El Camino and the El Caminer’s

I just got back from an awesome trip to Spain!  I have been kicking myself for not keeping a travel journal while I was there since I’m sure that I forgot a ton of details.  But I will try my best to recreate my epic trip to Northern Spain and Madrid with my best friend, Danielle Dragoo.  

This trip started when it turned out that a Brazillian Visa is a bit harder to come by than one would initially think.  I was scheduled to fly to Brazil for 12 days to work at the infamous Jungle Marathon.  It’s supposedly a pretty wild ultra, multi-stage race that takes place deep in the Amazon.  I was really looking forward to this race given the interesting stories that I had heard as well as my recent devouring of a riveting book about an explorer consumed with his quest to find a lost city in the Amazon (“The Lost City of Z” by David Grann, amazing!, find me on goodreads if you are interested in what I am reading…).  Due to an unfortunate series of events, I was less than 3 weeks out before I was supposed to leave for the race and still did not have finalized travel plans.  Long story short, Brazil does not offer an expedited Visa service, and I was ultimately Visa-less on departure day.  Danielle had given up on the Visa quest too and we found ourselves with 2 weeks off of work.  Since I’m never happy unless I’m running around at 100mph with my hair on fire, furious plans started forming.  I had heard about the Camino from a runner in Bhutan and thought it might be the perfect combo of outdoorsy trekking with some luxury and adventure thrown in.  Danielle found a company that would make all arrangements for us, and a quick email to my travel guy, Steve, afforded us plane tickets.  Just days later… we were off!

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Camino, here’s a little background.  El Camino Santiago is most popularly translated as “the Way of St. James”.  This is slightly misleading as there are several different Camino routes that one can take.  The end point of all of them is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where the shrine of the apostle St. James exists.  Tradition has it that the remains of this saint are buried here.  St. James was one of the 12 apostles, and the first to be martyred.  Legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain.  The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian Pilgramages throughout the Middle Ages.  In current times, over 200,000 people per year set out across Europe in order to find their way to Santiago de Compostela.  Although many still view it as an important pilgrimage within their Christian faith, other hikers walk the route for spiritual purposes or even for pure physical adventure.  There are a lot of great books out there as well as information on the internet if you want to learn more about the Camino itself.  We choose to do a small portion of the Northern Route:

After a stopover in Madrid, we started our journey in San Sebastian.  It is a gorgeous, smallish city on the coast.  There is a lovely half-moon beach which seems like it is trying to hug the ocean waters into the city itself.  The company we booked with, Caminoways.com, had made all hotel arrangements for us and would also be transporting our luggage from one city to the next.  The first hotel choosen for us is clean and neat, and also in a central location.  So far, so good…  We found a neat district of town with narrow cobble-stoned streets and lots of good bar/restaurants.  We stopped to sample little sandwiches at a tavern but were horrified when the workers tried to exterminate the resident cockroaches right in front of our eyes (and mouths and stomachs!).  We visited a pretty church and after more strolling, ended up with a bottle of local wine and huge skillets of paella.  We made the decision to treat ourselves to one “treat” a day and wasted no time finding an adorable little bakery.  Tomorrow – the Camino!

Stage Uno – San Sebastian to Getaria – 25 km

We’re off!  It seems exciting to have nothing to do today but walk.  And catch up more with my best friend.  We walked to the beach where we picked up the yellow arrows and scallop shell symbols that make up the markings for El Camino.

We almost got lost less than 2 miles into our journey but a kind soul pointed us in the right direction.  A steep climb ended in beautiful views of the city.  After walking for about 6 hours, we had lunch in a small square within the town of Orio.  Salad, chicken, and fries have never tasted so good.  Maybe it was owing to the freshness of the food they served in Spain but all of the food was incredible flavorful.  At Zarautz, we opted to take off our stiff, heavy, and not quite broken in hiking boots (oops) and walked the last 3+ miles of the day in flip-flops.  I ended up walking the rest of the route in either minimalist sneakers or my beloved Rainbow flops.  My bestie had some blisteres by the end of the day – thank goodness for Rock Tape!  Danielle became a toe-taping expert and hiked every day without compalint.  We could see Getaria from Zarautz, and wound along the coast to our destination. We were foot sore and weary when we entered Getaria, but also elated.  We were greeted with a quaint coastal hotel and spoiled by a balcony overlooking the ocean.

Stage Dos – Getaria to Deba – 17.7 km

I was super pumped to get up and walk another day!  A very sweet older woman waited on us for breakfast.  And her huband gave us a hard time for not finishing our plates.  What am I, at my grandparent’s for breakfast?!?  It was very endearing though and was a nice start to the day.  I don’t know why coffee everyhwere else in the world is so much better than that in America but I try to enjoy it as much as possible when abroad.  We walked out of town and started our trek to Deba.  We had decided on taking an alternate coastal route which was supposed to be much more challenging but also more scenic.  There was a roadside coffee stand early during our walk where we had excellent mini paper cups of espresso.  After a wrong turn, much guide book referencing, and some backtracking, we were on the coastal route.  It wasn’t well marked and several forks in the road left us worried about being lost.  The skies also decided to open up and we were out wandering in the grey, cold, wet Spanish countrside.  It looked like our trail was going to dead-end at soemeone’s private residence when lo and behold – there was a sign!

