The Lighthouse Way through the wild “Death Coast” in Galicia is a journey between the power of the Ocean and the discovery of small coastal villages.
Not every trail reaching Finisterre, in Galicia, passes through Santiago de Compostela. The Lighthouse Way along the Death Coast – Costa da Morte is made of 200 kilometres of pure ocean and small coastal villages, with which you fall in love at every step. It’s a journey that requires some training in order to undertake sudden steep slopes during quite long walks between a stop and the other. And yet, no fatigue remains without reward. After each turn, each ascent or descent, what remains is the astonishment for the majesty of nature, for a small fishing port or a solitary beach nestled among high cliffs.
Traced by a group of local volunteers, Los Trasnos, the trail gets over a total height difference of about 5000 meters. It could almost be considered as a mountain route at sea level. The eight stages composing the path are generally quite long and thought to be started and ended in places where it’s possible to sleep and stock up. The shortest one, about 17,7 Km long, is an exception. Walking for the majority of time on irregular grounds, you will never face less than 22 Km a day, reaching 32 km with the longest stage, which is probably one of the most emotional parts of the way. In any case, it’s possible to split the stages according to personal needs and pace.
Organizing your trip
There are mainly three ways to undertake this journey. With the Asociación Camiño dos Faros, that will show to each participant the path as of how they conceived it; with the Agencia Travels to Finisterre, that will organize everything, even backpacks transportation, leaving the participants free to walk without much fatigue – could that be still called trekking? -; or by yourself. In this latter case, everyone is free to organize their stops, stages, and accommodations as they wish. Even if camping outside of the designated areas – still very few – is not allowed, this experience would probably lack something without spending at least one night wrapped in a mantle of stars with the song of the ocean as the background. If the weather allows it, of course.
While preparing the backpack, is indeed necessary to consider the weather as characterized by variability. Let’s not forget that this is, after all, the Atlantic Coast. It means that days can present large ranges of temperature even in summertime, going from the hot central hours to the windy cool nights, where humidity may see the thermometer dropping to 10º C even in August.
In any way we decide to face this trail, whether we start alone or not, we will be always accompanied by a deep feeling of wonder for nature and communion with the ocean, constantly by our side. He is the real protagonist of this journey.
Side by side with the Ocean
Let’s talk about the path. The starting point is Malpica de Bergantiños, a small hamlet with about 6000 inhabitants, located in the autonomous community of Galicia. It can be reached with a direct bus from the chief town of A Coruña, or even from Santiago de Compostela by changing in Carballo. Easily walking out of the town, we soon start to get acquainted with the green arrows that will guide us until the end.
The first day’s goal is to reach the small and solitary beach of Niñóns. This first walk of about 22 km already contains all the characteristics of this wonderful trail, and it can be considered as the perfect prologue to the entire path. After the small fishing port of Malpica, a gravel road will lead us until reaching the Ermida de San Adrián, dating back to the XIV century. From here, we will descend on a small track that runs along the side of the coastal mountains, passing through heather and broom moorlands, the floral queens of the Death Coast.
Once passed the little Porto do Barizo, the trail will become harder, suddenly running among thick vegetation and overcoming strong gradients in a very short time. We will be walking among peculiar rock formations, carved by elemental power and dominating the ocean from above, with your eyes and your spirit replenished by an astonishing horizon.
The first lighthouse
Gently touched by the wind, after various ups and downs among the rocks, we will suddenly get a glimpse of the first lighthouse. Designed by the famous Spanish architect César Portela, this is a small architectonical jewel nestled between the rocks from which it stands. Opened in 1998, the building is 50 metres high and, with a reach of 22 nautical miles, it simulates the bow of a ship, enriched by a bronze sculpture by Manolo Coia. We are in Punta Nariga, and from here it’s possible to observe the path already walked and the path still to go.
The next days will be a carousel of steep pathways on high cliffs, isolated and wild beaches – one on them reaching 2 km of length – small fishing ports, deep coves called rias, coastal hamlets, pine forests, woods, some secondary road, streams crossing your path, curiously-shaped rocks, and lots, lots of ocean. The days will always be so filled with wonder that we will often forget where we are heading.
Where ancient Romans set the world’s end, there rises the Finisterre lighthouse – from Latin Finis Terrae, end of the Earth. That will be the end of this journey.
