Camino Lebaniego : Hiking through History and Nature
Created by Colleen Sims * 4 April 2023 * Updated 15 August 2023
The Camino Lebaniego was to be our 2020 Camino. After walking the Camino Primitivo in 2019, we had a taste for the less travelled routes and loved the idea of walking in the mountains.
After a little research, it was clear that the Camino Lebaniego in Northern Spain would be perfect.
Walking the Camino Lebaniego
For this Camino, you could opt to start anywhere along the Camino del Norte, but we only had ten days so we opted to start in San Vicente de la Barquera; where the route diverts inland from the northern coast. Whilst the Lebaniego is short, once you reach the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liebana you can also choose to continue onwards to Santiago de Compostela on the Camino Vadiniense, which ends just before Leon on the Camino Frances.
I planned our route, booked accommodation and waited. But then the world changed. COVID brought everything to a standstill and as April turned to May it became clear that we would not be walking.
However, France opened the border to Spain in July, we’d been vaccinated and all restrictions were lifted, so we jumped at the chance to go hiking in the mountains. We knew that we couldn’t walk a normal Camino; shared albergues and communal meals were out of the question so instead, we rented a beautiful apartment, not far from Potes. We planned day hikes along the Camino, walking to and from our car each day and taking picnics. It would mean that we couldn’t walk every step of the Lebaneigo, but we would be walking and in the end, we walked most of the route and that felt like a blessing in such troubled times.
Camino Lebaniego Route
The Camino Lebaniego is an ancient path, that winds its way through the stunning Picos de Europa National Park in northern Spain. The route starts at San Vincente de la Barquera and ends at the Monastery of Santo Toribio which offers a truly beautiful hiking experience. It’s a path rich in history, stunning landscape and wildlife, and is popular for hikers, walkers, tourists and locals.
The route ends in the Liébana Valley, which lends its name to this Camino.
How Long is the Camino Lebaniego?
The Camino Lebaniego is 72 kilometres long, from San Vicente de la Barquera to the Santo Toribio Monastery in the stunning Liébana Valley. You can walk the trail in 3 days but we like to take our time and we wanted time to explore the monastery and Potes so we would have opted to lengthen the days and make the most of this spectacular setting. I’d also recommend spending a day in San Vicente de la Barquera if you have time.
The route is well-marked, with plenty of red arrows; red to distinguish the route from the Camino de Santiago. For an isolated hike, there is a surprising amount of accommodation and eateries along the way, although we opted to take picnics with us, we did stop for a few drinks in the villages with services too. In non-covid times I think there would have been a few more options open but I would also recommend that you start each day with plenty of water and snacks.
History of the Camino Lebaniego
The Camino Lebaniego is an often overlooked pilgrimage route. With its origins in the 6th century and its connection to the Lignum Cross, the Camino offers a spiritual journey in the most beautiful of settings, on a route blessed and made holy by the Pope in 1512.
The origins of the Camino Lebaniego lead us to Santo Toribio, in the 6th century. Legend has it that the cross used to crucify Christ (the Lignum Crucis) was divided into sections and hidden at locations in Jerusalem or Rome. Whilst preaching Catholicism in the Holy Land, Santo Toribio found the largest piece of the Lignum Crucis.
The relic arrived at the Monastery along with the remains of Santo Toribio, in the 8th century. They had been moved from Astorga to protect them from the Arab advance on the peninsula; the relic had arrived in Astorga in the 6th century when Santo Toribio became the first bishop of Astorga.
Pilgrims who were walking to Santiago de Compostela, diverted from the Northern Camino to the Monastery to honour Santo Toribio de Liebana and the holy relic. Those pilgrims were Pilgrims of the Cross and many diverted specifically to visit the cross, which was said to have healing properties. Thousands made the pilgrimage to the monastery to see, touch, and pray to the cross; a ritual that continues today.
We started our Camino on the northern coast but you can also divert from the Camino Frances just before Fromista, where you walk north towards the coast.
Monastery de Santo Toribio de Liébana
Monastery Santo Toribio de Liébana is a Franciscan monastery located in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain and is one of the few places in the world still considered a holy site. The monastery was founded in the 6th century and is still home to a small community of Franciscan monks.
