Getting to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe: Mother & Daughter Adventures


The island juts out into Bay of Biscay, and is connected to the main land by 231 steps.

The moment Lauren sent me a photo of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a tiny islet on the northern tip of Spain, I knew I had to go.   The photo looked exotic and alluring, it reeked of adventure.  We changed our trip slightly to make the day trip there, staying an extra night in Bilbao thus saving Santender for a future trip.  From the few blog posts I read about how to get to San Juan, it seemed that it was best to get there by car but if that wasn’t possible, as was in our case, a bus from downtown Bilbao would take us to the town of Bakio, and we could walk from there.  I interpreted the posts to mean that it was a 20 minute steep hike to the beginning of the steps, something that both of us could easily accomplish.  We had originally thought to go on Sunday but the bus only came every two hours so we changed our plans to go on Monday when the bus was scheduled every hour instead.

On the morning of our adventure we scouted out the bus stop in Bilbao, asking a bus driver where the bus to San Juan would be.  He pointed across Moyua Square reminding us that it’s always good to ask rather than assume these things as we would have had to wait an hour if we had missed our bus because we were waiting in the wrong place.  The Bizkaibus bus took off as soon as we boarded.  I would learn that public transportation in Spain is very clean and efficient.

Taking the bus Bakio

Arriving in Bakio by bus

The bus ride to Bakio took 45 minutes and we were dropped off at the end of the road, the beginning of the trek to San Juan.  The weather was overcast but not raining when we arrived.  I carried my umbrella with me every day in Spain because there was always a possibility of showers even if the skies were clear when we started out.

Bakio is a resort town located on the Bay of Biscay, it was closed for the season so it was quiet and deserted compared to the bustling city of Bilbao.  We walked out to look at the beautiful beach where a dozen surfers bobbled on blue-gray Spanish water.  It was pretty and peaceful. We were relieved we had taken a few moments in Bilbao to eat our breakfast as nothing in Bakio was open.  No one was on the streets, the only people we noticed were in the water wearing wet suits.

IMG_6660Then we began our hike to San Juan passing by a flock of sheep and a local whom we asked the best way to walk to the hermitage. He told us the prettiest way was the road along the cliff so we could see the ocean.  It was late morning and we planned to have lunch at a restaurant we had read about located at the top of the hill above San Juan.


Beach of Bakio in late March

IMG_1790Our uphill journey was filled with beautiful views of the coastline below.  We took plenty of pictures and noticed that we seemed to be the only ones heading to San Juan that day, at least on foot.


The coastal road to San Juan from Bakio.

It was pretty and wild; horses and hills with a few houses along the way.  It was mostly up hill, up and up and up.  After half an hour we wondered how much farther it was, only one car passed us but then again we weren’t on the main road.  It was cool to be the only ones out there although we were getting tired.


On the road to San Juan. Looking back toward Bakio.

The road kept ascending, then a mom and two kids passed us.  I think it was an hour before we arrived at the restaurant at the top of the hill, which to our disappointment was closed Monday and Tuesday, meaning we would have a much later lunch in Bakio than we expected if something was even open there.

IMG_6678We passed a parking lot with a few cars.  Later we heard that we could have taken a taxi although I’m not sure that would have been possible off season.  Lauren kept hinting that maybe we could hitch a ride on the way back to town.

IMG_6681Finally we reached the top the hill where we could see the hermitage.

IMG_6686IMG_6687bTo get to the beginning of the 231 steps leading up to the top of the island we first had to descend a steep, long trail.  I think at one time you could drive down because there was a small parking lot at the bottom, but the road had been closed off.  Only serious walkers would be able to make it back up, which I guess meant us at least on that day.

IMG_6693We knew it would be a steep climb down because some walkers coming back up appeared tuckered out.

IMG_2530Going down of course was easy and there were photo ops all along the way.


The skies were overcast but clear enough to have full visibility of the island and the surrounding Bay of Biscay.

IMG_6709When we reached the bottom of the trail the hermitage loomed up, and before we reached the steps we first walked along a stone wall, that looked ancient.  Water from the Bay splashed on both sides.

IMG_2535Mostly we admired the unusualness of it and how exotic it felt.

IMG_6738We took photos all the way up the 231 steps like the other visitors.  There were a few dozen people climbing amongst us, apparently everyone else had rented a car to get there.

The walk up the steps was beautiful and interesting.  We don’t have anything this old in the states and so it felt very unusual and precious to be walking on steps built so long ago.  How did they build this? I wondered.  What did they do way out here?

IMG_1888Climbing the 231 steps was the easier part of the hike.

IMG_2541At the top of the island is a hermitage.


It’s a tradition to ring the bell  at the church before leaving.

The small church was closed when we were there but it was interesting to view from the outside.   It was originally built in the 10th century but was destroyed a few times by fire.  The current hermitage was rebuilt in 1980.  It’s a tradition to ring the bell three times and make a wish.

There is small structure adjacent to the hermitage where a couple of groups were having a picnic.  It was beginning to sprinkle so having a shelter was a good thing.



We took photos of the magnificent views from the top and then headed back.

The climb back up to the main road was the most taxing and we were ravished and tired by the time we reached the top.  The walk back down the hill to the sleepy town of Bakio was a breeze, it was raining and we had no clue where to eat because nothing seemed open.  Just when we decided that we’d be lucky enough to find a grocery store we discovered a couple of cafes open on the far end of the beach, they were in the process of ending their menu del dia but one place was still open for us.  It was 3:45.

For 12 euros I had a delicious salad, salmon and cream puffs in chocolate sauce, and wine.

Returning to Bilbao

Returning to Bilbao

After wards we waited 20 minutes at the bus stop for our bus back to Bilbao.  I never thought I’d enjoy a bus ride so much.  It would take several days for us to recupe from our adventure but it was a pretty amazing experience and definitely worth it.  If I were to recommend the trip I would say try to get a cab if you can find one.

Read more . . . Spain: Mother & Daughter Adventures 2013


6 thoughts on “Getting to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe: Mother & Daughter Adventures

  1. I love the Basque Country and I love your pictures! I will definitely have to visit this island the next time I go. It looks beautiful.

  2. Pingback: Walking from Bakio to the beautiful hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe | Roamingtheworld

  3. I just read Lauren’s post and want to say how much I appreciate you both sharing your experience to San Juan. I dream of making it out there one day!

  4. Hy huys, I’m planing to take the same route in September, how much did you pay fr the bus from Bilbao to San Juan or better to say to Bakio, and back?

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