What is it like to hike the famous Camino? To find out, I hiked the Camino del Norte for a week. This is my Camino del Norte trail journal.
Why am I hiking a section of the Camino del Norte?
The Camino. This is one of those trails that every long-distance hiker wants to hike once in their life. I’ve done quite some hiking these last few years, mostly in Europe, but also in the USA. The latter is back to basics, where you’re backpacking with camping equipment and you’ll find yourself in the middle of nowhere most of the time. This is what I did last Spring when I hiked the 800-mile Arizona Trail. Hiking the camino is completely different. Here, you’ll go from hostel to hostel where you’ll stay among tons of other pilgrims. Is that even fun if you are used to being alone a lot?
Still, the Camino is an interesting trail. Because my parents are celebrating forty years of marriage, I and my family spend a week in northern Spain, near San Sebastian. The Camino del Norte pretty much runs through the backyard. I decide to go to Spain a bit earlier and hike for a week on the Camino del Norte and find out if it is for me. This is my trail journal.
Traveling to Spain from The Netherlands
On a dreary Monday morning, I board the train to Schiphol Airport. The first of many trains, because I am not going to Spain by plane, but by train. And this turns out to be an incredibly good idea this summer because the airports are very chaotic at the moment, with long queues.
Without any problems, I’m boarding the Thalys at the Schiphol Airport railway station. This high-speed train will take me to Paris. The train is packed, luckily I only brought a small backpack with me. For this trip, I purchased a Gregory Juno 30, which I absolutely love. I don’t have any problems with stowing away my luggage. I always wonder why people always seem to need huge suitcases when they travel.
Before I know it, I arrive in Paris. A city I’ve visited quite a lot in the past, but where I have not been for six years. How wonderful it is to be in Paris again! I sleep one night at Hôtel Restaurant Campanile Paris Montparnasse, a fine (and affordable) hotel near Montparnasse station, where my next train leaves tomorrow morning.
I travel to the Eiffel Tower by subway, it’s nice to see it up close again. Unlike in The Netherlands, it is very warm in Paris, about 34 degrees Celcius. Due to the heat and the crowds, I don’t want to stay out too long, so I go to bed early in my air-conditioned hotel room.
Camino del Norte Trail Journal
The next morning I am on the TGV at 7 am. This train will take me to Hendaye, all the way in the south of France. The ride takes about four and a half hours and the whole time I’m sitting comfortably staring out the window at the French countryside. France is beautiful!
In Hendaye, I immediately switch to the Euskotren, the train that will take me to my destination in the Spanish Basque Country.
Orio – Zarautz
Around a quarter past 1 in the afternoon, I arrive in the village of Orio, at kilometer 43 of the Camino del Norte. It is pretty warm here and I soon see the first pilgrims (that is what you call the hikers on the Camino). A little dazed, I walk through the village. Am I really going to do this? I go on a quick search for a pilgrim’s passport, but everything seems to be closed. At a cafe, I have lunch with a delicious Spanish tortilla and a glass of wine and then it’s really time to start hiking!
I follow the yellow arrows (the Camino is very well marked) and walk over the bridge out of the village. The first part is flat and goes along a highway along the water. Because of the heat (it is over 30 degrees Celcius) it is hard, especially when I have to go uphill at some point. Fortunately, I have more than enough water with me and there is also a tap point on the hill.
It’s only a 7-kilometer hike from Orio to Zarautz, so I reach my destination for today in no time. Zarautz is kind of known as the Hawaii of Spain, and I see a lot of surfers. After checking into my hostel I wander around the town looking for a pilgrim’s passport (which is nowhere to be found) and stop for a snack and a glass of wine on several terraces. I don’t know what to think of the Camino yet, but it does feel a bit like a vacation.
- Distance: 7.1 kilometers
- Where did I stay: Blai Hostel
Zarautz – Deba
After a restless, warm night, I get up while it is still dark. Because it is so warm, I leave before sunrise, to make the most of the cool morning hours. Before I leave the town of Zarautz, I witness a beautiful sunrise. With a big smile on my face, I start the Camino. The trail follows the coastline to the pretty village of Getaria.
Then the path climbs steeply and I walk among the meadows. The views are breathtakingly beautiful and occasionally I can still see a patch of sea. In Zumaia I sit down on the terrace for a cup of coffee and a treat (the pastries in Spain are so good!), the first 10 kilometers are already done for today.
The landscape after Zumaia is even more beautiful, at times I even imagine myself in Switzerland. At a picnic area, I meet two other pilgrims (Juliana from Hungary and Briana from the US) and together we arrive in the village of Deba.
It’s quite a race to get there because the tourist information office (where you have to reserve a bed to stay in the hostel) closes at 2 pm. We are lucky to be there on time and I get bed number 49 out of 56 and also finally my pilgrim passport. A few minutes later all beds are filled, so getting a place to sleep on the Camino is quite stressful! For the remaining days, I reserve everything, I don’t like to rush my hike.
After a late long lunch with wine (of course), I go to bed early.
- Distance: 23 kilometers
- Where did I stay: Pilgrim’s hostel at the train station
Deba – Markina-Xemein
Again a restless night, with 56 pilgrims in a hostel it’s never really quiet, but it’s part of life on the Camino. I set out again before sunrise and after Deba immediately begin a steep climb into the forest. I can see the sun rising over the sea, it’s gorgeous! Watching the sunrise never gets old.