The origin of a name
This stretch of Galician coast has gained its sinister name from a long series of shipwrecks occurred over the centuries. The irregular conformation of the coastline, together with extreme weather conditions, has been often a fatal combination for many ships. The most famous shipwreck dates back to 1890. “Serpent was the name of that British school ship” Paco, an old fisherman, recounts, while he gazes in the distance towards Rio do Porto, close to Punta Sandría. “It should have gone from Plymouth to Freetown, Sierra Leone, but it wrecked during a violent storm. It was the 10th of November”, he continues after a brief pause. “In all, they died in 172. Only three sailors were saved. Not even the captain’s dog survived, exhausted in the attempt to save as many people as possible.”
On the shipwreck site, there is now a memorial, a sort of stone fort in memory of that day. “The tombstone says that there lays the captain”, Paco continues, “yet that’s unclear. The captain was probably buried with the rest of his crew, there where they tried to rescue them. That’s because, as they were British they were Protestant, and at that time the priest didn’t want to bury them in consecrated ground”.
Cabo de Trece and the Cemitério dos Ingleses
At first sight, Cabo de Trece is not much different from other cliffs shaping the Lighthouse Way. We will reach it after crossing – and not without hardship – a gritty cape that dominates the coast for many kilometres and after walking on a very long beach made of fine sand. The Cemitério dos Ingleses it’s not a collection of tombstones, as the name may suggest. At a few meters from the sea, high piles of stones of various dimensions are standing, resembling some shaky and slender columns. They come from a very ancient custom and are known in Galicia as Amilladoiros. In fact, Celts believed that the soul of a departed who hadn’t fulfilled his promises while alive had to remain imprisoned inside the stones. If used as memorials, Celts thought that these small piles of stones gathered on the spot could help the contained soul to finally rest in peace.
This is certainly a mystical-looking place. Built spontaneously by the locals or by those who have passed by during the years, the piles seem to materialize the sailors’ souls, eternally bonded to this rocky cape. It’s a place that won’t leave you emotionless.
And it was after what happened to the Serpent that, not far away from here, the Cabo Vilán lighthouse was built. A substitute of a smaller, steam-powered structure, this has been the first electric-powered lighthouse ever built in Spain. We can reach it after some kilometres on a dirt road that is quite comfortable, except for a short but steep climb among wild berries and brooms, and for the last paved section.
The view from the lighthouse’s rocks will leave us deeply contemplative once again. Reaching this place with the sun setting means witnessing a scene able to reconcile body and mind.
Living by the sea
“In spite of its name, this coast is not only about tragedies” Victor, a solitary walker passionate about poetry, recounts. “This is a hard sea, that’s true, and yet the locals and the fishermen have always lived with it in a tight communion. From this very sea, they’ve always received what they need to live, even if, sometimes, there’s a price that has to be paid. And the ocean doesn’t make concessions”.
A deep respect for the sea is something we immediately perceive when talking with those who live in these lands. The Lighthouse Way brings in contact with all of this, but firstly, with ourselves. The long, silent walks in a scented wood, making our way through high ferns and bushes, or crossing neverending beaches, barely touched by the shy morning light, when the ocean seems to be still asleep, are moments that bring a tranquillity so profound that will last over days. Nothing is required, except keeping on listening and giving in both soul and body to the journey. The Way will think about the rest. This is true for every path, being them on the coast or not.
With this attitude, even short, casual encounters will give a deeper meaning to an already memorable day. By listening to the locals, it’s possible not only to get to know the culture of a place but also its history. As always, people make the difference.
There, where the pilgrims arrive
As it has already been said, the end of this journey is the solitary lighthouse of Cabo Fisterra. But before reaching it, we still have to face three more days of walking. Four, if we decide to split the 32 km between Camariñas and Muxia. If the path was a necklace, this would be one of the most brilliant pearls.
We have just left Cabo Vilán behind us and there, on the horizon, Ría de Camariñas appears. While getting closer to it, the road will be mainly paved and a little bit further from the Ocean, an exception during this journey. Once passed Camariñas with its vast fishing port, we walk on the namesake Ría, across long and beautiful woods. Constantly flanking the peaceful waters of this cove, it’s possible to observe the mariscadores – shellfish fishermen – working on the muddy river bottom let uncovered by the low tide. All around them, groups of egrets and other river birds.