The monastery is considered an architectural gem with Gothic elements and Cistercian influences. Inside lies one of Christianity’s most sacred relics: a piece of the True Cross known as the Lignum Crucis of Santo Toribio de Liebana. Aside from the Camino Lebaniego, the relic itself attracts pilgrims from all over the world.
Visitors can explore the monastery grounds, attend mass, visit a small gift shop or take part in one of the guided tours, which provide more insight into this historic site. We also walked up to the small hermitage to San Miguel, which offered stunning views of Potes and the surrounding hills. Indeed we were able to trace our steps back through Cabanes and the hills that we’d walked the day before.
How Many People Walk the Camino Lebaniego?
The Camino Lebaniego is certainly one of the lesser walked routes, but it is gaining in popularity and numbers are expected to increase as more people discover this hidden gem.
We walked when international travel was impossible for most but regardless the area was very busy with Spanish hikers. Whilst you may not see other pilgrims, you should expect to see lots of day hikers and holiday-makers visiting the area; the summertime and school holidays being the busiest season.
Having said that, whilst the towns and villages were busy in July, in the mountains we only saw a handful of other hikers.
Accommodation Options on the Lebaniego
The Camino Lebaniego offers a range of accommodation options, from municipal albergues to private hostels and guesthouses. There are some albergue along the route but if you are looking for private rooms I do recommend booking in advance during the summer to secure your preferred lodging.
I’ve listed accommodation choices within the stage information below, which would be suitable for anyone walking this route.
Notable Features of this Camino
The Camino Lebaniego cuts through breathtaking natural scenery, from the stunning northern coast to the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains and the peaks of the Picos de Europa. In between, there are many notable villages such as Cades, Cicera, and Potes, which are definitely worth a visit. Indeed, the route is dotted with charming villages, ancient bridges, and beautifully preserved churches, such as the Romanesque church of Santa Maria in Lebeña, with its colourful history.
The Camino Lebaniego is an incredibly scenic trail. For us, the natural splendour of this route is what we remember most. The route winds its way through forests, valleys, and mountains and we were blown away by the views of the Picos de Europa. The highlight of the route was the destination at the Monastery of Santo Toribio, but we continued on and one of our greatest hiking days was walking the route to Fuente De and beyond.
Notable Cuisine of the Cantabrian Region
Gerry loves to try local food and will divert off the trail in search of a local artisan or vineyard. Sadly for us, with our own self-imposed COVID restrictions, we weren’t able to eat out on this trip; only stopped for drinks if we could sit outside. But this wasn’t our first time to the region and we know there are excellent opportunities to savour the local cuisine
With its proximity to the coast, there are delicious seafood dishes and fresh fish to be found. The cuisine of the Picos de Europa is renowned for its high-quality meats, cheeses, and traditional dishes like Cantabrian-style bean stews.
Cocido Lebaniego consists of chickpeas, potatoes and cabbage with pork and can include chorizo, bacon, and morcilla. And for dessert, there is the very popular Quesada Pasiega, a sweet cheesecake-like pudding made from milk, sugar, butter, flour, and egg and flavoured with lemon zest and cinnamon.
The region also has its own vineyards and you’ll also find delicious Sidra Asturiana, the famous apple cider from the neighbouring Asturias. For the connoisseur (and brave) there is also the famous orujo liquor.
Nature, Flora and Fauna of the Picos de Europa
The Camino Lebaniego is a nature lover’s paradise and cuts through some of Spain’s most stunning natural landscapes. You’ll walk through different ecosystems, from the coast to meadows to higher altitude peaks. Along the way, you’ll discover an incredible array of plants and wildlife.
The Picos de Europa is home to unique species such as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian wolf (which I’m sure Gerry tried to pet) and an array of rare birds of prey including Griffin Vultures which we loved watching as we walked to Cabanas and over Fuente De.
The area is also home to a wide range of wildflowers and trees such as beech, oak, and chestnut. We were blown away by the meadows, thousands upon thousands of wildflowers covered the alpine meadows, it was a sight to behold and is part of the reason why we loved this day so much.
Stages of the Camino Lebaniego
Because there are accommodation options along this route, you can choose to walk as fast or as slow as you choose. You can also choose where you start and end; starting at any point on the Camino Norte before San Vicente de Barquera and extending your walk towards Leon on the Camino Frances.