This appears to be one of the toughest stages of the Camino del Norte with many steep climbs. I run into Juliana and Briana regularly, but we have just a slightly different pace, so barely hike together. There are no villages along the way today, so no coffee stops or treats. But that doesn’t matter, because the views are absolutely amazing.
After a final tough climb, it’s time to descend. After some very steep paths and roads, I arrive in Markina-Xemein. I’m exhausted because of all the steep trails and the heat, and there’s a huge line at the albergue. I’m glad I already have a reservation for another hostel and don’t have to stand in line, so I go for a long lunch in the village.
My hostel is located slightly out of town on a hill. I am the first to arrive and am assigned a great bed in a corner by the window. No bunk beds tonight, yes! At the hostel, there is a large garden with deck chairs, and from there you have a beautiful view of the landscape. I’m chilling there the rest of the evening, it’s lovely here!
- Distance: 24.2 kilometers
- Where did I stay: Intxauspe landetxea
Markina-Xemein – Guernica
After a very good night’s sleep, I am back on the Camino at 5:30 am. I have to use my headlamp since it’s still dark. A few minutes later I meet French Stephanie and we hike together for the rest of the day. It’s nice to hike with good company! Because we started early, hiking seems to be effortless for the first few hours. Although it is a lot of climbing and descending, the trail also feels a lot easier than yesterday, it is less steep.
I thoroughly enjoy all the beautiful places we pass; the village of Ziortza-Bolibar and the Zenarruza Monastery. We get a cup of coffee in Munitibar-Arbatzegi where we chat with a German pilgrim who has been on the road for three months. I’d love to do that someday, just hike to Spain from my home in the Netherlands.
After more climbing and descending, we arrive in the town of Guernica. In 1937, the historic center was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. It inspired Pablo Picasso to make a painting and it became one of his most famous artworks. There is a replica in town where we take a look.
After lunch with a few pinches and a well-deserved glass of cold coke, we continued on our way. It’s a steep climb up (and it’s 29 degrees Celcius, it’s one big sweat fest) to my albergue. There we say goodbye, as Stephanie still has a few kilometers to go before her albergue.
Together with a Swiss girl, some Dutch guys, Briana and Juliana, I eat in the Albergue. We finish the evening drinking wine and playing games. So much fun!
- Distance: 31.5 kilometers
- Where did I stay: Albergue Caserío Pozueta
Guernica – Bilbao
After a short night’s sleep, I get up before five am. Today will be a super hot day, so I really want to be in Bilbao before noon. It was already crazy hot at 30 degrees, but today it’ll be 38 to 40 degrees Celcius. I don’t want to hike in that kind of temperature. I’m really glad I packed my headlamp last minute because it really is pitch black for the first hour and a half. I’ve done about 7 kilometers before sunrise and after 12 kilometers I’m treating myself to a cup of and a napolitana (some sort of pastry with chocolate and sprinkles, so good).
Just before Bilbao I have to cross a mountain and at half past 10 in the morning it is already super hot, I am sweating like crazy. Halfway up the mountain is a soft drink machine with ice-cold drinks. It’s like trail magic! For €1.30, I pull a can of Aquarius from the vending machine and drink it up in a couple of seconds. I immediately feel a lot better.
Around half past twelve, I am in the city center of Bilbao. It’s 37 (!) degrees Celcius, so I’m actually glad my Camino is over for now. I planned to do some sightseeing, but it is just too hot to be outside. The rest of the day, I spent watching tv and reading a book in the cool air conditioning of my hotel room. An excellent ending to this short, warm Camino.
- Distance: 25.7 kilometers
- Where did I stay: Residencia Universitaria RESA San Mamés
By the way, I was able to see some of the city the next morning. It’s surprisingly beautiful!
My experience on the Camino del Norte
This was my travel journal of a week on the Camino del Norte (or rather five days, seven including the journey to Spain). How was it to hike the Camino del Norte? I made a list of pros and cons.
The good things about hiking the Camino del Norte:
- The landscape is very scenic and the villages are beautiful!
- The trail is very well marked.
- You make new friends quickly, you meet a ton of people.
- There is plenty of water along the way; you rarely need to bring more than a liter (unless it is super hot, which was the case with me).
- You can easily try the Camino for a week, most places are easily accessible by train or bus.
The cons of hiking the Camino del Norte:
- It’s pretty crowded! You rarely hike all alone.
- In the summer it is really hot, so leaving (very) early is really a must.
- You always have to stay in certain villages (wild camping is illegal in Spain). There aren’t that many albergues, so sometimes it’s really hard to find a bed last minute. I saw many pilgrims calling in the afternoon to make reservations for the next spot. That kind of takes the fun out of it (for me).
Overall, I thought it was a beautiful trail, but (way) too crowded, and I got stressed out by the lack of places to sleep. I do have to say that I hiked during the high season (mid-July) and I think in the low season (Spring or Fall) it is a lot quieter on the trail. I definitely want to hike the Camino all the way someday, but not in July.
Read more about long-distance trails
Would you like to hike the Camino or another long-distance trail? These are books with great stories about hiking:
The Walk of a Lifetime: 500 Miles on the Camino de Santiago
Lost on the Way: A Journal From the Camino de Santiago
In addition, you can also read more about long-distance hiking on this website. For example, also read these trail journals:
- Arizona Trail Journal: 800 miles through the desert in the USA
- Fishermen’s Trail Journal: hiking in Portugal
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