Spain’s Camino del Norte enjoys some of the most stunning scenery of any pilgrimage. While beaches, coastal views and verdant peaks are frequent fixtures of the official route, the Norte also benefits from an abundance of alternative tracks, making it possible to customise the experience in many different ways. Here are Dave Whitson's five highlights.
Spain’s Camino del Norte, a branch of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Iberian Peninsula. And yet, for all its glorious highlights, many pilgrims understandably bemoan sections dominated by pavement, when the route veers inland away from its appealing coastline.
The Norte’s trajectory is entirely defensible. After all, pilgrims historically sought the safest and most direct routes between towns—and indeed, many still do! The Norte’s contemporary reincarnation, where possible, aims to adhere to that medieval itinerary, and benefits in many places from the cultural heritage that is preserved along the way. In other places, it has to work around modern expressways and sometimes limited river crossings, and this forces some route complications.
All of that said, one of the most distinctive elements of the Camino del Norte, especially when compared with other prominent routes like the Caminos Francés and Primitivo, is the sheer abundance of alternative tracks to consider. With a bit more time, a willingness to tackle some extra kilometres, and a sense of adventure, you can customise your Norte experience in more ways than can possibly be enumerated here. To get you started, though, here are some of my favourites from seven different forays on the coast.
The best can get better
The first stage of the Camino del Norte, linking Irún and San Sebastián, is one of the most marvellous walks on any pilgrimage. The sweeping views of the Bidasoa Valley begin at the Santuario de Guadalupe, just 4.5km from Irún, and then become ever more dramatic as you climb steeply up the ‘Alpinist’ track. However, instead of savouring those coastal vistas from a distance, it’s possible to engage them far more directly.
Head to neighbouring Hondarribia from Irún, giving yourself some time to enjoy the walled old town before descending to the waterfront. After passing a pair of ports, red/white waymarks for a GR appear and will continue to guide you through the rest of this walk. After passing the Higuer lighthouse and adjacent camping, you’re unlikely to see more than a handful of people over your 7km of pristine coastal walking. While largely returned to a state of nature today, sections of this were inhabited in the past, including the Roman port of Artzu, where very limited remains survive. At Cabo Bioznar, the route turns inland and a significant ascent follows, leading you back to the Camino del Norte, shortly after the ruined Fort of San Enrique. This is a much longer walk than the official route, spanning roughly 26km between Irún and Pasajes de San Juan, but it will get your pilgrimage off to a very memorable start!
A geological marvel
For most pilgrims on the Camino del Norte, the third stage involves a walk between Zarautz and Deba. It’s a beautiful jaunt through the Basque Country, with lovely seaside villages like Getaria and Zumaia sprinkled between rolling hills. From Zumaia, the official route winds inland, gently ascending towards the unremarkable village of Itziar, before gradually and then suddenly dropping into Deba. It’s a pleasant walk, to be sure, but it bypasses some of the most dramatic scenery of the Norte. Indeed, in this case the GR alternative is so clearly superior that we have made it the recommended approach in the latest edition of the guide.
To follow this track, watch for red/white stripes calling for a right turn immediately before the village of Elorriaga. An enjoyable descent leads through a small pine copse and into the Basque Coast Geopark—a geological wonderland preserving 60 million years of history in its sedimentary rock layers, known as Flysch formations. Unlike most scenic detours, this route is actually marginally shorter than the official track (a whole 300m!), though it is certainly more strenuous.
A day of beaches and boats
Walking in and out of major cities on pilgrimage is rarely a pleasure. Urban sprawl means kilometre-after-kilometre of industrial districts and suburban neighbourhoods, sometimes interesting but always paved. Those drawn to pilgrimage for more aesthetic reasons are thus sometimes inclined to bypass the 14km-walk between Santander and Boo de Piélagos, taking the handy FEVE train instead.
Regardless of whether pilgrims walk or train through the official route, they risk missing the most beautiful parts of Santander and its surrounding countryside, all of which calls for a much more expansive sweep around the peninsula. While completely lacking waymarks, it is possible to follow a coastal route that wraps all the way around from the ferry dock in Santander to the Playa de Valdearenas, before cutting inland to Boo. This makes for a long day, spanning 32km, but it is filled with highlights—sunrise on the Playa del Sardinero in Santander, lunch at the Playa de la Virgen del Mar, with its iconic Bambara Tavern, perhaps an adventurous run out to the Isla del Castro if the tide accommodates, and then a final sandy splurge at Valdearenas.
A cliffside cave to the past
The neighbouring towns of Unquera and Colombres, separated by the Río Deva and marking the border between Cantabria and Asturias, are nice enough stops. The former is a handy place to resupply, while the latter has some lovely examples of Indianos-style architecture. For many pilgrims, though, this is a section passed through quickly, marked by a lot of pavement and too-close proximity to the N-634 highway.
However, a memorable detour lurks just across the Deva, before making the climb to Colombres. Instead, turn right just after crossing the bridge and watch for the GR’s red/white stripes soon after. While this 9km-loop doesn’t get you off-road as much as you might like, and it adds 6km to your day’s walk, it offers a notable payoff. The trail begins as you near the northern coast; soon after, the ruined church of Santa María de Tina, once part of a more extensive monastic complex, lurks in a densely-wooded grove. Continue westward to another shrine, devoted to San Emeterio, before following waymarks to the Cueva del Pindal. While overshadowed by more famous prehistoric caves in Santillana del Mar and Ribadesella, this is another opportunity to see ancient art—provided that you make your reservation in advance! Even if you lack a reservation, or the inclination to descend, it’s worth making the detour to the entrance, in order to admire the cave’s setting, overlooking a sheer cliff face above the bay.
Views for days
When I first walked the stage linking Soto de Luiña and Cadavedo, I was intrigued by a waymark shortly outside of Soto that pointed in two different directions. The ever-loyal scallop shell that was labeled ‘Camino’ called for a left turn, while an accompanying scallop pointed straight ahead for a route marked ‘Ballotas'. Very insistent spray paint, however, exhorted pilgrims to take the direct approach. My Spanish guidebook reinforced that message. The local Amigos organisation hammered this home, explaining that the ‘Camino’ approach was overgrown, neglected, and almost certain to end in tears. I followed the ‘Ballotas’ approach. I don’t know if that is indicative of a character flaw or some newfound maturity.
In the years since then, though, significant work has been done to recover the ‘Camino’ route and I enjoyed it for the first time in 2016. I will be back! The walk begins with an extended ascent, continuing uphill almost constantly for the first 13km. All told, it’s not an exorbitant climb by any means, ascending to roughly 650m from near sea level, and the total elevation gain isn’t radically different from the ‘Ballotas’ approach. But it is constant, with another small peak always lurking behind what you thought was surely, definitely the last one. The reward for your exertions, though, is exceptional, as it feels like you can see the full length and width of Asturias from the top.
There are no right or wrong approaches to pilgrimage. As beautiful, for example, as the coastal walk from Santander may be, there are lots of excellent arguments to be made for following the official track. Each day merits assessment of where you are in your journey. Would a day of solitude be welcome? Can your body handle a longer stage? Are you comfortable leaving the security of the known for the excitement of the less traveled? Our goal, as we have returned again and again to the Norte, is to simply provide options, to help pilgrims make informed choices about how best to approach each day. While the ‘official’ Camino del Norte to Santiago spans 822.5km, we offer an additional 430km of alternative routes in the newest edition of the guidebook, including maps and route descriptions, to assist you in walking your own Camino.