a credencial is nearly guaranteed to find a bed in any town on the Camino… When we realized that accommodation pickings would be slim, we resorted to booking more expensive hotel rooms. Each morning, we’d make a reservation at our day’s final destination (through these reservations, I was able to practice stumbling through simple phone conversations in Spanish).
Our time in Europe was limited – only 23 days squeezed into work vacation time. With flights from Portland to Madrid and additional travel to and from the start and finish of the route, we would only have 20 days to complete the task, which was our modest charge. After crossing the Atlantic, spending a night in Madrid, and taking a regional flight to Irun, we hit the ground running – hiking 16 miles to San Sebastian. Hiking in Basque Country was quite spectacular, with a mixture of rugged coastal roads, forested trails, stunning views of the sea, large and small towns with ancient buildings, and lots of vert! We were climbing and descending craggy ridges multiple times each day. Sticking to the planned daily average of about 25 miles, it took about six days to reach the next autonomy, Cantabria.
A usual day on the Camino is a little more relaxed compared to, say, a Pacific Crest Trail thru hike day. You wake up and go to sleep in a bed, there are grocery stores and cafes available multiple times a day, and almost all cities and towns have spouts with drinking water; it is comparatively luxurious. These amenities can be a distraction, however, with the temptation of a full hot breakfast or a rest stop on the beach threatening to slow down big miles. Our three-mile beach walk to the ferry to Santander was a stretch of enticement as vacationers and locals splashed in the waves and lounged in the sun around us.
In Santander, our legs felt the weight of our recent big days. We booked a hotel room, dined on take away döner kebab and a bottle of red wine in our room (instead of going out to dinner, in order to maximize rest time), slept in, and walked only 9 miles the next day, to the town of Boo de Pielagos. Having averaged the necessary 25 miles per day up until this point, with freshly rested legs, we resumed the same pace the next morning. The only noteworthy change of pace was that out of Boo, we had to take a commuter train for one-stop, an obligatory practice to cross a railway bridge impassable by pedestrians.
The next day we passed from Cantabria into Asturias, the next autonomous region along our route. While Asturias is visibly more mountainous, with Picos de Europa mountain range’s sharp spires directly south of us, the Camino stuck mostly to the coastline, offering us relatively easy-going miles with gentler ups and downs compared to the earlier days of the trip. We had no trouble sticking to the needed daily mileage until we got about halfway through Asturias (and halfway through the entire distance of the trail). My parents, who are avid Camino walkers, were meeting us in the town of Villaviciosa, about 20 miles east of the city of Gijon. Meeting up with someone during a long-distance hike is always a challenge, and in order to make it happen, Mae and I had to walk for a couple of shorter days.
We arrived in Villaviciosa on the agreed-upon day and celebrated our trail encounter with my parents and a couple of other pilgrims we met along the way. To mark the occasion, we consumed good food, wine, and Asturian natural cider. With just over 200 miles remaining, we had to speed up quite a bit in order to catch up to our schedule and finish in the next seven days. We strung together six days of 30+ mile days, going over 36 miles twice. The lone under-30 day ended up being 29 miles out of necessity – the only albergue in the area was in the hamlet of A Pena, Galicia, around our day’s 29-mile mark.
These days were not easy – even though Camino del Norte lies within “Green Spain,” a coastal region with a wetter, oceanic climate, lush vegetation, and more rainfall compared to the rest of the Iberian peninsula, summer heat, and climate change are real! Sun shirts and electrolyte powder turned out to be the most clutch pieces of our kit. Some sort of sun protection is absolutely necessary when hiking in the summer sun, and personally, it seems more effective and easy to wear a light hooded shirt rather than an umbrella, reflective arm sleeves, or any other contraption. We powered through the last chunk of the route, one foot in front of the other.
Arrival in Santiago was momentous – both Mae and I felt the excitement of the moment. Entering a city with dozens of other pilgrims around you is quite an experience – it does not matter if you have done a Camino before or if this is your first time. Our hard work paid off, and we felt very accomplished lounging on the cobblestones of Plaza Obrador, the city square in front of Catedral de Santiago (the traditional end of the Camino). We enjoyed an octopus pastry and an Estrella Galicia beer from a market stall, went on to celebrate our finish with friends who live in Spain, then eventually started making our way back to the US.
I would highly recommend to anyone to seek out some of the Camino spirit and branch out of their comfort zone. It could be really easy to arrive at an albergue, tired, and sit on our phone in a bunk or by yourself in a hotel room. Instead, you could practice rudimentary language skills and say “hello” in a new language, and buy a 5 euro bottle of wine (or two) from the hospitaliero to share with good company in the common space. The same goes for daily lives where we can connect with neighbors, grocery store clerks, new coworkers, and so forth, or offer a porch beer to a familiar face walking by on the sidewalk. Another aspect of the Camino that could be very beneficial in your daily life is the simplicity of carrying all that you need on your back. At home, we can minimize consumption; get rid of excess stuff on local Buy Nothing Groups (one person’s clutter is another person’s treasure); and buy high-quality, functional, and practical necessities that will last a lifetime. In my opinion, these high-quality necessities include good wines.
I would like to continue to experience the magic of the early morning walk, with cool, quiet miles clicking by while the world around me is waking up. Perhaps in the near future, that will happen while taking the dog outside. Whatever happens in my endurance future, even if I do not take a single step with a backpack again, my Compostela will still hang on the wall as a reminder of every foot of vert gained then lost, every grilled sardine and octopus tentacle eaten, and every sip of Albariño enjoyed in northern Spain!
Mae Lucey contributed to this piece.
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