This is one peregrino’s perspective so admittedly biased but I also talked with other pilgrims who have done both to confirm these points. For anybody considering either or both of these 2 great Caminos.
1. MORE BEAUTIFUL NATURE ON DEL NORTE:
You walk in the mountains and near or on the coast so the combined views are spectacular especially near the sea. Particularly so during the first week or so in Basque Country. That said the landscapes on Frances are more varied.
2. LESS INFRASTRUCTURE:
Not as bad as the Camino VIA DE LA PLATA, but certainly less than Camino Frances. You can walk sometimes 15K or more with no Albergue’s or bars open. I walked in Sept. and Oct. so I imagine July and August would be better.
3. LESS FLEXIBILITY REQUIRING MORE PLANNING:
On Frances you can just wake up and pack your gear and start walking. You are never far from a cafe or albergue. On Del Norte because of Point 2. you really need to do some planning before you start each day. But in truth I did not plan much and rarely carried food and never went too hungry.
4. MORE INTIMATE:
If you find Frances too crowded you will like Del Norte as you can walk 30k and see as little as 4-5 people but rarely more than 10-12 in a day. Of course this will depend on the time of year you go and your speed. You usually know most of the people at the Albergue each night. I began Sept. 21 and entered Santiago Oct. 21. 31 days.
5. MORE MOUNTAINOUS MAKING IT MORE DIFFICULT:
This seems to be the view of many. I think it is relative. A bit harder than Frances but I don’t think that much so. Although I seem to be in the minority preferring hilly trails versus level walking. Also, it is certainly easier than walking in mountains such as the Alps, Rockies, Himalayas, etc.
6: MORE OF A RACE FOR BEDS:
While there are a lot less pilgrims on del Norte, I believe the race for beds is more intense because the supply is low. Also especially during the summer months when pilgrims compete with beach tourists who make reservations. This situation is most intense in the Basque Country but not an issue after Gijon when many pilgrims have veered onto Primitivo making Del Norte very quiet. If you are an early starter it is rarely a problem finding a bed but if you start late and or are a slow walker reservations might make sense.
7. THE PILGRIMS ARE A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT MIX:
On Frances you meet more unusual people; blind, one arm, in wheelchairs, in their 80’s or 90’s, terminally ill, families, etc.. On Del Norte you get more typical hikers seeking nature. Or seeking more solitude. Not saying either is better, just different. But it does change the vibes.
8. MORE OF A WALK VERSUS A PILGRIMAGE:
Del Norte does not have all the history the Camino Frances has. The vast majority of pilgrims in medieval times would use Frances as there was more infrastructure, with churches, hospitals, and even protection by knights. So there are no stories like the chickens of Santo Domingo, or the Don Quinones bridge in Hospital Orbego, or the story of the priest and devout shepherd of O Cebriero. This plus 5. makes it feel like a bit less of a pilgrimage and more of a long walk at times.
9. LESS CAMINO SPIRIT ON DEL NORTE:
Del Norte is along the beautiful coast of Northern Spain the first few weeks and you will find that there are tourists mixed in with pilgrims. I talked with 3 Del Norte albergue owners about this who all agreed and one told me that they had to bar pilgrims that sent their bags ahead or did not walk more than 10k because many tourists come for cheap beach holidays and walk a bit from albergue to albergue just for the inexpensive bed while they are otherwise at the beach and partying. That said, I had some very special moments so the Spirit is there just not as intense.
10. DIFFERENT VIBES FROM THE LOCAL COMMUNITIES:
This is especially so for the beginning in Basque Country. The local communities are tourist oriented and sometimes pilgrims are not so well received. For example a few of us weary pilgrims tried to stop at an upscale restaurant in the hills above Bilbao to eat and were made to feel unwelcome. It was early and they told us all the tables outside were reserved when not one of them was even occupied. Unlike the Camino Frances where local businesses are dependent upon pilgrims, on Del Norte the local businesses have many tourists spending more than pilgrims so they don’t really need pilgrims. This started to change though as I received some incredible hospitality at a string of albergues including; La Cabana del Abuelo Peuto in Güemes, Reposo del Andayon in Cuerres, Tu Casa in Vega, La Ferreira in Amandi, and the Municipal in Tapia de Casariego. Another point made by my editor, the Virtual Hospitalero, Terri, is that the towns on del Norte were more spread out and there wasn’t usually a central place like a Plaza Mayor where the pilgrims would congregate.
11. SOLITUDE FOR THE LAST FEW DAYS:
Wow the difference is huge here. As anyone who has walked most of Camino Frances knows the last stretch from Sarria can be a struggle as the Camino is inundated with short term pilgrims and tourists. While the last few days on del Norte is incredibly quiet. Also, many of the pilgrims veer southwest on The Primitivo which made for an excellent last few days of relative solitude and reflection before entering Santiago. FYI, the official Camino takes you into Arzua so you have 40K on busy Frances, but now there is an alternative route that takes you to Lavacolla, just 10K from Santiago bypassing the crowds.
12. STAY ON DEL NORTE OR VEER OFF TO PRIMITIVO:
My recommendation would be to take Primitivo as my preference is mountains. That said, I loved them both so either is great. I believe the last part of Norte was quieter which was perfect for me after walking 3800 kilometers on the Camino this year. And on Primitivo you merge onto Frances in Melide which means you have 52K of crowds which may or may not be a positive.
In closing, the Del Norte was a wonderful Camino and ideal for a pilgrim/hiker primarily seeking beautiful nature and less fellow pilgrims. However, after walking; Frances, Del Norte, Primitivo, Via de la Plata, Chemin du Puy in France, Portuguese, and a Camino from my ancestral home in Ireland to Santiago, Finisterre, and Muxia I have a final thought. IF YOU ONLY WILL WALK ONE CAMINO THE FRANCES IS MOST SPECIAL. The combination of the unusual mix of fellow pilgrims, history, respect and kindness from local people, and ability to walk with almost no planning makes it perfect. And the most significant positive is the intangible ‘spirit of The Camino’ on Frances. It is there on all the Camino’s and up to you to find it but it’s power and intensity on Frances can be life changing.
Buen Camino! Ultreia! — at Camino del Norte.
This is one of five companion pieces:
2. How Camino Del Norte Is Different from Camino Frances