The Cruz de Ferro on the Camino Frances

Anyone who has already walked the Camino Frances route knows about the importance of the Cruz de Ferro (the Iron Cross on the Camino de Santiago). It is set on a gently sloping hill, the highest point on the Camino Frances.

The views offered from up top are incredible indeed, and the legends behind the Cross are enough to spark the imagination of any history buff. But most of all, the respectful peace of this spot is spiritually uplifting even for the non-religious, and travelers who long to see something unique that reflects much of the Camino spirit will make a stop here.

If you’ll be walking the Camino de Santiago soon, here’s what you can expect at the Cruz de Ferro.

Cruz de Ferro Legends

Me at Cruz de FerroLocated between Rabanal del Camino and Ponferrada, the Iron Cross is a bit of a mystery even for historians. Erected atop a five-meter wooden pole, most people believed that it was built for a very practical purpose — marking the way for pilgrims who walked the Camino Frances during the winter when everything was covered in a thick layer of snow.

The landmark would rise high enough for anyone walking along the road to notice it and serve as a welcoming beacon guiding pilgrims to their destination. Whether this was its original purpose, most people today use it to help them mark their way.

Some historians believe that it was a place used by the Celts even in pre-Christian times and that it was a part of an unknown ritual, while others believe that the ancient Romans used it to mark a border between two territories.

Speculations abound, but the most popular belief is that the cross was put there by Apostle James himself. As the tale goes, St. James was passing through the land on one of his evangelical missions when he encountered pagan priests performing a ritual involving human sacrifice. Full of righteous anger, he grabbed a stone from his pocket and threw it at the pagan altar. Guided by the Lord, the stone shattered the altar into a thousand tiny pieces, and St. James erected a large cross in its place to mark the power of the Almighty.

Regardless of the actual truth, Cruz de Ferro is beautiful to behold, and climbing to the top of the hill will allow you to take in your surroundings from a different perspective.

Video of the Cruz de Ferro

This short 4 minute video gives the best overview of the Cruz de Ferro, the location, the surrounding area, and some thoughts on legends I had not come across.

Today’s Traditions

One of the best things about the Cruz de Ferro is that it allows you to partake in a very old, freeing tradition. When you approach it, you’ll see that it’s surrounded by small rocks of all shapes and sizes and that most pilgrims who walk past tend to say a prayer and place a rock of their own near the cross.

According to custom, if you bring a small piece of your hometown with you, you may place it at the foot of the hill and symbolically “leave your burdens behind.” If you like, you may say a prayer and enjoy the profound peacefulness that envelops both hills and the cross.

Others write notes and prayers, leave them in the cracks at the foot of the cross, and let go of emotional burdens.

Cruz de Ferro

Getting to the Cruz de Ferro

While the climb to the Iron Cross summits the highest point on the Camino France, it can easily be managed if you take it easy and have a good pair of hiking shoes. You begin the climb just after Astorga, where you won’t even notice you’re going uphill for several kilometers.

The cross is located in the Leon Mountains in the north of Spain, and you’ll come upon a few interesting places before you even reach it. Astorga is worth a visit because of its Episcopal Palace, designed by Antoni Gaudí, and after you continue past Cruz de Ferro, you’ll see a town called Ponferrada. In it, you can find the imposing Knights Templar Castle that overlooks the river and a big old town square full of excellent shops and restaurants.

Once you finally reach the cross, I recommend you take some time to take in the scenery because it’s truly magnificent. The whole area is soothing and breathtakingly beautiful, so make sure to snap a mental picture before you continue your journey.

Continuing Along the Camino

It’s worth noting that the descent after the Iron Cross is much more difficult than the actual climb to the Cross. You’ll be able to see the El Bierzo province and its many wonders, and I recommend you stop in a few villages and taste the delicious wines of this region before you continue ahead. With the memory of Cruz de Ferro in your mind, what better way to celebrate than with a glass of fine red?

14 thoughts on “The Cruz de Ferro on the Camino Frances”

  1. Always heard that the Cross was originally a shrine for the Roman Legions to their God(s). So I left my dog tags on the pole that I wore as a soldier fighting in Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam.

    To a lot of people the location is one of the BIG disappointments of walking the Camino as it is at a highway rest stop used by busloads of tourists who do not have to walk to it. The people on the buses generally take items off of the cross as souvenirs.
    And by the way, the Spanish highway people MOVED the cross and the pile of rocks to its present location so it is NOT on its original “HOLY” site!!!

  2. Yes it was quite a disappointment to find the Cruz de Ferro is alongside a busy road. In popular culture, like the movie “The Way” it’s portrayed (falsely) as a serene place for contemplation and leaving a thoughtful memento. Buses, taxis, crowds of tourists ruin that. Romanticizing the Camino does a great disservice to those who are looking for a certain kind of experience

    • Yes, it really does depend on what time of day you arrive here. I have always been early in the morning and because of that, it has been quiet.

  3. I arrived there at first light, mist in the air, on an October morning 2019. Very serene and peaceful. No one else there. I was looking forward to this particular spot on The Way and was ready for it when I got there. I did find the emotional weight of letting go of my burdens, handing them over to Christ, to be a huge relief. Like so many other lessons of the Camino, remembering that feeling at home can be a challenge. I think of the Camino every day and focus on the lessons learned and do my best to live those lessons in my every day life. The blessings of the Camino continue to rain on me every day. Gracias a dio!

