Friday, 7 September 2012

Camino del Norte: Conclusion and tips

As I want to write a post about pilgrimage trails in general I will limit myself to observations specific to the Camino del Norte in this post.

First of all the usual two questions: Did I like the trail? Would I recommend it to a friend? In both cases the answer is a very definite NO. The Camino del Norte has been by far the worst bit of hiking on this whole trip. I would even go as far as to say that this has been some of the worst hiking in my entire outdoor career. Why has it been do bad? There are many negative factors:

Too much pavement: About 75% of this Camino are on pavement. This fact itself makes the Camino almost unacceptable as a good hiking trail but it gets worse. The remaining 25% are almost completely on gravel roads. There is next to no single file trail. The 75% pavement can roughly be divided into three equal parts. In the best case you are on a concrete pista which means no traffic. The next third is on quiet country lanes with very little traffic. But the last third, and that means 25% of the trail is on or next to major highways with lots of traffic. In most cases there is a shoulder or a side walk, but there are a few outright dangerous stretches on busy highways with no shoulder.

Ugly scenery: I do not need pristine wilderness to enjoy a hike, but there is very little nice scenery along this Camino. You have to get in and out of 3 metropolitan areas: Irun/San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander. Each time that means at least one day of hiking through urban sprawl and industrial areas. The coastal towns are geared towards tourism including loads of apartment buildings and parking lots. And the coastal motorway is an eyesore.

Noise pollution: The costal motorway is paralleling the Camino as is the old National road. A lot of time you are within earshot of them and you cross the motorway endless times. Motorways are a fact of modern life but I prefer hiking trails that aren't constantly following them.

Disappointing coast line: Forget about picturesque fishing villages and pristine beaches. This is cheap holiday country with overcrowded campgrounds, monotonous apartment buildings and crowded beaches full of screaming kids. There are stretches were you can walk along the beach but it is no fun to trudge along the beach in stinky hiker clothes with a heavy back pack when everyone else is sunbathing in a bikini or shorts.

Illegal garbage dump
Difficult free camping: This is a very populated region and even in the more rural stretches there are houses almost everywhere and very little forest. Stealth camping needs a lot of planning ahead to end the day in a potentially good free camping area. Crossing the metropolitan areas you almost have no other choice than staying in a pilgrims' hostel or other paid accommodation. But if you don't mind asking people if you can camp on their property things will be a lot easier. Locals are very friendly and have a positive attitude towards the hikers so you should not have a problem finding a campsite this way. But being a single female I rather stealth camp so that no one knows where I am.

If you still want to hike the Camino del Norte here are some practical infos:

Trail marking: Generally very good though the quality varies a lot. It can be difficult in the bigger cities were trail marks disappear in city centres. But with a simple guidebook or by asking people you should not have any problem.

Guidebooks: By chance I ended up with three guidebooks for this Camino. I could not find any good maps for this trail that show the vegetation. This is an important information for stealth campers like me. The only guidebook in that direction is the Spanish guidebook "El Camino Norte en tu mochila" that has sketch maps showing forests and houses. Although these maps were pretty useful (and the only reason why I bought the book) it is otherwise rather useless with bad trail descriptions and little practical info. The red Rother guidebook available in German and Spanish has excellent practical info on hostels and alternative accommodation, sights and opening times. The trail descriptions are decent and there are maps (not showing vegetation). The German Conrad Stein guidebook has the best trail description but is otherwise pretty bad. Useless overview maps, no info on alternative accommodation and a horrible and confusing layout.

Water and resupply: There are water taps in almost every village and I never had to carry more than 2 litres. You come across a shop every day, often several times per day. Only beware of local fiestas when shops are closed.

Instead of walking the Camino del Norte I would rather cycle it. Most of it is on pavement anyways. And I would not do it in summer. It is very hot and what is worse, humid as well. Also accommodation is a bit of a problem in summer if you don't stealth camp. I passed several hostels that were already full in the afternoon. Spring and fall are much better and far less crowded.


Anonymous said...

It seems that you got lost in the meaning of a pilgrim route moreover in the spiritual meaning of Camino de Santiago.

Deca said...

Not everyone that walks the Camino must be doing it for spiritual reasons, that not some sort of prerequisite for taking part. Many people have many differing reasons for taking on this walk, and at the end of the day you do not actually need a grand reason, maybe its just because you like walking or just like spanish culture etc.
Actually I found the article interesting and I'm sure an honest account of the experience that the writer had.
Thanks for sharing your views as I have heard that a lot of the walking is on tarmac roads which isn't much fun on the feet and can get very boring after a short while.


Kenneth said...

Thanks for the tips I am researching the Norte, hmmmm now I have to rethink this. Wow didn't expect that much paved concrete!!!

Maxy said...

Coming to this late and many thanks as I am intending to cycle the Northern route and this has made me feel much better. I am old and prefer not to take on too much in the way of track cycling!