Hiking In Northern Spain, And Why The Camino de Santiago Is Actually A Bit Shit…

Spain

I am standing at the side of the road in Bilbao, holding up a sign saying SANTANDER. A few people stride past me in expensive outdoor hiking gear (they are German!) and I think to myself, “fuck it, I will walk the 100km to Santander!” And that’s how I found myself walking 120km of the Camino de Santiago del norte (northern route). The Camino is one of the most famous “hikes” in the world. (The word “hike” should be used loosely when describing the Camino. It’s mostly a long walk on tarmac). People gush with excitement when they talk about their memories of this route, so it seems almost sinful to say anything derogatory about it. But I will.

Before walking the Camino I had romantic visions of hiking through forests and mountains; sleeping in hikers’ huts in the wilderness…oh, how I was wrong. My mate Conor had looked at my hiking boots in France and said, “you won’t need those for the Camino”. And how right he was! I did the northern route, which is supposed to be more difficult (!) and more beautiful than the regular route. The only difficult aspect of it is the amount of asphalt or tarmac you walk on. As this witty article titled “10 reasons why the Camino sucks” states, “because you’re on paved road so often, by the end of the day your feet may feel like they have been put through a meat tenderizer.” I quit because of this.

It is rare that you will read an article insulting the Camino and rarer that you will meet anyone else who thinks, “actually, this is a bit shit”. The only other person I met who thought the Camino was awful was another English woman called Emma. We both quit on the same day…she had already walked a few hundred kilometres and then took the train to a more mountainous stretch in the hope of enjoying it…I just quit completely. But it was my fault for mistaking this trail for a nature hike. It’s actually a religious pilgrimage route. The Camino teases you…as you’re walking, you can SEE the beautiful nature from a distance, but it rarely takes you into it.

Still, there were some realllly beautiful parts, usually if you used your initiative and varied OFF of the main Camino route. The north Spanish coast is really stunning, but I would never recommend the Camino as a way to see it. Photos below:

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There are many beauuuutiful beaches in northern Spain

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Red Cross office in Spain!!

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Despite the shitness of the Camino, you can meet nice hikers who you see again and again 🙂


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My wonderful Vango tent withstood stormy winds on the beach 🙂

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But NO CAMPING ALLOWED!!! 😀

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Farming on the Camino

Dense green nature (as viewed from an asphalt road).


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A random ladder

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This is me, looking 18 again, and with the coolest albergue (hostel) owner on the Camino. He has visited 56 countries and holds meetings to tell people that the greatest university is the University of Life, and not academic education.

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Beautiful beaches change to amazing, dramatic cliffs

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Having spent the last couple of months in Finland and France, it was a lovely coincidence to hike with two Fins and two French, four of the kindest people ever.

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The town of Santona stank of rotting fish, had what looked like sewage pumping into the sea, and a huge prison that I had to hike past. It did, however, have cool old buildings like this.

10 thoughts on “Hiking In Northern Spain, And Why The Camino de Santiago Is Actually A Bit Shit…

  1. Very interesting, an actually very nice somehow, to read get a negative perspective on the Camino. Not nice because it’s negative, but because hearing what might be the downside of something for someone gives you a better chance to decide if you want to try it yourself. And in this case, I’d be inclined to share your opinion 🙂 so I might drop that vision for my early fall and hike somewhere else instead!
    Northern Spain looks stunning…!

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  2. Some great photos, Lisa! I think you’ve just put me off ever even contemplating walking the northern route of the Camino. Of course compared to the Lycian way, it must seem grim…it would probably make a better cycling trip.

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  3. hey lisa, I heard there are hundreds of different trails for the camino, maybe you were unlucky…in the Pyrenees stretch, I think the paths are better…. But it’s good to know which ones to avoid now, I had also had dreams of doing the camino…I don’t suppose this is the best time of year either…it’s so rainy in Spain! good luck with the rest of your journey x x x

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  4. Really nice fotos Lisa!
    But as you mentioned, the “Camino” it´s not a hiking nature thing.. It´s an old pilgrimage route. It goes through some beautiful nature, terrible car roads, high mountains (the Pirenneus) , big cities, etc but that´s all part of the path. The “thing” about the Camino for me was not about what was around but about what was inside (myself), which just walking for the whole day for so many days on my own (and of course with some people at times) I could “see” – this kind of “Camino” can be done anywhere!
    For sure also quite funny with all the people you meet, the stories, the alberges, the life sharing etc..

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  5. Hey Lisa,
    your article is as always an interesting read and I love northern Spain as well! It’s one of our favourite places to go camping 😉 And we always saw people hiking on the pavement and where wondering why there isn’t a better route to hike on… But these people where hiking in the middle of summertime – why is that? It’s soooo hot at that time of the year, so good an you that you decided to hike now ;-). Accordung to my boyfriend you can actualy hike through nature if you go south from Santiago de Compostela to Portugal.

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  6. Thanks for the comments 🙂
    Claire, maybe I was unlucky with the route i took (i was told that it was more beautiful before my walk), but the other woman who quit had walked from France, and she wasn’t impressed by it. Unfortunately, the Pyrenees is just a one day hike on the Camino.
    There are many other Camino routes, but I won’t try any of them after this Camino. I kept thinking, “just one more day..surely it won’t be on asphalt today…” and it always was.
    I think the reason why the Camino is so popular is because it’s a “hike” for all ages, with barely any steep bits. And it’s so social…you can get drunk with other hikers every night if you wish. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.
    Ines, were you surfing in this area? I kept passing surfers and thinking, “surfers are so much cooler than hikers!”

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  7. Hey Lisa,
    as you know – I love hiking as well…. Surfing might look cool and some do it because it does, but we just love the water and the feeling when you are “one with the wave”…. It’s just a way of living with the powers of the earth and with nature. You have to be aware that every wave is different, cause it’s nature and that you can’t control the wave – you have to adjust to the wave… and I just love camping, being outside and not bound to the civilian life (except for showers, toilets, gas (for cooking) and grocery stores ;-)). Most people go surfing though because they want to show off e.g. “oh, the swell is not big enough – need to go further where you get a better swell…” ahhh sometimes you just want to scream and say:” hey get a long board and have fun all day.. it does not look cool, but you catch most waves.. and that’s what it’s all about – having fun in the water 😉
    Recently, I haven’t done any long hikes – and I’m missing it!

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  8. Ha! That’s entirely a fair assessment, and you’re right, it is perceived as blasphemous to say anything bad about it. But I think you also tapped into the crux of it, that it is a pilgrimage for many and a social revelation for many, but rarely a “proper” nature experience, as some of us would consider it. Poor Europe, they’ve just had humans for far too long, with all our coordinated power for destruction.

    (I assume you’ve heard of the big trails in the US? And there’s a new one across Canada I think..?)

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