Spain’s Death Coast Is Actually Your Dream Road Trip

A 4-day road trip to land’s end shows an entirely enchanting side of Spain.

Spain’s Death Coast Is Actually Your Dream Road Trip

Cabo Tourninan Lighthouse along Spain’s famed Death Coast

All photos by author

When it comes to Spain, bustling cities like Bilbao, Barcelona, and Madrid and the sunny southern coast in Andalusia seem to soak up all the glory. But a short flight from Barcelona or Madrid you’ll find another España. A rainy, windy, Celtic Spain that ends in a coast so dangerous that death became its moniker.

Pristine beaches, cliffside lighthouses, cozy rural accommodations, and fresh-caught seafood are only part of the appeal along Northwestern Spain’s Costa da Morte. Back roads and tiny towns harbor castles, ancient ruins, artisan shops, and more. Most attractions and parking are free—leaving you with more money for important things like food, drink, and handmade souvenirs.

There’s some dispute as to how much of the coastline is considered the death coast, but most agree that it starts at A Coruña and ends just past Fisterra, baptized as “land’s end” in Roman times. Most of the route can be driven straight through in day, but where’s the fun in that? You’re better off putting aside four days to get a good taste of the region. Go in early fall or late spring when the crowds are manageable; attractions are open regular hours and the weather is agreeable. (And don’t forget your international drivers permit; visitors in Spain who wish to drive are required to carry one.) Here’s your itinerary.

Day One: Start in A Coruña

Fly into A Coruña and grab your rental car at the airport. Before you leave town, stop off to see Hercules Tower, a restored Roman-era lighthouse, and the oldest in use in the world today. Explore the grounds and snapshots of the outdoor art including a large sculpture dedicated to Celtic hero Breogan and the giant mosaic of a compass rose. Most importantly, get your first eyeful of Galicia’s wild coast and see why it was once considered so deadly.

As you venture into the countryside, keep an eye out for hórreos (pronounced like Oreo but with a rolled ‘r’). These traditional Galician grain silos look like raised stone play houses with a cross on one end of the roof and the pagan fertility symbol on the other—locals will tell you it’s because Galicians are famously indecisive.

For lunch, head to any bakery in Carballo. We like the cod empanadas and bread made with local grains baked in traditional stone ovens at Panadería Añon. Stroll across Puente Lubiáns, a Roman-era bridge, before driving on to Buño where you can hop for locally made pottery along the main drag. Tour a historic potter’s workshop and residence at the Ecomuseo. Ask nicely, and the potter-in-residence will let you take a turn at the wheel.

Next, head to the port in Malpica de Bergantiño and hopefully catch the last fish auction of the day at la Lonxa. Unlike in other places in Spain, fish are still sold off by an auctioneer here, which makes for an interesting spectacle. Almost as entertaining are the port’s feline inhabitants which frolic around mountains of fishing nets, sniffing out scraps.

Where to stay

Book a quiet dinner and a hearty breakfast with your room at Hotel Rural Mar de Queo, a rustic country house. If you are traveling with children, the heated indoor swimming pool and large play place at Complejo Aldeola are sure to please.

Day Two: Barizo to Vimianzo

Start off by taking the narrow roads through the tiny seaside village of Barizo and past a modern windmill park to the ship-like Punta Nariga Lighthouse. While the lighthouse itself is the newest, and certainly one of the prettiest, around, it can’t compete with the rock formations that surround it. As should be expected near a wind-energy park, the gales here are intense, so forget packing a picnic and keep a good grip on hats and sunglasses.

A little ways inland in Corme, the six-foot-tall cross of the Pedra da Serpe is easy to mistake for an abandoned headstone. The winged serpent carved in the base hints at the legend that Saint Adrian imprisoned a plague of snakes under the rock—something to consider while posing for pictures. Further down the road are 29 stone circles, the remnants of the iron-age settlement, Castro de Borneiro. Not even five minutes away from that is the Dolmen de Dombate, a megalithic passage tomb—mounded earth topped by massive stones stacked in a table. You can’t walk through the monument, but there is a replica at the museum where you can do your best to decipher the ancient writing on the wall.

Take a break from all the ruins at Mar de Ardora Restaurant in the coastal town of Cabana de Bergantiños, where elegant versions of traditional Galician fare make this restaurant worth splurging on. A must-try dish is the octopus, the stand out on a tasting menu that includes medium-rare Galician steak and local cheese. When you make your reservation (and you should) request a table with a view of the beach.

