(Updated November 2019; I first walked a section of the Camino del Norte in 2015, then finished in 2016. Three years later I returned again and walked from Irun to Oviedo, and on this second go-around I discovered a few new favorite albergues. They’re included in the second half of this post!)
There’s so much to do when preparing for a Camino: researching and trying on and buying all of that gear. Backpacks! Shoes! Socks! Highly absorbent, quick-dry, micro-fiber towels! Purchasing flights, figuring out train tickets and bus schedules, devising a training plan, learning how to take care of blisters, learning how to tell your friends and family what you’re about to do.
Before I left for Spain to walk my first Camino- the Frances- there were dozens of things that I never got around to doing. I’d wanted to learn some Spanish, to take a closer look at my guidebook, to study some of the history of the regions I’d be walking through. And I also wanted to make lists of can’t miss highlights along the way: churches and art and restaurants and albergues.
As I read through Camino blogs and posts on the Camino forum, I’d occasionally see recommendations for great albergues. I’d make a mental note to come back and jot down the particulars, but it never happened. When I walked the Frances, I figured out where I’d stay as I arrived in a town or a village at the end of my walking day. Some albergues were great, some weren’t so great. Sometimes, I was really, really envious when I found out that a friend had stayed in a clean and quirky albergue with a fully stocked kitchen and rooms with only 6 bunks a piece. Meanwhile, I’d be just down the street in the same town in an albergue with 80 bunks in one room.
That’s part of the experience of the Camino though, and I developed a love/hate relationship with those, ahem, basic albergues. For me, it was part of being a pilgrim.
But before I left for my second Camino- on the Norte/Primitivo- I decided that I wanted to do a little albergue research before I left. So I dug around and asked former pilgrims for recommendations, and I left with a guidebook marked up with decent albergue possibilities.
There were albergue hits and misses on the Norte just like there were on the Frances, but I think I had a few more hits this time around. Since I’ve been home, several people have asked for my own recommendations, and I decided to put together a little list. It’s important to remember that, as with anything, a lot of an experience with a place is personal, and can be influenced by so many different things- the people you’re with, the mood you’re in, the weather that day, how much your feet hurt.
But I definitely had my favorites and here they are, my favorite albergues on the Camino del Norte!
1. Albergue St Martin (just before the town of Orio)
This is where I stayed on my second night of the Camino del Norte. Stopping at this albergue after staying in San Sebastian the night before makes for a short second stage, but do yourself a favor and go easy on your feet at the beginning of your pilgrimage. This albergue is situated in the middle of truly majestic, rolling hills, has a wonderfully warm hospitalera, and a sloping green lawn with lounge chairs and tire swings. The bunks are tucked away into semi-private sections of a much larger room, and the showers are clean and spacious. A separate building sits out on the hillside, with a kitchen and a large dining space, as well as an outdoor table on the terrace.
For an additional cost, pilgrims have the option of a communal, home-cooked dinner. I’d already eaten a large lunch and had bought my own supplies for dinner, but I heard from other pilgrims that the meal was outstanding.
Tip: If you’re lucky, the hospitalera’s granddaughter will be around to give you a tour of the treehouse.
To Know Ahead of Time: This albergue sits at the top of a hill, just before the town of Orio. To get to the town, you need to walk an additional kilometer (that’s a guess) down steep streets. The town has several supermercados and restaurants, and if you continue walking, you’ll come to a small beach. But remember that you’ll need to walk several kilometers (uphill!) to get back to your albergue.
2. Albergue Eskerika
This was my hidden gem albergue. About 10km past Gernika, few pilgrims stay here or even know of its existence. It’s tucked away just off the Camino in a very rural area, and not much is around. But walk through the gate of the property and enter into a little paradise. The first floor of the albergue has a dining area and two private bathroom/shower combos. Upstairs is the spacious bunk area; from the wooden beamed ceiling to the shelving units by each bunk to the piles of spare blankets, the sleeping area was one of the most comfortable on my Camino.
But the best part of this albergue was the outdoor area: a covered, open-aired kitchen space, hammocks and lounge chairs, and a little dog named Lola who will gladly cuddle up on your lap. I felt so at peace and relaxed here, and it helped that there were only 6 of us here the night that I stayed.
