Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How NOT to hike San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

safely arrived, after the Mountain Descent Fiasco

It all fell together perfectly. Or so I thought.

Last Saturday promised gorgeous weather, and I had a backpack full of gear for my upcoming Camino de Santiago hike I needed to begin training with. Everyone had been telling me how gorgeous the hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe on the Biscayan coast was practically since the moment I arrived in Bilbao, so a couple of friends and I decided we'd make the hike from nearby Bakio (no buses go straight to San Juan) to the church/ex-monastery. I wore my fully-packed Camino backpack and everything just to test it out.

We were doing fine until we found the path.

beginning the hike down the mountain, thanks to my friend Thomas for the photo

It was clearly a footpath branching off to the left of the regular paved trail that led toward the road (and, eventually, the monastery). Bryan whipped out his iPhone and confirmed it: this was a shortcut.

Then the path got less well-defined. We were about to give up and turn around until Thomas found a post-marker. Obviously this was a trail, we reasoned - why else would there be a post-marker there?

Then the trail thinned some more and the mountain became steeper. THEN the trail disappeared altogether and "steeper" took on a whole new meaning. But we cleared the woods (by this point we were basically sliding down almost-cliffs on our butts), and we could see the hermitage. It was beautiful. And it was possibly accessible - we couldn't tell from our angle.

We'd only gone a little further when one of my legs did something hilarious. It said, No. Thank you for the offer, but I will not go any further.

Actually, it said, Insane Muscle Squeeze! Just you TRY and make me go down any further, lady!

Apparently, a steep 30-minute descent with 20 pounds your legs are not used to supporting does not go over so well in the leg muscles. Who knew? I was less than interested in the very real possibility of being airlifted out by rescue helicopter, so we retraced our steps (and you never think to thank God for making your legs use different muscles to go up a hill than to go down one until moments like these, do you?) and took the regular path to the hermitage. Which was even more gorgeous up close.

And where we discovered that, had we kept going just a little bit further, there was indeed an access point to the hermitage. Whoops.

Some tips if you care to hike San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (Liz, who also went on Saturday, minus the jolly side-trip, has more):

1. Post markers don't always mean there's a trail. Sometimes they're there for the heck of it.

2. 20 pounds is a lot on your legs. Keep it in mind if you're going bushwacking on the side of a mountain, because mine are still sore and it's Tuesday.

3. Spain does have an equivalent of poison ivy or something, and I have no idea what it looks like. All I know is it throws a great big itch party all over your legs, and then your face somehow gets invited to the fiesta and then that itches too.

Just some things to keep in mind.


  1. Haha, this is great...I wish I knew what path you took. Was it actually shorter?

  2. shorter distance-wise. not strenuous-wise. regular path advised.

  3. LOL. I love reading this in comparison to Liz's! I'm sorry that it turned out so bad for you though. I had no idea about the itch-inducing plants!

  4. Not all bad, I still had a blast! although my elbow has also been invited to the itch fiesta and graciously RSVP'd yes.

  5. Do you work out ever? Just curious...

  6. Haha, whoa! I run sometimes. Not the same as scaling down a mountain side with 20 more lbs on my back, as it turns out.