A singletrack led steeply down to the coast.  We ended up at one of the most incredible and unusual beaches that I have ever seen.  And it was 10-times cooler to be there with the rain blowing sideways and subsequently our privacy.  Jagged cliffs fell straight into the surf.  Gorgeous striped rocks and sea glass littered the beach.  

The rain made the dirt track ridiculously slick and we alternated between struggling up or sliding downhill and cursing while we trudged through the prickers.  It sounds miserable but I was actually having a blast.  The final stretch to Deba had us walking through farmer’s pastures where we were met with the indifferent stares of the cattle and menacing barks of the local dogs.  We stopped to get our treat once we hit Deba and ended up having a really neat experience with some local women in the pastry shop.  They laughed at our soggy appearance and then rushed to tell us how to order our coffee and what the best pastries were.  Very heartwarming.  Our hotel was right on the beach with another ocean-front balcony.  Despite having a toilet on the fritz, the hotel was wonderful.  We hung up our clothes to dry and collapsed into bed.

Stage Tres – Deba to Markina – 23 km 

We awoke to grey skies but no rain.  After another hotel breakfast buffet, we were headed away from the coast.  Unfortunately I don’t remember a ton about the walk this day but will insert a few pics below.  We actually stayed a few miles out of town this day, and due to our propensity to take our time on the trail, arrived at our inn just as the sun set.  People in Markina looked at us like we were insane as we walked through town with our packs, muddy pants, and flip flops.  Through all the hiking and awkward situations and meals shared, Danielle and I were just having a blast.  I am so lucky to have a friend like her.  She is kind and funny and strong and so generous.  

Stage cuatro – Markina to Gernika – 25 km

A steep paved downhill from the inn started our hike today.  We wound through thick forests and past many tiny villages.  Unfortunately the final portion of the walk was right along the highway into Gernika.  This was the only portion of the Camino that was less than scenic.  As we entered town, Danielle found an outdoor clothing store and was overjoyed by the opportunity to buy new hiking shoes.  Our hotel was very nice, and was a spotless oasis to chat and clean up in before dinner.  So far, our booking company has been wonderful!  Dinner was arranged for us at a local restaurant where we took the opportunity to devour an entire plateful of their special Iberian ham.  Steak and fries were surprisingly delicious.  Danielle shared her steak scraps with a tiny Yorkie dog that was dining at the bar with his owner.  We had ice cream cake for dessert which they doused in whiskey.  Awesome.  The food and wine have been so good here!  I think the local food and drink make up a good portion of the enjoyment that I get out of travel.  I also love how tasty and satisfying food is when you have been out and working hard all day.

Stage cinco – Gernika to Lezama – 21 km

I’m already getting sad thinking about the end of our trek.  I love waking up every morning knowing that I get to walk all day.  This was such a great idea for a vacation.  I definitely want to come back some day and walk the final section into Santiago.  

We walked out of town past a beautiful cathedral and city park.  We stopped to dine in a medieval village and had our only upsetting/disappointing encounter of the whole trip.  Apparently the locals in this particular village did not like Americans which they had no problem telling us.  We wolfed down our fixed price menu and got the heck out of there.  Our walk ended with a fizzle at a nice appearing hotel on the outskirts of a down and out looking town.  After a comedy of errors with our non-English and Spanish speaking hotel owner, we finally checked into our room.  Dinner at a local restrant was a total pleasant surprise.  The bartender had just honeymooned in Memphis due to his love of jazz music, and couldn’t have been nicer to us.  The calamari was incredible and he brought us a local liquer to sample.  It was nice to have dinner turn around our poor lunch experience.


Stage seis – Lezama to Bilbao – 14.7 km

It’s our final day of walking – I’m sad.  It was a quick hike up to a saddle where we had views of both Lezama and Bilbao.  We took our last set of Camino selfies.  The path to Bilbao was downhill and through a series of public spaces.  It’s amazing how many people in Spain are outdoors and active.  It was neat walking into Bilbao.  And sweet relief to walk up to our 4 star hotel.  After checking in, we broke our vow of “no more walking” and hit the town.  We visited the Guggenheim museum.  Its outdoor beauty far surpassed the works inside.  We enjoyed lots of people watching including during our obligatory afternoon coffee break.  Tomorrow we can sleep in (!) and then on to our final stop of Madrid (again).

Here’s our stats for the trip ( I wore a Garmin GPS watch while hiking):

84.85 miles hiked

13,351 total feet of elevation gained


A quick flight landed us back in the Madrid airport.  It seems like we were just here.  I can’t believe how quickly the trip went.  We stayed at Hotel Opera in the center of the city.  We were surprised to learn that the next day was a national holiday and that everything (shopping included – go figure) would be closed.  We saw as much of Madris as we could over the next two days – exploring the many plazas, sampling tapas restaurants, and tearing up the limited shoping.  We spent our last evening in Spain at a flamenco show.  What a great experience – this is an intense and crazy style of dance!  Lots of dramatic hand gestures interrupted with turbo stomping around the stage.  I loved it!  It was very different than the last dancing show that Danielle and I went to which was the Tango in Argentina.  We stumbed upon the opportunity to tour the palace on our walk home.  It was open to the public for free because of the holiday.  The following morning found us on a plane back to the States.  I don’t think I could have had a better experience with my best friend.  I’m so thankful that we were able to have this wonderful adventure!  


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