Post-feast, soak up some sun on the white sands at Laxe Beach before continuing on to Vimianzo. The medieval castle at Vimianzo is free to enter and explore. Inside, sixty-somethings make bobbin lace by hand, weave linen on antique looms, and sell the fruits of their labors at surprisingly reasonable prices. Just keep in mind that the castle is closed Mondays and from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch.

Where to stay

At night, relax by the traditional fireplace in reception, watch a movie on the plush sofa in the media room, or walk barefoot on heated floors and sip hot tea in your room at Hotel Do Cotariño.

Day Three: Cabo Vilán Lighthouse to Camelle

Head north through small villages, out onto a coastal dirt road, and past a large fish-farming operation where you’ll find Cabo Vilán Lighthouse. Climb the hill to one side of the parking lot for views of the lighthouse, then pop inside the lighthouse to peruse the small museum and partake in a hot drink before moving on. Follow the dirt road along the coast until you reach the Cementerio de los Ingléses (The English Cemetery) which pays tribute to a massive 19th century shipwreck along the coast. There’s a small gated area where a few officers were buried, and piles of rocks along the coast mark the graves of the hundred and fifty sailors who perished just off shore.

Continue east along this route to reach Arou, a former Viking outpost. Today it’s a small village with a spectacular beach and a couple of bars. Stop at the one with the “Estrella Damm” sign above the door for a coke or a beer and a free tapa such as spicy garbanzos and tripe.

Camelle is bigger and less charming than Arou, but warrants a stop to see la Casa do Alemán where German artist Manfred Gnädinger set up shop in the 60s. Known only as the “German” to locals, he lived simply in a cement shack for over 30 years, wandering the village in a loincloth, and building his organic-looking rock and mortar sculptures along the shore. Before you turn in for the day, watch the sun go down behind Nosa Señora de la Barca, a baroque sanctuary only steps from the water.

Where to stay

In this part of Spain, most rural B&B’s, known as casas rurales, offer lunch and dinner as well as breakfast for a reasonable price. Plan ahead and order an authentic dinner when you book your stay at Casa de Lema.

Day Four: Cape Touriñán to Fisterra

Bundle up and set out early for Cape Touriñán where you can hike around the lighthouse and contemplate the cliffs below. Come low tide, you can sometimes see fisherman risking their lives for “goose barnacles,” a delicacy in this region.

Continue south to Carnota, Galicia’s longest beach. Wander the white sand dunes, walk along the wood boardwalk, and keep an eye out for heron and other waterfowl.

Afterwards, make your way to Fisterra for lunch. Feast on grilled sea bass, razor clams, and goose barnacles at Tira do Cordel. If you’ve never had them before, goose barnacles look like dragons’ toenails and taste like the sea—briny and mineral rich. Don’t be intimidated—the waiters here will show you the trick to eating them. Just in case, here’s a tip: take each in two hands and break it open like you would split an asparagus spear. End your meal on a sweet note with the restaurant’s alcoholic spin on a café con leche: a shot of coffee liquor topped with crème liquor. This restaurant is exceptional for the region, as its menu is labeled for common allergens (gluten, nuts, dairy, etc).

Spend the rest of your afternoon strolling along the shore or head back to the old town to sightsee and shop; just be sure to be at land’s end—the Cape Fisterra lighthouse—for sunset.

Where to stay

End your evening with a picnic of Galician wine (ask the front desk for a wine opener) and cheese complete with ocean views on your glassed in balcony at the family-owned and operated Hotel Alen Do Mar.

Some practical tips for road tripping in Spain

  • Pack a sturdy umbrella, waterproof shoes, and a weather-proof jacket.
  • Get a small rental car: The roads are narrow and you’ll save on gas.
  • Download maps on Google Maps before you depart—some parts of this region don’t get cell signal.
  • Eat all of the traditional cheese (tetilla, San Simón da Costa, Cebreiro and Arzúa Ulloa), and drink all of the wine (Ribeiro, Valdeorras, Rías Baixas).
  • Shops are closed on Sundays and sometimes from 2-4pm for lunch.
  • Book casas rurales in advance—they’re in high demand and most have eight rooms or fewer.
  • Have euro coins on hand for tolls.
  • Allow lots of extra time to get lost (it’s inevitable), and to stop and take pictures along the way—you won’t be able to resist the views.

>>Next: The Four Main Cultures of Curaçao

Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer with Midwestern roots. Her work can be found in Afar, BUST, Allure and Eater and beyond.
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