Tip: Buy food in Gernika because there is no supermercado nearby; if you don’t have food, you can purchase basic items from the hospitalero (pasta, select fruit/veggies, canned fish). Beer and wine also available (though I believe the prices here are more expensive than what you can find at a supermercado or tienda).
3. Guemes (La Cabana del Abuelo Peuto)
A lot has been written about this albergue in Camino forums, and for good reason: I’ve never stayed at another place remotely like it. It’s not just an albergue, it’s an entire “Camino of Life” compound: dozens of bunk rooms, a large dining space, circular rooms with cushioned benches, a library, a chapel, a wide lawn and lots of room to relax and reflect. There’s an agenda, here: a community meeting before a communal meal, and after the meal a talk in the chapel. We learned about the history of the albergue and the on-going purpose of the space; it was like a pilgrimage lecture that I hadn’t realized I’d signed up for. But it was also an incredibly unique experience, and I loved getting to sit around a room with 30 other pilgrims and laugh and learn and- later- eat a hearty meal and make new friends.
Tip: If the day is warm, find a quiet spot on the lawn and take a nap. Preferably with the resident dog.
Bonus tip: If you like bunk beds, go for the very top of the three-tiered bunk, a rarity on the Camino.
4. Santa Cruz de Bezana (Albergue La Santa Cruz)
This might have been, overall, my favorite albergue on the Norte. It helped that I loved the people staying there, and it helped that two of those people were content to drink wine and eat cheese with me for hours under an umbrella in the back yard. But whatever it was, Santa Cruz de Bezana was beautiful and charming and relaxing. The hospitalera, Nieves, was the most welcoming hostesses on the Camino- she and her family live in one half of the building, and the other half is the albergue. There’s a wonderfully stocked kitchen where Nieves prepares a home-cooked meal each evening, and with only 5 of us in the albergue, we gorged on tortilla and salad and goat cheese and bread and wine until we couldn’t eat another bite. Nieves spoke with us after dinner about the next day’s walk, and provided maps and options for a tricky section. I felt so safe and taken care of here, and it felt very much like a little oasis in an urban section of the Camino, on the outskirts of Santander.
Tip: The largest supermercado (that I found, anyway) on the Camino is just down the street from the albergue; stock up here for an afternoon picnic, or snacks for the next day’s walk.
To Know Ahead of Time: I thought this albergue was a little tricky to find. It’s around this section of the Camino that there are several alternate routes and my guidebook didn’t do a good job outlining them. My friend and I walked much further than we thought we needed to in order to find this albergue, and this included stopping a few times and asking for directions (no one seemed to know that this albergue even existed). And be warned, the albergue isn’t situated in the nicest area, but I swear it’s a like a small oasis when you step inside.
Details: Donativo, communal dinner, breakfast included.
5. Pendueles (Albergue Aves de Paso)
I’m noticing a theme with my favorite albergues: communal meals and gracious and loving hosts. Pendueles is no exception, on either front: David greeted me warmly when I arrived, told me to put my dirty clothes in a basket and said he would have them washed and dried for me, then provided all the guests with an excellent dinner and a standard Camino breakfast the following morning. It might have helped that when I arrived at the albergue, I had just walked nearly 40 kilometers and was exhausted, and David was able to provide just about everything for me. All this tired pilgrim had to worry about was claiming a bed and taking a shower, and the rest was effortless. Note: the bunk room felt a little crowded and tight, but that’s a small price to pay for the hospitality.
Details: Donativo, communal dinner, breakfast and laundry (!!) included. Reservations accepted. Link for additional information.
(Update: I stayed here in 2019 as well, and I think this might be my very favorite albergue of the Norte. This year’s hospitalero was Javier but he seemed familiar, so maybe it was always Javier (which makes me wonder where I came up with the name David?). In any case, Javier was kind and gentle and funny and patient, and I marveled at how he hosts pilgrims, day after day after day, with such good humor and grace. He claims that he can only cook one meal (and that’s the meal that he serves every night for dinner), but it is an excellent vegetarian soup and pasta salad. He still washes everyone’s laundry- t-shirts, underwear and socks- and does it with a smile. The albergue just feels safe, like a little temporary home on the long road of the Camino. I’d stay here time and time again).