This is a piece of authentic, almost archaic, Galicia, with small hamlets still preserving the old stone buildings, mixed with the newer ones and crossed by narrow streets, between a dog accompanying us for some meters or a cat observing us listlessly. Like every time near residential or farming areas, the typical hórreos are ever-present. These stone or wood buildings – the latter are rarer due to their difficult preservation – are the typical barns of the North-western part of the Iberian Peninsula. Their shape is somehow similar to a hut, elevated by big pillars to protect the harvest from humidity and rodents. It’s easy to spot hórreos of different dimensions. Anciently, the bigger they were, the more was the contained harvest, and thus, richer was the owner.
Arriving in Muxia
Not far from here, the Lighthouse Way will cross the Camino de Santiago passing by Muxia and reaching Finisterre. Before entering Muxia, we cross a beautiful pinewood that almost seems to be veiling the town on purpose just before suddenly revealing it. From the sea as well as from the land, it’s still possible to obtain a lot, such as the wood for the stove.
“My wife is going to use this one to cook over the next days,” Jesús says, popping out unhurriedly from the ferns with a freshly cut log on his left shoulder and a walking stick in his right hand. You would never tell he is 83. “I was born in 1936, at the time of the war in Spain. That means a lot of water under the bridge” he says, pensive about the past. Having been in Muxia since 1947 and having never left Galicia, Jesús has 40 years as a fisherman behind him.
Nosa Señora da Barca
We enter the hamlet through the same path that is marked by the shells of the Camino de Santiago, crossing two quiet beaches and some wooden walkways. We are immediately attracted by the cape of this small peninsula. There, between rocks carved by the wind and by the waves, rises the Chapel of Nosa Señora da Barca. The entrance faces the ocean, as highlighting right away the tight votive correlation with it. Tradition has it, in fact, that in this very place St James received an apparition from the Virgin Mary on a stone boat while he was praying.
The building rises at a short distance from the so-called holy stones, already a site for ancient pagan cults. Not far from the Chapel stands La Herida, an impressive sculpture realized in memory of the tanker Prestige’s tragic shipwreck in 2002. The sculpture resembles a huge breach between two stone blocks. If with enough time, one day more around here is a day well spent.
And yet, there are still two more days to go before reaching Finisterre. We still have to cross the Cabo Touriñán lighthouse, the westernmost lighthouse in the Spanish Peninsula. However, as in every good movie, the best is saved for last.
The last day, a few kilometres from Nemiña – the end of the penultimate stage – and after having walked again over small streams and high cliffs, our footsteps and gaze will be free to wander around the pure vastness of Praia do Rostro. Two kilometres of candid sand separating the blue of the ocean from the green of the hills as far as the eyes can see. Flocks of seagulls bothered by our passage hover, landing again just a little further on.
And after some kilometres of rocky coast, yet another apparition. It’s Cabo de Fisterra with its lighthouse. There, the Lighthouse Way joins for the last time the Camino de Santiago, and our story encounters those of thousands of pilgrims arrived from all over the world.
There is who burns clothes used along the way, others are just searching for a peaceful spot – not always easy due to the large crowd of tourists – others are leaving their walking sticks between the rocks and others are simply walking back the two kilometres to Finisterre. Each of them with their own backpack and their own thoughts.
A trail full of character
The Lighthouse Way has to be rightfully considered as one of the most beautiful trekking itineraries in Europe. It may still be a little bit raw, as a teenager becoming aware of his qualities. Maybe in the future, some stages will be shortened, or maybe it will remain unaltered. The accommodation choices will probably rise together with their demand. What is certain, is that a similar journey is difficult to find and we wouldn’t want it any different. After reaching Finisterre through the Camino de Santiago, many pilgrims decide to undertake even just one stage of it, as a supplement. Especially the two days to Muxia.
What distinguishes it from other long trekking paths, besides the majesty of the ocean, of the high cliffs and coves, is – at least for now – the scarcity of walkers along the way. Except for locals, we may walk for days without encountering any other trekkers, even in summertime. Due to the physical training needed, this may not be a walk for everyone. That’s probably one of the reasons why only a few people walk it from the beginning to the end.
Only walking matters
Waiting for it to be officially recognized, the Lighthouse Way remains one of the most contemplative and spectacular trails in the world. In a context where mass tourism tends to flatten the meaning of places and experiences – which also often happens to the Camino de Santiago itself – the Lighthouse Way will carry us into a reality where only the present moment counts. One month or one week ago already doesn’t matter anymore. They are like evaporated behind us. Only walking matters. Sometimes we even forget where is the end. The soul of this journey coincides with its own character, and lies in the trail itself, regardless of its destination.
Words and Photos by Andrea Ferro Photography