The Camino Lebaniego is the perfect Camino for those like us, who are short on time. You can opt to walk the Camino Lebaniego as a stand-alone walk to the Monastery or choose to continue onwards; either way, you won’t be disappointed!
San Vicente de la Barquera : The Start of the Camino Lebaniego
The Lebaniego starts at San Vicente de la Barquera, a beautiful coastal town in Cantabria, in northern Spain. It’s a popular tourist destination due to its stunning beaches, beautiful scenery and historical monuments and it also lies on the Camino Norte too. If you’re walking the Camino Norte, San Vicente sits halfway between Comillas and Colombres. The Lebaniego and the Norte share the same route for part of day one. It’s a beautiful little town worthy of a visit; and a great place to start your Camino Lebaniego.
Once just a small fishing hamlet, San Vicente de la Barquera is now considered one of the most picturesque spots along the Cantabrian coast; boasting stunning beaches, a beautiful old quarter with an ancient castle and all under the backdrop of the often snow-capped Picos de Europa. Given its position on the coast and its fishing history, San Vicente de la Barquera is also home to several excellent fish restaurants.
San Vicente de la Barquera is a popular tourist destination and as such offers a range of accommodation to suit all budgets. There was an albergue in town but as I type the website isn’t working and I wonder if it is now closed.
The town was declared a site of Cultural Interest in 1987, partly due to the 13th-century church of Santa María de los Ángeles and the 13th-century Castillo del Rey, with a crenelated tower, which houses a small museum. Next to the church, you can find the remains of Hospital de la Concepción; which dates from the 1500s and was once a refuge for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. It’s worth a visit to these sites and definitely worth the climb up for the views over the town and harbour.
La Maza bridge is also part of the town’s identity, originating in the 16th century. This is where we chose to park our car and start our Camino.
Distance : 27 kilometres | Total stage elevation 603 metres
The route starts by crossing Puente de la Maza, over the River Deva. I cannot tell you how happy I was to see yellow arrows after 11 weeks of COVID lockdowns in France. The walk out of town is well marked, as you would expect as it’s sharing the trail with the Camino Norte. Once we left the Camino Norte the arrows changed to the red of the Lebaniego.
The elevation starts as you walk out of town and you head inland. The elevation today isn’t too bad and is a gentle introduction to the route and the views in all directions are fabulous!
We stopped for refreshments in Serdio. There was a pilgrim albergue here but it was temporarily closed in 2022 so you would need to check in advance to see if it is available. We had a drink in the bar in the centre of town and they also offer accommodation if you wish to end your stage here.
A little further on, Muñorrodero will be your last opportunity for services until Cades and the Norte and the Lebaniego part company here too. The Lebaniego follows the Nansa River trail, which is 8 km long and runs through a shady riverside forest with wooden walkways. The river trail is longer than the original Camino but it takes you off the busy main road and is a much nicer option. The river route ends in Camijanes and whilst there is an option to continue along the river, it’s only practical in high summer and prolonged dry weather and can be a wet and muddy option; so better to stay on the trail.
The day ends in Cades where you have the choice of an albergue or a hotel.
Distance : 18 kilometres | Total stage elevation 683 metres
The second day of the Camino Lebaniego is shorter but steeper than yesterday. We suggest you walk from Cades to Cicera; some guides continue on to Cabanes but we feel that Cicera is a great place to stop and you have some time to explore if you arrive early.
It’s true that part of the day is spent walking on tarmac but it’s such a beautiful walk that we didn’t mind. We also diverted off the route to stop at Quintanilla for refreshments before continuing. It’s a short diversion and the views alone make it worth the extra kilometre.
The road today is very quiet and well-marked for pilgrims but it is a road so you’ll need to pay attention to any traffic. We walked in early July and the edges of the road were bursting with colour from the wildflowers. Just before Lafuente you’ll find one of Cantabria’s Romanesque jewels; the Church of Santa Juliana, dating from the late 12th century. We got a little lost in Lafuenta village so pay attention to the arrows as you enter the village.