And now, a few favorite albergues from my second time on the Norte, in 2019!
6. Albergue Izarbide (4km past Deba, typical 3rd or 4th stage of the Norte)
The typical ending stage of Day 3 on the Camino del Norte is Deba (where there is an albergue above the train station in town, which is pretty fun!). This year, I knew I wanted to continue a few kilometers past Deba to make the next day’s stage a bit shorter, and after 4km (some/a lot of it UP), I found Albergue Izarbide. This is a private albergue and accepts reservations, but with 32 beds it’s a decent size and even in the middle of a very crowded stretch this summer, the albergue didn’t completely fill up (almost, but not completely).
They offer a communal meal (for around 12 euros, I think), along with the option of ordering a packed breakfast for the next morning- to eat in the small kitchen or to take with you to-go. The cost of the albergue (in 2019) was 13 euros, so altogether this is a slightly more expensive Camino stay, but I think it’s worth it.
For starters, there’s a large field across the road from the albergue, with picnic tables and lounge chairs and a view out to the mountains. After I arrived, claimed my bed, showered and washed my clothes, I ordered a beer from the little bar and headed for a lounge chair, where I spent nearly two hours resting my feet, writing in my journal, and staring off into the rolling hills.
The communal dinner is fun and delicious: two long tables were set and we all crowded around to eat a colorful salad followed by a huge platter of roasted chicken and poblano peppers. I try to jump at the opportunity for communal albergue meals when on a Camino, and this one did not disappoint.
Details: Private, communal dinner available, packed breakfast available, washer and dryer (but also one of those spin dryers that you can use for free, that get SO much of the water out of your clothes. I love these!). Link for contact information.
7. Albergue de peregrinos del Monasterio de Zenarruza, Ziortza (7km past Markina, typically the 4th or 5th stage of the Norte)
I stayed at this monastery back in 2015, too, and at the time it didn’t quite make the cut of my top albergues. But this around I thought it deserved a mention, not least because I felt pulled to stay there again. If walking from Deba this is a long stage of about 32km (this time around it was 28km since the night before I’d stayed in Albergue Izarbide, past Deba), and the last few kilometers are up and up a long, ancient cobblestoned road that will have you cursing your decision to have kept walking. But the payoff is worth it, if you like quiet and beauty and peace. The monastery is tucked into the hills with nothing else around. The facilities are simple- this isn’t going to be the nicest shower of your walk- and while there’s a communal dinner, this is simple too. But the opportunity to stay in a monastery is a special one, and there’s a vespers service at 7:30 with a pilgrim blessing.
Another highlight is that the monks here brew their own beer, available for purchase in the tiny gift shop around the corner from the albergue. Look for a fridge tucked away in the corner, where you can choose from a variety of brews (they are differentiated by various letters on the label of the bottles, I have no idea what any of them meant, but sampled a few and they were all pretty good). A beer on a terrace at a monastery with a view of the mountains- that’s a little bit of Camino perfection if I’ve ever known it.
8. Albergue Caserío Pozueta (5km past Gernika, typical 5th or 6th stage of the Norte)
Pozueta is about 5km past Gernika, and this albergue is the perfect option for pilgrims who might not want to stay in a city, or want to add several kilometers to the day’s stage. A further 3km on is the great Albergue Eskerika (number 2 on this list), and I’d planned to stay here a second time until I discovered it was unexpectedly closed for the day. I assumed I’d have to stay in the municipal albergue in Gernika instead, but when I arrived there and stood in a long line of pilgrims, I knew that I wanted something a little more peaceful. My Italian friends phoned me right around this point, telling me that they were going to make a reservation in a small private albergue about 5km away, and could they make a reservation for me, too?
I love serendipitous Camino moments like this. I continued walking and when I arrived at the albergue I knew I was in the right spot. A family lives on one side of the property, the albergue is on the other. The building is rambling and long, but inside the rooms are new and clean and the bathroom was one of the most modern I’d seen along the way. I was shown to my bunk by one of the boys of the family- he couldn’t have been more than 8 years old (kids always charm me on the Camino!)- and I was in a room with only two bunk beds that I shared with my Italian friends. There were puppies and chickens in the garden, lounge chairs under a large and shady tree, a fabulous communal meal (this is a private albergue; dinner and breakfast will cost extra but pilgrims can opt out of either or both), and wonderful and generous hosts.
