I am not good at vacations. They are almost always problematic for me and this one — hiking the Lighthouse Way on Spain’s Galician Coast — is no different.
I’m traversing a headland glowing gold with blooming French broom and accented with patches of small purple flowers locally called Lover’s Flowers. (Galicians believe that if you place one of these on someone without their noticing, they’ll fall in love with you.) One hundred feet below, waves smash into snaggly cliffs. A mile or so out into the Atlantic Ocean, a sailboat moves quickly. If there were postcards of this off-the-beaten-path corner of Spain’s northwest coast, they would be of this scene.
The problem is that by the time I’m walking through this lovely landscape, I’m mentally frustrated, physically crushed and have blisters that feel like they’re the size of baseballs on each heel. Thirty minutes ago, which was almost seven hours and 20-plus miles after I started the day’s hike, I might have shouted an impressive stream of obscenities while walking across an empty, one-mile stretch of sand dunes and beaches to keep myself from sitting down and crying.
Most trekkers take eight to 10 days to walk the 125-mile Lighthouse Way. Because my work schedule is tight and I’ve got extreme FOMO (fear of missing out), I am squeezing the whole trek into six.
Even with my compressed itinerary, my vision for this trip included hiking all morning, afternoon siestas and evenings spent journaling over dinners of fresh seafood.
The reality so far is a minimum of eight hours of daily walking, not a single siesta and terse nightly journal entries, during which grease stains from dinners of supermarket cheese and prosciutto (because I’m too beat to find a restaurant) ooze onto the pages along with lists of each day’s high points and low points.
My problem with vacations isn’t that I can’t take them, but that I try to cram too much into them.
The Lighthouse Way, Camiño dos Faros in Spanish, traverses a stretch of coast that British sailors in the 19th century dubbed the “Costa da Morte” (Coast of Death) because so many of their compatriots died in shipwrecks there. The route goes between Malpica and Fisterra, Spain.Along the way it is marked by haphazardly painted shamrock-green arrows (that often look just like blobs of paint) on trees or rocks.
A group of local friends started piecing the Camiño together in 2013, connecting fishermen’s paths, farm tracks, beaches, livestock trails and the occasional back road. Their goal was to showcase the area’s rugged beauty; they succeeded mightily. A typical day’s scenery includes eucalyptus and pine forests dappled with light; wetlands; fields divided by dry stone walls; wildflowers; small waterfalls; beaches only accessible by foot; small peaks and sand dunes; sandy coves and headlands spilling down to the ocean.
While the Lighthouse Way’s scenery and the hiking are wild, overnight accommodations are not. This is not a backpacking adventure during which you schlep an overstuffed pack and spend nights in a tent. Each day, the Lighthouse Way passes through several villages and towns. You can find your own Airbnb, hotel or inn and hire local taxis to transfer your luggage to the next village or sign up for a self-guided trek that includes all of the reservations and planning, along with GPS tracks and detailed printed topographical maps. I do the latter.
On Foot Holidays offers five-day (64 miles), seven-day (88 miles) and 10-day (125 miles) Lighthouse Way itineraries that include stays at inns and hotels, luggage transfers, a local contact in case of emergencies, GPS tracks and incredibly detailed maps and route descriptions. And when they have a hiker ask if they can cram the full 125 miles into six nights because, using Google Earth, that hiker can’t find a single section of the trail they don’t want to see, On Foot Holidays will arrange it — even if they recommend against it.
The route rigorously follows the coast and is sometimes so near the edge you can feel spray from waves crashing below. Its name comes from the 11 lighthouses it passes. These include the Nariga Point Lighthouse, which I pass on Day 1. Its base resembles the prow of a ship and is adorned with a sculpture by Galician artist Manolo Coia. Built in 1997, it is the most modern lighthouse on the Galician coast.
The afternoon of Day 3, I stop at the Cape Vilan Lighthouse, where you can ascend the 82-foot tower and read its history in a small museum. Its construction was inspired by the deaths of 172 (out of 175) crew members on the British ship HMS Serpent. In 1890, it ran into rocks at the nearby Punta do Boi because its sailors couldn’t see the original Cape Vilan Lighthouse. When its construction was finished in 1896, it was Spain’s first electric lighthouse.
Few people have discovered this Camiño. In 2018, about 320,000 people hiked Spain’s most popular one, the Camiño de Santiago. On the Lighthouse Way, I see more fishermen than fellow hikers. On the busiest day, I pass five other people.
As I leave Malpica on Day 1, a light drizzle falls. Within 10 minutes, the city and its briny-smelling commercial harbor have been replaced by an empty, rolling landscape. Within an hour I’ve passed the fountain of Saint Adrian, whose water locals believe will cure warts, and the Chapel of St. Adrian, which was originally built in the 16th century and restored in the 20th. (If you’re looking for wart relief get the right fountain; another in the area is the “fountain of the flu.”)
Just past the chapel, which is not open when I pass it, tractors plow slopes high on the inland side. The lower slopes are abloom with Lover’s Flower and French broom, a prickly, shrubby legume.
In O Roncudo, a village in the shadow of a wind farm, descending a steep, yellow hillside on the village’s far side, I hear two fishermen singing several minutes before I see them.
When I finally make it to my apartment in Corme, my GPS watch puts the day’s total mileage at 28, with about 5,000 vertical feet of climbing.
I rally to explore Laxe, Muxia and Lires, three cute towns along the Camiño, but still undiscovered enough by tourists that ordering in English in restaurants is difficult. I learn the Spanish words for gooseneck barnacle and Galician octopus, though, and am set. The barnacles are a regional delicacy and what many of the fishermen I pass on the trail are harvesting. The local preparation of octopus is to slice it into discs, saute it in olive oil and top it with paprika. It’s served on a wooden platter.
Six days after leaving Malpica, I arrive at the Cape Finisterre Lighthouse — the name literally means “land’s end” — at 3:16 p.m. Having worked so hard to reach it, and having seen so few people along the way, I am disappointed by its crowds, souvenir kiosks, tour buses and selfie-sticks. I wait for a group of dudes in skinny jeans and man buns to finish a photo shoot in front of the lighthouse so I can snap a picture.
Except, as in many places popular with tourists, it’s easy to escape the hubbub. One hundred feet down from the main overlook facing the Atlantic Ocean, which stretches unbroken to Newfoundland, the waves below are louder than the people above. I sit on a rock and eat a slice of orange cake that the owner of Casa Luz sent me off with that morning. A ladybug lands on my arm as a lizard scampers down an adjacent boulder. Water slapping against the hull of an unseen fishing boat sounds like gunfire.
Cake finished, I pull my journal out of my daypack and write about the man buns, the ladybug and lizard and the extreme orangey-ness of the orange cake. I close my eyes for several minutes and breathe so deep I feel my toes expand. Then I pack up, walk into the town of Fisterra, check in and take a siesta. When I wake up, I shower and walk to the harbor for dinner. Between slices of Galician octopus and sips of local white wine I write a sentence in my journal: “This was the best vacation ever!”
Is a vacation still problematic if you forget its problems so quickly?