    • What a beautiful sentiment. I have not yet done El Camino but intend to do so in 2022. I will use your advice to arrive very early here to get the most of the site. Thank you.

    • It was bar none, the “highlight” of my Camino experience. I had planned the “moments” of walking to the Cruz while still in the U.S. I left a stone, a dog tag, and two “prayer letters” from close friends.

      The stone had my name on it, “David”, in my Dad’s handwriting. He gave it to me some 20 years ago after returning from Israel. The stone was selected by Dad from the brook of Kedron, where David selected the stones he used to kill his Goliath (we all have our Goliaths pestering us).

      The dog tag was of my “beautifo” Gandi, an 18 1/2 month Springer Spaniel who was my Covid dog (my Camino was postponed in 2020. Instead I got her). She stole my heart. After a 3 month deterioration of health (WSU vet hospital stay with innumerable tests)…we decided to put her down…an experience I wish on no one. Her dog tag was placed on the pole. It was the most emotional part of the Camino for me. As I stood there sobbing, two Italians, Pedro and David, consoled me with hugs!!! (Camino angels).

      There is so much more to the story and subsequent leaving my burdens at the foot of the cross…

    • My wife and I were in early October 2019 as well. Seeing the cross was an emotional experience and were many things on the Camino. I also think of the Camino every day.

  4. i JUST realized that this stop would not be on the Primitivo! Haha i have had my heart set on the primitivo, and i already have my stone to leave at this cross…..but while watching a video of a pilgrim’s experience, i realized OH i should look up the location because this might not be on my way…….hope it isn’t bad for y’all who didn’t like the buses when i thought “oh thank goodness, maybe we can still take a bus there!” hmmmmmm gotta think about this one now!

  5. My sentiments exactly. I was there early in the am and did not see or hear any traffic. I was stunned by the beauty. And walking in the mist of clouds downhill from there. Probably my favorite part of the camino!

  6. Has been really looking forward to arriving at Cruz de Ferro but sadly when we arrived, despite it being quite early, several other people were larking around at the foot of the cross so it was hardly a moment of serene contemplation, then a family arrived in a Merc (clearly not pilgrims) and ‘took over’, immediately climbing to the foot of the cross for selfies. Little thought for those for whom this might have been a big moment. We walked on

  7. When I arrived at Cruz de Ferro in May 2016 I was extremely disappointed to see a group of about six mountain bikers ride their bikes up to and around the mound, right up to the base of the cross. They were not unruly kids but men in their 30’s or 40’s. They said that they too were pilgrims, cycling to Santiago de Compostela. I explained to them that the mound was made up of stones etc. carried by pilgrims and placed, with reverence, over a very long time. The response was giggling and sniggering from this bunch of adults. Whilst there two more cyclists appeared, they were not part of this unruly bunch. They laid their bikes on the ground and slowly walked up the mound where they both stood in silence for a moment before placing their stones on the pile. When I told the unruly cyclists that was how they should have behaved I was stared at intensely in a threatening way. I strongly feel that a fence around the mound with a small gap in it would stop this disgusting behaviour from happening again. Bon Camino.

  8. We spent the night in Foncebadon, arose early and arrived at Cruz de Ferro before sunrise. It was very peaceful and we left our stones at the cross. After a few pictures we were preparing to leave when a young man took out his guitar. He played and sang “Halleluiah” and it was an incredible experience. The sun was just ready to rise. There was no one talking, no birds making sound, it was just so peacefully quite other than his singing and playing guitar. No one moved while he sang. After he was done, no one talked. Our group of four got ready to leave and walked at least two miles before any one said a word. A very incredible experience I will never forget. Bryan Morlock

  9. I have to say this was my highlight of the Camino Frances. I arrived at the end of April 2022. I waited until it was fairly quiet and calm. I did not see any traffic and went behind the mound to lay my stones. I sang the Aaronic blessing to my beloveds and was left in peace to experience this wonderful site. It’s history was irrelevant to me, it was one of the most glorious spiritual experiences I have ever had and I was ‘high’ for days afterwards.
    I do ask anyone visiting to be aware of its possible meaning to visitors and be respectful of their needs. An absolute ‘must visit’, I believe, for walkers of the Way.

  10. We walked from mid-August thru September 2022. The Cruz de Ferro is one of the most sacred, spiritual places I’ve ever been. I met up with my daughter and a close Camino Amigo at Foncebadon. Instead of waiting until the next morning when we’d pass it on our way, we decided to make the 1-2K walk in the later afternoon. As we left the albergue, a light rain began to fall. Once we arrived at the cross the rain lifted throughout our 45 minute stay and the sun occasionally poked thru. As we began our walk back to Foncebadon, light rain again followed us.
    Being there at a quiet time, on a misty (mystical) day was more than moving. Only a few other pilgrims were present and all were sitting or standing in silence, respect and awe. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the spirits of those who’ve been there and the words, stones and images left in memory.
    A few days later we met a gentleman in Molinaseca whose dream it is to modify the adjacent church (which currently is only open 1 day a year, I understand), pavilion and grounds to create a space even more welcoming to Pilgrims and conducive to peace and quiet reflection. May his dream become a reality!


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