Details: Private albergue, communal dinner and breakfast available for extra fee (28 euros for bed, dinner and breakfast in 2019). Link for additional information.
9. Albergue Piedad, Boo de Piélagos, between Santander and Santillana Del Mar
I’d chosen to walk a coastal alternative route from Santander (not an official Camino route, but navigation wasn’t too difficult if you mostly kept to the coast); I ended my 35km stage in Boo de Piélagos (this only would have been about 13km if I’d followed the Camino route from Santander). Santander is a fun city but I think staying in Boo de Piélagos is a great option if, again, you’re avoiding large cities, or if you want a shorter stage from Santander.
Albergue Piedad was sparkling clean with modern touches in the rooms; it was an all-around comfortable option in a tiny village along the Camino. There is a kitchen that pilgrims can use to make their own meals, but the hospitalera offers an evening meal and it was incredible. But even more incredible was the morning breakfast, which was seriously the best breakfast I’ve ever had on any Camino, ever. My only regret was that I ate in a bit of a hurry, rushing off to catch the 6:47am train out of Boo (this section of the Camino requires a short train ride because it is now illegal to cross the bridge- an option I took a gamble on back in 2015). But I managed to eat as much of the amazing spread as I could: toast and 2 kinds of melon and coffee and juice and some sort of homemade cake (there were two different kinds of cake, I only had room in my stomach for one). There were bowls of little packaged cakes, too, and three kinds of cereal, and you could start eating at 6:00 am if you wanted an early start. Marvelous!!
Details: Private, reservations accepted. 14 euros for bed and breakfast (as of 2019), additional fee for dinner. Link for additional information.
10. Marejada Hostel, La Isla (between Ribadesella and Colunga)
This stay wasn’t technically in an albergue, but it was close enough. I was nearing the end of my second jaunt on the Camino del Norte, and I knew I wanted one more night near the coast. I saw on my map that there were lodging options AND a little beach at La Isla, so I decided to find a place to stay. The hostel there- Marejada- was the cheapest option, so I called ahead to see about prices. I don’t speak Spanish and can only understand a little bit, and I couldn’t figure out if the woman I spoke to said that the bed would be 15 euros, or 50. I showed up anyway, and was relived that I would only have to pay 15! (this is a discounted rate for pilgrims). You can stay in the main hostel, but if it’s filled, there is overflow space (which seemed exclusively for pilgrims) in a hórreo-type structure off to the back of the property. It’s a rickety old building that was rather precarious- some of the floorboards were unstable at best- and the bunkbed was the shakiest I’d ever slept in (I felt bad for the poor guy sleeping in the bunk beneath me), but it’s such a unique stay that I had to include it here. I felt like I was in a treehouse, and the view from the little balcony running around the structure was nothing but the sea. I could even see the water from my bed! And the proximity to a beach was perfect: exit the hostel, walk across the street, and you’re at the beach.
Details: 15 euros for a bed (in 2019), additional fee for dinner (16 euros). Option to buy breakfast, but the start time was late- 8:00am I think?- and so I opted for a packed breakfast instead and was a little disappointed (only a bottle of water, a piece of bread and a small packet of jam, and a little package of cookies. No coffee options unless you wait until 8:00am!). Link for additional information.
Bonus albergue: If you decide to branch off from the Norte to walk the Primitivo, then there’s an excellent albergue about 15km before Oviedo that I highly recommend: the Albergue de Peregrinos in Pola De Siero. Amazing hospitaleros- one gave me a glass of coke and a Camino pin when I arrived, and another brought over maps and albergue information for the Primitivo. The albergue itself is modern, clean and spacious, and there’s even an elevator to a handicap accessible room, which I thought was awesome. There’s a beautiful outdoor space with large picnic tables and wide umbrellas, and a basic kitchen (refrigerator and microwave). The albergue is just at the edge of town, and only a few minutes’ walk to bars and grocery stores. (7 euros for a bed).
These are my favorite albergues on the Camino del Norte, but I’m curious to know what you think. If you’ve walked the Norte, were there any albergues you loved that are not on my list? Any of these that you didn’t have a good experience in? Any of these that you loved, like I did?