The charming village of Cicera is nestled in the heart of a valley and you can opt to stay here in a rural guesthouse or the municipal albergue. It was hay-making day when we arrived and we loved sitting in the shade and watching the bucolic scene unfold around us.
We loved Cicera and could have happily stayed here, but instead, we made do with cold drinks in the posada garden, a picnic under the church porch and we took the optional hike up to the Santa Catalina viewpoint. It’s about a 3km round trip from the village but you are rewarded with stunning views from the top.
Day 3 : Cicera to Potes
Distance : 20 kilometres | Total stage elevation 861 metres
Today’s walk is stunning; simply stunning. There’s a lot of elevation too but the paths are good. If you wish to take your time and explore Lebeña more and enjoy the mountains then you can break your stage at Cabanes; there is a pilgrim albergue here. If we were to walk this route again we would 100% break down the stages, take a picnic and just enjoy the walks in the mountains; we can’t overstate how majestic this day is.
On this third day, we enter the beautiful Liébana Valley, hiking through forests, gazing out across stunning rock formations and certainly for us, watching the amazing vultures that circled overhead for so much of the day.
One notable stop worth a visit is the Mozarabic church of Santa María de Lebeña, built in 925. You can visit inside of the church, although we tried on two occasions and both times we were unlucky; I guess we’ll just have to go back and try a third time.
Whilst this stage isn’t too long, distance wise, there are plenty of ups and downs. The trail leads you through several picturesque tiny villages like Lebeña, Cabañes and Pendes before reaching your destination of Potes. Potes is a thriving and popular town in its own right and we recommend that you book your accommodation here in advance to be sure of a bed; particularly in the summer months.
Day 4 : Potes to Monastery of Santo Toribio (and back)
Distance : 6 kilometres | Total stage elevation 364 metres
The fourth day of the Camino Lebaniego is a much shorter day, taking you from Potes to the Monastery of Santo Toribio and back again into town. The path ascends gradually through beautiful countryside until you reach the monastery, where you can visit the chapel and the museum, and of course view the iconic Lignum Crucis.
There are tours available of the monastery, check their website for opening times.
Your final day will be spent exploring the Monastery of Santo Toribio, one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in Spain. After exploring and admiring the monastery and its beautifully preserved architecture, you could walk onwards to the Hermitage of San Miguel, just a little further along the road. The route to and from Potes affords you amazing views of the surrounding hills. We could even trace our path from Cabanes the previous day.
After your visit, you can return to Potes and continue to explore this delightful small mountain town.
Day 5 : Onwards to Fuente De in the Picos De Europa
If you wish to continue your journey further into the Picos then we totally recommend the walk over Fuenta De on the Camino Vadiniense. We didn’t have time to walk the entire route but we did have time to walk the queen mountain stage. If you have time to extend your stay then do this hike; as we mentioned previously, this is perhaps one of our most favourite ever hiking experiences (equalled so far to the Skyline Trail in Washington State).
We drove to the trailhead and split the walk into two days. We walked half of the route on day one and returned to our car and on the second day started at the trail end and walked back to where we’d ended the previous day. This was a glorious two days and well worth your time, whether you are day hiking or walking onwards to Leon.
There is a fabulous Parador hotel at Fuenta De and a Posada and Albergue in Espinama, just before Fuenta De.
Whatever you choose, enjoy your hike over the mountains. Take a picnic and plenty of water as there are no services, but no matter because this is a stunning day!
We loved our Camino Lebaniego. Perhaps it was in part because we could walk so soon after COVID lockdown ended, it certainly added to the emotion we felt whilst walking, but nothing can detract from the beauty of this region. And it’s an area that we’ll keep returning to again and again. Take a look at my video from that glorious Camino Lebaniego.
The Last Word : Who Should Walk the Camino Lebaniego?
If you are looking for a Camino experience that will take you through stunning natural landscapes, and you’re happy to walk alone, then the Camino Lebaniego should be on your bucket list.
It’s not a walk for the faint hearted, there are some serious elevations to this hike but the path is well-marked and well-maintained. What you get in return for your efforts are breathtaking views, incredible history, delicious food, spiritual contemplation and certainly a physical challenge.
The Camino Lebaniego is a hidden gem, waiting to be discovered by adventurous souls who want to explore the beauty and diversity of this glorious region in Spain.